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The Perks of Early Down Passing With Geno Smith in Gun

The Seahawks' offense, with Geno Smith at quarterback, has been a grim experience. That was especially true last Monday. For the future, Matty F. Brown believes Seattle should up their early down passing.

“We have to keep battling because it's so close,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said on his weekly 710 ESPN Seattle radio appearance. “We have to just keep clawing and scratching and we've got to keep building the game around Geno [Smith] and making sure that he can function at a high level.”

During Monday Night Football, replacement quarterback Geno Smith completed 12 of 22 passes for 167 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions. While Waldron tried to make Smith’s life easier (24 percent of called plays had pre-snap motion; 36 percent featured a pre-snap shift and 56 percent contained a pre-snap formation identification), Seattle’s offense was ultimately unable to help its stand-in signal-caller.

The Seahawks' screen game is still broken. A lot of their play-action deep shots were covered up well by the Saints. And Smith himself, turnover conscious but also lacking confidence, was largely unwilling to push the ball further down the field. In fact, most of his declined shot plays appeared to be him not seeing the next read with the Saints playing tight coverage to his primary and Seattle’s offensive line struggling.

The Seahawks’ run game did not help Smith production-wise. According to ESPN’s Mina Kimes, they averaged -0.13 expected points per play running the ball. The backfield trio of Alex Collins, Rashaad Penny and Travis Homer combined for just 58 yards on 23 carries—a dismal 2.52 yards per carry average. A large chunk of this total arrived on Homer’s 14-yard, 3rd and 19 guard tackle wrap carry that was designed to get into better field goal range. Incidentally, that was the only carry over 10 yards for Seattle’s running backs.

How much did the Seahawks try to establish the run? Well, Smith dropped back to pass 28 times compared to 26 called runs, opting for sequences of “run, run, pass” twice (both resulted in three-and-outs) and “Run, Run, Run” twice (one first down, one a yard short).

“The line of scrimmage was hard,” Carroll continued. “This was the best, one of the best rushing defenses we’ll face all season. And it just happened we needed to run it, they knew we needed to run it, they were really good at it and we weren’t able to get the edge of it, so we rushed for 90 yards instead of 130 or 40.”

The issue for Seattle was the balance in early down runs compared to early down passes. The Saints were able to play even more heavily for the run because of the Seahawks’ strategy on early downs. The Seahawks called passes on just a third of the game’s first downs and, moving forward with Smith, this must change.

As Carroll said on Tuesday: "We have to adapt the game to fit the makeup of your players and that’s what you see.” 

Smith’s best passing reps arrive when he is in spread formations and asked to execute quick game concepts. He is familiar with these concepts and often (even on shot plays) looked happy to take what was there underneath.

On this 1st and 10, Smith gained a zone indicator thanks to his tight end out wide. He saw the open middle of the field and shifted the offense into a shotgun set. Versus the off cornerback, Tyler Lockett’s out route was there for easy yardage, an example of what defenses will allow on early downs.

This 2nd and 13 for Smith gave him a zone indicator. The motion of Lockett into the backfield and a four-strong passing concept further confirmed zone while also flooding the coverage. With the middle linebacker looking to play the No. 3 corner route, Smith took what was available in the zone hole underneath, hitting Freddie Swain for 10 yards. 

Smith managed to target the flat route with four defenders playing over his two threats on this 2nd and 10. The Saints dropped nine men into zone coverage that Smith had confirmed pre-snap thanks to Gerald Everett aligning split out wide. The stem of Everett’s route separated nicely.

This 3rd and 4 saw Smith recognize the zone signs and the defender leverage, completing to the nestled Lockett route in the hole for the first down on what was essentially motion into a two-man snag passing concept.

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Smith managed another 3rd and 5 conversion from empty, where he once more showed his reading of defender leverage, meeting DK Metcalf’s slant route versus the off and outside cornerback on the switch-release, follow concept. 

Smith also managed an explosive passing game via quick game, finding Swain for a 28-yard catch-and-run. It arrived on the same orbit motion of Lockett into four strong. On the Swain catch, the frontside linebacker completely vacated the zone and the backside linebacker missed his tackle trying to get across. 

The quick passing game is by no means a guaranteed element with Smith as the quarterback. That's mainly because Smith has shown himself to be inconsistent. Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer described this as “streaky” on Wednesday.

Smith, with more confidence, could have thrown this 2nd and 10 flat-to-stick progression. Doubt was added with how the cornerback played the combination. The window was there for a Metcalf stick target.

Given the game state, Smith choosing not to attempt this out route at the end of the first half was smart. However, this does illustrate how a defense can clamp up and grow more exotic up front in pass-likely mode.

This was unusual from Smith on 2nd and 14. The idea is that Metcalf’s china route breaks away from the curl defender leverage, with the middle linebacker run off to the high hole by Lockett’s route. The fact that Smith did not throw Metcalf’s route and then took a sack was disastrous, pushing Seattle out of field goal range. Smith did not trust his accuracy into this window versus the defender leverage.

Here on 2nd and 11 Smith’s accuracy on the open out route was off, with him not fully re-setting his body into the throw. The wide base and top caused the ball to sail. The delay limited the catch to no gain. 

On early downs, these quick game elements are just as likely to be available. It’s in pure pass, long situations where the defense can cheat to pass and that they get removed, or the windows tighten. It is better for Seattle to be in situations where it can run or pass, rather than being forced into pass or "give-up run" scenarios.

This approach doesn’t necessarily mean passing more often; it is more about passing in smarter situations to prevent the offense becoming one-dimensional in the majority of scenarios. This would have been especially sensible versus the defensive front of the Saints, which took over the trenches and also had very downhill playing linebackers. It would have resulted in better run game opportunities too.

This doesn’t contradict Carroll’s Tuesday comments on game-planning with Smith:

“You can’t play the way, everybody wants to see the ball thrown, you wanna throw it all over the yard, you know we gotta turn him loose, no you don’t. You turn him loose? You turn him loose to the limitations that the experience brings to the game for that guy. And so we all have to figure that out. And we have to play, if you want to win a football game, you can’t play to what you want to be, you have to play to what you need to be and work that out in play-calling and structure, use of personnel and all those things and that’s what we’re tasked with.”

This is not based in throwing the ball all over, nor does it mean turning Smith loose. And it is not about endorsing the meme-worthy, majorly-flawed official Seahawks twitter Next Gen Stats usage. Instead, it is merely tweaking the play-calling balance to put the offense in the best possible position to succeed. The challenge for Waldron is finding a way to mix in more of a gun run game that could compliment the spread passing concepts that Smith enjoys.

The Seahawks should have won the game. However, looking to get balanced early down passing strategy, while still leaning on the run to help Smith, would aid every facet of the Seahawks’ offense.