This article is not a good news article. It's not a doomsday article. It's not about the story of the game. The story was being guest to a team built to play Seattle tough, where sloppy play for both teams kept the result in question until the end.
Bringing one safety up to cover the 6th underneath zone left one guy deep. The Rams almost never left base personnel, and the two safeties and two corners still shared quarters deep coverage. Three defenders owning both underneath and deep could spell trouble, but two Seattle's receivers would need to first beat the underneath zone, at up to 15 yards depth, before they could take advantage of the vertical burden.
Trips sets did not dissuade them. 6-underneath zones were still all covered, and the threat of a screen for some cheap short yardage pickups was ignored.
The 4th one here isn't a true trips set. But it was a very creative zone changeup. Two linebackers feign pressure, then drop, which is not all that exotic, but James Laurinaitis will drop more diagonally toward the strong-side set than usual, while the safety switches with him to take middle field.
The free safety mostly stayed 16 yards back from the LOS. You can see both safeties here, which could morph into a true cover 2 shell or a cover 1 robber easily. Marshawn Lynch and read-option did not compel the Rams to add another body to the box. Nor did Jimmy Graham, or even Graham and Luke Willson together.
The linebackers mostly tended to drop first and come up for run support second, which seems counter-intuitive for defending a running team like Seattle. There seemed to be some exploitable open field on the ground because of this, although Lynch and Russell Wilson combined for barely 100 yards total. The Rams trusted their defensive line.
That was also the first play I've shown you without an uncovered receiver in the first 10 yards. It may seem exaggerated. May seem the Rams just played a little off coverage because they were scared of Seattle's potential for a deep strike. But they genuinely disregarded the short passes.
Like, really disregarded.
That's Jimmy Graham. It's 3rd & 4.
There is a zone blitz happening here, where an LB is stunting while a DT is making a late drop. The safety over the slot is theoretically in position for any pass that comes his way, whether to Graham or Lockett. That St. Louis didn't deviate from their base personnel, but were comfortable using their safeties and linebackers against anyone, no matter who might enter the zone, was surprising to me. Graham and Lynch pose some real formidable mismatches.
This might shine a bad reflection on Seattle's strong aversion to turnovers. The cost of such strong aversion may be that mismatches aren't exploitable. One-on-ones were available all over the place, all day, and Graham slipped out on a route for most of Seattle's snaps. A mismatch and a one-on-one is the kind of advantageous potential that some teams' entire offenses are predicated on. Such as Sean Payton's. His primary tactic was mismatch creation before Jimmy even came to town. But Seattle didn't take shots on the one-on-one mismatches that surfaced.
This one's telling. It's 3rd & 6.
3rd & 6 is the threshold for many coaches, especially the more traditionalist ones, for a green light for calling a blitz. Pittsburgh hated 3rd & 5. Too close to call the extra pressure. Now that Keith Butler has replaced Dick LeBeau I don't know if that's still true, or how much it's still true in the league today. But the 6-man pressure on 3rd & 6 shouldn't surprise anyone, and it's not the telling part. Actually that Gregg Williams called such pervasive 2-deep 5-underneath zone is surprising, as we didn't see a lot of blitzing. But this was one.
Anyway what's telling is it's 3rd & 6, Seattle went empty, and St. Louis drops one LB and has 4 underneath zone defenders. That's 4 guys for 5 receivers. And you can see those defenders camped out at the 1st down m-- well, no, actually you can't, because they're playing 3 yards deeper, so we can't use that announcer cliche.
It's at this point that we should realize the Rams didn't care about giving up short passes, even to Graham one-on-one in a mismatch. It may seem the Rams were very concerned with the deep passing game.
Except there was no deep passing game. Seattle thew no deep strikes. Part of the explanation is that the Rams defended deep so well, sure. But also St. Louis put a safety over the top of otherwise-uncovered routes, forsaking the short stuff. Which meant that safety, and the corner on the same side of the field, were vulnerable to double-moves. In ultra-soft quarters coverage, there was no second-level help behind them.
