Film review: Defenders must 'do their job' against Ravens-esque Seattle offense
Stop the Beast
Make no mistake, the Seattle offense is built around it's bulldozer of a franchise back. The Hawks ran 525 times in the regular season, more than anyone but Houston, and their 454 passing attempts ranked dead last in the league. Seattle was one of only five teams to run more than they threw in 2014, and only the quarterback-less Browns ran on a higher percentage of offensive snaps than Seattle's 53.62%.
Of course, building around the running game is an easy decision when you have a skittles-fueled, crotch-grabbing, tackle-breaking beast in the backfield. All Marshawn Lynch did this year was average 4.7 yards per carry while leading the league in yards after contact (3 ypc) and missed tackles forced (88, 21 more than second-place finisher DeMarco Murray). Lynch's hard-nosed running style makes him a bull on the goal line, as evidenced by his 13 rushing touchdowns, but he also has enough explosive quickness and footwork to make smaller players miss in the open field.
How do you stop a player like that? If the film from the Pats 2012 game is to be believed, the key is disrupting his rushing lanes early, with aggressive linebacker play and gang-tackling to make sure he goes down. The Pats effectively shut Lynch down in that game, with the Beast held to just 41 yards on his 15 carries (2.7 yards per carry), thanks largely to excellent downhill play from linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Even against that swarming defensive performance, an impressive 36 of Lynch's 41 yards came after contact.
The Patriots have one of the best tackling secondaries in football, but even they will be in trouble if Lynch is able to regularly get speed going into the defensive backfield. Slowing Lynch's momentum early is crucial and linebacker play is key to making sure Lynch doesn't get lose. Whether it be from reading plays and attacking gaps....
or shedding reach blocks, as Jerod Mayo does here to limit this 2012 play to a gain of three...
...linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins need to be active and disruptive to have any hope of stopping this Seattle running game. The Pats also need big defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch (who started and played 60 snaps for the Hawks in that 2012 game) to play their best and win the line of scrimmage, congesting things up the middle for the beast.
Much like the Ravens, Seattle is predominantly a zone running team. For those unfamiliar with the concept, "zone blocking" generally has all its blockers flow towards the direction of the play (left or right). Linemen are coached to seal their man off from the sidelines if possible, and if not, to drive him hard towards the sideline. Those without a man flow to the next defender playside, doubling that man and freeing up his blocker to slide off and pick off a linebacker or safety at the second level. The job of the running back is simply to read how the defense plays it, with creases often available either due to second level blocking or defensive overpursuit.
When run well, zone blocking has a long history of success at the NFL level. The concept first rose to NFL prominence with the 90s Broncos, who turned Terrell Davis into a superstar in that zone system and got 1,000 yard season after 1,000 yard season from the likes of Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns and Olandis Gary after Davis's retirement. Alex Gibbs, considered by many to be the "godfather" of zone blocking for his work in Denver, would go on to find further success with his scheme in Atlanta, where the Falcons lead the league in rushing during his three year tenure. He then spent two years in Houston, where he helped fellow Denver disciple Gary Kubiak turn the expansion Texans into an AFC contender.
Gibbs was actually hired for his familiar "Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Line" title by Seattle when freshly hired Pete Carroll was assembling his staff in 2010. His tenure with the Hawks was short-lived, as he unexpectedly retired a week before his first regular season game with the team, but the zone concepts he helped install that offseason remain a core component of the team's offense.
The good news? The Patriots have already seen a zone-based offense this postseason, as long-time Gibbs ally Kubiak brought the scheme to Baltimore this year. The bad news? The normally stout Patriots defense struggled against the Ravens, with Lynch's former backup Justin Forsett carving them up for 129 yards on his 24 carries (5.4 ypc).
This lead me to take a look back at that Ravens game to see where the Pats needed to improve against the zone. While the defensive line didn't have it's best day in the trenches, the Pats run defense generally fluctuated with the performance of linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. When Baltimore had success, it was usually because they got a blocker on New England's explosive linebackers.
This first quarter run serves as good evidence both of how zone-blocking works and how it puts so much stress on the linebackers to make plays. You can see from the freeze-frame how the blocking is flowing to the left, with the key block being a combo block from LG Kelechi Osemele (#72) and C Jerramy Zuttah (#53) on Pats DT Sealver Siliga (currently engulfed by the double). If Zuttah executes his assignment and helps on Siliga, it will free up Osemele to release downfield and try to get a block on Collins.
That's exactly what happens, as the Baltimore offensive line executes their scheme to near perfection here. Chandler Jones does a good job of setting the edge here, forcing Forsett to cut back inside, but that's no problem because Osemele and Zuttah have Collins and Siliga blocked. Meanwhile, backside RG John Urshel gets a reach block on Hightower, preventing the linebacker from blowing up the play with pursuit, and RT Marshall Yanda's attempt at a backside cut block slows Vince Wilfork just enough to keep him from having a shot at a play here. The result is obvious, a gaping hole which Forsett is able to exploit for an easy 12 yard gain.
So, how does a defense attack a zone running game like Seattle? There are a variety of ways, although all require a high level of execution from the defenders involved. Backside pursuit certainly helps, with this second quarter play from the Baltimore game illustrating how good play from the backside can stop an otherwise well-blocked zone play.
