I used to think that the Seahawks' offense, on the surface, was kind of boring schematically. From 10,000 feet, here's what you think you see: they run a lot, and they throw deep a lot. They don't use complicated blocking schemes (zone left, zone right) or highly-varied route combinations and in general, they ask Russell Wilson to play it safe with his throws and protect the football.
However, the cool thing you start to see when you dig into their schemes and patterns more closely is that they actually have a pretty widely-varied strategy and play-sheet from game to game, they tweak their core principles throughout the year, and in 2013, seemed to really expand their playbook as the season went on.
A couple examples of little tweaks that allow a 'simple' scheme to flourish, without getting into too much detail:
- The Seahawks frequently run the same 'plays' (in other words: route combinations/concepts) from different personnel groupings and formations. On one snap, you might see a slot receiver run a drag parallel to Russell Wilson on a bootleg, and on the next, you might see a tight end run the same drag but from a three-point stance starting in-line in the trenches. This makes route/play recognition pretty difficult, because the first couple 'keys' that defenders are looking for when trying to determine what play the offense might be running include their personnel groups and formations.
- The Hawks run true 'read-option' plays, and they also run inside handoff plays that look just like read options, but they're not actually doing any reading.
That sounds complicated, but it's really just the distillation of this idea: keep the defense guessing.
On one 'read-option' play you would see Breno Giacomini move down the line, leaving the weakside defensive end completely unblocked. Wilson would then read that defensive end, and depending on his reaction, either keep the ball or hand off to Marshawn Lynch. In the same personnel and formation, they'll run essentially the same play, except they'll have Breno kick the defensive end out, sealing him off and creating a huge lane right up the middle, and Wilson will read no one -- he's handing off all the way. It's essentially an inside handoff dive play.
A third tweak would be to run what looks like read-option, have Breno leave the weakside defensive end unblocked, then 'slice' the strongside tight end across the formation (over the offensive line) to essentially wham block the 'unblocked' defensive end, creating a big hole in the middle of the field again.
These are nuances in blocking schemes up front that make an enormous difference on the field. As a defense, you think you know what's coming, but then in an instant, find yourself walled off from the play, cut blocked, or sliced into oblivion. Seattle doesn't make their hay on offense by having a hundred plays on their sheet, they use their X-number of plays and tweak them slightly (but enough to be effective) week-to-week and quarter-to-quarter so the defense thinks they know what is coming, but then quickly find themselves out of position.
I've finally gotten over the NFL Draft bug that takes over from about February through April, and have begun re-watching the Seahawks' 2013 season game by game. While watching Seattle's Week 2 win over the Niners, I though that Russell Wilson's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Marshawn Lynch was a cool example of how to use varied nuances to be effective. Plus it gave me the opportunity to re-post this GIF.
On the play, which I'll break down below, the Seahawks used a five-man 'scat' protection. In other words, they were asking their five offensive linemen to block a set five defenders, thus using their tight end(s) and running back(s) as receivers.
Pat Kirwin broke down the concept back in 2012:
During a recent sit-down with two NFL offensive line coaches, I was taken by surprise. What caught my attention is the apparent shift in philosophy when it comes to using the spread formation to protect the quarterback in passing situations. The coaches, one active and the other retired, surprisingly favored five-man protections over six or seven blockers under certain conditions.
Years ago, both old-school coaches believed in getting everyone blocked, but now see the potential benefits of less protectors and the use of spread sets to neutralize the opposing pass rush. As one coach pointed out as a criticism of using six or seven men, "The more people I crowd in around the QB to get the blitz blocked up, the more people are capable of rushing the passer."
The idea - and this is the reason that Seattle so often uses an empty set on third and short or third and medium - is that the quarterback can more quickly identify who is rushing and from where, and then quickly get the ball out to the receiver that should be open. It also spreads the defense out. If Seattle motions Marshawn Lynch to the wing and a linebacker follows him, we now know that this linebacker will not be blitzing.
In essence, scat protection calls for the five offensive linemen to block the five defenders they're assigned, based on the protection scheme, and Russell Wilson is responsible for anyone else -- either by throwing hot or scrambling away.
In this play from Week 2, with the Seahawks leading 12-3 with 13:50 remaining in the game, Darrell Bevell dials up scat protection and spreads out his offense on 3rd and 4. It turns out to be a brilliant play-call against a 7-man Cover-0 blitz by the Niners.
Below, first you can see what a 6-man protection scheme would look like: Marshawn Lynch would pick up the free blitzer (the sixth rusher), in theory giving Wilson time to throw. In this case, Lynch quickly releases to the sideline, and the defender that would be covering him downfield is already through the line.
Wilson gets the throw off quickly -- and his identification of the man coverage and the blitz early on made it possible.
You can see below the options that Wilson has on the right -- Sidney Rice with a corner fade route and Zach Miller with a slant underneath -- but both would have been defended man-to-man closely. Instead, Wilson hits his easy outlet, which was quickly identified as open when Aldon Smith rushed forward instead of dropping into the flats.
I'd have to go through and chart to really know how often Seattle uses scat protection, but I would guess that it's relatively rare. Typically, the Seahawks like to protect Wilson as much as possible -- plus they use long drop-backs and slower-developing plays more frequently -- and rely on his ability to fit passes into tight spots downfield, usually on the sideline or right up the seam.
In this case though, it was a perfect play-call with an ideal protection call -- one of those nuances you rarely notice -- against an all-out blitz. It worked beautifully. All part of the chess match.