All 22 Review: How Seahawks' Man Coverage Failed vs. Packers on Third Down
Matty F. Brown
As it so often seems to be when Pete Carroll’s Seahawks lose, last Sunday in Green Bay was a microcosm of the team’s issues, a perfect summary of what was wrong with the 2019 program. Weird game management moment? Check. Slow-starting offense? Check. Bad defense? Check.
It’s the defensive issues that this article will look at, specifically the inability of Ken Norton Jr.’s unit to get off the field on third down. The Packers were able to convert 9 of 14 third down attempts for a 64 percent conversion rate. Most galling was how many third and long, clear-cut passing situations the Seahawks defense failed on.
“Yeah, they were really great on third down, we stunk,” Carroll admitted post-game. “We couldn’t get off the field on third down unfortunately.”
So what did the Seahawks attempt to do on those passing downs from a schematic standpoint? And what went wrong?
First Quarter - 12:51, 3rd and 8
It’s obvious to all that Davante Adams is the big threat in Green Bay’s attack. Bracketing him therefore made sense - Carroll described it as “a big part of the game plan.” Norton Jr. had previously unfurled similar coverage against the Vikings in 2018, with each of the two-high safeties assigned with double covering Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs. In Wisconsin, Adams finished the game with 160 receiving yards and two touchdowns off just eight receptions, suggesting that Seattle’s plan capitulated.
When the Seahawks double-covered Adams, it worked in one aspect - it stopped Aaron Rodgers hitting his best target. However, as Rodgers’ 15 yards per completion and nine yards per attempt is testament to, the issue was the one-on-one matchups that assigning two players to Adams left as a result.
Early in the game, Quandre Diggs attempted to sell his coverage as though he was cutting any shallow routes from deep - as the Seahawks had done successfully in 2019 - and then turned his back to bracket Adams.
As soon as Rodgers saw this, he thought middle of field. The pre-snap shift of Jimmy Graham given to him by coach Matt LaFleur told him he was facing some type of man, as it was followed across the formation by safety Bradley McDougald. Meanwhile, nickel cornerback Ugo Amadi remained in press coverage on the slot.
The tight split between Rodgers’ No. 2 and No. 3 receivers gave the quarterback a natural rub. McDougald, in man coverage on Graham, had to work around the traffic of the deeper dig route from Geronimo Allison. The Packers’ drive concept generated total separation, with McDougald’s 4.7 40-yard dash speed showing up too. Graham picked up 13 yards on his slant and the first down.
First Quarter - 10:42, 3rd and 7
After the defeat, Carroll was - not for the first time - left bemoaning a lack of pressure.
“We needed a little bit more pressure, to compliment,” Carroll reflected on Seattle's third down problems. “He got to hold the ball just for a second enough to make the great plays that he made.”
Trying Jadeveon Clowney at a spinner role, sending him through the A-Gap like they did in Houston, was one way to attempt to get pressure. It ended up being part of a six-man blitz, with K.J. Wright going after Rodgers as a green dog.
Tre Flowers, wrecked by Adams throughout the game, was in a one-on-one over the receiver with deep middle of field help due to the blitz. The Packers’ nub trips formation told Rodgers that he was facing man-to-man, due to a safety being over the nub tight end and Shaquill Griffin coming over to the other side of the field to play the No. 3 receiver.
Rodgers still had the time to get the football out on the 3rd and 7. Green Bay’s concept was able to fully develop and the blitz did not get home in time. Seattle had clearly prioritized the “Dragon," slant-flat concept as a point of emphasis for their game plan. It’s a timing pattern that Rodgers loves to hit. The Seahawks will play their coverage more aggressively to certain stuff, which they umbrella as “indicators.”
Flowers read Adams’ route as a slant. As Flowers broke inside to cover that route, Adams stuck his foot in the ground and burst back outside on a vertical route to the back corner of the end zone. Amadi at nickel was totally confused as to what route to cover also, with a potential “switch” call happening before the pair of defensive backs realized their errors.
Flowers and Amadi were not helped by both of them being up at the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Aligning with the same cushion as the man next to you is a clear indicator of poor preparation and coaching. It increases the chances of the defensive backs running into each other and the depths must be staggered.
Diggs, firmly protecting the post, was unable to gamble on the open Adams route. Plus, he was held by the angle route, the fake “flat” element, from Allison over the middle. This was a catastrophic blitz-beater, one that required more savvy from Flowers to recognize that a slant-flat call was unlikely given the down and distance.
“They ran some good stuff at him, against a really good player too,” Carroll responded when asked about Flowers’ play.
Fourth Quarter - 9:19, 3rd and 10
Context is always important. Prior to this 3rd and 10, Flowers had recently been beat on a beautiful over-to-out, bang eight route from Davante Adams for a long touchdown that toasted free safety Quandre Diggs too.
Here, Rodgers once more knew he was facing man after a pre-snap shift of Allison from No. 1 receiver to No. 2 receiver was followed by Flowers inside. Flowers is better up at the line of scrimmage where he can use his length to disrupt a receiver. Yet that was not feasible with Amadi up in press at the line of scrimmage. (Remember: stagger the depths to avoid friendly fire collision)
Flowers maintained his outside leverage on Allison and broke well on the crossing route, exhibiting an efficient economy of footwork throughout the route. Flowers had no underneath coverage to help him. The six-man Seahawks blitz did not get to Rodgers in time.
