I want to show you a play.
It’s from the Rams/Seahawks wild-card game this past weekend. The Seahawks are on offense, down 10, with just under two minutes left in the first half. With two timeouts left and the ball on the 25-yard line, there is plenty of time for the Seahawks to drive down the field and make this a one-possession game. They’re down, but they get the ball back to start the second half, and they have a top-five quarterback in the NFL in Russell Wilson. Everything is fine.
Here’s the play.
This is a terrible play. To see a quarterback of Wilson’s caliber make this miss is indicative of just how bad Seattle’s offense got down the stretch. Wilson and the Seahawks averaged -0.38 EPA/dropback against the Rams in the wild-card round, which was comfortably Wilson’s worst performance of the season. Wilson was held under 50% completion percentage for only the third time in four seasons as the Rams hassled him all game, getting pressure on 55% of Wilson’s dropbacks.
What happened to the Seattle offense?
How the Seattle offense got to that play requires a walk through several layers of their offensive dissolution under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, now fired in the blaze of glory that was Seattle’s one great season of letting Russ cook. The Seahawks completely flipped the script on their offensive approach this season, becoming the fifth-heaviest passing team on a neutral script after laboring for years as a run-heavy team on base downs. This after years of Wilson grading out as a high-caliber quarterback by most catch-all metrics and looking like a premier talent on film. It was a welcome change.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, their team wasn’t built with this pass-happy model in mind. Over recent drafts, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll—who, let’s remember, has final say over roster decisions—have spent Day 2 picks or better on G Damien Lewis, OC/G Ethan Pocic, RB Rashaad Penny, TE Will Dissly, and TE Colby Parkinson. With the exception of Parkinson and WR D.K. Metcalf, these early offensive investments emphasize a run-heavy approach. The major trade acquisition of OT Duane Brown and free-agent signings like OT Brandon Shell and OG Mike Iupati also serve this point: Brown, Shell, and Iupati are all better run-blockers than they are pass-protectors, much like Lewis was coming out of LSU last year.
The personnel on Schottenheimer’s roster don't want to pass. They want to run.
And when it wants to pass, it wants to do it down the field. Metcalf was a polarizing prospect in large part because his route tree was considered limited; his best usage belonged strictly on nine balls and deep comebacks. His running mate, Tyler Lockett, has delightful quickness and route-running ability, but is also predominantly used as an intermediate to deep receiver. Wilson’s intended air yards/passing attempt was sixth in the league accordingly.
But for an offense that suddenly became pass-happy, the Seahawks quickly discovered that living and dying by the deep bomb was unsustainable.
Wilson and the Seahawks kept pushing the ball downfield at largely the same rate, but their success completely tailed off.
What were defenses doing to take away the deep ball?
A fun jab to throw at Wilson is that he can’t play against two-high defensive structures: structures that have two safeties in deep coverage, like Cover 2, Cover 2 Man, and Cover 4 (quarters). Teams that flummoxed Wilson this season include the Rams (three times!), the Giants, the 49ers, and Washington… all of those defenses like to stick in two-high structures pre-snap—Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles rocking with quarters coverage, and the Giants preferring two-man. So it’s an easy joke to make.
And it’s backed by the data. Among quarterbacks this season, Wilson was 11th in EPA/dropback against single-high coverages (.15) and 27th in EPA/dropback against two-high coverages (-.05).
Those two-high looks often discourage deep passes. In order to hit Metcalf on an outside nine route, you need to beat the safety playing over the top. When there are two safeties deep, each is playing half of the field and will have an easier time getting to the sideline than one safety playing centerfield. There’s simply less ground to cover.
Accordingly, two-high defensive structures can discourage deep passing attempts—but the Seahawks and Wilson are fairly adamant that they’re going to push deep, and they have more ways to attack downfield than simply sideline shots. Because of Wilson’s ability to extend plays in the pocket, deep posts and crossers often open up late in the down. Plain old scramble plays, which Wilson always makes magical, can break safety structure and bust coverage deep.
So no matter the coverage shell, the Seahawks attacked deep. They actually saw more two-high looks in the first half of the season, when they were more successful as a deep passing team, than they saw in the back half of the year.
That’s because two-high really isn’t enough to flummox Wilson—it makes his life less convenient, but for a veteran quarterback, it’s a fly buzzing around his head. The Rams, 49ers, and Washington don’t just sit in plain ol’ Cover 2. They run match zone coverages from two-high shells, and against Seattle, they found success with that.
Let’s take the Rams’ defense as an example. Brandon Staley’s unit is perhaps the best defense in football, and it suffocates opposing passing attacks without easily recognizable names in the secondary. Beyond Jalen Ramsey, most football fans didn’t know much about Darious Williams, Jordan Fuller, John Johnson, and Troy Hill until this season.
Their secondary is successful because it hides its intentions pre-snap. The Rams line up with two deep safeties and play quarters coverage more than anyone else in the NFL, but more often than they play quarters, the Rams spin a safety down into underneath zones and run a single-high coverage, like Cover 3.
Remember, Wilson wants to throw the ball deep—and often, the deep routes you can throw are conditional on the way the safeties play. A team like the Rams constantly changes the alignments and responsibilities of their safeties. This would force Wilson to check his work post-snap, confirming which safeties had which responsibilities on any given play. As Wilson’s process slowed, it was easier for pressure to arrive, which could create sacks or errant throws on already difficult downfield passes.
