First of all, sorry for my long absence since the disappointing end of the season. Usually when an Eagles season ends, I need to take a bit of a break from football and let some things digest so I don't jump to quick conclusions about what went right, what went wrong, and what really needs to be fixed. We'll be diving deep into that over the course of the offseason, but for now, since it's one of the biggest weeks in the sports world, I thought I would drop in to comment on the NFC's representative for the Super Bowl this year. Once again, the Seattle Seahawks will be representing the NFC and attempting to repeat as Super Bowl champions against the New England Patriots (Cough! Cheaters! Cough!). Back in December leading up to the Eagles big game against the Seahawks, which ended up having significant playoff implications, I highlighted the Seahawks highly effective use of the read-option. Needless to say, it's no secret that I have taken exception to the announcers, sportswriters and fans who have called the read-option a silly fad and compared it to things like the wildcat. Today, we'll take a quick look at how the Seattle Seahawks rode the read-option all the way to their second Super Bowl appearance in consecutive years.
Last year, the Seattle Seahawks surprised the NFL by winning the Super Bowl behind a legendary defense and a 2nd year QB who many deemed too small to play QB in the NFL. However, as improbable as the run was last year, this year may have been even more improbable. The Seahawks let their leading WR Golden Tate walk, and in October surprisingly traded Percy Harvin. While Percy Harvin short stint in Seattle will go down as a disappointment (despite his Super Bowl performance against the Broncos) there is no question that his presence made the Seahawks offense more dynamic and explosive. Following those two key departures, what was left was an offense that appeared stale, lacked creativity, and most importantly was an offense that lacked an identity. No question the offense would run through Marshawn Lynch and the running game and Russell Wilson certainly wasn't looking like a QB who could take the offense on his shoulders and dominate.
Fast forward to the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks were down by 13 as Russell Wilson just got intercepted for the 4th time. The Seahawks couldn't get anything going on offense all day. Up to that point, their only score was on a fake FG attempt that fooled the Packers. The Seahawks got the ball back down 13 with 3:52 as many Seahawks fans were hitting the exits. It was then, that the Seahawks got this look from the Packers:
Obviously with under 4 minutes to go and down by two possessions, the Seahawks were going to go one-dimensional and try and drive the ball down the field through the air. No way they would waste time trying to run the ball, right? Turns out, they couldn't resist this look, and it was the starting point for one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history. The Packers have only 5 defenders in the box to defend the run. What's more, check out the wide splits. Both Packers OLBs are in the wide 9 and check out the alignment of the DTs. They are basically leaving the spot that the Seahawks love to run their bread and butter inside zone wide open. Certainly the Packers are anticipating pass and you could almost assume they are inviting the Seahawks to run. One could argue whether this is a good strategy or not.
Following the snap Russell Wilson will read the unblocked backside defensive end. The Seahawks get their two combo blocks on the DTs and Lynch has a massive hole for a big gain on first down:
This was in fact, despite none of us knowing it at the time, the beginning of the end for the Packers. By my count, including overtime, the Seahawks ran the read-option on 9 of their final 17 plays over 3 separate drives that ended in TDs for a total of 22 points. How crazy is that? A team that was down by 13 with less than 4 minutes to go engineered a comeback based on a primary run-based attack.
The Seahawks would in fact finish this drive with a Russell Wilson TD off, you guessed it, a read-option play. Note the two key defenders for the Packers highlighted on this play. You'll have the backside OLB and Clinton HaHa Dix up at the line at safety. This is worth contemplating a bit more. The Seahawks are a pretty basic offense by NFL standards. Yes, they are a running team, but if there is one thing coming into the game you know you need to account for and stop, it's the read-option. On this play, one would imagine that Clinton HaHa Dix is the force defender meaning if the OLB is allowed to crash down on Lynch, Dix needs to be responsible for Wilson:
Instead, the Packers inexplicably have Dix coming on a run blitz and they completely sell out on Lynch leaving Wilson completely unaccounted for:
The edge defender can't recover and the Seahawks all of a sudden have made this a one possession game:
The Packers defense just cannot let that happen, but that's the power of the read-option. You are going against 11 defenders, but this concept isolates a single defender and all it takes is for one guy to make a bad mistake, and you pay for it. I highlighted how in the Eagles game despite the Eagles defense likely preparing for the read-option all week, Trent Cole made the mistake of selling out on the run and Wilson burned them for a long TD.
An onside kick recovery later, what do the Seahawks go back to? You got it, inside zone with the read-option. Once again, let's focus on the key defenders, the back-side OLB and ILB, Clay Matthews:
Following the snap, Wilson will read the unblocked edge defender who is crashing down on Lynch. You can see Clay is also cheating to block up the inside zone. Also note the design of the play that has Wilson's tight end set to block the safety downfield should he choose to keep:
Wilson makes the right decision and keeps. Check out the space he has to run:
And he gets some great blocks downfield to extend the play:
Now they are in the Packers heads. 2 plays later, they go back to the same play. Inside zone with the read-option. Wilson reads the unblocked edge defender who is playing the keeper. You can also see the deep defender HaHa Dix leaning to the backside to prevent Wilson from getting to the edge. Once again Wilson makes the right decision and this time hands off to Lynch. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line check out the outstanding execution by the Seattle offensive line:
Lynch gets a big hole and runs in for the TD giving the Seahawks the lead:
and gets another nice block on the outside:
The Seahawks went back to the exact same concept and ran the read-option on 3 of their 6 plays run in OT. Which ultimately lead to the Packers lining up in Cover 0 on the final play of their season:
Anyone still think the read-option is a fad? This game reminded me of the Auburn-Alabama Iron Bowl game back at the end of 2013. Auburn scored on a game-tying drive where Malzahn repeatedly ran the read-option off inside zone and high tempo and forced the sound Alabama defense into some key mistakes. Ironically, Clinton Ha-Ha Dix was playing safety in that game as well and the game-tying deep ball touchdown happened on his deep side of the field.
The point is, that Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks demonstrated on a primetime stage how the read-option combined with up-tempo can be one of the most dangerous approaches to comeback football. In a league that is dominated by the school of thought that a one-dimensional, sideline throwing, drop back passing approach is the best one in this scenario perhaps a few OCs around the league were taking notice. Or maybe not.