The Seahawks defense is playing quality football and recently managed to show this versus a better opponent in the Green Bay Packers offense. One way of highlighting the improved performances of Seattle’s defense is explosive plays.
Pete Carroll first talked about these explosives when Mike Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle asked the head coach what’s changed with the Seahawks defense. “Explosive plays has really come way down,” Carroll said on Monday. “We went into this game fourth in the league in fewest explosive plays. That’s a big standing, you know?”
Seattle’s entire defensive philosophy is built around not allowing the explosive play. Generally speaking, they want to force the checkdown underneath and then swarm to the football, limiting the gain. The Seahawks’ definition of an explosive play is a run of 12 yards or more and a pass of 16 yards or more.
The earliest record of this metric goes back to Carroll’s time at USC and March 2008, where Rocky Seto - then USC secondary coach, once Seattle assistant head coach and now a full-time pastor - gave an on-campus presentation titled USC Secondary Play. The outlined keys still guide the essence of Carroll’s defense.
“3 MAIN PRINCIPLES OF USC SECONDARY PLAY
#1 ELIMINATE GIVING UP THE BIG PLAY
#2 OUT HIT THE OPPONENT ON ALL PLAYS
#3 GET THE BALL. EITHER STRIP THE BALL OR MAKE THE INTERCEPTION WHEN IN POSITION.
#1 ELIMINATE THE BIG PLAY
Giving up big plays will cost you the game in either the pass or run department.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT DEFENSE. EVERY SCHEME, EITHER MAN OR ZONE OR COMBINATION HAS WEAK POINTS.
USC CHOOSES to defend the middle third in particular and that is what all incoming freshman secondary players must learn to do well. A recent unpublished NFL study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome.
Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive and the opposition will score over 75 percent of the time for the period studied. Conversely, if the defense limits the opposition to three big plays in the game or less, the offense will only generate 8.6 points per game on average.
Sorry math and stat phobes, USC coaches both track and hang their hat on this notion, and it is the #1 base principle for secondary play. USC annually leads the Pac-10 in not allowing big plays on defense.”
Returning to present day Seahawks defense shows the improvement in removing explosives. Here’s how the explosives have occurred over the first nine games of the 2021 season:
- Game 1 at Colts: 4 explosives (last 1 a garbage time check down)
- Game 2 vs. Titans: 8 explosives
- Game 3 at Vikings: 10 explosives
- Game 4 at 49ers: 6 explosives
- Game 5 vs. Rams: 13 explosives
- Game 6 at Steelers: 2 explosives
- Game 7 vs. Saints: 4 explosives
- Game 8 vs. Jaguars: 1 explosive
- Game 9 at Packers: 5 explosives
“Now, they had a few yesterday and they made some stuff happen to us, so we weren’t quite as good as we’ve been,” Carroll admitted to Salk of the five Packers explosives. The Seahawks defensive resurgence is thanks to their defenders better executing the calls, with accomplished layering of the disguise that goes into each design. Furthermore, Ken Norton Jr is scheming intelligently. Nonetheless, Seattle can still improve and studying Green Bay’s five plays (all passes of 16 yards or greater) gives lessons in the exact areas.
Not much can be taken from the opening explosive. Seattle mugged its front, walked their safeties, with both remaining high, around, and they showed pressed corners on the 3rd and 7. Eventually the dime + Seahawks rotated Jamal Adams down into a Cover 3 sky weak simulated pressure that dropped Carlos Dunlap into the strong hook and got Ryan Neal on the running back. D.J. Reed on the single side of the coverage just happened to slip when looking to kick back and transition with the go ball.
This was a frustrating play for the Seahawks to allow, because it’s a concept that they have experienced repeated issues trying to defend in multiple coverages: the dreaded dagger. The sad reality of Bobby Wagner’s play this season is that Wagner is slow and aging.
Even with the head up nose tackle and Seattle’s stick (bear) front, Wagner attacked aggressively downhill with the run fake. Then, rather than getting depth in the strong hook of Seattle’s Cover 3 buzz weak, Wagner went to the back releasing.
Ultimately, Wagner is a few steps behind certain plays and he is forced to play with less patience due to his declining mobility. Here, the ball was thrown over his head to the in-cut and the space where a traditional strong hook player in Cover 3 is supposed to be. Thankfully, the Seahawks have run a new coverage called “cleo” that takes the stress off Wagner versus the dagger concept while better leveraging the rest of the coverage horizontally and vertically - although “cleo” is more applicable to lighter personnel formations.
These last three explosives are frustratingly all-too-familiar, yet, thankfully, much more actionable for the Seahawks defense. Running back screens and dump offs went for big yardage once more. Second-year linebacker Jordyn Brooks was the player at fault for the third explosive.
“I need him to see a few more screen passes, you know and eyeball a couple of those for us and help us out,” Carroll reflected on Monday.
Brooks was on the weakside of Seattle’s matching Cover 2 defense. He got linear depth in his curl zone drop, aware of the running back who was his major threat in the coverage. However, Brooks was looked off by Aaron Rodgers to the trips side, seeing him continue to get depth and narrow. Brooks did not see the climbing left guard until it was too late. Though he set an edge to turn the runner inside, the gain was already going to be large with Wagner run off in his matching of the detached No. 3 receiver.