And also because Seattle just did not even attack deep. At all.
That's not very encouraging. All 4-yard routes on 1st and 17. Here we have two receivers uncovered. It's hard to see, but there is a Ram corner over Lynch. The Fox score graphic is covering him. Jermaine Kearse is uncovered next to him. This is zone defense so there won't be much YAC unless there's a mistake, but sometimes you just take what you can get. At the bottom is Tyler Lockett. His DB is 10 yards off and Ty's already made his break.
NFL DBs can break on a pass really fast. 10 yards doesn't produce the kind of YAC you might expect. But this is as open as you could ever hope for. A catch-in-stride pass could do some real, real damage here, especially with a dangerous playmaker like Lockett. But this was a curl so I wouldn't expect much if he got the ball here.
So, not very encouraging. Of course the Rams were playing so deep maybe you just want to attack underneath all day.
This play resulted in a sack.
It wasn't a bad sack. When you reach midfield and then get backed up twice due to penalties, when there's 17 yards to go, you might not want to zip it to the first short route that breaks open, unless pressure is coming and there's no where else. But if you have time to wait to see if the 12 yard routes will break open, it's good to wait when you can. This is a strong tendency Russell Wilson has. He loves attacking deep, responsibly, when he can.
But there are no 12-yard routes here. This is just one play, so I wouldn't get too worked up. But it modestly conflicts with his tendency to try to go deep if he has time. He had time. But this was all he got: 4-yard routes. So he hesitated, which he often does when his first read is open but short and he still has time.
The hesitation is why this was a sack. So it was a bad sack, actually. I don't think Wilson's tendency is bad, but it might be a problem that he's not always able to situationally break the tendency when it's warranted.
There were 6 sacks. You probably knew that. 3 weren't bad. OK they were all bad. But 3 weren't due to bad play from Wilson. This is another one. Wilson reads Fred Jackson until he makes his break, then tries to scramble through the hole between Gary Gilliam and JR Sweezy.
The protection was good. The receivers run 12-yard routes, which is nice because almost everything else was shorter.
These are the three strong-side receivers on the play. The free safety was preoccupied with Graham, in this case. Kearse was breaking open and was waving his arm to Wilson, but Wilson didn't read that side of the field until he attempted his scramble, and got sacked before he could do anything.
QBs rarely read all 5 routes. Many offenses have the QB eliminate 2 routes in pre-snap. They tend to eliminate 2 contiguous routes, so he can progress through the remaining three easier. A lot of plays are built around this three-read progression, often building them into a triangle.
So not reaching the Kearse progression isn't necessarily a problem. On this play, Wilson looked at Tyler Lockett, read the Fred Jackson check down, and decided checking down wasn't worth it. That's too bad.
There's a case to be made that using his legs to frustrate defenses can get them to shift their coverages, and ultimately open up more things later in the game. But 30 seconds left before the half, trailing, in the orange zone, doesn't seem like a good time to sacrifice plays to set up opportunities later. This was a play left on the field.
Here is the third bad sack (bad meaning, Russell Wilson bad (but not meaning, "Our quarterback's a bad man" as Michael Robinson said)).
Not only do we have another open receiver that Wilson directly read as open, but hesitated, perhaps considering trying for something deeper since he seemed to have enough protection for the time being (a time that would instantly cease), but we also have one of the better zone beaters Seattle ran today. With the Rams sitting in near-constant unilateral underneath zones, even over trips sets, Doug Baldwin breaking open underneath here is about the best thing you could hope for, and it's exactly what the play was intended to do.
I'm not sure what caused Wilson to not take this throw. My best guess and defense for him is he might have thought he could wait for a split second longer to see if something deep and better might open up. The problem with that is the time-sensitivity for this route. Baldwin's already made his break, so the pass is already late at this snapshot. If Wilson threw here, Baldwin could make the catch. He could still have some room in front of him -- he's just reached the numbers -- to try to cut upfield a bit. The other two receivers could also begin blocking for him, if they recognize a pass to Baldwin occurred.
