Thursday, November 19, 2015

Inside the NFL Film Room: What is Wrong With Seattle?

After a Sunday night loss to Arizona, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks find themselves in uncharted waters: Fighting for their playoff lives.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

After back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, including a championship in 2013, Seattle now finds itself against the ropes in both the NFC West and conference at large.

With their loss to division rival Arizona Sunday, the Seahawks now sit at 4-5, a full three games behind the Cardinals (who own the tie-breaker over Seattle, for now) with just seven games to play. Perhaps even more shocking is that, if the season ended today, Seattle would miss the postseason. Seriously, the Seahawks are two games behind current Wild Card leaders Green Bay and Atlanta (both 6-3), and are currently losing conference tie-breakers with Washington, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, who would all be in line for the postseason before Seattle in a log jam of seven teams at 4-5.

So, what's been the major problem for Seattle? When you first look at the stats, it's not that easy to tell. Sure, many will blame the re-modeled offensive line for not protecting quarterback Russell Wilson, but Seattle's sack percentage (the percentage of pass attempts that end with the quarterback getting sacked) sits at 8%, or, right about where it usually is. In fact, Seattle allowed sacks on 8.4% of Wilson's drop backs during its championship season of 2013.

Points per game are down to 22 per game, from 24 in 2014 and 26 in 2013, but what's really explaining that? I mean, Seattle is running the ball better, per carry, than it did in 2013, although not quite as well as it did last year, and the Seahawks' net pass yards per attempt (an average that takes into account yards lost to sacks) is almost identical to last year's, and down just a bit from 2013.

Turnovers have been as random for Seattle as they have for most teams, as the Seahawks' turnover percentage has swung back and forth the last three years. But, a high TO% didn't hurt them in 2013, so is it really explaining what's happening thus season? Take a look at the numbers for yourself below.

Rush Yards Per Attempt
2015: 4.7
2014: 5.3 (best in NFL)
2013: 4.3

Net Pass Yards Per Attempt (Takes Into Account Sack Yardage Lost)
2015: 6.5
2014: 6.6
2013: 7.0

Turnover Percentage (Percentage of Offensive Drives that End in Turnovers)

2015: 10%
2014: 6.9%
2013: 9.3%

But now, let's look at some situational stats.

Red Zone TD Percentage

2015: 35% (worst in NFL)
2014: 51.5%
2013: 53.2%

Third Down Conversion Percentage
2015: 35.9%
2014: 43.6%
2013: 37%

While Seattle's third down percentage isn't much worse than it was in 2013, it's still down nearly eight full percentage points from last season, and the 2013 Seahawks were excellent in the red zone to make up for it. This year's Seattle offense is the worst in the league at getting the ball into the end zone once they get past their opponent's 20, and it's almost astonishing how bad they've gotten in that area in just one year.

What makes it even weirder is the fact that Seattle set out to address this very problem in the offseason. When The Seahawks traded away All-Pro center Max Unger, along with a first round pick, to New Orleans for tight end Jimmy Graham, it was with the hope that Graham would give them the lethal red zone threat they had been missing.

Instead, Graham is enduring the worst season of his career, hauling in only two touchdown receptions and eclipsing 100 yards receiving in a game just once. Rather than getting a boost from Graham's 6-foot-7 frame and leaping ability, Seattle is struggling to find ways to get the former All-Pro the ball, and his red zone production has been non-existent.

Let's take a look at some examples of the Seahawks' red zone woes.

This first play actually came right after Wilson completed a running pass to Graham for 30 yards to put Seattle in scoring position.

Here, the Seahawks line up with two receives to the right, a single receiver up top to the left, and Graham down on the line on the right. Seattle is facing a two high safety look from Arizona, and will attempt to attack the Cardinal down the seam between the two deep defenders.

Not a bad idea, but also a predictable one.

The Cardinals are playing off coverage on both the top left receiver and the right slot receiver, and they go man-to-man with both of those match ups. Graham begins running down the seam, and the linebacker picks him up.

The linebacker does a great job of carrying him right into the strong safety, who was keying Graham all along. The fact that Seattle doesn't have any receivers that scare the Cardinals enough to double team on the outside allows Arizona to basically double-team Graham in situations like this.

The coverage arrives just as the ball does, and it's another incomplete pass in the red zone. After a sack and a pass short of the sticks, Seattle would settle for a field goal.

Now take a look at this sequence in Seattle's close win over beaten and bruised Dallas. The Seahawks squeaked out a 16-13 win, despite poor red zone execution, largely thanks to playing Dallas' practice squad on offense.

Here we see Seattle trying to set up a zone read, with a pair of receivers to the left, one receiver to the right, and a fullback to the left of Wilson, with running back Marshawn Lynch to the right.

This is a pet play of the Seahawks, and the Cowboys sell out to defend it.

At the snap of the ball, fullback Will Tukaufu moves to the left, along with the offensive line, trying to create some movement. The blocking works almost like a zone stretch, with Tukaufu coming in to add an iso block element as Lynch's lead blocker once he gets through the line.

