Wow, the Seahawks’ passing attack is popping. What is most impressive about the Seahawks’ offensive display in the first two weeks of the NFL season is their in-game improvements. These have been both schematic and execution-based. In a start where quarterback Russell Wilson has completed 82.5 percent of his passes for 610 yards and nine touchdowns, it feels perverse to describe offensive struggles.
Up in the booth, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has gone #SkySchotty and he and Wilson are adapting effectively as games progress. They are changing their best. This is how the offense managed to dominate the Falcons and Patriots so thoroughly.
When Wilson was sacked on the first play at Atlanta, worries over the offensive line naturally trembled. Even though the sack was purely based in Xs and Os, with naked protection read by up-field defenders, we had not seen the new-look line. Fear of the unknown was present.
Thankfully, the pass protection was solid. And average performance in this area is all that Wilson needs to succeed. That said, there are occasions where Wilson himself can make pass protection look worse. He has a sometimes damaging, yet often rewarding, tendency of holding onto the football too long and not taking the available yards.
Seattle attempted a nestled seam routes approach as a way of finding holes in the Atlanta zone defenses. With the Falcons disguising a Tampa 2 rotation as single-high defense, sometimes even showing man, these seams were coming open behind and outside the curl zone defenders.
In the first half, Wilson passed up the throw to an open Greg Olsen after the field curl defender and disguise forced him away from Tyler Lockett’s side. Historically, Wilson has been afraid of Cover 2 corners jumping or trapping certain routes. Here the hesitation from Wilson in throwing to Olsen was unnecessary. Wilson then held out for an even bigger play rather than throwing it to his open check down Travis Homer.
The result was a sack on the 3rd and 7. With a tuned-up method from Wilson, the Seahawks would have converted for the first down on this play.
Wilson redeemed himself in the second half of Week 1 versus even trickier disguise from Atlanta. On 2nd and 7, the Falcons showed pre-snap man coverage to Wilson, with a safety aligning outside over tight end Olsen and then moving inside with the short motion. However, the Falcons instead ran their Tampa 2 zone again.
Wilson looked to his man-beating pattern to the short-side. He soon realized he didn’t have it - the outside zone was looking inside to intercept Olsen’s out route. Wilson knew he had a zone-beating combo to the other side of the field. However, he first was forced into some pocket navigation work with both of his offensive tackles allowing varying degrees of pressure.
With Wilson moving away from the pressure to his left, he hit the nestled Lockett precisely in the soft spot of the Tampa 2 zone for the first down conversion. While it wasn’t the same nestled seams concept, the idea matched and the process from Wilson improved.
Towards the end of the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Seahawks were looking to complete a two-minute drill with a touchdown. Sadly, their drive stalled near midfield on 3rd and 6 due to a slightly imperfect play call. Wilson had previously hit Olsen on this route pattern.
However, with man coverage shown pre-snap and Seattle indeed facing a five-man pressure, Cover 1 defense during the play, Olsen’s choice-esque out route never had the leverage advantage or spacing to pick up the first down. (it presumably isn’t a “choice," given the logical option would be to break across the middle of the field against man) There’s a chance Lockett was supposed to set a pick or rub in his vertical route, but he failed.
Worse, Wilson waited for this concept to develop and the throw to Olsen missed the real opportunity against this coverage. In this passing combination, David Moore’s shallow crossing route or drag was likely only an option if Wilson had been heated up. With no six-or-greater-blitz, Moore - with so much open room and leverage advantage - was never considered.
By the time Wilson had waited to check on Olsen, Moore had reached the traffic of Deion Jones. Jones, in man coverage with Homer, was able to sit in the low hole for a while. By the time Wilson had progressed, the moment for hitting Moore had expired. Wilson was forced to escape to his left and hit the releasing Homer. Rather than picking up the first down, the Seahawks were left punting on the resulting 4th and 5.
In the second half, Schottenheimer learned. Rather than calling the above pattern, he dialed up more passing concepts where the shallow crossing route was the primary option. This ate up the Falcons’ man coverage looks. It also worked against zone too.
Take this 3rd and 7 shortly after the restart. Seattle checked into a smart protection look for handling the Falcons’ double A-gap, sugared linebackers, moving Homer into a sniffer role. This left him sliding the opposite way of the center and picking up A-gap issues to that side. The Seahawks also confirmed zone coverage and motioned into a trips look.
With the Falcons responding with trips coverage and sending pressure - albeit simulated (four-man) - the Seahawks were essentially facing man coverage on the solo side. Wilson hit the shallow crosser to Metcalf to pick up a new set of downs. The quarterback enjoyed enough of a passing window, but the work he did with his arm angle was crazy good. Be sure to credit Metcalf for his success in reaching for the first down marker too.
