Tasteful Filmography: Surviving the Rams’ Dagger Concept

The Seahawks are 1-3 against the Rams in four matchups since the hiring of Sean McVay, having been outscored 121-85 in the series. Seattle was able to hold them to ten points in their first head-to-head in 2017, as the Legion of Boom was still healthy and fully committed to what they didn’t know was one of their last hurrahs while the McVay Rams were only mid-ascendancy of eliteship’s precipice.

But the L.O.B. has since dissolved and the Rams’ offense has since summited the titular peak of the NFL’s Most Potent. And despite the Seahawks’ offense nearly managing to keep pace with the Rams’ this past year in their divisional crossings-of-paths, McVay’s crew clearly holds the cards.

You can start anywhere with the litany of concepts that the Seahawks have struggled defending against the Rams, but one that has hit particularly hard is “dagger.”

Strictly speaking, dagger is a 2-man route pattern from one side of the formation that sees two vertical routes up field — often one in the seam and one hugging the sideline or numbers. The inside receiver runs the deep coverage off before the outside receiver breaks a “dig” route underneath into the intermediate:

classic dagger example

The Rams incorporate dagger into their trips (3×1) or empty (3×2) formations with an additional short route run (from trips) to the near side, serving as restraint for the underneath coverage as well as a check down resort for Goff.

McVay has run this three-man combination six times so far against Seattle and has seen success no matter the latter’s coverage or “trips checks.”  When facing Seattle’s zone, Goff’s statline sits at 5/5 for 81 yards, 16 y/a, and a 118.8 passer rating. Three converted a 1st down and one set up a 3rd and 1 that was converted. Seattle has defeated the concept just once against the Rams, and that came in early 2017 when the L.O.B was still intact.

The worst of it came in the second SEA v. LAR game in 2018 when Seattle yielded three substantial gains of 14, 35, and 15 yards. Let’s dig into how Seattle’s defense is being targeted and what can possibly be done to counteract.

4th Quarter 9:15, 2nd and 10, pass completed to Cooks for 15 yards:

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Los Angeles motions to a 2×3 empty formation and runs their dagger concept from the 3-man side:

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Seattle responds by checking into a 3-robber match zone. Before explaining individual players’ responsibility, here is a brief explanation of some core characteristics of any Cover 3 match zone.

The Final-3 Match

For simplicity’s sake, the final-3 receiver can be readily identified as the first deep crosser or vertical route that comes into the final-3 defender’s zone. The final-3 defender is usually the pre-snap weak-hook defender (before pushing to the next zone over to the strong side). The match itself involves visioning and opening up toward the final-3 before carrying that route anywhere it goes (while still maintaining MOF leverage principles).

Flooding the Underneath Coverage

In addition to the final-3 match element, Cover 3 zone match involves the underneath coverage to “flood” the trips side. Flooding, as explained to me in detail by @CoachCogan on Twitter, involves pushing the underneath defenders over one zone toward the strong or trips side to regain the possible numbers advantage lost to trips formations.

These key elements are reflected in the below diagram with Seattle in a 3-robber match. McDougald is the final-3 match defender and robs the strong-hook as Wagner pushes from the strong-hook to the strong-curl, and Coleman to the flat:

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There are three main factors that counter the Seahawks’ intent.

The Clear Out

In this instance, the pre-snap third receiver, Robert Woods, becomes the final-3 running the deep over route of which McDougald turns and carries. As Seattle provides a schematic answer to the thru-route in the form of McDougald’s match, in reality it serves as a decoy running off a hook defender and creating underneath space.

Conflicting the Curl Defender

Once the thru-route clears, Wagner is the remaining middle underneath defender. As Brandin Cooks is able to stem vertically in a hurry, Wagner is stressed and must try to gain adequate depth in his drop to provide inside leverage on any in-cut. However, Gurley runs a short hitch straight at Wagner’s zone that he must honor as well. Wagner is thus “high-low’d” with a threat over the top of him and in front of him.  While the deeper threat is more important, Wagner cannot cheat to it too much as Gurley is a dangerous run-after-catch threat.

The Minus-Splits

By condensing the trips formation closer to the offensive line, perimeter defenders must play conservatively so as to yield any switches or underneath route interaction as well as cancel the space gained to the sideline facilitated by this alignment. This forces Shaquill Griffin to play soft and read Cooks’ release, which leaves him unable to squeeze the dig route sooner and more effectively. As the buzzer, Coleman gives a free release to the outermost up field receiver and expands to his flat essentially covering nothing.

This video clip shows the play with descriptions throughout. Pause as needed:

Despite the defense’s flood and the matching, McVay is able to recreate number advantages to the middle of the field.

