Ever since head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over in the Emerald City, the Seattle Seahawks have been lauded for their ability to draft the perfect players for their system while finding valuable gems in free agency.
Yet Carroll and Schneider weren’t always viewed as heroes. After back-to-back 7-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011, pundits started to question whether or not the organization should put both men on the hot seat. Sure, the Seahawks won a division title and a playoff game in the duo's first season, but a 14-18 record was far from stellar.
The most obvious reason behind the sub-.500 record was the lack of structure at the quarterback position. From the start of the 2010 season to the end of the 2011 season, Matthew Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson encompassed the makeshift group.
Some felt the franchise could win with Jackson under center based on the fact the defense was playing at a top-notch level, but deep down Carroll and Schneider knew they needed a star at the position. This was exactly why they brought in Matt Flynn during free agency and drafted Russell Wilson.
Wilson wasn’t expected to be a legitimate contender for the starting job prior to the 2012 season, but they threw him into the mix anyway. Fans and media members alike felt the same way about the third-round pick, so it was becoming more and more evident that Flynn would emerge as the starter.
However, things don’t always go as planned. Even though Flynn had signed a three-year, $26 million contract, Wilson continuously flashed behind closed doors. In May 2012, Coach Carroll told Danny O’Neil of The Seattle Times that the first-year signal-caller had a “terrific arm” and said he came into the rookie minicamp well prepared.
Wilson’s preparedness not only helped him catch the coaching staff’s eye, but it helped him make an impact in the preseason. In four preseason appearances last year, he tallied 536 yards passing, six total touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 110.3. At that point, there’s no question as to whom the regular-season starter would be.
Wilson went on to prove all of his naysayers wrong. He threw for 3,118 yards, tossed 26 touchdown passes, completed 64.1 percent of his throws and garnered a playoff win. What more could the Seahawks have asked for?
Carroll had finally found a franchise quarterback to pair with his potent defense. Yet an 11-5 record and a playoff victory proved to only be the beginning. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he had assembled the most dominant force in the NFL.
Lo and behold, he didn’t have to wait long. Through 12 games, the Seahawks have established themselves as the most powerful team in the league week in and week out.
With the help of Pro Football Focus and NFL Game Rewind, let’s take an in-depth look at how this team has asserted itself over the opposition on both sides of the ball.
It’s utterly obvious that everything the Seahawks try to do on offense is predicated on the success of the offensive line and running back Marshawn Lynch. Wide receiver Sidney Rice said it best after Seattle’s second preseason game this year, via Danny Kelly of FieldGulls.com:
We're going to run the ball. We ran the ball more than anybody in the league last year. We had a rookie quarterback. We started out slow the first eight games then picked it up the rest of the season. That's something we're going to build on. We're going to get much better at it. This year, it's all about explosive plays for us at receiver. We want to get the deep balls. We didn't hit many last year, but throughout this training camp, that's all that we've been doing - attacking the seams, going downfield, big plays, big plays. If you can do that, you can have the outcome we had in the last preseason game: taking a knee at the end of the game.
As Rice stated above, Lynch’s success on the ground directly correlates with the passing game. When the Seahawks are favorably pounding the rock and wearing opposing defenses down, the offense's ability to hit on play-action passes down the field and create explosive plays goes up substantially.
And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Coach Carroll’s offensive philosophy, he lives and dies for explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined by the Seahawks coaching staff as runs of 12-plus yards or passes of 16-plus yards.
Based on that description, you can see why Lynch’s accomplishments on the ground have been so vital to creating explosive passing plays. Since Seattle traded for Lynch back in 2010, he has been an absolute godsend for the ‘Hawks.
In 55 career regular-season games for Seattle, he has amassed 4,337 yards rushing on 989 carries and scored 38 touchdowns. Numbers of that magnitude, with the addition of Wilson, have helped the Seahawks become the best downfield passing team in the league.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilson was the fifth-best deep-passing quarterback in 2012 and is the best deep-passing quarterback in 2013. As a rookie, he was 28 of 64 on targeted throws that traveled 20 yards or more down field. And of those 28 completions, nine resulted in touchdown passes and five were intercepted.
On the other hand, this season has been a whirlwind. Through 12 games, Wilson has completed 25-of-45 attempts down the field. Eight of those 25 completions have resulted in a touchdown, while only two have been intercepted.
When you examine the effectiveness of Lynch even farther, you began to understand why Wilson is also the most efficient play-action passer in the NFL.
Per PFF, On 109 play-action passes this year, the second-year player out of Wisconsin has registered 67 completions, 1,089 yards, 11 touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 120.9. Those numbers are up from his rookie season.
In his first year, he completed 88-of-135 play-action passes while throwing for 1,191 yards and seven touchdowns. It’s incredible how one year’s time can make such a difference in a player’s development.
