Seattle’s 2016 NFL season contained detrimental elements that had not previously been seen from a Pete Carroll-led Seahawks team. Additionally, existing factors continued, such as the Seahawks’ poor red zone offense. Their inability to convert good opportunities is something that has plagued the team.
Jimmy Graham had 65 catches for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2016, better than many would have expected coming into the season. The general narrative surrounding the tight end’s stint in the Pacific Northwest probably stems from his low production in the redzone. Inside the 10 yard line, Graham has received just seven targets for 2 touchdowns during his time in Seattle. This is in stark contrast to his term in New Orleans, where he received 58 targets for 30 touchdowns. In fairness, the Saints’ situation was distinctly different, with Graham being bracketed less often thanks to the plethora of offensive weapons that Drew Brees had at his disposal. Opponents of Seattle often have two or three men in the vicinity of Graham, particularly when space becomes tighter.
0:26 Second Quarter, 1st and 10 on Carolina’s 24. Carolina 7, Seattle 20
Strangely, Graham is not put in isolation against a defensive player as much as one would expect. Often he lines up in-line, with the Seahawks favoring this placement for blocking run plays, even though Graham is not known as a big run blocking threat. Lining Graham up as a X receiver would likely be fruitful, but Seattle seems keen to keep him purely as a tight end for the majority of his snaps. The power of Graham as a split end, in isolation, was showcased against the New York Jets in Week 4. So why did Seattle not do this more often? Perhaps they were dissuaded by their early results with Graham in the 2015 season. It is not Seattle’s style to force the ball to one player, after a similar strategy with Percy Harvin saw the offense suffer.
Russell Wilson has been hovering barely above at 43% completion rate inside the 20-yard line, which is drastically lower than his career average of 51%. The figures are even worse inside the 10 at 39% for 2016 (49% career). Wilson’s height, something which dissuaded many teams in the draft process, has not affected his rise to an elite status. However, could it be hurting him as the offense moves closer to the endzone? This is pure conjecture, but perhaps he is struggling to create throwing lanes with less space and therefore he can not see over his linemen. Poor performance inside the redzone is not something that the similarly-sized Brees suffers from, with a 65.49% completion rate inside the 20. Brees does, however, have a better offensive line, a more expansive offense, plus 11 more years in the league.
Wilson’s seeming inability to throw the goal-line fade pass, which does not seem suited to his touch, may explain why Graham is not being isolated that often in the red zone. Upon acquiring Graham, the Seahawks tried to throw two fades to him in the red zone early on. On these occasions, Wilson looked out of touch with Graham on the first, which can be seen below, and the defensive back broke up the second.
12:11 Fourth Quarter, 2nd and Goal on St. Louis’s 7. Seahawks 13, Rams 24 in 2015
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At present, the two have developed a better chemistry on the field, but the Seahawks haven’t run a redzone fade to Graham again. Surely Wilson’s goal-line fade can not be that off-putting? Wilson did complete one this season to Doug Baldwin for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15.
When Graham is being bracketed, rather than taking the increased risk, Wilson frequently progresses to his most trusted target in these situations: Jermaine Kearse. Kearse leads Seattle in targets inside the 10 yard line with 15 for three receptions over the past two years, all of which went for touchdowns.
It’s the term “increased risk” that is really important when looking at Wilson’s red zone ability. Throughout his time in the league, barring his 2015 stretch where he really started slinging it, the quarterback has been fairly conservative.
3:17 Third Quarter, 2nd and 6 on Atlanta’s 8. Seahawks 10, Falcons 26.
Take this play from the 2016 Divisional Round matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta shows a Cover 1 look, while Seattle hints to the defense that the play is going to be a quick-passing play from the shallow depth of their tackles. Indeed, Wilson takes the snap and executes a three-step drop and a hitch step. In theory, the pick play executed by Kearse should free Baldwin’s quick out route against the man coverage perfectly.
However, a number of things happened to prevent the completion. Firstly, Wilson delays the throw to Baldwin for too long, despite having a perfect throwing lane created for him between George Fant and Mark Glowinski. He is probably dissuaded from making the throw by Baldwin not having turned yet, and by the defensive back in man coverage with Baldwin. Robert Alford (#23) is playing over the top of the receiver, meaning that the throw from Wilson to Baldwin must be a good one so as to avoid a potential pick 6. Secondly, as Wilson fails to throw the ball near-immediately, Fant, left alone on an island, is beaten by the spin move of defensive end Brooks Reed (#50). As Fant is being beaten Wilson could still throw the pass, but this would probably have required a near-blind throw due to Fant obstructing his line of sight.
Instead Wilson sees his throwing lane swallowed up by the oncoming Reed. The quarterback lacks the speed necessary to create a play, and he is forced to throw the football away. He should have thrown the ball far sooner, leading Baldwin slightly to the left. However, his conservative tendencies, even when down by 16 points late in the third quarter, proved costly here. Seattle had to settle for a field goal on the drive.
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Playcalling is one area that has received a lot of flak. Darrell Bevell is one of the most criticized coordinators in the NFL, with a large section of the “12th Man” wanting him fired. I think Bevell is harshly treated at times, given the tools he has available to him: A unique quarterback, a pretty terrible offensive line and a turnover-averse head coach.
In the redzone though, statistics are not on his side. In Bevell’s six years as offensive play-caller, the Seahawks have the 18th most efficient redzone offense over the same period (calculation by me). Their worst year came this past season, where they placed 25th. When you consider the receiving talent on the team, this is simply not good enough.
