That’s both the gift and the curse he brings to his team.
He can be used utilized in a variety of ways, with his speed offering nearly limitless opportunities for creativity. Harvin can line up conventionally in the slot to stretch a secondary deep. He’s often targeted on screens and swing passes, leading to plenty of open green grass with which to work. The trickery comes when both Harvin and running back Marshawn Lynch are in the backfield, making defenders guess and see through the fog of deception.
There are many options available, but they all require some effort and creative engineering from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. During Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys that effort lasted about one quarter. No, one series.
A week after having three touchdowns called back, Harvin was irrelevant, finishing with six totals touches for -1 yards. Yes, his afternoon was actually counterproductive.
Those touches were split evenly between the air and ground, with the aim as always being to get Harvin in space and to create situations where he can essentially turn into a punt returner. Sunday was a low point for his usage, as if we include the three nullified plays due to penalties in Week 6, Harvin finished that game with nine touches, six of which came as a receiver.
With Harvin, there will be booming, offensively energizing plays that pick up significant yardage. But while you’re waiting for the next boom a whole lot of busting happens in between.
Consider his 2014 season so far after five games. Offensively he’s touched a football as either a receiver or runner 33 times. Here’s how the production on those touches breaks down.
|Percy Harvin's 2014 production by distance|
|Negative yards or no gain||0-10 yards||11-19 yards||+20 yards|
|Number of plays||8||18||5||2|
The booming end includes a 51-yard run and a 33-yard screen.
But on the low end there’s plenty of nothingness—too much for an athletic specimen with Harvin’s game-altering speed. He’s had only three touches for significant gains, and 26 for 10 yards or less. That’s resulted in an average of 6.0 yards per reception. But is Harvin’s sputtering his own fault, or is the Seahawks coaching staff to blame?
Let’s go with both.
Placing all the blame for failure on an offensive coordinator is about as easy as slicing up a quarterback and putting a loss directly on his shoulder/arm. The difficulty with the Harvins of the NFL, those players who thrive in space, is that manufacturing touches and creating the perfect situation can be cumbersome, and it requires crafting much of what you do offensively around the unique skill set of one player.
The Seahawks are cool with that, or so we thought. They have a run-first offense that often leans on the read-option to create confusion. If there’s an abundance of speed in the backfield, the chances of a linebacker overcommitting and making the wrong decision increase significantly.
Bevell found a way to create exactly that situation with the jet sweep. He debuted it with great success during the playoffs last February when Harvin was finally at full health, and it’s also led to some of those infrequent booms this season.
A prime example of the jet sweep executed perfectly came in the Week 1 season opener against the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks were on their own 39-yard line with a first down, an ideal position around midfield to hit Harvin in full flight.
That’s the basic goal of the jet sweep. Harvin is among the fastest and most elusive wide receivers in the NFL. But unlike a conventional running back who can power through contact before hitting the top of his stride, Harvin isn’t built to play a physical game. He's most effective in a situation when he’s already in full sprint and can evade contact, hence the success as a returner.
The jet sweep often starts with Harvin split out wide, and quarterback Russell Wilson in the shotgun with Lynch in the backfield. Just before the snap Harvin begins to sprint towards Wilson across the formation, as he did against the Packers.
Only this time he started in a bunch formation to the left, which already leads to confusion and many possibilities for the defense to consider.
As he comes across defensive end Julius Peppers is left unblocked. Peppers has to make a difficult decision and make it fast.
Who should he commit to from among Harvin, Wilson and Lynch? Wilson could easily pull the ball away from Harvin and either keep it himself or hand it to Lynch, who’s coming in behind.
Peppers then is left frozen, which is the worst possible state when Harvin’s accelerator has reached its peak. The linebacker still appears confused as Harvin blazes by for a 13-yard gain.
That’s a solid gain on a play which, on a basic level, is a run to the outside. Bevell is inserting Harvin into a situation with at least one lead blocker on the outside (a tight end, and often another wide receiver is involved, too) and then asking him to beat one defender in the open field.
