With more than 10 training camp practices now in the books, we have learned more about the Seahawks' 2021 offense. Preseason games are unlikely to further deepen our knowledge of offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s new attack due to the plain schematic approaches and most of the football being played by those on the roster bubble. However, the Seahawks’ practices, press conferences, and last Sunday's mock game have revealed exciting details.
“We did a lot of stuff, you know? We didn't just play it real vanilla,” coach Pete Carroll reflected on the mock game. “We did a lot of stuff inside of the mentality of it, and it was really fun to see that.”
The mock game proved insightful. What have we learned about Waldron's offense thus far? Here are seven lessons learned through three weeks of training camp.
Tight End Usage
When the Seahawks took Dee Eskridge with their first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft—No. 56 overall—it seemed obvious that Seattle was going to be largely an 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) team. This is the trend league-wide and it’s what the team did last year under Brian Schottenheimer for 66 percent of its snaps.
Eskridge’s availability, however, has been impacted by a toe injury that has kept him on the PUP list for all of training camp so far. Second-year receiver Freddie Swain is now leading the competition for the No. 3 spot behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Penny Hart is also involved in the battle for playing time.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s tight end room is looking like a real strength of its roster. Gerald Everett has settled in dangerously. Colby Parkinson is a mismatch who runs bowling ball-smooth for his size. Will Dissly is an uber-reliable blocker.
More importantly, Waldron’s offense will look to use the tight ends. Waldron experienced the Rams’ adaptation to using more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) as an evolution answer to being "figured out" following their 2018 season.
Drives of the mock game appeared to be spent in 12 personnel. The advantages of the grouping are that it increases the likelihood of facing base defenses from opponents. If you have tight ends talented enough to demand nickel or big nickel, then you should be able to run the football.
The challenge is finding tight ends with the ability to pose enough of a mismatch versus a linebacker to force the defense into changing, while simultaneously being able to block effectively. The peak example is the Aaron Hernandez-Rob Gronkowski combination that New England had.
“It's awesome,” evaluated Will Dissly on the tight end usage. “I'm having a blast out here running around. It's a little bit hot for a Seattle day. But uh, it's fun to go to work and have an opportunity to go out there and make an impact, and honestly celebrate every position. I think, that's the cool part about this offense, is everyone's getting used. You know, we're in 12 personnel, we're in 13 personnel."
13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver) is often associated with duo—or crunch—runs. This is a concept that is often described as "power without the puller." It’s a gap-blocked concept that looks to get double teams at the point of attack and allow the running back to get downhill, hitting it inside or bouncing the run based off reading the middle linebacker. This was an expected change-up run to Seattle’s outside zone, under center-heavy ground game.
*Update: Per coach Pete Carroll, Parkinson re-injured the same foot he broke last season and will be out indefinitely.
What was not expected was that the Seahawks would be able to do this effectively out of 11 personnel. The clever usage of receiver splits—where alignment is tightened and widened—is a key element to what Sean McVay has accomplished with the Rams and it was evident throughout the mock game.
“You can’t really anticipate what’s gonna happen,” nickel corner Ugo Amadi told reporters on Thursday. “It's the way they've designed it. They play with their splits, you know. Some splits can be a toss, some splits [inaudible], and it may not be either one of them. So you just gotta play it honest.”
With each play looking similar to another in a certain formation, this is really starting to approach the 'series'-based offensive style that makes it tough on defenses and can operate on an "if they do this, then we do this" play-calling basis.
Everett in particular will have skill-set deployed in intelligent ways. The tight end’s ability to win above the rim with physicality saw him split out wide in 11 personnel during the mock game. This is using the 27-year old's split end/X-like skill-set as a split end/X.
Furthermore, aligning Everett out wide helps Russell Wilson. It acts as a coverage indicator for the quarterback: if a linebacker or safety follows Everett to the perimeter, the Wilson knows he is facing man coverage; if a corner stays with Everett, the offense is getting zone. DK Metcalf took the ‘tight end’ spot, lining up detached from the core as a ‘big No. 3’. This is mismatch potential in the condensed area of the red zone.
Waldron’s deployment of his personnel is going to be one fascinating aspect to pay attention to.