This was already late, but at least those things could happen. If Wilson took this throw a half-second later, still beating the pressure by Aaron Donald on the edge at the top, the receivers would have run past the defenders they could block. The defenders would be breaking on Baldwin, and Doug would be left with no space in front of him to make any real play at shaking the DBs.
It's also 3rd down. Seattle had drives that extended to STL35, STL39, STL7, STL9, and STL17, and yielded 9 points. They did also score a TD & 2-pt conversion on a 63-yard drive, but that's too many red zone and orange zone problems. This sack here wasn't one of them; this was in Seattle territory. And they converted 42% of 3rd downs, which is actually not bad. But St. Louis converted 54% so that's a bummer.
Here's Lynch and Graham on one side of the field together. I expected putting this pair on one side would dictate coverages quite a bit and get defenses in position for Seattle to do what they wanted on the other side. But we just have a linebacker dropping into underneath coverage. There are a number of established ways to attack 2-deep 5-underneath. Two go hand-in-hand: spread horizontally to stretch the safeties horizontally. That should open up room to turn some TE curls into seam-rippers. Seattle didn't try that today.
The complimentary piece to that is to stretch the flat vertically. Here we see Seattle's in position to do that. We have zone coverage, and Graham's able to drive the coverage back before breaking outward, himself, and that should leave some extra room for Lynch. Repeated success in the flat is a good way to frustrate the underneath defenders to cheat a little bit, maybe opening up something deep. The Rams were steadfast in their 2-deep 5-underneath zone, today, so it was going to be hard to coax them out of it.
Another good zone beater is a corner route, especially one from the slot or TE. This LB's in the right spot for a good corner break, but if Graham broke his route off a little shallower -- something that's often inadvisable and gets QBs to throw picks -- he could break away from his zone defender, have plenty of space to the sideline, and have a great angle that would be hell for the safety.
But Seattle didn't employ the established ways to beat the coverage that St. Louis refused to deviate from. Even their beloved zone floods were not in fashion today. I don't know why.
I have screenshots for 33 different plays exhibiting the dramatic soft zone the Rams played today, where at least one receiver was fully uncovered in the first 10 yards. Showing them all would be overkill. What we've seen, is not so much that St. Louis was playing prevent defense and worried about Seattle's deep attack. Rather, what we've seen is a disregard for Seattle's short passing game.
I think the Rams see Wilson disregard the short passing game.
I think they see him check down a little too late, skip open receivers and scramble instead. And above all I think they see him hesitate, or not process fast enough, and not take what's there, so they felt there was no threat to Seattle killing them underneath, the way New England or Denver might. And the aversion to turnovers keeps the deeper stuff from being too much of a threat.
I think the Rams figured, the one place on the field they really needed to concern themselves was intermediate. And they figured they could do it without regard for what super star athlete might line up where.
That surprises me, and it's certainly a bad reflection on Seattle's passing game. I don't think the passing game is doomed. No other defensive line should be as good as St. Louis at home. Seattle's not in midseason form yet. That's unfortunate, but I still think they can get there.
One last note, this one about the defense. First, Bobby Wagner really had a poor game. I don't know why. There's definitely a lot of blame to spread around for this game, but that's not really important, Bobby's game just really stood out and I didn't know where else to mention it. But going back to that 3rd & 6 threshold a lot of teams have for blitzing, I just wanted to cut Dion Bailey some slack here and suggest that Kris Richard's blitzing ways we saw in the preseason isn't doing itself any favors.
St. Louis uses a 3 & 1 formation here, which is known for putting single-high safeties in a bind. That's why Seattle likes it. Earl Thomas tries to play this one with integrity, I mean I would understand if he cheated toward the 3 receivers a little bit because Lance Kendricks is a TE. Bailey's step-kick isn't incredible, he could have put himself in better position to avoid the slip. But it was just a slip. He had to defend both the underneath 1st down attempt, and deep, with Thomas single-high. A flat defender would have served Bailey well, here, made his job easier. But the flat defenders were all called to pressure.
Not thrilled with that one.