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Have the Seahawks Found the Answers on Offense?

Russell Wilson and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron produced fireworks in Week 1. But it won’t always be that easy—and how Wilson’s style fits into a Rams-inspired scheme will be one of this NFL season’s most intriguing story lines.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

You know how no Seattle football game is ever normal? Well, no Seattle season is ever normal, and no Seattle narratives are ever normal, either. The Seahawks faithful have been at odds with head coach Pete Carroll and his offensive philosophies for the better part of a decade. In no season was that disparity more evident than in 2020, and the ripple effects of Seattle’s perpetual “Let Russ Cook” debate reverberated all the way into their 2021 season opener against the Colts—a quiet, almost sleepy 28-16 win that made big statements about Seattle’s offense this season.

On Sunday, Seattle ran an incredible amount of play-action, doing so on 41.4 percent of the snaps, the second-highest number in the league. They doubled their rate of under-center dropbacks (from 20 percent last season to 43 percent in Week 1) and drastically increased their rate of under-center runs (from 49 percent to 71 percent). Wilson led starting passers in the rate of his throws delivered 20-plus yards downfield at 21.7 percent while also dropping his time to throw to 2.75 seconds—drastically lower than his 3.02-second time from the season before. The story of the 2021 Seahawks offense is going to be an interesting one, and it starts in Carroll’s vent session of a 2020 postseason press conference.

Last year, Carroll watched his offense soar in the fall, then crumble when winter and the playoffs came. In its first eight games of the year, Seattle scored fewer than 30 points just once; in its final nine games, including the playoffs, Seattle scored more than 30 points just once. As a passer, Wilson averaged 9.23 adjusted yards per attempt and .327 EPA per play in the first half of the season; down the back stretch, he dropped to 6.44 AY/A and negative-0.005 EPA/play. For a sense of scale: Statistically, in the first half of the season, he was essentially Patrick Mahomes; in the second half of the season, he became Nick Mullens.

Everyone had a theory for Wilson and the offense’s decline. Russ himself said the offense should have featured more tempo. Analysts wrote about two-high defensive structures preventing Seattle from accessing the deep ball. And Carroll? Carroll had a solution that will sound worryingly familiar to modern NFL fans: “We have to run the ball better—not even better, we have to run it more,” he said in January. “We have to dictate what’s going on with the people that we’re playing, and that’s one of the ways to do that.”

Egads! There are plenty of published studies busting the myths of running the football—that it doesn’t help sell play-action fakes or force defenders into the box—and for each publicly available study, there are two more private studies within the halls of NFL franchises. As coaches get more accepting of insights from number-crunching, keyboard-clacking nerds, the league is increasingly forsaking the early-down run to throw the football. It’s just better business—no matter what Carroll says.

But Carroll knows how he wants to win, and has built the team accordingly. Following his comments about running the football, Carroll fired OC Brian Schottenheimer for “philosophic differences.” The Seahawks added a solid run-blocking guard in Gabe Jackson to the interior offensive line, a quality tight end in Los Angeles Rams castoff Gerald Everett, and critically, another key Rams offensive piece: passing-game coordinator Shane Waldron, whom Carroll tagged as the Seahawks’ new offensive coordinator.

Waldron was expected to bring the Rams’ passing concepts to Seattle—a scheme that features play-action fakes off of wide zone runs. Fundamentally, Sean McVay–styled offenses want to use run action to make throwing the ball easier—and if defenses sell out to stop the pass, then they can cheerfully run the ball down their throats. That’s the balance Carroll is after; this summer during training camp, he said, “You’re always committed to [balance] so that when you need it—whether it’s the opponent, the weather, the situation, it’s the fourth quarter, it’s the wind blowing too hard or whatever it may be—you have the availability of the run game whenever you need it.”

That balance seemingly worked in Week 1. Wilson had a near-perfect passer rating against the Colts on Sunday, completing 18 of his 23 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns. He did take three sacks—he’s still Russ, after all—but he was the exact version of Russ that Carroll wants, down to the completion percentage of over 70 percent, the figure Carroll set as a goal at the end of last season.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks were a run-heavy team, rushing on 54 percent of their downs when win probability remained between 20 and 80 percent, per numberFire’s win probability model. On early downs, they passed more than expected given the context (score, time remaining, win probability, field position), but were still among the 10 run-heaviest teams in the league.

But does the success of Seattle’s passing game really belong to Carroll’s insistence that they shift to a run-heavy script? As Carroll said in the offseason, “I want to see if we can run the ball more effectively to focus the play of the opponents and see if we can force them to do things like we like them to do. … Frankly, I’d like to not play against two-deep looks all season long next year. … You can chase them out of it by beating them in their two-deep looks or you can chase them out by running the football and drawing them up.”

Seattle ran the ball a ton against the Colts, but it didn’t really force the Colts out of two-high looks. The Colts played two-high shells on 43 percent of the snaps against the Seahawks, the same rate as in 2020. They stacked the box with run defenders—that is to say, they were drawn up by the running game—on only four of a possible 53 snaps; they had a light box on a majority (53 percent) of the snaps they played. The running game didn’t really force the Colts out of their planned defense.

If Seattle didn’t pull the Colts out of two-high looks to a meaningful degree, then the success of the passing game was separate from the reliance on and efficiency of the running game—not exactly what Carroll was planning on. This truth was also borne out in the film. Waldron brought Los Angeles’s under-center, wide zone rushing attack over to Seattle, and Seattle threw a ton of quick flat routes off of the accompanying boot action. But when Waldron tried to dial up a McVay favorite—the “strike” concept, built to attack linebackers biting on play-action—Wilson didn’t execute.

