With the Seahawks’ win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII wrapping up the 2013-14 season, let’s go back inside the film room to break down some of the schemes and trends that shaped the year.
Using examples from the All-22 coaches tape, here are five things that stood out in my film study this season.
1. Packaged Plays
NFL defenses were much more prepared this season from a technique/assignment perspective versus the read-option scheme. Whether that was using the “scrape exchange” technique (edge defender crashes on the dive, linebacker scrapes to quarterback), slow playing the read or inserting the safety into the front, I didn’t see the same impact with the option compared to the production from 2012.
However, offenses started to install packaged plays. Think of a scheme that gives the quarterback multiple options (inside zone handoff, zone read keep, bubble screen, slant, seam) based off the defensive look.
Chip Kelly and the Eagles showed packaged plays along with the Panthers, Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Chiefs, Redskins, etc.
Here’s an example from the tape in the Eagles matchup versus the Vikings.
Quarterback Nick Foles will read the path of the defensive end (through the mesh point), hand off to LeSean McCoy on the inside zone, keep the ball on the zone read or throw the bubble screen to wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
In Marc Trestman’s offense, the Bears used packaged plays throughout the season. Here’s a look versus the Redskins Cover 2 shell in the deep red zone.
With the Mike’ backer squatting in his drop (settling his feet, eyes on the quarterback), Josh McCown rides running back Matt Forte through the mesh point and throws the tight end seam to split the safeties for a touchdown. McCown also has the option here to hand off to Forte; keep on the zone read or target the slot receiver on the bubble screen.
I talked to one NFC defensive coach recently who called the read-option “smoke and mirrors.” And while I do agree that NFL defenses have limited the option scheme, look for packaged plays to continue to show up in offensive game plans next season.
2. Seahawks’ Cover 3 technique
Every NFL defense has Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under) in their playbook as a base call that is installed during spring OTAs. However, in Seattle, the three-deep coverage is unique because of the personnel on the filed and the technique the Seahawks use in the secondary.
Pete Carroll’s team will press its corners (Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell) in Cover 3 and pattern match any vertical release (curl, comeback, fade, dig, etc.). Think of man-technique outside of the numbers with the four underneath defenders playing zone and free safety Earl Thomas protecting the deep middle of the field.
And because of Thomas' range—plus the speed of the underneath defenders—the Seahawks can lean on Cover 3 as their core call to take away the seam/post while driving downhill on any underneath concept.
Let’s take a look at the Seahawks and their pre-snap alignment in Cover 3.
As you can see, both Sherman and Maxwell align in a press-position to jam, re-route and match the vertical stem. Underneath, the four zone defenders (hook-curl, curl-flat) will gain depth and get to their landmark drops with Thomas closing the deep middle of the field.
And here’s how the scheme plays out versus the Broncos’ curl-flat combination in Super Bowl XLVIII.
With both cornerbacks taking away the curl—and the underneath defenders buzzing to the flat—Manning has to dump the ball underneath to Wes Welker on the check down. That allows strong safety Kam Chancellor (playing the hook-curl drop in 3 Buzz) to drive downhill and put a helmet on the receiver for a minimal gain.
I expect NFL clubs to study plenty of Seahawks tape this offseason, but can defenses around the league copy this scheme and play with the same techniques?
That’s a good question—because the personnel has to fit. And you won’t find many defenses with two press corners that win outside, a strong safety that can match the skill set of Chancellor or the range of Thomas in the post.
3. Power football still wins
When I talk about power football at the NFL level, I’m focusing on the core schemes: Power O, Lead/G-Lead, Counter OF, Crack Toss and the Wham.
This is the 49ers’ Power O scheme versus the Bucs out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB).
Here, the 49ers block down on the Will ‘backer, kick out the defensive end and pull the backside guard to create a running lane for Gore. That’s downhill football at its best in a scheme that shows up consistently from Jim Harbaugh’s club out of Regular/21, Tank/22 (1WR-2TE-2RB) and Heavy/13 (1WR-3TE-1RB).
How about the Seahawks' crack toss? Let’s take a look at how the scheme works with Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) on the field.
