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Seahawks Replay Booth: Working the middle of the field in the passing game

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Jimmy Graham has definitely changed the Seahawks offense. His integration into a run-heavy, pro-style offense isn't exactly complete, but he's being targeted more on third down (with success), and is stretching the field up the seam and over the middle.

While Seattle still suuuuuuck in the redzone, converting trips into a touchdown just 29-percent of the time (last in the NFL, even behind the Niners, who are scoring 13.6 points per game), one area where they've improved significantly over last season is their middle-of-field (MOF) passing. That's a big deal, and theoretically opens things up for outside receivers, the slot guys, and even the run game.

Check out these play direction reports, courtesy of NFLGSIS.com.

2014 Offense Direction Report

2014

2015 Offense Direction Report

1

For a little help translating that:

2014: 55 total "short middle" passes in 16 games (65-percent completion rate)
2015: 42 total "short middle" passes through 8 games (78-percent completion rate)

2014: 13 total "deep middle" passes in 16 games (46-percent completion rate)
2015: 10 total "deep middle" passes through 8 games (50-percent completion rate)

There's a lot of data there to digest, but the bottom line is: Russell Wilson is better this year at throwing over the middle.

Last season, the Seahawks attempted an NFL-low 55 passes to the short middle of the field and a 29th-ranked 13 shots deep middle. In other words, they rarely threw the ball over the middle of the field. Now, they have a low-volume passing offense so naturally these counting stats are going to rank pretty low, but the eye test tells us that the MOF is Wilson's weakest area in terms of the passing game.

There have been theories as to why and as per usual, it's not black and white, instead I think it's probably a combination of a few factors: One, he's short (he's short, okay?), two, it's riskier to throw over the middle of the field, and three, he hasn't really had big targets to throw to over the middle outside of Luke Willson after Zach Miller left.

Now, for those three variables: One, being short doesn't mean he can never and will never attack the MOF. Just ask Drew Brees. It's about passing lanes and feeling confident stepping up into the pocket instead of bailing and rolling out. Wilson's getting better there, but it's not a finished product. Two, I think Pete Carroll prefers throwing to the sideline because deflected passes out there tend to skip out of bounds, but limiting yourself to only deep shots on the outside is really.. well, limiting yourself.

Three, Wilson's been pretty accurate on deep shots down the middle over his career when asked to throw them, and with Jimmy Graham, he's one of the biggest targets in the NFL and has insanely soft hands. Use him.

And, the Seahawks are using him. Per ESPN's Sheil Kapadia, Jimmy Graham has eight catches of 20-plus yards through eight games, already matching his total from last season. Not sure if people really realize this, but a huge chuck of Graham's volume of catches last year were little dinky dump offs over the middle or out-routes toward the sideline. The Seahawks do that with him some, but it's pretty cool that he's already being used as a deep threat more than he was last year with the Saints.

Against the Cowboys, the Seahawks did a really good job of working the middle of the field in the passing game, in particular with their two tight ends in Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson. Graham finished with 7 catches for 75 yards while Willson collected 2 for 41 with a touchdown, and as Pete Carroll alluded to in interviews after the game, Graham could've had an even bigger game but they missed a few plays to him.

Seattle got four explosive plays from their tight ends and just one from their receivers group, which is probably a rarity. Let's break down a few ways the Seahawks got their two tight ends involved.

This first play is pretty dope.

First of all, play action is killer. I should say, rather, that run-action is killer, because there is a slight difference. I'll get to that. But the first thing you should look at is that Russell Wilson's read here is #50 Sean Lee, the middle linebacker. If Lee drops back and looks to intercept or meet Jimmy Graham's route, then Wilson would have to look elsewhere. Instead, Lee is sucked up toward the line of scrimmage and to the left by Seattle's sweet run-action scheme, and Graham's route over the middle is wide open.

Here's how they drew it up. This is good scheming. Justin Britt, the left guard, pulls to his right at the snap, and the rest of Seattle's line combo blocks as if it were a run play (going forward instead of backing up in "pass protection" sets. This is called "run action" because it's not just the running back and quarterback executing a fake, it's the entire offensive line.