For all of the Atlanta game, the Falcons cornerback group was playing aggressively bold versus slant routes and Metcalf in particular.
At right corner, Isaiah Oliver was gambling on the slant to the extent of committing defensive pass interference - although the officials didn’t call it. This allowed the Falcons to get off the field in the second quarter, spoiling some intelligent Wilson pre-snap cadence and motioning which generated a true isolated matchup for Metcalf.
Meanwhile, across the field in Week 1, rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell opted mainly for off coverage where he looked to break hard on slant routes. On a 2nd and 15, this saw Terrell blanket Metcalf too, removing Wilson’s first choice after the quarterback looked to beat pre-snap-hinted man defense.
The Seahawks punished both corners later in the game. Oliver got the Metcalf go-ball medicine, with big-bodying at the line of scrimmage, then taking the best possible release inside. Seattle obviously chose the fourth down one-on-one on the backside of trips.
What made the deep shot so nice to Metcalf was how Seattle attacked the down with tempo - which suggests that the play was packaged and points towards offseason up-tempo work. Notice the official hurriedly scrambling away from the play pre-snap. Additionally, it was fun to hear from Wilson that the Seahawks decided to go for the 4th and 3 after seeing how hyped the Falcons got following the third down stop.
Terrell ‘got got’ on the exact same concept he was camping earlier in the game - except for one small change. Rather than having Metcalf run the slant, the receiver ran a beautiful “sluggo” double move. He sold the 2nd and 9 slant well. So did Wilson, who added in a brief shoulder pump before beating the blitz with the go ball.
It was nice to see the Seahawks passing late to drain the clock. Schottenheimer didn’t get into a run, run, pass mindset which would have resulted in punts. This “sluggo” was the perfect game-killing call with Seattle leading 31-18, needing to drain just over six minutes, all while being "supported" by a porous pass defense.
Metcalf recovering to dominance from his disappointing deep drop was encouraging.
Vertical Running Backs
The Patriots ran more zone coverage than the Seahawks would have expected them to do, presumably in an attempt to get Wilson off-schedule and uncomfortable. Whether the coverage was man or zone, the structure of New England’s defensive front and game plan regularly left the edge defenders responsible for the running back if he were to release from the backfield.
Midway through the first quarter, the issues with this approach were visible inside the red zone. Schottenheimer called a jet motion play action that flooded the wide side of the field with four receiving threats. The motion of David Moore also told Wilson that he was getting zone coverage.
The Patriots barely adjusted to the number threat, staying in their match quarters coverage that enabled them to double the now-isolated DK Metcalf vertical. This left outside linebacker John Simon dropping with Chris Carson’s wheel route. Simon did not run downfield with the vertical release, zoning off. Meanwhile, the safety who could have capped this vertical tube had already been occupied by Olsen’s seam route further inside on the hash.
Carson was wide open for a touchdown. However, Wilson - possibly scared of the outside cornerback looking in and jumping this, decided to check the football down to Moore in the flats. A large part of Wilson’s success is his ability to avoid bad plays with safe decision making, but this was an opportunity missed.
The Patriots’ man coverage effectiveness is often paired with Cover 1 or Cover 0 blitzing. This caused some issues for Seattle’s protection, particularly when New England was able to stand a lot of defenders up and get into their Amoeba fronts. The Patriots were especially keen on sending faster players, like defensive backs, at Wilson due to his elusiveness.
For the most part, though, the Seahawks had suitable answers for the above. The 3rd and 6 conversion to Tyler Lockett in the fourth quarter was fantastic. Firstly, Schottenheimer put a trips bunch formation out there that made man coverage trickier for New England. The Patriots went for a stab-n-deuce or cross check, placing Jonathan Jones over the inner-most receiver in the trio, Tyler Lockett.
Wilson could see the lack of a safety pre-snap and knew he was getting Cover 0. Lockett’s shallow crossing route had the leverage advantage over the matchup with Jones and tons of open space behind the blitzers in the open middle of the field.
Homer stoned the first blitzer coming clean from the offensive line, Devin McCourty. Wilson knew he was throwing this ball to Lockett, but needed to give him time to get across the field. He then lofted a beautiful, in-stride throw off his back foot to the receiver for the first down.
Two plays later, Seattle baited the shallow cross throw again - something they’d loved throughout the game - and scored a touchdown to a vertical releasing running back. This was Schottenheimer recognizing in-game weaknesses of New England and combining them for a great call just inside the red zone.
Pre-snap, Wilson was told by his nub formation that he was getting zone coverage—with a cornerback, safety, and linebacker over his two tight ends. It looked like Cover 3 given the single-high safety. Post-snap was a different story though. The Patriots blitzed and ran man coverage behind it.
