Schott Through the Heart: Will the Seahawks give offense a bad name?

When Brian Schottenheimer described his first conversations with Pete Carroll, a familiar coaching trope appeared.

“You’ve got to have the ability to run the football when people know you are going to run the football.”

Later that week, data analyst Josh Hermsmeyer calculated that the number of defenders in the box, alone, could account for roughly 80% of rushing YPC.

Truly we live in the darkest of times.

Yet lift up thine eyes, ye weary Twelves, and take heart! Get thee behind me, Baldwin! For I bring a multitude of reasons this offense just might be good.

Dictating Defensive Personnel

The Seahawks are bringing four fullbacks to training camp. They will bring two at most into the final 53, and likely one, but it’s clear the I formation will make a common appearance on the field. One effect this has is it keeps defenses in base personnel.

Base brings an advantage to the passing game that Seattle will leverage. Here, Schottenheimer uses a simple presnap motion to get a LB covering a WR even when Indianapolis is in nickel.

RB Shonn Green motions from a pro set to the slot while WR Jerricho Cotchery is split off the line. This shifts LB Gary Brackett and rookie CB Cornelius Brown into zones aligned for the 6th year receiver to make quick space in front of the 235-pound MLB.

Despite the heavy truth of the number of box defenders dictating the odds of rushing success to an alarming degree, Schottenheimer has found ways to give some run plays a little extra space. Here, the 12 personnel package keeps Buffalo in base, but the split alignment of the U tight end pulls one LB out of the box. The extra space factors.

Base defensive packages dropped from 47% in 2011 to between 29% and 33% the past three years. A heavy dose of FBs and 21 personnel will test the depth of opponents’ LB corps amidst the matured trend of investment into nickel corners as starting players. This offseason, the Dolphins gave Bobby McCain a 4-year extension worth $27M, similar value to recent contracts for Richard Sherman, Prince Amukamara, and Joe Haden. In contrast, the 3rd & 4th linebacker warrants limited investment: the snapcount for Seattle’s 3rd LB in 2017, for example, Michael Wilhoite, was half that of Bobby Wagner & KJ Wright. He did not miss time.

Testing an opponent’s depth is a common coaching tactic. In 2016, with Seahawks LB Mike Morgan on injured reserve, Bill Belichick schemed to give backup LB Brock Coyle a busy night for Seattle with an active use of 12 personnel.

Mismatch Creation

In 2014, the NFLPA challenged the New Orleans Saints’ franchise tag designation on Jimmy Graham as a TE. The average of the top 5 TE salaries was $5m lower than that of the top 5 WRs. Graham lined up wide, or in the slot, on 67% of his snaps, in 2013, leading to his contention that he ought to be paid like a WR.

Yet 78% of his receptions did not come against cornerbacks. Graham’s arbitration dispute arose from the fact that Sean Payton makes more effort to create mismatches than perhaps any other coach in the league.

Mismatch creation is nothing new. Schottenheimer’s a real dilettante, if not matching Payton in frequency. Schottenheimer moved Jets TE Dustin Keller around with wide variety. Both coaches frequently utilize a common mismatch creation tactic: line the TE out wide.

Keller was small for a TE, only 6’2″. While this made him more agile, this limits the size mismatch Payton got to enjoy with the 6’7″ Graham. Above, Keller only has 3 inches on CB Tracy Porter, although he has a 4-inch advantage over CB Dunta Robinson.

When the TE lines up wide, the WR can line up tight to the OL. The neat thing about this tactic is you can use it to create a mismatch, on demand, every snap, even this year. Because defenses can only respond in one of two ways:

  • Keep their defenders in their positions, which allows the size or speed mismatch the offense sets up
  • Move their defenders to keep CB on WR and LB/S on TE, which leaves the defenders playing out of position

Playing out of position is the less exploitable mismatch, but it’s real. Body size, length, weight and agility are tailored to position in the hyper-specialized NFL. Some LBs are great in coverage and very knowledgeable. But LBs aren’t in the DB room every week. Do they know to grab skin?

NFL Films Turning Point 2013 caught Richard Sherman telling Doug Baldwin the tricks he’d learned in his first two years in the league.

“If I see you setting up to push off I’m gonna grab that arm. I’m gonna say ‘come here’. Cuz you know what they ain’t gonna call? Grabbing skin. When I grab skin, I ain’t never had a call.”

Not every cornerback in the league knows that trick, much less every LB.

Use of Shifts

Mismatches aren’t just for TEs. Getting a LB to cover a RB in space outside the box can be advantageous. Alternatively, cornerbacks tend not to get outrun, but they can be less proficient tacklers. Like Tracy Porter.

“WR” (ha!) Danny Woodhead (#83) starts split wide left, versus Porter. He motions to right slot. LB Scott Shanle picks him up. TE Ben Hartsock starts at FB and motions to left slot. LB Scott Fujita picks him up.

RB Leon Washington starts as HB and motions to wide left, so Porter moves to cover him. This pass goes elsewhere, but these presnap shifts exemplify the ways an offense can move players with particular skillsets around to manufacture some matchup advantages to leverage.