Seattle was in an overload line that put the B-Gap bubble to Jordyn Brooks. Play-side defensive end Rasheem Green had the left tackle deep pass set him. Meanwhile, Bryan Mone at head up nose tackle received a pass-set from the center and was released in a slow way, preventing him from pursuing outside (read borderline holding). In short, the defensive line could not do much to prevent this design.
This is an obvious issue that Seattle is aware of. Bobby Wagner’s Wednesday answer on what Brooks can do to improve in this area mentioned the above formation (3x1) as an indicator for the weak to be alert for a screen pass.
“A lot of those plays comes with experience, comes with time, and just understanding that, whenever you’re in like a trips formation or if there’s three people to the field, often times that backside is where, you know, you’ll get your screens,” Wagner told reporters.
“So whoever’s on that backside, which tends to be Jordyn sometimes. Or it can be myself, it could be Jamal, it can be anybody, depending on the coverage, it’s just understanding that’s when they decide to do it because you have all your players on this side, you have everybody running up, and so that whole side loses, you kinda lose that whole side. So whoever’s on that side gotta see, you know, that play. And so I think it just comes with time and experience. You know K.J. didn’t come in as the screen master, he developed and turned into that.”
Carroll agreed that Brooks’ play versus screen concepts, and his consistency in general, will only improve with increased exposure to NFL offenses.
“He just has to stay out there and just keep gaining more ground so that plays like screens, and kinda the off shoot tempo plays are things that he becomes familiar with and can take advantage of his ability,” Carroll said on Monday. “Because sometimes he misses his opportunities, it’s not always going to be like that. And he’s going to be really tough to deal with as he continues to you know gain his experience.”
On Wednesday, Carroll reemphasized the importance of experience when defending screen concepts.
"There’s probably been players that might have a knack for, you know [defending screens], because of their upbringing and their exposure and all that,” he said. “You know K.J. always was a little bit ahead of everybody in terms of awareness and all that. But this is just something, it’s experience, that he just needs to see stuff more, you know he needs to feel the pain a little bit, you know? We got beat a couple of times and stuff that we could play better.”
Brooks has a clear understanding and plan for improving his play versus screens. Jordyn Brooks Wednesday on screens.
"It’s just about having eyes for it,” the linebacker reflected mid-week. “Kinda watching the running back’s mannerisms. Different teams, different running backs they kinda do different things. And so any time you kinda see the running back and the center going to the same side, that’s a big indicator for screen. Hand gestures. All types of things that they do. They’ll let you know, tendencies, that it’s a screen coming. So that’s what I mean, just being more alert for those types of things. And get there and make the play.”
Brooks may even have called former Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright for advice on defending the plays.
“Yeah, KJ’s the screen master,” Brooks said. “And so I’m trying to get there and I might give him a call this week, maybe he can give some tips. But K.J.’s the screen master for sure, in his time here, and so. You know, they’ve given us a screen cutup tape, I’m gonna study that all week, maybe even go back and watch some of the screens that K.J. had his time here and just try to pick up on what he picked up on. And get better in that area in my game.”
Carroll made sure to add on Wednesday that other defenders can play the screen designs better too, not just Brooks: “He’s not the only one, you know? D-linemen get a chance to feel that, outside ‘backers and safeties get a chance to feel thoseplays too.”
The fourth explosive allowed by the Seahawks defense is an example of this. Seattle dropped eight defenders into Cover 3 pass defense via their nickel bear front “falcon.” Jamal Adams in the deep hook was busy looking with Aaron Rodgers’ eyes for crossing routes to the field. Bobby Wagner in the low hook gained depth with Rodgers’ eyes. Meanwhile, Brooks in his buzz, curl-flat zone received a wheel route and so matched it like his usual assignment would dictate.
Up front, Rasheem Green’s contain pass rush sensed things were too easy and almost made a play on the ball, instead setting an edge versus the screen. However, none of the coverage players who could have sensed the play did, so the screen hit big once more.
“We just have to see it,” Wagner evaluated on Wednesday. “You know sometimes they’re catching us in coverages where, you know, they’re running us off. And so we just have to have better eyes and, you know, react a little bit faster and understand that that’s an area that they’re gonna find their spots. And so, you know, watching more film on it as a group and putting this fire out.”
The fifth and final explosive play allowed was Brooks making an uncharacteristic error.
"He missed his tackle on the perimeter on a big play for those guys that he generally makes,” Carroll assessed Monday.
The linebacker aligned in an “up” position, mugging the A-Gap before dropping out into the strong hook of cover 3. With the Packers in a 2x2 formation, Brooks needed to be aware pre-snap that down Adams would match a second seam. Therefore, with the outside underneath zone coverage of Adams run off, Brooks needed to be alert for throws to the flat. And Brooks was, getting to the checkdown. He just happened to miss the tackle. And really, the tired attempts downfield from the defense reflect the heavily skewed time of possession figures. This was an exhausted defense.