So the Rams slowed Wilson down, limiting both the quantity and quality of the deep shots that he could take. This was, in fact, the theory behind Staley’s defense. No team had fewer deep passes converted on them this season, and as Staley himself said of his philosophy, “I know that the quickest way to lose is to give up explosions in the passing game. It takes a lot of 4- and 5-yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass. If you truly believe that explosions are how you lose in the NFL, you really need to start there in your philosophical structure and how you construct your defense.”
Can’t the Seahawks just run the ball?
Those four- or five-yard runs are the runs to which Pete Carroll alluded in his exit interview this year. Carroll said: “I want to see if we can run the ball more effectively to focus the play of the opponents and see if we can force them to do things like we like them to do...We need to run the ball with direction and focus and style that allows us to dictate the game. Frankly, I’d like to not play against two-deep looks all season long next year. We have to be able to get that done.”
Carroll believes that, with an effective running game, he can pull defenses out of the two-high structures that stymied Wilson this season—and perhaps he’s right. The inherent trade-off of two-high defenses like Staley’s is a simple calculation: to add another safety deep, you have to take a player out of the box. No defense lined up with fewer players in the box this year than Staley’s Rams, and yet the Seahawks weren’t able to generate enough of a ground attack to make them pay.
Of course, we know the truth: that while the Rams lined up in two-high structures pre-snap, they often ended up with a safety dropping post-snap, and that safety was a key part of the Rams’ run fits. With effective two-gapping defensive linemen like Sebastian Joseph-Day, Michael Brockers, and A’Shawn Robinson, as well as aggressive edge setters in Leonard Floyd and Samson Ebukam, the Rams excelled at stringing out runs and forcing running backs to hesitate. This delay gave the safeties time to add to the box and fill the remaining gaps.
It was, in theory, the same way that the Rams’ safety rotations forced Wilson to slow his process down. Make offensive players think, and the longer they take, the more time you have to respond to their attack.
So the Seahawks couldn’t throw it deep against the Rams, and they couldn’t run it that well, either. What was left for them?
What was left was to throw it quick. And this is where our many layers of the onion coalesce: the Seahawks’ quick game.
Russell Wilson and the quick game
Seattle isn’t built to pass the ball at volume, and they certainly aren’t built to pass it short. Metcalf is a deep specialist and Lockett is one of the more disappointing YAC receivers in the league—especially after the injury that sapped his quickness earlier this season. But when a defense plays in off alignments with their corners and multiple deep safeties, you must be able to respond by taking the space they afford you. That space is underneath.
Wilson doesn’t like to throw underneath. It doesn’t give him an opportunity to extend the play, it forces him to trust his receivers (when he’d prefer to scramble and direct them himself), and frankly speaking, it challenges his height. Short routes over the middle of the field force Wilson to throw over defensive linemen and into linebackers that he can’t see well, and such a premier playmaker as Wilson would rather take a risk on a 50-yard bomb than a five-yard rhythm slant.
Add in the fact that the Rams can still disguise their underneath zone looks with safety rotation, and you have a hesitant and fearful passer trying to fill the shoes of a decisive surgeon. Wilson has zero trust in his tight ends, who the Seahawks try to feature in the middle of the field in the three-step drop passing game, and accordingly missed them on multiple occasions against the Rams in the wild-card round.
This brings us back to our play from above: Jacob Hollister, who for some reason is taking critical snaps in a playoff game, on a sit route, between two zone defenders. This should be pitch and catch for a quarterback of Wilson’s caliber.
But it isn’t. Wilson’s drop is out of rhythm with the concept—he should be throwing this ball immediately off of his back foot on the top of the drop. The Rams defense again takes him out of rhythm, and Wilson doesn’t like to play in rhythm to begin with. He tries to lead Hollister away from the underneath defender, who Hollister has seen—but Hollister doesn’t adjust with Wilson, leading to an inaccurate pass. It’s catchable, but because Wilson was late to the throw, he allows time for the zone defender to collide with Hollister, making the difficult catch impossible.
This should be easy for Wilson, but it isn’t. And because it isn’t, the Seahawks were boxed into a corner in their offseason approach. If they wanted to continue playing as a pass-heavy team, they needed to become better in the quick game. Such a change would necessitate new acquisitions on the offensive line and a stylistic change for Wilson at quarterback. That’s a tough ask for the amount of money they’ve poured into those places.
Or they could become better at running the football. But it seemed that Schottenheimer was not on board with this approach—as Carroll said, it was a stylistic difference that led to the split—and was accordingly let go.
As is always the case, it wasn’t just one man at fault for the Seahawks’ collapse. Lockett’s health, Wilson’s obstinance, the offensive line’s deterioration, and Schottenheimer’s inability to solve all of these problems coalesced into the snowball that became Seattle’s once high-flying offense. As they turn to a new offensive coordinator search, this is the looming question that remains: can they find a consistent passing game to all three levels of the field? Or will the Seahawks offense regress back to the approaches of the mid-2010s, in which Wilson always seems like a passer deserving of more attempts, and the team always seems dedicated to scoring just enough points to win?