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Seahawks vs. Rams: Lining up against St. Louis

How to mitigate the danger of St. Louis' defensive front.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So I guess there's a Seahawks game this weekend. Pretty cool.

Scuttlebutt has it that we're playing the Rams, who have some incredibly elite defensive line.

Still cool. Because football. But coolerest if we can figure out how to contain their line and win the game.

The Line Battle as a Failure Point Model

Imagine the simplest formation where the Seahawks line up with five wide receivers, dictating a pass play. The Rams drop seven into coverage and have four pass rushers. In this case, there are four points of potential failure (one for each defensive lineman) where the Rams can get pressure or a sack. Which is not good.

Now replace one wide receiver with a running back; we'll call him "Marshawn", because that sounds like a good name for back. If the Seahawks call a handoff to Marshawn, he's probably going to run behind his offensive linemen, but he doesn't need really good blocking all the way across. He's only aiming for one gap.

In this case, there might be two major points of potential failure and one lesser point:


Better, but not ideal. So the question is, what formations -- if any -- will give the Seahawks the best chance against the opposition's linemen?

Tight Ends as Blockers

A common tactic when facing a dangerous outside pass rusher is to line up a tight end for a "chip block" on passing plays. The TE helps out the adjacent offensive tackle by giving the pass rusher a little shove right after the snap, making it nearly impossible for him to beat the tackle around the corner on his first step. The tight end can then go out for a pass, with slightly fewer route options; and the tackle is then left on his own, but he's had time to get into position, and even if he's beaten now, the quarterback has had at least a second or two to read the play.

Should the Seahawks do this against the Rams?

Hell, no:

* The Rams do not have one, but four dangerous pass rushers. A chip block only mitigates one failure point.

* The Rams could easily counter this by placing a linebacker on the edge and reversing the guessing game in their favor, because that linebacker can mix up rushing and dropping back at the snap. If the TE goes ahead with a chip block, he leaves a free rusher who will take down the quarterback before the TE can become a receiver; if the TE addresses the LB as a potential pass rusher, he can't throw a chip block.

* The Seahawks do not have good blocking tight ends.

Of course, the tight end doesn't have to chip block every play. The threat of going straight out for a pass should force a linebacker into playing off, and if you call a running play the tight end is in position to contribute as a blocker.

Does this help?

Probably not:

* The basic strategy of a tight end as a dual threat (receiver or blocker) forces linebackers to guess. Which helps, sure, but has no effect on the aggressiveness of defensive linemen.

* If the Seahawks run the ball inside, this is a strictly worse version of running the ball with four wide receivers, because you've replaced a cornerback from the outside with a linebacker closer to the inside. If, instead, the Seahawks utilize the wider offensive line to attack more running lanes (which is what you normally do with a tight end), then the running back has to engage in more lateral movement; this gives more time for a defensive lineman not at the point of attack to move laterally, increasing the potential failure points.

* As previously noted, the Seahawks do not have good blocking tight ends.

Using a Fullback

A Seahawk favorite from way back in 2005, the first year we made the Super Bowl, was the "20" formation (2 running backs, 0 tight ends). This spread out the opposition defense, allowing the then-elite offensive line and fullback Mack Strong to blast open running lanes up the middle for Shaun Alexander.

Against the Rams, surely, the line dominance could not be more diametrically opposite. Nonetheless, I think this formation can be successful.

For starters, we can keep Jimmy Graham on the field. Just line him up as a wide receiver. If the Rams put a linebacker on him, we can pass pretty effectively. If they put a cornerback on him, we can still pass effectively, and that's a block Graham should be able to make to support the running game.

When running the football, there should be very little lateral movement, minimizing the number of failure points that will blow up the play. When failure occurs at the point of attack, the fullback can pick up the defensive lineman and we can at least avoid a negative play; when no failure occurs, the fullback can clear out a linebacker and we can have some positive plays. It's not perfect and it won't work every time; no doubt, the Rams will respond by stacking linebackers on the inside; but there will be more opportunities for success by outplaying those linebackers one-on-one instead of trying to outplay all four defensive linemen.

When passing the football, one or both running backs can stay in for pass protection, or they can play a dual-threat tactic where they pick up any necessary rushers in the first three seconds and then head out to the flat as a receiver. By having a back instead of a tight end to help with pass blocking, all four failure points of the pass rush can be mitigated, so if at least three are contained at the line, Wilson should have time to throw.

Of course, the Rams might respond with extra pass rushers, but, again, that puts us in a position to have success by outplaying their linebackers instead of their defensive linemen.

And, most importantly, Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson are outstanding as pass blockers and receivers.

Seahawks vs Rams, 2012-2014

As regular readers will no doubt be aware, my FieldGulls contract requires me to provide a table with every article:

Seahawks vs Rams, Snap Counts by Position, 2012-2014

Game Points Sacks Pass NY/A Yds/run FB/play RB+FB WR/play TE/play 6th OL/play FB/RB + OL6 - TE2 Adj Net Yds/
2012 @ St. Louis 13 2 5.19 5.26 0.36 1.29 2.36 1.35 0.00 0.94 5.55
2012 @ Seattle 20 6 8.36 5.10 0.32 1.24 2.36 1.41 0.00 0.83 6.95
2013 @ St. Louis 14 7 3.64 2.93 0.25 1.23 2.56 1.21 0.00 1.02 3.37
2013 @ Seattle 27 4 5.85 3.08 0.39 1.38 2.17 1.37 0.10 1.11 4.59
2014 @ St. Louis 26 3 7.49 5.90 0.42 1.27 2.54 1.03 0.15 1.39 7.10
2014 @ Seattle 20 3 7.93 3.88 0.26 1.24 2.52 1.11 0.11 1.24 6.03

With so much variation in year-to-year personnel, I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions about what works best. But I noticed an interesting trend in the next-to-last column labeled "FB/RB + OL6 - TE2"; that's a count of how many running backs (per play) the Seahawks used, plus the number of 6th offensive linemen, minus the number of extra tight ends. The number has increased reliably from year-to-year. I think the Seahawks' coaching staff has figured out that extra tight ends are not the most effective strategy against the Rams, hence the trend towards multiple backs and...

Six Offensive Linemen

Seattle has employed this strategy with some success in the last three outings against the Rams. Superficially, it seems like an overly-conservative approach to limit damage at the expense of reducing options for success.

On the other hand, the tactical justification is sound: If the Rams know you're going to use an extra blocker, why not put in a guy who's really good at blocking?

With six offensive linemen, you have a more solid "wall" of pass protection. If there's a single vulnerable point, it's now more likely to be the lone tackle, and you can now use the "chip block" tight end more effectively. The Rams will need one fewer player to defend against receivers, of course, but what to do with the extra body? If he rushes up the middle, he should be running into the backside of his own defensive linemen, possibly creating pressure, but delayed pressure which is not nearly as effective as a normal blitz. If the Rams try to spread rushers wide, they'll have to go all the way outside of a 6- or 7-man line, giving Wilson room to scramble and making them much more vulnerable to running plays.

And, again, the Seahawks' personnel are suited to this formation. Gary Gilliam has looked good in pass protection, if a little underwhelming as a run blocker. So we put Alvin Bailey in at the normal right tackle position, where he can use his strength effectively without having to defend an outside rusher; and Gilliam lines up as the "outside" right tackle, where he can run block against a linebacker. And, just for kicks, Gilliam -- a converted tight end -- can declare as tackle-eligible. I wouldn't send him out as a receiver very often, but a couple of times during the game should give the Rams' defense one more thing to worry about.