Bevell utilizes a simple route tree, which is relatively easy for teams to study, combat and read. He does not exploit match-ups enough, and does not isolate players enough -as we have seen with Graham. Perhaps the greatest weakness to play-calling was the failure to consistently commit to the run. This impacted the entire offense, whatever the field position. It is inside the 20 that space is at its tightest, and keeping a defense honest with a commitment to the run is even more important.
Loss of Marshawn Lynch
The loss of Lynch and its effects on the team have been well-documented. The negative impact this has had on the redzone offense has been a lack of a bruising back to run the ball consistently into the endzone. Thomas Rawls, though he runs physically, is more of a slasher and Seattle did not hide their worries over his fragility. Meanwhile the bigger Alex Collins did not appear to be trusted near the goalline with significant snaps, despite his improvements in the later weeks of the season. This means that the defense can often focus on stopping the pass.
On Seattle’s offensive line, they spend half as much as the New York Giants’ 31st most expensive line and over $16 million less than the league average. Not surprisingly, they have had issues in both pass and run blocking. Garry Gilliam showed a lack of nastiness in the run game and bad ability when in pass protection. This was after he had managed to lose the left tackle spot to an undrafted rookie who had never played the position. That man, Fant, did remarkably okay in context of his experience, but still gave up too many pressures. The interior – left guard Glowinski, center Justin Britt and right guard Germain Ifedi – has room for growth. Britt, who looked like a bust after difficult stints at right guard and tackle, has become a very capable center. Seattle must pay him, as he is the only veteran playing well up front. Still, the entire line had major difficulties with stunts and slants from defensive fronts.
On the occasions where Bevell was more inventive, the play design was often hindered by either Wilson or, the more likely of the two, the offensive line. It is therefore fair to question the degree in which the poor quality of the offensive line influenced potential play calls.
1:29 Third Quarter, 2nd and 7 on Detroit’s 20. Detroit 6, Seattle 10
A good example of this was this play from the Wildcard round, when Seattle hosted the Detroit Lions. The Lions show an off alignment and a Cover 3 look pre-snap. WR Paul Richardson is sent in motion to the opposite side of the formation. The defensive back alignment makes a screen to Richardson feasible. The Seahawks run many bubble screens out of similar looks, with the tight ends both running wheel-route style blocks.
However, this time Wilson pump fakes to Richardson and the tight ends continue on their wheel routes. Wilson just has enough time to look deep at Graham, who is being double covered. It is at this point that the offensive line ends the chances of the bigger play, as both tackles struggle to sustain their blocks. Fant relinquishes a fair bit of ground to DE Ezekiel Ansah (#94) on initial contact, which Wilson is aware of. Meanwhile, right tackle Garry Gilliam surrenders the edge to Devin Taylor (#98).
Wilson correctly moves up in the pocket to avoid the rush, but instead of looking from Graham to Luke Willson, who is open downfield, he hurries to his check down option Thomas Rawls. It is probably unfair to expect the offensive line to block for an average amount of time, but this play is more about the effect that such a line has had on Wilson.
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The quarterback appeared skittish at times and his internal clock, crucial for a quarterback, looked broken. He sensed pressure where it did not exist, it was almost as though Wilson felt he would only have the time required for one read, and on other occasions he failed to look defenders off or go through his progressions. Worse, the very identity of the Seahawks – a strong running game – was hampered by penetration from the defense. The rushing attack also seemed to be damaged by the outlawing of the cut block. This was an important technique in Tom Cable’s zone blocking system, and led to Seattle use more gap-blocking – something which was less suited to their athletic line.
The multiple injuries suffered by CJ Prosise, x-factor of the offense, have certainly hurt Seattle. Prosise has the ability to run the football in a variety of ways – both inside and outside the tackles – but he can also be an excellent receiver. His skillset gives the Seahawks the opportunity to come out in an empty set, and then motion Prosise into the backfield for a run play, or moving Prosise from the backfield into a receiver position. Seattle tried to replicated this with the versatile free agent pick-up Marcel Reece, but the effect was not as powerful.
The injury to Wilson dramatically reduced his mobility, seeing him lose the speed needed to evade oncoming rushers and the agility to create throwing lanes. It also had a damaging effect on the run game. Without the ability to seriously threaten keeping the ball on read-option plays, Seattle lost a key staple of their offense. Specifically, read-option plays inside the 20 would have aided the less powerful backs at their disposal. Seattle’s signal-caller removed his protective knee brace for the Seahawks’ Wildcard game against the Lions, forcing Detroit to respect the read-option more. Rawls then ran for a franchise record 161 yards, but Bevell abandoned the run early in the following week against the Atlanta Falcons.
As shown, Seattle’s red zone issues do not have a simple solution, which is not altogether surprising. Next year, such a young offensive line finally will have some continuity, and Cable is staying on as OL coach. This should see the line should grow into a better unit. With their large cap space, and no one major to re-sign, Seattle really should consider upgrading certain spots though, particularly at right tackle. Darrell Bevell needs to develop further as a coordinator, and that can only be aided by a better line. Wilson can still work on his touch and climbing the pocket, but he showed what he could do behind an average line in the last half of 2015. Running-wise, Seattle needs a back who they can trust both health and skill-wise, which will help them fully regain their identity. Most of all, the entire offense needs to execute better.