The pulling guard though is the icing on the cake, and actually fools Lee into strafing to his left down the line, looking to fill the gap that Justin Britt is looking to create in a "Power-0" type of pulling block. That opens up the middle of the field for Graham's route, and Graham easily jukes the outside linebacker (#55) to get open.

An alternative strategy here, as Davis Hsu brought up on twitter, is that Seattle pulls Britt to open up a throwing lane for Russell Wilson over the middle. Lee may simply be reading Marshawn Lynch's run to the offensive right, and looks to stop that first and foremost. I'm not sure what the case was here -- whether it was targeting Lee or just trying to get a lane clear -- but it's a cool design either way.

This next play was also designed well and got the Seahawks a matchup that they feel comfortable with, putting Jimmy Graham across from rookie corner/safety Byron Jones. Seattle was in a 3rd and 8 here, from their own 24 yard line, and line up in an unbalanced two tight-end set. This is a "read option" looking formation, with Graham split out a few yards from the line. Jones is in press.

Graham gets off the line fine, carries Jones upfield, then looks to create separation just before receiving the ball. He does all these things well, but the throw is just slightly behind him.

This is an example in the difference between scheming and execution. To me, this is a good scheme. Just bad execution.

Luke Willson's route takes the opposite safety out of the area that Graham is expecting the ball, and if Russell leads Graham here it's a first down.

Wilson missed Graham on what looked like another shot for a big explosive play on the next drive.

You may recognize the pass protection from the Tyler Lockett touchdown bomb last week against the Niners. It looks like it's going to be a Russell Wilson bootleg but instead he drops straight back to pass. LG Justin Britt (different than center Drew Nowak on that Lockett play) peels back to take care of the backside end.

Wilson has a lot of time here and Jimmy Graham completely wide open over the middle. I pause the video when the ball should come out (and I'm being generous -- it could come out sooner even).

For whatever reason, Wilson hesitates, I don't know why - might be a throwing lane issue, maybe he wanted to hit Lockett deeper. Whatever the reason -- he doesn't throw it on time and it almost gets picked. If Russ hits that throw on time it's a huge gain though. Good scheming again.

Luckily, Lynch picks up 12 on 2nd down and gives Wilson a chance to make up for that flub.

Here's what he does after a Thomas Rawls 1-yard gain: Luke Willson for 19 yards.

You can tell by the pre-snap adjustments by the defense that they're in a zone, which is what the Seahawks want here. Sean Lee flattens out into the flats and then the Seahawks make #24 Morris Claiborne (the outside corner who is lined up sorta on Marshawn Lynch, who had shifted to the wing) decide whether to take Willson up the seam or Lynch on the outside. He chooses ... neither... splitting the difference, and that leaves Willson open up the seam. Nice.

That gets Seattle down to the 33 yard line. An 11-yard gain on a pass to Doug Baldwin puts them on the 22.

Once again, Seattle exploits the Cowboys' zone coverage, and as safety Jeff Heath is slow to react to Willson's seam route, the Seahawks take advantage. This is the benefit of having super fast Luke Willson.

One last example, and this play came on the Seahawks' drive that produced a blocked field goal. First-and-10 from their own 46-yard line, Seattle again gets Graham isolated on the rookie Byron Jones. Russell and Jimmy both know that Jones is in man-coverage when he follows Graham across the formation pre-snap. Jimmy then simply beats him with a good route.

THIS TIME, Russell hits him in stride for 19 yards.

As you can see, this is a very similar route to the play above where Wilson threw slightly behind Graham. Jimmy carries Jones upfield before creating separation with a subtle push-off when he's expecting the ball. This is a lot quicker action than the play outlined above, and it's an easier throw too.

The throw is slightly behind Graham again but it works.

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All in all, a great gameplan to get Graham and Willson involved against the Cowboys. The redzone is the area that we'll want to see Seattle improve on going forward, but it's also really nice to see them working the middle of the field, because that's where both players are so dangerous.