Now that we have analyzed the deep passing and play-action numbers, Rice’s comments from earlier on in the article make much more sense. Here are a couple examples of how the play-action pass worked to perfection against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football.
On this first-quarter play, New Orleans had nine defenders in the box to counter Seattle’s “13 personnel” look. Because it was 3rd-and-1, the Saints expected the Seahawks to hand the ball off to the running back to pick up the first down.
As you can see, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell opted for a play-action pass instead. When Wilson faked the hand off, two linebackers were sucked in, and tight end Zach Miller was off to the races. Miller ended up being uncovered down the field, and the play resulted in a 60-yard gain.
This next play doesn’t register as big of a gain as the first play, but the concept of effectively utilizing the play-action pass remained the same.
Following a first-down run that netted the Seahawks four yards, Bevell called for a boot play on second down. Seattle deployed an “11 personnel” grouping to offset the Saints' 4-2-5 play call.
As the play started to progress, you can see the Saints' entire defense crash hard to the running back. Their hard crash allowed slot wide receiver Doug Baldwin to slip behind the linebacking corps in the middle of the field.
By the time the nickel corner realized the play was a pass instead of a run, it was too late. Baldwin had already put a good amount of separation between himself and the cornerback. After a nice throw from Wilson, the third-year wideout had picked up 14 yards and a first down.
Those two plays really exemplify what the Seahawks offense is all about. Without a stout rushing attack, Seattle would not be the team it is. So much of its prosperity on offense comes from play designs and schemes that were first implemented by the legendary Bill Walsh.
Defensively, the Seahawks run one of the most complex and unique schemes in the NFL. Contrary to popular belief, Coach Carroll’s baby isn’t defined as a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. He likes to call it a hybrid defense. Why? Because his defensive line mixes between two-gapping principles and one-gapping principles.
Two-gapping principles evolve from 3-4 concepts, and one-gapping principles evolve from 4-3 concepts. This, in turn, means Carroll and his coaching staff have developed three main defensive looks the Seahawks use: the 4-3 Under, the 4-3 Over and the 3-4 Bear.
If you’re unfamiliar with what each front does and is supposed to do, let me explain.
The 4-3 Under is a set Seattle uses when it is trying to stop the run first and put pressure on the quarterback second. The one thing to remember when examining the 4-3 Under is that the most important idea is to get defenders into one-on-one situations.
However, the entire defensive line won’t get one-on-one pass-rushing situations unless the 3-technique under tackle is able to consistently beat solo blocks. By beating solo blocks, the under tackle has effectively done two things. He has either gotten upfield to disrupt the pass play, or he has gotten in the backfield to stop the run.
Here’s what a 4-3 Under front looks like with Seattle’s personnel on the field:
In a 4-3 Over, the four-man defensive line aligns to the strong side of the offensive formation (the side with the tight end). By shifting a defensive end over the tight end, you create a mismatch on the strong side of the formation.
Based on this look, the offensive lineman now has to make a choice. He has to either let the tight end block the 5-technique one-on-one, or he has to help the tight end block the 5-technique. If he helps the tight end out, the linebackers are now freed up to make the tackle.
No matter what happens with the tight end and offensive lineman, the defense now has flexibility in terms of protecting the pass and defending the run.
Here’s what a 4-3 Over front looks like with Seattle’s personnel on the field:
Both fronts are examples as to why the Seahawks value top-notch players at both the 3-technique position and 5-technique position.
As far as the 3-4 Bear front goes, it is predicated on outnumbering and attacking the opposing team’s offense at the point of attack. In this scheme a lot of emphasis is put on the nose tackle position. The nose tackle is assigned to eat up the A-gap.
By eating up the A-gap, it allows both outside linebackers to rush with one-on-one matchups on the edge. While the linebackers are rushing, and the nose tackle is disrupting the interior offensive line, the defensive ends (also known as 3-techniques) are terrorizing the B-gaps.
The 3-4 Bear front isn’t as heavily utilized as the 4-3 Under and 4-3 Over, but it gives the Seahawks defense an exceptional look on passing downs.
Here’s what a 3-4 Bear front looks like with Seattle’s personnel on the field:
Yet Carroll’s defense isn’t only successful due to smart coaching. It’s successful thanks in large part to immense talent. There’s a reason the Seahawks currently sport the best defense in the NFL; they allow the fewest yards per game (284.5).
Additionally, they have more talented pass-rushers than they know what to do with, and they have highest coverage grade of any defensive secondary in the league, via PFF.
Without a doubt, the 2013 Seahawks will go down as one the greatest teams in NFL history. Their talent level can’t be matched, their discipline level on both sides of the ball can’t be matched and their coaching style can only be matched by a select few.
Even though it’s hard to imagine, Seattle will progressively find a way to only get better as the season moves on.
By the time the Super Bowl rolls around in February, every team, fan and media member will fully understand why the Seahawks are a force to be reckoned with.