Seattle’s core run game will be largely under center. In terms of passing plays, this brings the play action and movement stuff for shot plays that Wilson enjoys as a quarterback. Dump offs to the flat will be the main short element. However, Wilson does sometimes struggle accessing certain intermediate windows and this can be accentuated from under center play fakes. (Adding in duo play action more regularly appears to be a new element)
We even saw how Wilson is challenged in this area on a shotgun play in the mock game:
Waldron’s answer appears to be sprinkling in empty shotgun formations as a way to hit more short-to-intermediate concepts, an effort to prevent the passing game plummeting into a feast-or-famine struggle. Hitting near the numbers will form a large part of this. What would really transform the Seattle attack, though, is if Waldron is able to find some over-the-middle stuff that Wilson can reliably hit.
Dissly, when asked about an emphasis on short-to-intermediate passes, spoke on how the personnel groupings will influence the concepts Seattle is able to run, saying, “It's been great; I think that's the coolest part. Like I said, it's everyone being productive in those short-intermediate plays. And, you know, when you can kinda spread the field, in 12 personnel, in 13 personnel, and then go fast in 11, it's just really hard for defenses to prepare and be complex.”
Whatever the number of tight ends on the field, Waldron clearly wants his offense to still be able to successfully run their core concepts and speeds. Dissly mentioned spreading the field for short-intermediate passes in 12 personnel and 13 personnel, which would include empty formations. Meanwhile, the 11 personnel package can clearly be tuned up into a two-minute drill-style blitz.
Rhythm, Not Merely Tempo
There has been excited chatter surrounding tempo in the Seahawks’ 2021 offense. A better term for this is clearly rhythm.
“I liked the rhythm that we played with,” Carroll stated after the mock game. “I thought it was really obvious that we were moving the rhythm and adjusting it as we went. That's what all of the work that's been done between Shane and the offensive players, and particularly Shane and Russ, you know?”
Like how Seattle will look to vary how they present their personnel, clearly they will tweak their rhythm and pace of play throughout games.
“We have a lot of tools and I think it starts with the quarterback,” assessed Dissly on August 11. “Russ has a great command of, you know, all the different tempos that we want to implement.”
There are clearly various ‘settings’ or 'modes' for the Seahawks’ offensive speed.
Motion and Shifting
The usage of motion and shifting is a glitzy element to the offense that immediately generates images of fly/jet sweeps going for big yardage or a hapless defensive back falling over in man coverage and giving up a long touchdown.
However, what the mock game showed was the advantage of shifting in terms of nullifying the effectiveness of blitzes, narrowing the defense and changing the force defender in the run fit.
Moving into unusual trips formations proved very profitable for Seattle’s offense, with the defense having to adjust. From their perspective, defending a nub pair 12 personnel formation to then dealing with pair trips is difficult, because it changes from the run strength placed on one side and the pass strength being on the other to both the run strength and pass strength located on the same side.
It looks like the passing routes have options to nestle in certain scenarios. This is by no means exclusive to Waldron’s attack. It's still a cool detail, though. You can see on this Alex Collins catch, where Wilson beats the blitz, that both the receiver from the left and receiver from the right nestle—possibly as an adjustment to the zone pressure.
“Just stay, just stay,” assistant wide receivers coach Kerry Joseph told rookie UDFA WR Connor Wedington when mic’d-up in August 8 practice. “That safety go there, you just stay there.” Maybe Joseph was talking about run blocking assignments. However, this sounds more like adjusting routes based off the post-snap defensive shell and safety movement.
Same But Different, Always-Evolving
Some final parts to keep in mind are that the offense still has similar elements to past iterations, yet will also continue to evolve throughout the season.
“There's new tools that, you know, I learned,” Dissly said. “And it's fun to have those out there. And Russ has new tools available. And obviously with Andy [Dickerson] coming in, there's new o-line stuff that [Mike] Solari's implementing.
It's gonna look a lot similar, it's gonna look a lot different. And it's just like, you know, how much can we add? How much can we grow?”
Based on those statements, the 2021 offensive journey looks like it should be a lot of fun for Dissly and the Seahawks.
For more on Shane Waldron’s offense, read my article from March: “Remaining Questions for Seahawks OC Shane Waldron”