Baltimore appears to be in good shape here. Again, both guards have peeled off of their combination blocks and are on their way to getting a hat on LBs Hightower and Rob Ninkovich, creating another big hole up the middle. However, big Alan Branch (#97) hustles down the line and gets the tackle on Forsett after a gain of four. Without that play from Branch, the play likely goes for at least 10 yards.
Another way to beat the zone is for the linebackers to defeat those reach blocks, freeing themselves to make tackles. The Jerod Mayo play pictured in the previous section is an excellent example of this, as Lynch has a lot of space to work with if Mayo isn't able to slip inside of James Carpenter's block and make the tackle.
This play from the Baltimore game is a good example of how aggressive linebacker play can blow up a zone. Here, Hightower reads run and, as you can see, is crashing up the middle before Flacco has even handed off to Forsett. The play is designed for Kelechi Osemele (#72) to peel off of Vince Wilfork once James Hurst gets there to pick up Hightower, but the linebacker gets through the gap before Osemele can get his hands on him. Forsett manages to make him miss but Hightower's penetration still blows up the play before it even starts, as Patrick Chung is there on the backside to clean him up for no gain.
Zone creates misdirection
Zone blocking naturally sucks defenders to the side of the field it's attacking, and both Baltimore and Seattle do an excellent job of using the mobility of their quarterbacks to create misdirection out of zone and attack the backside. Doing so presents another challenge the defense must account for on every play, serving as a counter against over-aggressive play against the run.
This play from Seattle's Week 3 game against Denver serves as a good example. Set up by their own run-heavy tendencies, Seattle fakes a zone left to Lynch. It's easy to see how the Denver linebackers, coached since Pop Warner to read the offensive linemen, would fall for the fake, as the play looks nearly identical here to Seattle's bread-and-butter zone plays.
However, this time Wilson keeps the ball and looks right, where he has little used receiver Kevin Walters coming in motion across the formation into the right flat. With four Denver defenders sucked in by the play fake and the other two committed to stopping Wilson, no one picks up Walters, and the result is an 11 yard gain.
"Fake zone one way, roll out and throw the other" is a staple in the playbooks of both the Seahawks and Ravens, with Seattle particularly running a ton of different plays out of the same basic concept. On this play, from overtime in Week 3 against Denver, they send Percy Harvin in motion right-to-left across the formation. With the offensive line running a basic zone left, Wilson first fakes the hand off to Harvin, then to Lynch, before keeping it and rolling right instead. As you can see, the action draws most of the Denver defense to the run fake, and Wilson's rollout buys himself enough time to find Jermaine Kearse on the sidelines for a first down.
Baltimore ran a similar action on their opening drive touchdown to Kamar Aiken. This time, Rob Ninkovich sniffs the play out as a stand-up LOLB and slides horizontally with Flacco's rollout, covering the possibility of any scramble (whether Ninkovich is athletic enough to handle that responsibility against Wilson is a question we'll discuss later this week). However, Aiken this time simply wins a one-on-one matchup with Patrick Chung and uses some strong running after the catch to get in for the score.
While Baltimore and Seattle have many schematic similarities, Wilson's dynamic running ability gives the Seattle offense an extra dangerous element. The Hawks have taken advantage by installing the read option, which they use as another weapon that can be run out of the same basic zone looks.
Take this, Wilson's fourth quarter touchdown that helped the Hawks make the NFC championship a one-score game late. The set-up of the play looks nearly identical to the zone runs Green Bay had seen all night, and another hand-off to Lynch is a logical call in a short yardage situation. Wilson's read man is likely DE/OLB Mike Neal (#76), who crashes down chasing the play from the backside like any good defender against a zone run. It's unclear whether the safety run blitz from Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (#21) factors into Green Bay's scheme, which has struggled to stop the read option for years now.
Neal recognizes the fake and tries to adapt late, but Wilson is too quick for him and has already gotten the edge. With the only other defender in the area blocked by TE Luke Willson, Wilson is able to scamper into the edge zone untouched.
The Patriots have typically defended the run option well the rare times they've faced under Bill Belichick and they'll have to do so again against a Seattle team that runs it as well as any team in the league. The key to defending the read option really comes down to the popular Belichick mantra 'do your job', as any defense will fall apart against a read option if the individual defenders don't carry out their assignments.The Pats will surely be creative at times with which two players have RB and QB responsibilities from given looks, but be sure that those assignments will be worked into every defensive look the Pats show on Sunday.
Of course, saying 'do your job' makes the task at hand sound much easier than it actually is, and Seattle's well designed offense does an excellent job of making things extra difficult for the defense to process. I've only gotten into the basic concepts that drive the offense, but there are countless variables that can be worked into those zone-based plays based on formation and personnel, ranging from a fake-reverse on an inside give (ran in the Denver game with then-Seahawk Percy Harvin) to a deep bomb (Wilson's game winning touchdown to Sydney Rice in the 2012 Patriots game came on a fake zone and roll out the opposite direction). Basically, Seattle forces the defense to be able to defend every part of the field on every given, despite running a disproportionate amount of plays from the same basic look. This offense fits it's two stars, Wilson and Lynch, like a glove, and the Patriots defense will have to be at it's disciplined-yet-aggressive best to stop them on Sunday.
More film study is on the way! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will focus on Wilson and the unique challenges his game presents a defense.