Editor’s note: Matt Chatham is a former NFL linebacker who’ll be contributing to FOXSports.com all season.
As the week has gone on, the whispers of a Seattle offensive line that got beat up by the Rams in an overtime loss on Sunday have grown louder. At this rate, they’re a dull roar.
Between a trade that sent Max Unger packing this offseason and some internal shuffling, the Seahawks offensive line is going through transition. Welcome to the NFL.
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The one position group that typically needs cohesiveness didn’t look very good in its first real at-bat as a unit. Offensive lines don’t make headlines, and obviously the coaches and players would’ve rather the loss to the Rams had gone a different way, but ultimately, these first-week struggles may very well signify nothing long-term.
Nevertheless, when the Seattle offensive line struggled mightily, Twitter had jokes. Lots of them.
All eyes should be on these five guys, while it’s likely they’ll get markedly better playing together as the season progresses, it’s still cause for concern.
Why didn’t the Seahawks block better last Sunday? And what can they do better as they prepare for the daunting trip to Green Bay to face the Packers? As is often the case in football, it’s complicated.
THE GRAHAM FACTOR
The lauded new offensive toy in Seattle is stud tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s a matchup nightmare in the passing game — one that only the tallest and longest defensive backs have a chance against in one-on-one situations. Linebackers don’t really stand a chance at all.
Setting aside all that much-deserved praise Graham receives as a pass catcher, he’s a very limited inline run blocker — especially against defensive ends and bigger outside linebackers. How exactly Graham would be used in the Seattle offense was a huge offseason talking point, including pep talks reminding him of his considerable size and the need for tight ends in Seattle to be tight ends.
Besides, Seattle is a run-first team, and one that often uses two tight ends whose specialty is blocking.
The issue that was apparent last Sunday is that Graham is best suited as a wide receiver, extended from the formation. When he’s inline, he’s simply not the same player.
The Seahawks seemed insistent on Sunday on treating him as a true tight end, aligning him in location (next to the tackle, on the line of scrimmage) during significant chunks of the game.
The Packers would appreciate it very much if the Seahawks stick with that approach.
The problem with Graham as an inline player is evident in plays like the screen shots below, where the defensive end pushes Graham well into his own backfield, closing off one side of the formation entirely.
In other words, the offense can’t rely on running the ball effectively behind Graham — or any other less-skilled blocking tight end for that matter. All players in the NFL have weaknesses, and for Graham, that’s inline blocking at the point of attack.
New Orleans knew this. St. Louis knew this. Green Bay will know this. And most unusually, Seattle knew as well, as was obvious throughout the game when they continued to align Graham as a true tight end, but send the direction of the runs away from him.
There’s nothing more powerful for the run portion of your defense than to know where the ball is going to go.
And St. Louis knew.
Down & distance and personnel groupings can give you a head start on a run/pass tendency. From there you need to know "where?"
With each alignment of Graham near the formation, the "where" was evident: The other way.
The Seahawks, despite what would be a seemingly advantageous look to the left, ran the above play away from the three-man side of their offensive line. They ran right where there was no apparent advantage. Not surprisingly, the gains were minimal.
The hesitance for Seattle to run behind their tight end was even more obvious in the example below, where the left side of the defensive formation shows two potential offensive blockers against three potential defensive players — an obvious numbers advantage for the D. The right side featured only two defenders against three potential offensive blockers, an obvious potential run advantage for the offense.
Shockingly, the Seahawks ran away from the advantage they had numbers-wise, and into the teeth of a numbers disadvantage. It’s obviously speculative to think that this is solely because of not wanting to run behind Graham, but the play-calling over and over that put the point of attack away from their tight end creates a reasonable inference that Graham’s blocking ability is a major driver of the play-calling decisions.
GIVING AWAY THE PLAY
It’s no surprise that Seattle likes to go "big" with multiple tight end formations. In this instance, even on first down deep in their own territory, the Seahawks went to three tight ends. The beauty of having Graham as your tight end should be that defenses can’t feel comfortable packing the line in fear of Graham releasing down the field for a huge play.
The Rams succeeded keeping nine players within four yards of the line of scrimmage in these situations (see below) and flowing fast in the direction away from Graham’s alignment. As a linebacker against this formation, you have a near-certainty pre-snap key of which direction any run play would go. Seattle didn’t disappoint.
The final fourth-down stop of the game brought catcalls throughout the NFL about Seattle’s willingness to run it with Marshawn Lynch this time on a gotta-have-it short yardage play, something the Seahawks infamously didn’t do at the end of the Super Bowl.
But A really doesn’t have anything to do with B.
The real story here isn’t that Seattle finally chose to run it in a critical short-yardage situation. It’s that when they did chose to run it, the Seahawks’ new weapon at tight end lined up tight to the formation so that every player with a horn on his helmet knew which side the run was going to.
Despite the fact that Lynch was offset to the tight end side pre-snap, the ball was never going there. Seattle defenders flowed exactly where they had learned throughout the game the ball would go. A negative run. Ballgame.
Could the offensive line have blocked that play better? Sure. But the Rams had so much reliable information on where the ball would go, it didn’t really matter.
HOW PACK CAN ATTACK
So what does this all mean for the Green Bay Packers? They watch and wait, hoping Graham isn’t where it’s a struggle to stop him.
Below is a picture from last year’s NFC Championship between these two teams. The Packers also used nine men extremely close to the line of scrimmage that day, daring the Seahawks to throw it over their heads.
If Graham is aligned where the question mark is above, there’s a ton of information in the run game already available to the Pack. The best solution for Seattle is to create space in the formation and remove him from the core, where he can do his damage. In other words, don’t do that St. Louis thing.
SEAHAWKS MUST ADJUST
We know Graham isn’t the best run blocker, but what he can do in the pass game can wreck an opponent’s entire game plan.
The important part for the Seahawks is learning what your players do best and putting them in that position as often as possible — for their sake, and not to limit other things you’re trying to accomplish.
All the parts of an offense work together. Seattle needs to put its tight end where he can go back to ripping up a secondary, and where the defense doesn’t have a neon arrow pointing where the Seattle plays will go.