Unfortunately for Seattle, Dallas saw this play coming, and the Cowboys have sent eight defenders to stop it, all of them selling out to stuff Lynch.

However, even with Dallas' superior numbers up front, this play, as designed still should have worked.

We see here that both backside Cowboy defenders bite down hard on Lynch, leaving the back side flat open for Wilson if he keeps the ball on the option.

He doesn't, and Lynch runs into a wall for no gain. Now, just take a look at this frame from third and goal on the same drive.

Wilson is facing pressure from just four rushers, while no receivers have been able to create any kind of separation from Dallas' secondary. The Cowboys even have safety help on the left, and a linebacker spying Wilson down the middle. Wilson would escape the pocket, but throw into double coverage.

The ball would fall incomplete and Seattle would settle for yet another red zone field goal.

When the field gets smaller, it becomes more challenging for receivers to get open, and Seattle's have rarely been able to do so this year. Teams have no fear of going one-on-one with Seattle's outside receivers, allowing them to free up safeties to defend Graham down the seam, and linebackers to spy Wilson and keep him contained.

Basically, when Seattle needs to get some hard yards (in the red zone or on third down), the Seahawks are not getting it done. The offensive line isn't able to get the push it once did, and this supposedly upgraded passing game is failing to make plays when teams play tighter coverage. They simply don't have receivers that can create that quick separation, and their "plan" of simply running Jimmy Graham down the seam is predictable and easy to defend if he isn't doing much else.

Add in the fact that Russell Wilson has made some poor decisions in the option game near the goal line, and things couldn't be much worse for the Seahawks in the red zone.

But it isn't just about the offense, because Seattle's defense has regressed from historically dominant to only very good. Yes, the Seahawks are still No. 6 in the league in scoring defense, allowing under 20 points per game, and yes, they are still the second-best total defense behind Denver, surrendering just 303 total yards per game.

But as good as those numbers are, they're still down from Seattle leading the league in both categories, by a wide margin, each of the last two seasons. The Seahawks are still as stout against the run as ever, and their sack numbers per game are actually up from last year, so what's going on here?

Well, the famed "Legion of Boom" secondary has been great, just not legendary. In 2013, you could make a case the Seahawks had the best pass defense in NFL history, adjusted for current offensive trends and numbers. Those Seahawks allowed less than 6 yards per pass attempt, and under 10 yards per completion. The numbers went up slightly last year, but Seattle was still historically good against the pass.

This year, not so much.

The Seahawks are allowing 7 yards per pass attempt and over 11 yards per completion, a jump of about a yard in each category from last year. That may not seem like a lot, but consider that a one-yard difference in each category is the difference between this year's Carolina Panthers (best in the league at 6 YPA), and this year's Chicago Bears. Oh yeah, the Seahawks are tied with the Bears and Chiefs in this category.

Take a look at some of Seattle's steadily rising numbers below.
Point Allowed Per Game
2015: 19.9
2014: 15.9
2013: 14.4

Yards Per Attempt/Completion Allowed

2015: 7.0/11.0
2014: 6.0/10.2
2013: 5.8/9.9

So, what's been the problem with Seattle's secondary? Well, Kam Chancellor missing time with a holdout didn't help, but he hasn't exactly returned the unit to championship form since coming back. Perennial All-Pro corner Richard Sherman is still one of the best coverage guys in the NFL, but he's not getting his hands on the ball the way we're used to seeing. After averaging six interceptions and 18 pass break ups his first four years on the league, Sherman has yet to snag an INT in 2015, and is on pace for just 15 pass break ups this season.

You could argue that quarterbacks are avoiding the star corner, especially as Seattle breaks in a new No. 2 CB in Cary Williams, but when you look at the film that's actually not the case. Teams are attacking Seattle's left side (where Sherman permanently resides) with regularity, and the self-proclaimed best corner in the league has merely been very good.

Part of that has been a slight change in his role. Sherman has been covering slot receivers more often, and his superior length and reach has not been able to make up for the fact that most slot receivers are quicker than Sherman laterally. But Sherman is also struggling with covering receivers one-on-one on the outside, both because help has been late coming from safeties over the top, and because receivers are taking advantage of his unwillingness to give up the deep ball, using comebacks and hitches to exploit the corner he has been easily run off by receivers this season.
 First we get Sherman working one-on-one against Arizona receiver Michael Floyd at the top of the screen.

We see that at the snap of the ball, Sherman is running with Floyd well, and stays with him as the play develops.

But right here, Sherman realizes his help over the top is too far inside, so he keeps running hard to prevent giving up the deep ball.

Floyd breaks off his route and catches a comeback for the first down.

Now, check out this play, where Sherman and Floyd go against each other again, this time at the bottom of the screen.

Floyd again runs hard at Sherman, and the corner is again step-for-step with the receiver through three frames.
The difference here is, Sherman breaks to stop a short route when Floyd slows a bit, perhaps also looking to cover the slot receiver who is breaking outward. He does this both because of the previous comeback route, and because he believes his safety help inside is close enough to pick up Floyd if he continues going deep.