The quarterback made the perfect throw, exploiting the over-the-top, outside leverage of Flowers and the available space by throwing it low and away. Allison dove for the catch, picking up 11 yards plus the first down. This can be logged as sound offensive execution. It happens.
Fourth Quarter - 2:19, 3rd and 8
In his end-of-season presser, Carroll was mournful about how the game ended, saying, “We needed to close it out on defense, we had one sequence and then we another sequence, to do it again, to give us the ball back to go win, and we didn’t get it done, really because of just a couple of plays in there.”
The first opportunity to give the football back to the offense was surrendered on a slight variation to Seattle’s man coverage. Diggs was used to man up on the running back and the Seahawks sent five to go hunt Rodgers. The quarterback knew he was getting man because a safety followed the pre-snap tight end shift. Clearly tired of Adams eviscerating Flowers, Seattle opted for the quickness of Amadi to match-up with the receiver one-on-one.
Adams reset the line of scrimmage well with his release, creating more room to the sideline. Yet Amadi stayed over the top well and was in-phase. Then he lost the route, taking too long to turn and break downfield.
“He’s gotta try and cover that route too, in a one-on-one situation we don’t just give them up, but they hit it just right,” assessed Carroll.
At deep safety, Lano Hill had an opportunity to make a break on this. Yet Hill was breaking on the throw of Rodgers and lacks the speed to get to the numbers when employing this level of caution. If Hill had anticipated this better, he could have made the play.
“Lano had a shot, you know, getting the ball and robbing it, because nothing else came up field and all, but he didn’t,” Carroll explained. Adams hauled in the 32-yarder uncontested.
Fourth Quarter - 2:00, 3rd and 9
After Adams punished Seattle and they were left with just one more shot at staying alive in the playoffs, the Seahawks went back to a bracket coverage. They still got beat, a true case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Rather than being a bracket coverage disguised as two-man under pre-snap, the Seahawks showed a one-high, middle of field closed look. Then, as the play developed, Diggs vacated the post and double-teamed Adams on the sideline. They eventually sent six, with Clowney as the green dog rusher.
“I think the last one that he had, you know I had one more second, I feel like I could have sacked him,” Bobby Wagner told reporters while reflecting on the play. “He [Rodgers] was just doing a good job of finding the route that he wanted and getting the ball out of his hands.”
For the final time, Rodgers was certain pre-snap that Seattle was running man coverage. Once more, Graham’s pre-snap shift was followed by a safety - on this occasion it was Hill. Rodgers was able to find Graham on the shallow route, another instance of hitting the drive concept.
The cushion from Hill to Graham was almost 10 yards. Rather than the traffic of the deeper dig route being an issue, as it was for McDougald, this season-ending completion was aided by Hill’s hesitant break that was hampered by a false step. This play should never have been allowed to come down to a controversial spot.
Raw as he may be, Marquise Blair’s athletic ability was sorely missed as a matchup defender with the rookie missing the game with an ankle injury.
“We didn’t win on one-on-ones,” Carroll summarized of the third down coverage. “You know, most of those were one-on-one wins.”
It all comes down to talent and speed, two desirables the Seahawks defense was left craving in this defeat. Injury is partially to blame.
Green Bay was in some ways a Catch-22 situation. The Seahawks attempted to get pressure, but they couldn’t get there in time. Seattle couldn’t handle Adams in one-on-one coverage. Consequently, the Seahawks tried to bracket him and Graham was a mismatch on the one-on-one against Hill or McDougald.
As Wagner stated afterwards, “If we would have did better on third downs, the game would have been better.” Seattle simply couldn’t get it done.
The above dilemma that Norton and Carroll faced is easy to empathize with. The desire to send more than four than four defenders after Rodgers is also understandable given the pass rush issues. The numbers were dismal: Seattle finished the regular season ranked 31st in pressure rate and 31st in sack rate according to Sports Info Solutions.
With that said, though it was a small sample size, the Seahawks were better when they got out of man coverage and played zone defense with a four-man rush.
- First Quarter - 7:13, 3rd and 9
- Cover 2 (zone, four-man rush) with overload line results in pressured incomplete pass from Rodgers.
- First Quarter - 3:05, 3rd and 12
- Cover 2 (zone, four-man rush) forces check down from Rodgers to Jamal Williams for nine yards and leads to a punt.
- Fourth Quarter - 4:15 , 3rd and 4
- Cover 3 (zone, four-man rush) to empty, Wagner drops potential pick-six against slant-flat concept.
- Fourth Quarter - 6:27, 3rd and 9
- Cover 2 simulation pressure (zone, four-man rush) results in sack by Shaquem Griffin and Shaquill Griffin.
Moreover, Seattle was giving up man-to-man completions in areas where a low-hole defender, a rat, would have been invaluable. Wagner excels at this assignment. The relative failure to adapt was disappointing. The predictability was shocking. And unfortunately, that brings us back to troubling themes of losses with Carroll at the helm, a frustratingly microcosmic representation of this year's team and an area that must improve in 2020.