What New England would not have expected is for the Seahawks to release their running back and send him in on a vertical route. Adrian Phillips was certainly surprised. One minute Phillips was blitzing Wilson. The next he was peeling as his assignment dictated for Carson. Phillips, though, was blazed past by Carson’s speed on the running back scissor/7 route. Carson going deep wasn’t accounted for.
On the back end, the Patriots in-and-outed the duo of tight ends and ran Cover 0 with a spy for Wilson’s legs. Will Dissly’s deep dig route was locked onto by the outside responsible defensive back, McCourty. The shallow route from Olsen was a cunning decoy that forced the other defensive back, Jones, to aggressively come down from his position and attack the middle of the field.
As soon as Wilson saw Jones’ reaction to the shallow route, he progressed his read to Carson and lofted a delightful touchdown. Wilson hit his open back this time. Carson looked awkward running with his arms out-stretched, but the back did a nice job tracking the ball with his inside eye to his outside arm for the over-the-shoulder snag.
Metcalf’s bullying of 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephan Gilmore was particularly entertaining. Gilmore played well. It’s just that Metcalf is bigger, faster, and stronger. The Sunday Night Football team put together a fun highlight reel of Metcalf bullying Gilmore in run blocking reps which exemplified the physical mismatch that Metcalf represents even against the NFL’s best.
It should be said that Seattle is entering games with intelligent offensive game plans. For instance, Freddie Swain’s shallow cross touchdown, where they broke New England’s system for counting receivers for defenders to matchup with in man coverage by aligning Lockett in a 3-point stance in the backfield. Or the pick routes and condensed formations to separate in short-yardage or third down man situations.
The Seahawks, and Schottenheimer, are adjusting in-game to the looks they get though. It was unknown how exactly the Patriots would play Metcalf. Bill Belichick mainly doubles the No. 2 receiver and sticks his best corner on the No. 1 receiver. That said, with Lockett being Wilson’s favorite target in a number of situations, in the case of Seattle working out a defensive strategy along those lines isn’t as simple.
New England mixed it up a fair bit. They sometimes doubled Metcalf, but Gilmore always followed him, and sometimes Gilmore was left on an island with the powerful receiver. What the Seahawks would have known heading into the encounter was how New England plays man coverage one-on-one with no brackets.
Gilmore was shown a ton of looks where Metcalf was thrown the ball underneath, with Seattle establishing that they were willing to attack the short-to-intermediate stuff when Metcalf was left in a clear one-on-one, regardless of whether he was up against the shutdown corner or not.
Just one minute after that slant catch from Metcalf against Gilmore came the play. Seattle wasn't content with merely working Gilmore underneath. They desired humiliation and touchdowns.
Pre-snap work of Carlos Hyde shifting out wide told Wilson he had man coverage - Cover 1 given the single-high safety. Spreading the defense out also helped the pass protection identify possible blitzers and the offense knew it was likely facing a four-man rush.
The ball was snapped and Metcalf, aligned in the slot, exploded off the line of scrimmage. Gilmore’s defensive back dividers told him to align with outside leverage on this route and flatten any vertical release to his deep free safety, defending the slot fade first and foremost.
Yet Metcalf was running across the field and the route distribution looked just like Y-cross or similar deep crossing concepts. The Seahawks love these kinds of routes and called stop-variations of them in this game too.
Naturally, Gilmore moved to undercut Metcalf’s deep crossing route. After all, Metcalf is a very fast player and Gilmore needed to gain leverage on the route across the field. He also needed to become the underneath player in the coverage, with his safety helping over the top. That’s how the corner gets so many interceptions. Here, Gilmore was doing everything right, everything that has seen him receive the highest NFL honors.
Except Metcalf then established himself as one of the most dominant receivers in the league. After feeling Gilmore begin his cut-off move, Metcalf broke upwards, stacking Gilmore, and then cut towards the pylon on the flag route. Gilmore recovered as well as any defender could in this situation. But Metcalf in this position is just too fast and too big.
The chip protection from Hyde on Chase Winovich actually ended up with Duane Brown getting beat - chip pro is bad if you ask me - but Wilson had just enough time to deliver the football to Metcalf. The trajectory of the deep throw was typically perfect from Wilson. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Metcalf snagged the bucket catch. A helpless Gilmore flopped down, defeated, and Metcalf strolled in.
The fact that the Seahawks have only completed one true deep play action shot in the first two games shows that there is still stuff for the offense to work on. However, this is also evidence of how good - relatively - the pass protection has been. The attack has been able to get so much done with straight drop backs.
The growth of the offense throughout the game - from play caller to passer - left both opponents with no chance. Atlanta may turn out to be a poor defense and New England though renowned, has been impacted by COVID opt-outs. Caution applied: if Seattle’s attack can continue this trend of in-game development, there’s no reason why Russell Wilson can’t be cooking all season. Yum.