The Seahawks create a bunch alignment to the open (weak) side of the formation with pre-snap divide motion (motion to the core of the formation) and run the crack toss with Lynch. Block down on the edge, pull the open side tackle and force the cornerback to use a “crack replace’’ technique (replace as edge support on crack block). A scheme that puts defensive backs in an adverse situation as gaps move throughout the play.
Is this a quarterback league? No question about it.
But the ability to run the football, establish the line of scrimmage and stay ahead of the sticks was a key factor for teams that played deep into the post season.
4. The development of Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordon
Two size/speed receivers with the ability to run the intermediate route tree, create separation at the top of the stem and finish down the field.
With both receivers, focus on inside breaking cuts (curl, dig, smash, slant, etc.). Jeffery and Gordon have developed their route running (footwork, hips at the top of the stem, angle to the ball) and use their size to shield defenders at the point of attack.
Here’s Jeffery running a smash route (smash-7 combination) versus man-coverage.
The Bears wide receiver pushes up the field off the release, forces the cornerback to open his hips (while taking a bucket step) and creates leverage to run a short, inside breaking route. And it’s the separation coming out of the break that allows Jeffery to turn this underneath concept into a plus 15-yard gain after the catch.
Now let’s check out Gordon on the intermediate curl versus the Steelers’ Cover 3 shell.
By pressing the corner vertically on the release and eating up his cushion (initial distance between wide receiver-defensive back), Gordon can force Ike Taylor to open/bail. That allows the Browns receiver to sell the 9 (fade), create separation at the top of the stem and break back downhill to produce on the curl.
And we can’t forget about the deep ball ability down the field.
Whether that is the wheel route off a switch release, the inside vertical seam from a slot alignment or the straight fade route, both Jeffery and Gordon put together some highlight clips this season by climbing the ladder to finish.
The key word here for both receivers is development. In just their second seasons as pros, Jeffery and Gordon have shown positive signs of development in their route running and big play capability.
5. Creating matchups at the tight end position
Removed from the core of the formation to create matchups versus both zone and man coverage. That’s how I saw the tight end position this season with Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, etc.
Within these game plans, offensive coordinators will use formation and personnel to get the tight end removed as the backside X receiver (called a “Dakota” formation), in the slot, stack or bunch to create that size/leverage matchup on dig (square-in), option, stick-out, seam or wheel.
And when the ball gets inside of the deep red zone, you have to look for the slant or the fade. That puts stress on both cornerbacks and safeties to play with technique, squeeze to the upfield shoulder and also find the ball. Tough work for a defensive back versus a player with the skill set of Graham.
Here’s an example of Graham running the slant for that 3x1 “Dakota” alignment.
Working versus press-man, Graham forces the defensive back to open his hips (creates immediate separation) on the release. And that’s all it takes when we talk about the size matchup. Even if the defender recovers—and drives through the upfield shoulder—Graham can essentially box him out, secure the ball and take this in for six points.
Can your safety or corner climb the ladder with Graham to “play the pocket’ on the fade?
Look at Graham’s ability to high-point this ball. That puts the defensive back in an adverse situation even if he is “in-phase” (on the hip). And that includes the back-shoulder fade.
Now let’s move over to Cover 2 in the red zone. A scheme I really like inside of the 20-yard line as the cornerbacks play with a “soft squat" technique (no jam, sink, trail No. 1), the Mike’ backer runs the inside vertical seam and the two safeties play over the top.
However, you know the matchup that the offense wants versus two-deep coverage: the tight end versus the Mike’ backer.
In this example, the Cowboys align Witten as the No. 3 receiver to the closed (strong) side of the field (Doubles Slot formation).
With the two outside vertical routes occupying (or widening) the safeties, quarterback Tony Romo can target Witten versus the Mike ‘backer (carries the inside vertical in Cover 2). Split the safeties and put the ball on the back-shoulder to win in the end zone.
One thing to remember here, this isn’t going to change. Offenses will continue to use the tight end to create favorable matchups. And if NFL defenses don’t find the proper personnel to win those matchups, or scheme specifically to take the tight end out of the game, you can expect the same route concepts to show up again in 2014.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.