Each week, we want to look at a critical match-up or situation in the game that either went really well or in the case of a loss, let directly to the defeat.
Today, let’s examine the Seattle offense, and their excellent work in keeping the Cowboys defense guessing at times. The key to win with a rookie QB is to get your production from him in situations where the defense is not sitting on the pass. The coverages become more complex, the reads difficult, and the pressure is usually brought hard in those 3rd Down passing situations.
So, because of the generosity of Dallas on Sunday, the Seahawks asked Wilson to throw the ball a bit, but it was a series of short, high-percentage throws and a few selected shots down the field, but in largely run-first situations.
The idea for a football team, and more notably the defense is to force you into situations that make you uncomfortable as a play-caller or as an offense in general. But, because the Seahawks were almost never in 3rd and long and never close to being in a situation where they weren’t comfortable with a punt. Urgency arrives when the scoreboard and/or the chains are working against you. And that situation was never presented to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and the Seahawks on Sunday. That is likely one of the most under-rated disappointments of the trip. They faced a rookie QB and never asked a difficult question of him the entire day.
Let us consider one of the ways that they decided to set a trap that the Cowboys fell into for the 1st offensive touchdown the Seahawks scored on Sunday, midway through the 3rd Quarter to take a commanding 20-7 lead.
To do so, let’s look back at a previous play much earlier in the game. This is the beauty of the game of football. When Darrell Bevell is playing chess with Rob Ryan, sometimes, he might be setting a trap.
12:04 left in the 2nd Quarter, the Cowboys have just scored their only touchdown of the day. The picture below is the very first play of the next series for Seattle. This is the first snap of the game where the Seahawks have brought on a power package. We call the power personnel groups anything that utilizes more tight ends than wide receivers. So, 13, 22, and 23, groupings all qualify.
This play is out of “13” personnel, with 3 Tight Ends on the field for the play. Zach Miller, Evan Moore, and Anthony McCoy. Miller has developed into a reasonable pass catching tight end since being a 2nd round pick. Moore, established himself in Cleveland before coming to Seattle. And McCoy? Well, McCoy is a young tight end who caught slightly more than 1 ball a game during his career at Southern California and slightly less than 1 ball a game since being taken by Seattle in the 6th round in 2010. He has been thought of as a kid with potential, but has never quite put it all together.
Anyway, with Lynch in the backfield, the Seahawks place all 3 Tight Ends next to each-other off of the right tackle. There are different terms for this, but let’s just call it a “tight end bunch”. Now, from this, Miller, who is tight to the right tackle will slide out on pass protection. McCoy will come across the formation to help sell the play action and then assist the left tackle, and Moore will run a post route.
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From here, Moore easily obtains inside leverage on Brandon Carr and notice how deep Danny McCray drops at the snap. The linebackers are sucked up by the play action and below notice how this should be as easy a pitch-and-catch scenario as you will find in the NFL. And it is all because of the personnel grouping telling the Cowboys that they are about to see Marshawn Lynch. Teams are taking educated guesses based on who is on the field and where they are lined up and figuring out what you are planning to do. But, a well orchestrated plan from the offense can lead to a big gain.
Here, Russell Wilson missed with a high pass on what should have been a very easy 15 yard pass:
But, this opportunity is filed away for future reference by the Seahawks. The play was there. And it will be used again when the time was right.
The Seahawks used “13 Personnel” on a few more occasions, each time to run the ball. But, all of those times, the formation was more balanced (1 TE to one side, 2 to the other) as opposed to the overload of all 3 to the same side.
Remember, as a defense, you have to have each gap covered. If they have 3 Tight Ends, they can run the ball down your throat if you don’t deploy blockers for the additional gaps. What is sometimes simply “A” gap (center-guard) and “B” gap (guard-tackle), has now added the “C” gap (tackle-tight end #1), “D” gap (tight end #1-tight end #2), and “E” gap (tight end #2-tight end #3). If there are not enough defenders, they have automatics to switch into the play to ram an easy running play home.
“13” personnel is a run-first formation, and it isn’t even close. League-wide, it is about a 70-75% run formation, so the defense knows this and adjusts its thinking.
As we move ahead to the play in question, we have to remember that this drive, in the 3rd Quarter has been one run after another. Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, Turbin again, Lynch again (for 36 yards), Leon Washington, and now the play in question.
