POTD: Has Seattle's Offense Been Exposed?

In this week's Plays of the Day, .Net's Kyle Rota uses the miracle of instant replay to analyze whether or not opposing defenses have figured out the best way to stop Seattle's offense (though it appears Seattle is doing quite a good job of doing that without help).

While beating the Rams may be akin to beating a first-grader at arm wrestling, we can look at the offensive and defensive game plans the Rams drew up and implemented against Seattle. By analyzing what the Rams believe our weaknesses to be, we can better understand our own Seahawks.

The "Vintage 2006 Minnesota Vikings Passing Attack"

After the excruciating debacle that was the New Orleans Saints game, concern about Seattle's offense reached a critical level. The rushing attack hadn't – and still hasn't – found any traction and seems to be getting worse by the week, at a time when NFL rushing offenses typically start to improve.

More concerning was that QB Matt Hasselbeck and the passing offense – incredible to star the season – looked abysmal against Pittsburgh and was wildly inconsistent against New Orleans. This lead to speculation that perhaps opposing defensive coordinators had figured out how to stop the Seahawks offense.

What was the Seahawks' weakness? It depended on who you asked. Fellow .Net writer Ryan Davis, whose opinion I greatly respect despite his poor choice in collegiate football programs, blamed the passing woes on opponents dropping 7-8 defenders into coverage, forcing Matt to take sacks because everyone was being double and triple teamed. My own theory was almost the utter opposite: opposing defenses, especially New Orleans, had discovered the Seattle couldn't pick up the blitz with blockers and thus never had enough time to burn blitzing defenses, instead settling for short passes that went nowhere.

In order to determine what the real problem was, I charted the first 30 passes by Seattle, and noted how many defenders rushed the quarterback and how the offense reacted (IE, a good play, a first down, poor pickup, etc.). In order to provide some comparison, I did the same thing with the first 27 passes thrown by St. Louis's passing attack, which is even more pathetic than Seattle's. Since both offenses had struggling offensive lines, the way each offense was attacked by defensive coordinators and the way they responded to blitzes promised to be interesting, and the data did not disappoint.

The Ryan Davis Theory: We Can't Get Open

The data does not seem to support the "coverage" theory. If Pittsburgh has created a blueprint for stopping the passing game, either St. Louis's coaching staff is so inept that they didn't notice the concept on film, or Seattle found a way to exploit the lack of a pass-rush.

It appears possible that if such a tendency is on film, the St. Louis coaching staff just didn't notice it (given the game plans we've seen Linehan roll out against Seattle, coaching stupidity isn't impossible), as Seattle faced a 3 or 4-man rush on only 55% of plays. In comparison, Seattle rushed four against St. Louis 62% of the time. Likely a statistically insignificant difference, but if there was a weakness, St. Louis should have a significantly higher percentage of 4-man rushes, not a slightly lower percentage.

The Matt Lathrop Theory: We Can't Pick Up the Blitz

While I feel fairly confident in saying that Seattle doesn't have a big weakness against four-man rushes, I don't have the sample size to say that Seattle's weakness is or isn't against the blitz. As the mathematically inclined among you have noted, Seattle faced five or more rushers on 45% of passes, while St. Louis faced five or more rushers on 38% of pass plays. Again, the difference in percentage is likely negligible and is the result of sample size more than conscious game planning.

While Seattle ran the first two successful screen passes in the past five seasons, it's rather hilarious that both of these "blitz-buster" plays came against four-man rushes. Seattle can finally run a screen, we just have to figure out when to run it now.

The Effectiveness Scores

Since neither team ran a lopsided number of four-man rushes, five-man rushes, or six-man rushes (though St Louis ran significantly more five-man rushes than Seattle, they ran significantly less six-and-seven-man rushes), the idea that opposing coaches were exploiting a weakness doesn't seem to be supported by the data.

However, that doesn't mean that Seattle is ineffective against either blitzes or four-man rushes. I'm not going to mistake John Marshall for a defensive mastermind and while Jim Haslett has a solid defensive reputation, Linehan's ineptitude could probably make Rex Ryan regress to Ray Rhodes' level of game planning, all of which means that the coaches could simply have been ignoring a possible trend.

Ironically, it would appear that St. Louis is the team that truly struggles against four-man rushes. St. Louis faced 18 4-man rushes during the plays I charted, and only had four successful plays out of those 18 plays. In truth, this shows what power a Cover-2 defense has when the defensive line is getting penetration – many of the incomplete passes were the result of pressure caused by DT Rocky Bernard (who shines each and every time I analyze the defensive line) and DE Darryl Tapp (who had an unbelievable game).

I'm going to assume if St. Louis were usually this ineffective against four-man fronts, we would not have bothered blitzing once the entire game. For comparison, Seattle had a successful play on half of the four-man rushes Hasselbeck faced, and would've had a significantly higher number if he and the wide outs had been on the same page.

Against five-man rushes – which I hesitate to consider blitzes but feel that they are significantly different than four-man rushes in terms of pressure created, Seattle faired rather poorly, mounting successful plays on only 33% of five-man rushes faced. Interestingly enough, protection is not mentioned as an issue on any of these incompletions, which leads me to believe that as much of the problem (if sample size isn't fooling us and there is indeed a problem) is inside Hasselbeck's head. It's hard to criticize the protection when Hasselbeck has all day and still manages to overthrow Engram, or when Engram drops an easy pass, or when Hasselbeck throws one way and Engram runs another. Those are flaws, but not the kind that defenses can gameplan for.

Both teams mounted successful plays on 50% of six-and-seven man rushes. However, this is a case of misleading statistics. Seattle may have had success on half of their plays, but their biggest gain was for 9 ½ yards on 3rd and 10, which I marked as unsuccessful because it put the offense in a 4th down situation. On the other side of the spectrum, St. Louis twice burned Seattle for what I noted as "big gains" (15 yards or more) on passes where Seattle blitzed 6 or more.

What Does This Tell Us?

All this data tells us a couple things. It provides solid support for the belief that coaching staffs are not simply dropping 7-8 defenders and letting their guys blanket our wide-outs. Unlike blitzes, four-man rushes are safe plays if you have faith in your defense to cover, so if Seattle had issues against "rush-four-drop-seven", opposing coordinators would be calling plays to take advantage of that all game long, instead of slightly more often than blitzes.

It tells us that rumors of John Marshall having to perform for his job might have lit a fire underneath him, for Seattle blitzed far more often than is typical – against Tampa Bay, at the beginning of the season, I noted a paltry four blitzes the entire game. Seattle sent five or more rushers nine times in just the first 27 pass attempts. As a fan of aggressive defenses – and a believer that we didn't spend a boatload of money on two new safeties for nothing – I hope that this trend continues.

My charting also tells me that the biggest flaw of all in this offense is the miscommunication between Hasselbeck and his receivers. Hasselbeck missed three possible first downs to Engram alone due to poor reads, and missed a couple other completions that would've put Seattle in advantageous 2nd/3rd down situations as well simply due to overthrowing Engram.

Ironically, most of the miscommunication seems to be between Hasselbeck and the receiver he should be most comfortable with, perhaps because Engram is playing an unfamiliar position and doesn't have the same mind-meld with Hasselbeck from the flanker position that he has from the slot. This, not defensive scheming, has the potential to be the biggest downfall of the passing attack if it is not fixed.

Kyle Rota writes frequently for Seahawks.NET. You can reach him here.

SeahawkFootball.com Top Stories