This next example came earlier in the game:

First Quarter 11:00, 2nd and 10

After the Rams motioned to trips, Seattle adjusted to a cover-3 check called “Reno” that they employ to defend outside-vertical stretch concepts when in base defense:

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While it is a fairly involved coverage that gives a litany of reads to the strong side of the formation, we will only be focused on the defenders’ roles as dictated by the route distribution of this play. For more information on Reno (also take note that Matty Brown has an awesome, in-depth piece coming on the subject), look no further than excellent twitter follow, @JamesALight:

And given said route distribution, these are the assignments as diagrammed below:

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Assuming all vertical stems from the receivers, Reno, distilled, assigns a seam-match to the defender (McDougald) aligned over the number two receiver with an additional final-3 match assigned to the middle-hook defender (Wagner).

On paper this provides a schematic answer to dagger as the dig route has an assigned match player in McDougald whose reads are not slowed by other factors as were Griffin’s in the above play. But with Wagner as the final-3 defender getting run off, and this time the check down coming from the backfield occupying Wright, the seam-match player will still not have any help inside to leverage to:

Execution remains key.

The third time the Rams hit Seattle with dagger this game came against Tampa 2.

Quarter 3 1:25 3rd and 15:

Tampa 2 is a common third and long coverage for Seattle. It presents as a classic 2 deep, 5 under zone defense with the middle linebacker, Wagner, carrying the inner most seam route from strong side:

Dagger2

The concept again sees the final-3 receiver hold and clear the deep coverage. With Wagner assigned the carry, this route runs him off as well occupying the attention of either of the safeties should it break into a deep post or corner route. As Griffin is a flat defender, he is not free to squeeze the dig and Coleman is put into conflict by the high-low.

While the depth of sticks warrants a conservative coverage, relegating Griffin to a flat defender — considering the dig route’s prevalence in McVay’s offense — is asking to get killed repeatedly. This coupled with the curl defender (Coleman) playing so tight to the line of scrimmage gives the Rams exactly what they want.

Solutions:

Carroll must provide schematic answers as well as call on his players to perform better against this concept. Both positively affect one another, so a little gained here is a little gained there.

The Reroute:

From condensed trips formation, the number one receiver is likely to run the dig if dagger is called. Through a reroute (obstructing the receivers vertical stem), throwing off his timing can create a decisive and positive domino effect for the rest of the coverage.

In this play from the first SEA v LA game of 2018, Coleman performs an excellent reroute (in contrast to the first example provided) on the number one receiver before pushing to the flat.

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The Seahawks are in “6-buzz skate” (see here for “skate” and “mable,” two staples of Seattle’s “trips checks,” which are the same coverage except for opposite safety rotation) which is essentially the same thing as Seattle’s 3-robber match — the only difference is that McDougald is nestled in the weak-hook pre-snap (before pushing to the strong-hook fulfilling the flood) from where he will match the final-3 receiver as opposed to the safeties disguising and holding a two deep shell pre-snap.

Coleman’s reroute of the receiver slows his speed as well as elongating the path to the landmark at which the receiver will in-cut. This allows time for Tre Flowers to gather and squeeze the dig while allowing Wagner to gain depth and close the window.

See here for a more comprehensive visual:

The dagger portion of the 3-man pattern is defeated as Goff’s read on the dig is canceled.  Instead he comes down on the check down as the Seahawks want. But due to Wagner’s depth, the hitch route has too great a cushion — again illustrating the high-low the strong-curl defender is conflicted with. This ties into the next solution.

Execution:

Duh. In the previous play, Wagner does an excellent job positioning himself relative to the number one receiver, but probably gets a touch too deep for the hitch given the down and distance being 1st and 10. Regardless, Wagner hesitates when closing and gives up five yards after the catch. Just as the Reno example showed, schematic answers can be provided, but the practice must match the theory. Two of the Seahawks’ very best players — McDougald and Wagner — getting beat in these plays conveys just how much everything from scheme to execution must be perfect when playing the Rams. The corners must be prepared to squeeze the possible in-cut when Los Angeles aligns in trips formations which will be eased by any possible reroute that can be applied.

For a contrast to all the misery, here is an example of the ’17 Seahawks defeating this concept, out of 3-robber.

Quarter 4 12:43 3rd and 13.

The answer here appears to be years’ worth of communication from Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor as well as the Hall of Fame talent therein. Thomas, the final-3 match defender, makes a brilliant play, passing off his route and sitting on the dig. Asking Seattle’s current players to replicate this chemistry is a fool’s errand.

In the meantime, Carroll must continue stressing the basic principles, the principles the L.O.B. was founded on: reading patterns quickly, maintaining precise zone spacing, rerouting vertical threats whenever possible, and closing on the ball.