3rd Quarter – 2/7/D22
Below, see the routes that will be run on the play. Miller runs a post, Moore runs a flag route, and McCoy runs a simple go. Why do the Cowboys look so perplexed? Because 3 vertical routes out of 13 personnel is the last thing they are planning on Seattle trying.
And you can tell, from Anthony Spencer’s reaction, that the Cowboys all used a similar expletive at the same time when they realized what had just been done to them.
This is a perfect example of the game within the game. If the Seahawks do this with normal personnel, the Cowboys are ready for it. If they do it in a passing scenario, the Cowboys are waiting for it. Even if they do it on a normal drive, the Cowboys are likely more prepared.
But, this was a demoralizing ground and pound drive. The Cowboys are breathing hard and getting abused. They are seeing all 3 Seattle RBs and are starting to get angry that they are not getting a stop. So, 2nd Down and 7, the Cowboys are going to destroy this run play and set up a 3rd and long.
And that is why it works so well.
Now, I want to be careful here and admit that we are only looking at the coach’s film and guessing what the coverage is and what the responsibilities are for each player. These are somewhat educated guesses based on talking to people who would know, but that is all they are. Guesses.
We also need to note the personnel on the field for the defense. The Cowboys are in their base 3-4, despite the Seahawks being in “13”, but the Cowboys have Bruce Carter out for Dan Conner, DeMarcus Ware is out for Victor Butler, and Mana Silva has now taken over at free safety because of the many injuries being suffered at that position. It should be noted that Silva looks like an interesting prospect, but in the NFL, it doesn’t take long for teams to all attack a new safety as soon as he steps off the sideline. And there is no better way to attack the single-high safety than with multiple vertical routes.
Golden Tate and Mo Claiborne are out left and Claiborne has him blanketed, but we wonder if that distracted Silva for just a moment as the fastest threat the Seahawks had on the field (by a good margin). Silva is on the strong-side hash, but at the snap, heads over the help Claiborne and then tries to hurry back when he sees the play. But, by the time he gets back, it is too late.
Above, the Cowboys appear to have Dan Conner and Gerald Sensabaugh both playing the shallow zones in the hook/curl area out wide. Conner is so set on running to his landmark that he doesn’t notice that all 3 Tight Ends just ran right past them. Again, remember in the 2nd Quarter, when this formation was shown, the Seahawks had one of the 3 tight ends run on a vertical route. Here, they sent all 3. There is no way that Conner and Anthony Spencer had that in mind.
Spencer is circled because it is pretty likely that this is his bust. Sean Lee is tightly on Evan Moore for the post route. Conner seems clear where he is headed. Brandon Carr is taking the outer-most threat, Zach Miller, who is headed to the pylon.
Spencer is a player who is very good at plugging the run. There is no doubt that he was taking this series personally as Seattle was dominating them. So, at the snap, he darts past McCoy to destroy a running play. Even though he knows McCoy is his man, there is a good chance that he was sure that if he was guessing wrong, McCoy was the least-likely candidate to run a vertical. If he runs a shallow route, he runs right into Conner. This is a gamble that is worth taking.
Unless you are dead wrong. As we see, Miller takes Lee and occupies Silva. Moore takes Carr wide. And in the middle, a wide open man who has a 5-yard head start on Anthony Spencer. Not a huge window, but by NFL standards, Seattle couldn’t have asked for a better situation to play out.
This play works because Spencer guessed wrong and because Silva was preoccupied with the other vertical threats. It also worked because the running game was frustrating the Cowboys and they decided to not play totally honest. The play might be an easier one for a veteran safety to trust Claiborne, see Lee has Miller bottled up and see McCoy as the most dangerous threat, but Silva’s false step in the wrong direction dooms him.
That play may never work again for the Seahawks because they now have shown that this is a real possibility on film to future opponents. But, I am positive the Cowboys never thought that there was a chance at that moment that Seattle was going to try that.
A perfect ambush followed by a strong throw and catch that helped the Seahawks pull an upset.
Sometimes, you have to tip your cap to your opponent for a brilliant job of coaching and execution. And then you get frustrated at your side for allowing yourself to be put in that position to begin with.