Harvin will usually win that battle, and at the very least the play will end in a chunk yardage as it did against the Packers.
But the funny thing about game film is that it piles up, and over time it reveals the deepest, darkest offensive tendencies. The everlasting battle between offenses and defenses starts with innovation on one side, and a reactionary counter move on the other to halt the success of the latest clever offensive trick. Rinse and repeat.
A crucial element of the jet sweep is the fake to the running back forcing that outside defender to hesitate. That fake can come in different ways and isn’t always used from a shotgun formation.
In the first quarter Sunday Wilson was under center with Harvin about to fly by behind him. Lynch was in the backfield preparing to sprint to his left for a possible toss. The execution was fine, but little deceptions was used and the play ended poorly.
As Harvin came across the unblocked defender was outside linebacker Justin Durant. This is the moment when two paths emerged, just as they do on every jet sweep. Wilson was either handing off to Harvin, or he could pull it back and toss to Lynch, who would then bounce it outside going the other way.
Durant was in position to pursue either potential ball-carrier. But although he could chase Lynch across the backfield and possibly make a tackle for a loss or minimal gain, he had a far better shot at Harvin.
That’s true during most jet sweeps. The outside defender is naturally positioned to have the best shot at Harvin, while there are greater numbers elsewhere to contain the running back.
So Durant played the percentages. He still waited a beat for the play to develop, but instead of standing stationary as Peppers did he advanced far enough forward to take away Harvin's angle. He also positioned his feet and body in a direction that would force the runner to cut before he wanted to without reaching the corner.
Then he crashed in on Harvin almost immediately to end the play.
Defenses evolve and adjust, but that’s not the primary problem for Harvin. What’s troubling is the sheer lack of volume at certain depths as a receiver.
The rallying cry seems to be that Harvin should be sent deep more often for Wilson bombs. That’s not his game, though, and it never will be. But being almost entirely isolated to plays at or behind the line of scrimmage doesn’t have to solely be his game either.
Of Harvin’s 22 targets so far as a receiver, zero have come on balls traveling over 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That’s not at all shocking, and neither is the 11 that have come behind the line of scrimmage.
But there’s another area of the field which has almost been neglected.
|Percy Harvin's receptions by distance|
|Behind LOS||0-9 yards||10-19 yards||+20 yards|
|Pro Football Focus|
Harvin can and should be targeted at intermediate depths with throws traveling at least 10 yards. That doesn’t have to eliminate his presence in space, as he could be used on deep crossing routes and slants which still allow him to escape and accumulate yards after the catch.
In 2012 Harvin’s brief (and final) season with the Minnesota Vikings was one of his most productive as a receiver. It ended early due to an ankle injury, but over only nine games Harvin posted 677 receiving yards. That included three 100-plus yard weeks.
He was still the same player then, excelling in space and morphing into a punt returner after the catch. That’s why 30 of his 62 receptions came from behind the line of scrimmage. But he also recorded 11 catches 10 or more yards downfield for 218 receiving yards.
Those numbers aren’t overwhelming, but they’re also not nothing. The yardage represents just over a third of Harvin’s total receiving production in the nine games, and his targets at that intermediate depth (18) account for nearly a quarter of the balls thrown in his direction.
Which is plenty, or it’s at least sufficient. Bevell and his Seahawks offense should be aiming for a similar distribution this season. But instead after five games Harvin has been targeted only four times beyond 10 yards.
That’s resulted in his averaging of 26.6 receiving yards per game, and it’s contributed to the Seahawks’ average of only 186.0 passing yards per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.
As defenses adjust to limit Harvin around the line of scrimmage, Bevell needs to make adjustments of his own. And they don't have to be drastic, sweeping measures. He needs to tinker and tweak.
If he doesn’t Harvin's production will remain wildly inconsistent, and the Seahawks will waste the $13.4 million they’re spending this season for his services.