He might be right, if Floyd goes inside, but he properly continues his route away from the safety to the corner of the end zone.

It's good for a touchdown, one that was set up by an earlier route, and by the quarterback Carson Palmer holding safety Early Thomas with his eyes both times.

Another problem area for Seattle has been defending tight ends. On only 69 targets this year, opposing tight ends have put up 612 yards against Seattle's defense (5th most in the NFL), and six touchdowns. As you can see below, when teams need a big play against Seattle, they've been able to find it, provided they have a good pass catching tight end. Another thing to note is that, while Seattle has been running Graham down the seam, with just a few other routes, when teams get creative with their tight ends, it can really create trouble for Seattle's zone coverages.

Here's a third quarter example from Seattle'e loss to Carolina.

The Panthers come out with a pair of receivers out wide and a pair of backs flanking quarterback Cam Newton. Tight end Greg Olson is in the slot to the right.

If you've played the Madden NFL football video game any time in the last 15+ years, you're familiar with the route combination Carolina runs here with the strong side receiver and Olson.

It's a simple post-wheel concept, with the receiver running corner Richard Sherman off with the post route, and Olson going one-on-one with the linebacker running the wheel.

Already we see here the receiver getting inside of Sherman, and Olson getting a step to the outside on the linebacker. This is simply beating man coverage, but Seattle is running one of its popular man-zone hybrid coverages here, and that will end up hurting the Seahawks in the next two frames.

Here we see strong safety Kam Chancellor attempting to come over the top and help on the strong side.

But Sherman passes his receiver off to Chancellor, then attempts to recover back to the right to defend a deep third of the field.

He doesn't get back in time, and it's an easy big gain for Carolina up the right side against a linebacker.

These hybrid coverages, especially ones that go from man to Cover 3 or Quarters, allow Seattle to minimize big plays down the field, except when teams guess right what the coverage will be. Running two deep routes to the deep right third, only to have one break off, exploits an overzealous Sherman, who stays on the receiver too long and too far inside to properly cover his zone when the switch comes.

Let's take a look at this critical play later in the same game. With just 36 seconds left and down three, Carolina decided to call Olson's number one more time.

This is simply an outside angling vertical route by the former Miami Hurricane, and Seattle seems to be in a zone coverage that can stop it. With Sherman taking outside leverage on the corner, a linebacker sitting inside, another linebacker covering the middle of the field and a safety deep, all on a side where Olson in the ONLY receiver. If any player for Carolina should be covered, it's him.

But that's not what happens, and the sea parts for the tight end. The linebacker steps up and stays inside the cover the back leaking out of the backfield, and Sherman stays outside to cover, uh nobody (maybe he's also watching the back?).

By the time the ball is thrown, safety Earl Thomas realizes that Olson is jogging down the seam uncovered, and tries to come over the top, but it's too late. Was this a busted coverage? Sort of.

Carolina clearly saw something on tape it thought it could exploit when Seattle was in its "Quarters" or Cover 4 coverage. Usually, with four defenders deep, teams check down and try to chip away at Seattle, but here we see that when you're not shy to attack them vertically, sometimes routes get lost in the shuffle. Olson almost throws a change up by coming out of his stance slowly, then accelerating, perhaps fooling Sherman and the rest of the Seattle defense into thinking he was about to cut one way or another.

Well, he didn't, and this was about as easy a game-winning touchdown as you'll ever see against this secondary. Seattle may also be growing so accustomed to quarterbacks checking down to running backs against this coverage, that they've actually begun cheating to the short route at the expense of covering the deep route.

At first glance, these two plays look simply like blown coverages, but teams seem to be figuring out where they can take their shots against Seattle's secondary. Deep throws were once impossible to complete against the Seahawks, and the hybrid coverages that once confounded offensive coordinators are now being used against Seattle, as teams flood zones, and try to complete passes in the window where the defense switches from man coverage to zone coverage.

This issue can be corrected, and in fact probably will be as the Seahawks continue to get back into sync with Chancellor, who missed training camp, and with new corner Cary Williams, who came over from the Eagles. But the holes will still be there, they'll simply be smaller.

When you look at it, Seattle isn't really that different a team than it has been the last two years. The offensive line has lost a little juice in the run game, while running back Marshawn Lynch is starting to feel the wear of age, but the Seahawks still boast a top-flight defense, especially against the pass, and an average offense.

The problem for Seattle has largely been situational football: Getting tough yards when the field shortens, or the defense creeps up its coverage on third down. Thus far, the Seahawks have not been able to get those yards, partially due to a slightly downgraded run game, but also due to the mismanagement of new tight end Jimmy Graham.

All this wouldn't be so bad if Seattle was still playing historically good defense, but the Seahawks are simply very good. That's not a bad place to start, but if Russell Wilson doesn't find ways to get his offense into the end zone more frequently on red zone trips, this two-time defending NFC champions could be watching the playoffs from home.

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