Jimmy Garoppolo Lost in the Seahawks' Cover 3 and Cover 6 Kaleidoscope
Matty F. Brown
The Seahawks forced three turnovers in their Monday Night Football victory over the 49ers, four if you include the failed fourth down attempt from Kyle Shanahan. Quarterback is the hardest position in the sport to hide. If a QB is playing poorly, it’s painfully obvious to all. That was the case on Monday, with the nation questioning the ability of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a man who looked increasingly beleaguered as the game developed.
Garoppolo’s interception was not his fault. Quandre Diggs, the Seam 2/Hot 2 defender, was beat in his matching assignment by Kendrick Bourne’s out route. Fortunately for Diggs, Bourne could not haul in the pass from Garoppolo. Diggs received a gift-wrapped pick in his first start for the Seahawks, doing well to track the tipped football. The play should have been blitz-beating for San Francisco.
However, Garoppolo can be blamed for his two fumbles - not just because of careless ball carrying either. The 28-year old was flummoxed by the Seahawks holding a pre-snap two-high safety shell for most of the game, not knowing whether the middle of the field was open or closed. Was the pass coverage Cover 3 Buzz or Cover 6 or Cover 2 or Cover 4? Garoppolo was lost in the kaleidoscope, panicked and confused.
Shanahan tried to give him help too. Pre-snap coverage identification came in the form of a motion to empty on the first fumble. Seattle blew their coverage as a result, with Mychal Kendricks not blitzing when he should have. The impact was Kendricks covering an unrequired patch of grass and the rest of the underneath zone defenders playing “hot” techniques—more aggressive matching coverage that assumes pressure is taking place.
The 49ers’ route concept meant that the Seahawks avoided catastrophe. Seattle got lucky, with Quandre Diggs’ Rita (Right Inside) rotation down to his “Hot to 3” technique perfect for getting underneath the deep dig concept from the bunch. Diggs did well to ‘feel’ the dig of Dante Pettis, denying the window.
Garoppolo had a muddied read. With the Seahawks only sending four but playing far more aggressive underneath coverage, to the quarterback the “hot” defenders' technique looked more like a middle of the field open pass defense. Both the spot and dig routes were removed. Then the protection clock ran out.
Up front, even without the assigned fifth rusher, Seattle’s “Tom” game came good. It was run between heavy 3-technique (outside shoulder of guard) Jarran Reed and nose tackle Poona Ford. Reed went first, slanting inside to the A-gap. Ford then went behind him, looping to the vacated B-gap.
San Francisco’s backup center Ben Garland struggled, beat by the quickness of Reed inside. Laken Tomlinson at left guard tried to hold Reed up and pass it off to Garland, but it was hopeless. Garoppolo only had time to briefly peak at his passing concept before Reed came careering into him. The ball security was poor from the quarterback and the football was knocked free for Jadeveon Clowney to sweep up and run in for a much-needed touchdown.
This was the game where Reed appeared to shake off his suspension rust. “For sure, J Reed helped us,” said Carroll on Tuesday. It was Reed’s presence, a combination of power and quickness, that helped spring Clowney free in the rush game. The spacing of the quarterback hunters was far better, though Clowney was the clear standout.
“Clowney was the guy that really was the key to it all,” Carroll summarized.
The second time Garoppolo was stripped, he clearly expected Diggs to rotate down inside again. The signal caller knew that the coverage was zone after the motion of tight end Ross Dwelley, across the formation and then into the backfield, was unfollowed. Yet Garoppolo was clearly thinking Cover 3 Buzz was happening. Wrong.
Instead, Diggs played a deep quarter zone in Seattle’s Cover 6. (Quarter, Quarter, Half) Maybe Garoppolo was also influenced by Diggs’ earlier interception or big hits, but there was zero reason for him not to throw the ball to the open, nestled dig of the open Kendrick Bourne.
"The safety game was the best we’ve seen it all year, I thought that was the best game that our safeties have played,” Carroll reflected on Tuesday.
This is a clear example of a quarterback not trusting what his eyes are seeing. Middle of the field closed was actually middle of the field open. Yet Garoppolo didn't believe he could make this throw into the open area. It was a passer standing back there, behind a patchy offensive line, in the face of a dominant, elite Clowney.
Garoppolo, finally processing he was getting a middle of the field open defense, decided to progress to the backside of the concept, looking to the corner route of the isolated receiver Pettis. This, in most circumstances, would have been the perfect honey hole-beater for the pass coverage, run in between the half zone and the cloud cornerback. Yet Shaquill Griffin, in his cloud, was superb in getting underneath this route and tightening the window for Garoppolo.
This, once more, gave Seattle's rush time to get home.
"It was good to see our guys work together with the pass rush,” Carroll said of the coverage.
Clowney is at his best bullying sub-par offensive tackles with his power and quickness. Here, right tackle Mike McGlinchey was murdered by Clowney’s talent. Clowney, after pushing McGlinchey back into Garoppolo, managed to get an arm free to poke the ball loose.
Garoppolo almost threw an interception to Bobby Wagner with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter, not expecting him to take his hook across the field. Yet the eventually game-tying drive started, three plays before, with the passer again misreading Cover 6, expecting K.J. Wright to buzz outside.
“Really Bobby and K.J. could have iced it at the end,” Carroll told reporters on Tuesday. Wright’s drop was terrible.
Garoppolo was given a five-year, $137.5 million deal by general manager John Lynch in February 2018. For the 2019 season, he is taking up 8.36 percent of the 49ers cap. San Francisco faces a momentous decision this coming offseason, where they can cut Garoppolo and have just $4.2 million in dead cap money.
The 49ers starting quarterback was totally flustered by what Seattle was doing on defense, particularly when the offense got into more obvious passing situations and Garoppolo was left without the help of play action or run-pass Option. These next seven games for San Francisco, and presumably the postseason, will be huge in evaluating whether he is worth keeping around. Their schedule gets tough:
· Week 11 at Cardinals
· Week 12 vs. Packers
· Week 13 at Ravens
· Week 14 at Saints
· Week 15 vs. Falcons
· Week 16 vs. Rams
· Week 17 at Seahawks
Previous 49ers wins have come over mediocre to terrible teams, including the Buccaneers, the Bengals, and the Steelers. Just two of their victories came against teams with winning records.
Circling back to a Seattle perspective, this was the first time that an opposing quarterback has been stalled by their two-high safety rotations. The pass rush was given extra time to get home and ramp up pressure by the quarterback hesitation the back-end caused. Combined with the fantastic work from the defensive line in stopping the run game, with various stunts wreaking lateral movement havoc, San Francisco’s offense stalled.
The 49ers’ 21 personnel, quarterback and schematic approach allowed for the Seahawks’ 6-1 looks to get it done, plus Kyle Shanahan didn’t play all of his cards. In 2018, it was the second game where Shanahan brought the scheme-beaters. Perhaps we’ll see a repeat of that trend in Week 17, as post-wheel would have been effective last Monday. For now, this success for the Seahawks defense is questionable in its sustainability. Seattle could finally be heating up though.