This wasn’t a negative play, but it was a telling one. While Wilson is one of the best deep-ball passers in the league, as well as a wildly accurate quick-game passer, he hates throwing to the intermediate middle of the field, where receiver DK Metcalf was breaking behind the linebackers into open grass. Here there be monsters: namely, sinking linebackers and sneaky safeties. These throws require touch, anticipation, and critically, elite field vision—accordingly, shorter quarterbacks like Wilson, Kyler Murray, and Baker Mayfield are often less effective on throws to this area of the field than their taller counterparts.

Remember how Wilson somehow threw deep downfield on over 20 percent of his attempts on Sunday but still dropped his overall time to throw by a quarter of a second? Well, throwing exclusively quick-game and deep shots will do that. Wilson had only two passes land between 10 and 20 yards downfield: a rollout crosser to tight end Will Dissly, and a touchdown to Metcalf that couldn’t have gone much deeper without leaving the end zone entirely. The Seahawks had no interest in throwing intermediate at all.

But the intermediate area of the field is critical to the identity of the McVay passing offense—at least, as we saw it expressed through Jared Goff during Waldron’s years there. Instead of hunting the space behind the linebackers, Wilson instead looked to isolate coverage outside of the numbers, as he has always during his career—and Waldron gave him those opportunities. Behind a wide-zone fake, Wilson had an option to take an intermediate middle-sit route from Tyler Lockett, or a deep out-breaking route from Metcalf. Both were open, and Russ favored the deep out.

Marrying Wilson’s play style to Waldron’s passing game will be an ongoing project for the Seahawks. The passing game worked this time, and will probably work for a while: Wilson’s an amazing thrower; Metcalf and Lockett are tremendous receivers. But the running game and the passing game in this offense remain generally divorced. Play-action still helps them execute; pre-snap motion still puts defense in binds. But the holistic philosophy of the McVay offenses—of marrying the running game to the passing game—has yet to be expressed in Seattle, and unless Wilson suddenly becomes a willing passer to the intermediate middle of the field, I’m not sure it ever will.

The good news is this: You don’t need to have perfect harmony between your run action and passing-play designs in order to create a successful offense in the NFL—especially when you have a quarterback as talented as Wilson. Such was the case when Schottenheimer was dialing up deep balls for Wilson last season, and Waldron knew that he could rely on Schottenheimer’s existing blueprint to build a deep passing game for Russ.

Remember, Carroll said there’s two ways to get a team out of two-high looks: run the ball on them, or beat them through the air. Wilson couldn’t do the latter last season: He ended the year 11th against single-high coverages and 27th against two-high coverages in EPA per dropback. This makes sense when we consider the throws Wilson likes, and the way the Seahawks built the offense around those tendencies in years past. Single-high defenses allow for deep vertical routes to develop against single coverage, as there is no deep safety helping the corner along the sideline—the only deep safety is tethered to the middle of the field. The deep safety’s positioning takes away the post and the dig, both of which are in-breaking routes that work toward the deep safety. That’s why a deep middle safety is often called a “post safety”—he’s there to take away the post.

When teams play two-high, they are better equipped to take away deep vertical routes: the deep comeback and the go route. In 2020, only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger threw more comebacks, gos, and double moves than Wilson did; only Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson were more effective (in terms of Sports Info Solutions’ points-added-per-play metric) on the same routes. And while Wilson was still as shockingly effective on posts and dig routes, he threw them with a lot less volume (21st in the league). Structurally, two-high defenses take away the throws that Wilson wants to make and allow the throws that he doesn’t want to make.

But on one play late in the second quarter, Waldron got Wilson into a great look against two-high, and Wilson was willing to take the route given to him: a deep post from Tyler Lockett against a deep half safety.

This is a great look on second-and-long for Seattle. Indianapolis is playing a quarter-quarter-half defense, with quarters to the bottom of the screen and Cover 2 to the top of the screen. That leaves the deep-half safety isolated on the vertical route from Lockett.

Lockett’s a great route runner, so he’s able to pull the safety’s hips toward the sideline with his outside fake. Plus he’s a great ball tracker, so he’s able to pull down a prototypical Russ moonshot in stride and finish the play in the end zone. Seattle needs to hit these types of bombs against split-field coverage shells—and it’s hit them before.

That’s Tyler Lockett, on a deep post with a fake to the corner, against a deep half safety, on second down—in Schottenheimer’s first year as Seahawks offensive coordinator. Wilson isn’t incapable of reading two-high defenses or throwing accurate post routes—it was just an issue last season that Seattle couldn’t find an answer to, for a myriad of reasons: poor pass protection, an injured Lockett, and dissonance between offensive coordinator and head coach. Sometimes, the NFL is just tough.

And that’s really the long and the short of the issue: The NFL is hard, and as much as you or I or Pete Carroll might want to draw clean conclusions between cause and effect—two-high defenses made Wilson struggle last season; the running game helped open up the passing game in Seattle’s opening game—things are rarely so easy. They certainly won’t be as easy every week for the Seahawks on Sunday, as they still have a long way to go to find that fickle partnership between Waldron’s background, Wilson’s play style, and Carroll’s old-school philosophy. The Seahawks will run into challenges this year, have worse offensive outings, and will need to brainstorm to uncover answers. A crash and burn like 2020’s shouldn’t be expected, but dominant offensive performances like Sunday’s shouldn’t be expected, either.