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The Seahawks' Usage of Pistol Mattered

In an effort to protect quarterback Russell Wilson, just four weeks returned from a broken middle finger, the Seahawks abandoned their under-center formations and replaced them with new-for-2021 pistol looks. The move did not work. In fact, it may have had damaging effects on Seattle's play-calling and overall performance. Matty F. Brown explains.

There was one obvious feature to the impotent, shutout Seahawks offense versus the Packers: with the rapid return of Russell Wilson from his finger injury, Seattle did not use under-center formations. Instead, the usual shotgun was accompanied by pistol looks—where the quarterback aligned four yards behind the center compared to gun’s increased depth of five yards. This was the first time we had seen this formation from the Seahawks in 2021. 

Wilson’s still-healing middle finger was the reason behind the offense’s shift away from under-center usage. This is an intelligent measure on the surface. 

“That’s why we did stay in the gun, yeah,” Carroll explained post-game. “He [Wilson] had taken snaps from under center in the pre-game and during the week and all, and we could have done more but we just didn’t want to expose him to that, didn’t think we needed to.”

Was Wilson uncomfortable in the game? 

“No, not at all,” Carroll answered. “We just didn’t want to keep pounding away at him, you know?” 

The move to pistol, where the center snaps the ball through the air to the quarterback, was a measure taken to protect Wilson’s tender finger.

“Let’s take a moment here, let’s think about it: He’s got broken bones in his finger so instead of going [Slap, slap] with the ball being snapped, we didn’t have to do that,” Carroll outlined.

“So we didn’t do that. We didn’t do it very much during the week, we knew we could when we needed it. We practiced with it so that we had it when we needed it, if we thought that there was a time for that. But I just didn’t want to put him through that, you know, under these circumstances? Because we could play without him. And I don’t really have the words [laughs] because we didn’t score a point, you know? But that’s what we did, that’s how we did it.”

This was deemed a necessary safeguard despite Wilson passing the tests the Seahawks ran on their quarterback in the buildup to the game. 

“There was a process they had of kind of diagnostics of what was the response to the work,” Carroll told Mike Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle on Monday.

“And they would measure the swelling in his finger everyday, different aspects of it, to gauge you know what was the response of the workload. And he didn’t deteriorate at any time; everything got better the whole everyday. And so that was all in support, there wasn’t a response that we needed to be concerned about. He was okay.”

When the doctor who performed the surgery on Wilson’s finger, Steven Shin, described, “I have never in my career seen such a severe injury to the throwing hand of an NFL quarterback,” Seattle’s continued caution into the Green Bay road trip is understandable. However, with the Seahawks' attack suffering their first scoreless outing in 10 years and also their first with Wilson at signal-caller, it’s reasonable to question whether the switch to pistol in place of under-center damaged the offense.

That’s exactly what our own Corbin Smith asked of Carroll, querying whether the offense was put at a disadvantage. 

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“It’s just a little bit different, we ran pistol, you know?” the head coach responded.

“It’s the same thing as putting the guy behind him. And so the gun plays were exactly the same. You know, there’s a lot of teams that run pistol all the time, the Ravens do it all the time. It’s just not, it’s been part of our offense for a long time when we want, choose to do it, and we thought this was the right thing to do. You can question me on that if you want to but that’s the way that we decided to do it.”

In theory, the move to pistol allowed Seattle to sort of keep their under-center run and play-action concepts, while keeping Wilson away from hand damage. “Well almost all of it, there’s very few things you know that we couldn’t do and that we just decided not to do,” Carroll responded to Salk’s question over the percentage of playbook available to the Seahawks.

“Russ took snaps under center during the week. We did a selective amount of them to make sure we could do it when we needed to and he was fine with that. But we just decided not to do it, you don’t have to do that to play the game and it always sounds like we’re looking for reasons why and excuses why, but we didn’t have any excuses. He was ready to play football and he would never back down from that.”

Whatever Carroll’s post-game reassurances, the stark truth is that Seattle’s play-calling was obliviously pass-heavy and ignorant of the visible rust that Wilson was playing with. Excluding the end-of-half two-minute drill, where armed with just one minute and three seconds of playtime and a single timeout, Seattle was forced into being pass-first. And on the end-of-game drill where the Seahawks were similarly run-restricted by the 17-0 deficit, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron called pass a lot.

Wilson dropped back 25 times compared to 12 called runs, a 67.5 percent skew to the pass (note that Dee Eskridge’s fly sweep “reception” is counted as a run here). Waldron called pass on 63 percent of the game’s first downs and opted for a staggering 77 percent pass rate on second down (please also note that, in order to gain full insight into the run-pass thinking, these first and second down number may include plays where penalty removed them from the box score).

The even more extreme second down pass rate can be explained by 50 percent of those situations being 2nd and 7 or more territory (six of 12) thanks to three ineffective first down runs and three incomplete first down passes. Nevertheless, it’s fair to question whether Waldron—in his first year of calling plays for an NFL offense—was comfortable calling runs from pistol looks that are unfamiliar to him. His background is suited to under center rushing concepts.

Carroll was dissatisfied with the run-pass balance. 

“I didn’t like that we didn’t get the ball run more,” he told reporters on Monday. “In a close game like that I just would have expected that we would run the ball you know well more than we did. Running backs carried the ball 11 times and that’s not enough. It’s not enough to get any rhythm, it’s not enough to get the feel for the game and it took us, we got so few plays in the first half in particular, we just never got going.”

Carroll chose to blame a lack of sustained drives for the reason why Seattle didn’t run the ball more. 

“Again, in this game, it’s not making first downs,” he said. “You know, there’s not enough chances. We came out and ran the ball, hit 11, hit a 6, you know and got some movement and some space but then we didn’t convert and we’re off the field.”

Looking at his coordinator’s lack of exposure provides another explanation. Heck, even run game coordinator Andy Dickerson is a pistol newbie. The 2021 Seahawks have not been designed to major in pistol formations and none of their players are used to executing in the different look, where both the rushing and play pass attack has a slightly different, especially relevant feel. It's little wonder that mesh points looked more awkward.

In the fine margins of the NFL, you cannot make a distinct change like that to an entire offense and expect execution to be at the level required for success, bye week or not. Wilson was shoddy in his performance and so was his entire side of the ball. 

“It didn’t come out as clean as we needed it to in a lot of areas of offensive football, not just [Wilson],” Carroll assessed to 710 ESPN Seattle.