Welcome back to the fun house that is the NFL regular season, and as we all get set to watch the Seattle Seahawks take on the Denver Broncos this afternoon, one of the areas of focus for the Seahawks will be the run game under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
For those who follow me on Twitter, you are aware that during the summer I charted every single offensive play of the teams for which Schottenheimer has served as offensive coordinator that are available on NFL Gamepass. In charting the more than 4,000 offensive plays that Schottenheimer called for the New York Jets and then St. Louis but now Los Angeles Rams I found a few interesting pre-snap tells that I will be watching for against the Broncos. These tells range from formational keys which give away the team’s intentions regarding run or pass, as well as motion indicators which tip the hand of the play direction.
The most basic of these tells I have already shared on Twitter, and so I won’t spend too much time here discussing them beyond simply including the tweets I’ve authored on the subject.
Running out of shotgun
The first and most basic tell is that when a Schottenheimer offense is running out of shotgun, how the quarterback and running back are aligned in the backfield relative to one another typically allows for the anticipation of a running play. Specifically, what fans will want to watch here is whether the running back is lined up deeper than the quarterback or not.
But here's a quick teaser.— tropical storm john (@SeahawksMachine) July 20, 2018
This is the RB alignment in shotgun from a 2011 Jets play where LaDanian Tomlinson runs out of the shotgun. Notice the nearly one yard split between QB front foot and RB front foot. pic.twitter.com/wAINkjjk6L
Contrast that gap with how the same QB and RB line up parallel to one another on passing plays. pic.twitter.com/yGDV4uyPa2— tropical storm john (@SeahawksMachine) July 20, 2018
So, that was the Jets tipping that they would be running in 2011, and here are some examples of the Rams lining up using the same tell in alignment.
Some more. I'll do the numbering and make you guess next pic.twitter.com/BvSuc0ddhr— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) July 20, 2018
This was something I watched for in the preseason with the Hawks running game, and it held true to form.
And the last pre-snap QB/RB alignment on the final two passes the offense ran out of shotgun. pic.twitter.com/FD01GeFo8E— tropical storm john (@SeahawksMachine) August 13, 2018
And contrasting those with the QB/RB alignment on the two times the Hawks ran the ball out of the gun. pic.twitter.com/TKdFPw3kno— tropical storm john (@SeahawksMachine) August 13, 2018
In short, when the offense lines up in shotgun, one of the keys is to look at the depth of the running back in relation to Russell Wilson. If they are level, odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a pass play coming, while if the RB is noticeably deeper it is extremely likely that a run is coming.
Now, before anyone gets all up in a huff, yes that tendency can be used to set up play action, and we saw exactly that during the preseason. However, in both New York and St. Louis, such an alignment was a better than ninety percent indicator regarding whether a run or pass play was coming.
When the Seahawks made changes to their offensive coaching staff at the end of the 2017 season, one of the reasons for making the change was to incorporate more motion into the run game. To that end, Seattle went out and completely revamped the tight end position, with both Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson moving on to the NFC North and Nick Vannett and Will Dissly taking on the lead tight end roles in Schottenheimer’s offensive system.
Schottenheimer’s offense uses several different types of motion by backs, tight ends and receivers, and within his system each of these types of motion are likely to indicate a different item to be aware of. Today the only thing I am going to touch on in regards to motion is specifically motion by tight ends, fullbacks and h-backs, leaving running back and receiver motion for another day.
The first thing to keep in mind about motion while watching the matchup against the Broncos is that tight end or fullback motion overwhelmingly indicates that a run play is coming. Obviously, the team will also use tight end motion on play action, but it remains to be seen what kind of run-pass balance the team builds. In any case, if his play calling tendencies hold true to his tendencies in New York and St. Louis, tight end or fullback motion will be a big indicator not just of the fact that a run play is coming, but the direction of the play as well.
In particular, the running play will typically go to the side of the field where the tight end ends his motion. Here is just one example.
Schotty shows pass with 11 personnel on 2nd & 13. Late motion with Dissly to charge the A gap and let Penny follow. Pretty sneaky way to run on 2nd and long. pic.twitter.com/FzyIyQ39An— Tony Blakeley (@Cyoplasm) August 12, 2018
This play is actually a great example of both the tendencies discussed in this article. While the offense is in 11 personnel (1 running back and 1 tight end) and lined up with four receiving targets split out wide, the alignment of Rashaad Penny in relation to Wilson still gives away that the defense should key on a run. Then, once Dissly motions, that effectively eliminates half of the field for the defense to defend in terms of the run, as the tight end motion is such a strong indicator of play directionality
Obviously it is important to keep in mind that these are tendencies, not absolutes. So, yes, there certainly will be times when either the running back alignment in the shotgun or the tight end motion is not indicative of a play call, but the tendency is sufficiently strong that the overwhelming majority of the time it will be correct.
Now we just have to watch and see.