Sometimes these simple shifts can lead to a mistake to exploit.

Schottenheimer made very frequent use of shifts & motions in his five years with the Jets. Two-shift calls were common. Here’s a shift with 5 players changing alignment.

The presnap activity mostly dried up in his tenure with the Rams, however. It seems head coach Jeff Fisher compelled Schottenheimer’s offense to operate in a much more conventional manner, and tailored to Sam Bradford’s spread skillset, replete with quick outs from the slot. His Jets offenses seem much more applicable to what Carroll proclaims he wants to do in Seattle, and to the talent on the roster.

I expect the shift-happy Jets mode of Schottenheimer’s offense to feature in Seattle, due to the corps of uniquely talented skillsets in the backfield. Rashaad Penny’s an I-formation back, who can catch well, and with a speed score of 111.2 — he’s pretty fast for his size. JD McKissic is more elusive as a smaller back at 5’10” 195 lbs. CJ Prosise and Chris Carson both have complete back skills but the body of a WR (both 6’1″, and five & seven pounds heavier than Penny, respectively).

Pete Carroll has always loved utilizing talent with particular strengths. Schottenheimer’s active use of shifts and motions will supplement the conventional RB screens and dumpoff passes to the flat as additional ways to get this talented backfield more involved.

Roster Construction

Yes, the Seahawks will run the ball. A lot. More frequently than they should. But this group will feature actively in the passing game, as well. They’ll need to.

The Seahawks have no notable or reliable receiving tight ends, and the receiving corps behind Doug Baldwin contains question marks at best. These roster holes aren’t ideal, but they align rather tactically to the designs of the offense.

Schottenheimer’s reputation is a bit overblown — his Rams teams’ use of 11 personnel was mostly below average. It was his most frequently used package, just like the rest of the league. (Football Outsider Almanacs 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018):

  • 2012: 48% (NFL Average 45%)
  • 2013: 42% (NFL Average 51%)
  • 2014: 47% (NFL Average 54%)

Still, as one of the likely leaders of 12, 21 & 22 packages, Seattle’s need for strong season performances from their 3rd, 4th & 5th WRs is moderately diminished.

The absence of a receiving threat from the TE group is certainly not by design. Seattle won’t be able to maximize the mismatch creation dynamics of Schottenheimer’s offense without one. However, declining the salary cap hit for retaining Jimmy Graham’s services somewhat suits an I-formation offense that figures to see more Cover 2 shells as a result of that formation and the personnel packages. Seam-ripping TE routes run into the strength of that coverage shell.

In contrast, the weak spots to attack Cover 2 are out routes where the two primary WRs can work. Cover 2 corners come underneath and cover the flat. FB may not seem like a useful position, but send your FB into a release route into the flat against Cover 2 and you get the defense’s fastest player covering a FB.

The Fruit of Darrell Bevell’s Offense

I liked Bevell’s offense.  A conventional Walsh Coast Offense, he initially featured I-formation, with Michael Robinson leading the way for Marshawn Lynch. As the design was tailored to Russell Wilson and the roster talent, the central facet of Bevell’s offense were constraint plays.

Carroll loves systemic design. After the team worked in the Read-Option and Wilson ran it so well, the pistol RO alignment that suited outside and inside zone runs constituted the marriage of Tom Cable’s run game with a system of constraint plays that could stem from common formations and personnel. The Read-Option was supplemented with WR bubble & tunnel screens, jet sweeps and rollouts.

Although frequent use of these concepts frustrated many fans when the plays themselves didn’t pay off, the objective was to constrain the defense, to keep them from bottling up the run game too much. The screens and sweeps primarily targeted the outside linebackers, compelling them to shift to the edge of the box more in hopes that their run fits would get disrupted.

Insiders and experts such as Greg Cosell criticized Bevell’s passing game as rudimentary, and it was, but the fruit of the constraint system came not from individual plays or route concepts, but from stretching the defense in all directions.

When it worked, it worked well. But though it was tailored to Wilson and the offensive talent, ultimately this design made for a conflicted fit with Wilson.

The primary dynamic of the pistol formation as conceived by Chris Ault at the University of Nevada is that the ball gets to the quarterback quicker. That may seem trivial, since a shotgun snap is already nearly instantaneous. But the 4-yard alignment of a pistol QB, compared to being 7 yards back in shotgun, is a tactical permutation to the lateral spread focus trend of college football. The ball gets to the QB quicker — hence the screens and quick outs that money backers and nickel corners had become adept at defending were given that much more probability of breaking into a big gain.

Pistol was a very orthogonal fit with Wilson. For one, Russell Wilson loves the deep ball so much he took it back behind the middle school and got it pregnant. He held onto the ball an average of 3.05 before throwing, 2nd highest average in the league (nfl.com Next Gen Stats). For a QB with such putrid pass protection, 2nd-longest average is pretty remarkable. It’s probably skewed by a handful of ridiculous scrambles, but that only illustrates how wonderfully determined he is to give deeper passes and chunk plays every possible chance to succeed.

