The Seattle Seahawks entered 2019 with a clear aim of improving their run defense. Their inability to stop ground attacks last season frustrated Pete Carroll, a man who sets out his defense to curtail that very thing.
Carroll is also determined to not concede explosive plays. Heading into last Sunday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, the main challenge of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense was the schematic re-invention since the two teams faced off in Week 4. Arizona’s diverse run game, made up mainly of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers), has become their calling card along with the fast-forward quickness of Kyler Murray’s play-extension.
Kingsbury’s play calling induced the two sins Carroll does not want to commit. The Cardinals got their explosive play, an 80-yard Kenyan Drake touchdown, and ran the ball well throughout the encounter—253 yards and averaging more than six yards per carry. The gap-based, same-side counter run Arizona called from a 12 personnel, two-back, nub formation was particularly troublesome for Seattle’s defensive scheme and initial game plan.
Drake’s score preyed on the relative inexperience of second-year defensive end Rasheem Green. The Seahawks’ play call likely confused Green, with Ken Norton Jr. dialing in a three-deep, three-under, five-man pressure that blitzed Mychal Kendricks from an over look. The rest of the line crossed face and fitted a gap over from their initial alignment.
Typically on this type of blitz, Green would slant outwards and be the edge-setter. Unfortunately, Green was caught in two minds. Arizona shifted into a nub two-back formation that would typically have seen Green line up inside of the lone tight end—but there was a pressure called in so should Green do that? He stayed wide.
Further indecision was caused by the play type. Seeing the puller, Green went inside to the C-Gap to spill the run further outside. Seattle often asks their ends to play this way against pulling action, but given the pressure Green could not afford to do this. With no edge set on run plays, disasters happen.
The result was Green getting blocked by both pullers, first pulling left guard Justin Pugh and then wing back Charles Clay. K.J. Wright desperately tried to push Green outside, but it was too late. Presumably the idea of the Norton’s call was to force the quarterback keeper from Murray into the waiting Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Wagner was lost backside, when really him flowing to the backside A-Gap would have been beneficial.
Drake cut up-field inside the panicked Wright. Supposed touchdown-saver Lano Hill, at free safety, took a horrific angle towards the ball carrier. Drake was off to the races after a play of inexperience from Green. Kingsbury, understandably, would come back to the concept.
By going into a nub formation, the offense brings the cornerback into the run fit and, if the run bounces, asks the corner to make the tackle in the hole. Akeem King should have done a better job coming down hard outside on the above play.
Seattle defended the same two-back counter run well at the beginning of the third quarter, spilling the ball to opposite cornerback Tre Flowers. The five keys? Switching from an over front to an under front, sliding their fits rather than stacking, getting a hard edge set, making sure the nub-side end tucked inside to a 4-technique, and getting the linebackers to turn back the other puller.
Kendricks, down at the line of scrimmage to the nub thanks to the under call, was a superb hammer in the fit, staying outside-in and leveraging the run to cut up after smashing the first puller in right guard J.R. Sweezy.
Bobby Wagner flowed outside well in his TAN slide fit, going to turn back the second pulling block from tight end Darrell Daniels. In 4-technique alignment, Branden Jackson took on the down block of D.J. Humphries well, filling the B-Gap without getting washed and then disengaging to the C-Gap and the run. The quasi two-gap nature of the end temporarily removed the B-Gap bubble that under leaves. Humphries got away with a hold.
Untouched, Flowers waited for Drake. The runner could only go towards the corner and Flowers had the opportunity to bring down Drake for roughly a two-yard gain. Drake’s recent emergence as a quality rusher is no fluke though, and man is he slippery. Flowers lost his outside-in leverage and was made to miss. Drake got 15 yards.
Bobby Wagner has visibly lost a step this season, part of which is scheme-inflicted. When he plays to his assignment and seems to stop worrying about the roles of others, instead doing his job, the middle linebacker is still a leading league talent at the position.
The Seahawks played the same run well, playing under once more with slide fits. Kendricks established a fierce edge against the pulling left guard Pugh. Green was the 4-technique and he shed right tackle Justin Murray with a rapid swim move into the C-Gap, closing the developing alley that could have been disaster with K.J. Wright sealed by tight end Maxx Williams.
Wagner did his job, flowing outside to turn back Daniels. Drake managed to dance past Green and inside of Wagner, who made the tackle but couldn’t stop the back from falling forward for 5 yards. Still, this was better execution from the Seahawks.
I wrote a few weeks back that Green was stopping runs from a 4-3 DE spot at an NFL-best level. Since that point, his pass-rush has started to flash more and more, as Green now leads the team in sacks with 3.5.
We’ve addressed Green’s youth and relative newness to the NFL, but it’s always important to reiterate that the 2017 third-round defensive end is still learning. It was therefore fitting that Green managed to redeem himself against the same run type he got fooled on later in the game.
Seattle again aligned in under with slide fits. Green reduced down to a 4-tech post-shift. He gap-controlled the C-Gap, tossed aside the right tackle with quickness, and on this occasion, brought the running back down for a three-yard gain. Drake was not able to slip past Green after he shed his block.
Praise goes once more to Kendricks for getting depth as the edge setter and to Wagner for flowing outside to turn back the second pull of Daniels. Under against this nub two-back formation works. More importantly than scheme, players are executing their assigned jobs.
The Seahawks are running base defense at an astronomically high level compared to the rest of the league. They’ve lined up in base personnel 68.3 percent of the time; the NFL average is 27.29 percentage. (Per PFF charting) The point of this zigging in the face of NFL-wide nickel zagging, asides from getting the best players on the field, is presumably to stop the run.
However, the 2019 stats show that it’s not working. Seattle's defensive DVOA ranks 16th in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Their opponent team yards per pass attempt is 18th best in the NFL and their opponent team yards per rush places 28th, from Team Rankings.
The pass coverage scheme of nickel versus base is largely the same, with the fifth defensive back merely slotting in for the SAM Linebacker in the playbook drawings. Yet if base isn’t helping to stop the run, what is the point? Ultimately, the failure to get close to replacing Justin Coleman after his offseason departure hurts Seattle—the sad what-could-have-been if Kalan Reed stayed healthy.
More damning for the Seahawks is that they have not solved other issues from 2018. The decision to move Jacob Martin as part of the Jadeveon Clowney deal made sense, but Seattle now lacks a bendy, speedy pass rusher that isn’t crazy raw and light like Shaquem Griffin. Meanwhile, despite the Ziggy Ansah bet making sense, it has not paid off and Seattle now has no pass rush to speak of.
Furthermore, a lack of team speed still exists as a major issue. Their inability to get dynamism onto the field consistently this campaign—sporadic Marquise Blair, slower veteran linebackers, and now-injured Quandre Diggs—is killing them. Kingsbury isn’t the only tactician who can exploit that, especially with Seattle now entering the playoffs.