One consequence of this aggressive approach is Wilson has overlooked many open shorter routes available in front of him. These routes only break open momentarily, so when his protection or his legs afford him a chance to look deep a few seconds more, he’s taken it. The consequence of that is that the offense at times lacked consistency. And the central design and purpose of the pistol formation was thus made, too often, moot.

The other reason Pistol was an orthogonal fit with Wilson is his height. By that I don’t mean that he couldn’t see, but rather that his low center of gravity afforded him the tightest of turn radiuses, which of course factored heavily into his peerless escapability.

But the consequence of that escapability is Wilson’s preference to keep both scramble lanes open to him, on the left and right. Wilson routinely dropped back from a pistol snap — 3, 5, and 7 — but usually stuck with 5-step drops. As has been widely noted, a QB standing 9 yards behind the LOS made hell for tackles trying to block an edge rush.

See, some pass rushers are well balanced; others may have requisite strength but mostly have speed off the edge. As draft scouts are well aware, speed and power are both valuable but speed-to-power is incredibly valuable to have. Now conventionally QBs step up in the pocket after dropping back, and tackles block an edge rush with a kick slide to steer the edge rusher around the QB and out of the play. When the QB steps up, if an edge rusher can convert that edge speed into power — to bend their path to the QB up into the pocket, through the tackle — that takes some real speed-to-power. It’s not common, and it’s what sets elite edge rushers apart.

But Wilson dropping 9 yards back and keeping his escape lanes open meant merely adequate edge rushers without difference-making speed-to-power could suddenly look like Lawrence Taylor. It’s takes great strength to get much leverage on an edge rusher when he’s past your outside hip & shoulder, and you lose balance as you overextend your reach.

The debate over criticism of Wilson of this sort seems endless and futile, but the point here is not criticism but how Bevell’s offense — combined with Bevell’s apparent inability to hold Wilson accountable and ostensibly remedy this proclivity — suited him poorly. It doesn’t matter how rudimentary or advanced the passing game concepts are if a significant portion of your passing snaps are spent forsaking the advantage and intent of quick hit passes, or rendering the initial routes moot as the tragically necessary scrambling begins.

How Schottenheimer’s Offense Differs

So Wilson’s accountability is purported to be a significant reason for making the coaching change, and for the Schottenheimer hire. He is allegedly learning the existing Bevell system the players have known, rather than the other way around. He wants Wilson to play with a wider base. We may see a rather different type of play from Wilson. If so, I’m not sure if it will all be positive.

But these changes do figure to mitigate the most significant of the root causes of some of Seattle’s offensive inconsistency and lethargy in the Wilson era, even while efficiency and chunk plays usually remained satisfactorily high. It won’t all be I-formation, but the increased use of 2 backs, with frequent use of play action and empty formations (which help to dictate the pressure packages defenses will use) will come with more traditionally-timed and developing routes. With the presumed use of shotgun over pistol, we could see a more consistent offense from Seattle even if Schottenheimer’s excessive embrace of the ground game dampens explosiveness.

Keeping defenses in base creates opportunities for mismatches and attacks on less coverage-adept defenders. Shifts and motions can involve the useful backfield weapons on the roster to mitigate the weak depth at receiver & TE.

And they had to fix the run game. They had to. They can’t never run, and although every team in the league should pass more than they currently do, the fact that all of them will continue to run more than they should means Carroll’s insistence on run/pass balance is a modest-to-negligible factor of concern for the prospects of this season. Seattle’s 2017 run game was historically bad, and fixing that, alone, raises season win probability by one game. And don’t tell Ben Baldwin, because he already knows.

Besides, the run/pass balance Schottenheimer delivered to Fisher was less run-heavy than Carroll & Bevell produced at the beginning of the Russell Wilson era. His run proclivity out of 11 personnel consistently matched that of Payton with the Saints (and 11 was the most commonly used package for all three teams):

2012

  • 11 personnel – SEA: 35%, STL: 23%, NO: 13%.
  • 12 personnel – STL: 62%, SEA: 49%, NO: 42%.
  • 21 personnel – SEA: 66%, STL: 54%, NO: 40%.

2013

  • 11 personnel – SEA: 34%, STL: 18%, NO: 18%
  • 12 personnel – STL: 56%, SEA: 46%, NO: 23%
  • 21 personnel – SEA: 68%, NO: 46%, STL: N/A

2014

  • 11 personnel – SEA: 33%, NO: 20%, STL: 19%
  • 12 personnel – STL: 54%, SEA: 47%, NO 40%
  • 21 personnel – SEA: 70%, STL: 66%, NO: 56%

Payton definitely calls more pass plays, but his reputation as a gunslinger doesn’t reflect the Bill Parcells power run game he prefers to throw off of, even before making use of Alvin Kamara last year. Strategically and tactically, I find a lot of similarities in what Payton and Schottenheimer try to do.

I find a lot to like.