The best ability is availability. Take the Seattle Seahawks’ backfield, which has been plagued with health issues ever since Marshawn Lynch suffered a sports hernia injury that led to his initial ‘retirement’. Thomas Rawls has never completed a full season. Chris Carson, whose one-cut nature and vision made him the only successful back in 2017, is now on the treatment table with a broken leg and high ankle sprain.
The durability problems extend to Seattle’s third-down back position. College wide receiver/running back hybrid, C.J. Prosise was drafted to play this role. Yet Prosise has played in just six of a possible 23 games. Based on Pete Carroll’s visible, ever-growing frustrations in press conferences, he appears to be the type of player who will only suit up if he feels 100%.
As a result, former undrafted free agent J.D. McKissic appears to have displaced the 2016 third-rounder. McKissic’s role is predominantly passing game-orientated, where he can be given favorable matchups for the offense to exploit. This was clearly visible in the Seahawks’ Week 5 16-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
What McKissic brings to the Seahawks’ arsenal on important third downs was first made apparent with 11:12 remaining in the second quarter. Trailing 7-0, Seattle faces a 3rd and 3. Early on, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had tried to get McKissic the ball deep on a throw from wide receiver Tanner McEvoy, and in the flats following a play-fake to Tyler Lockett’s motion.
The Seahawks line up in a shotgun tight bunch formation with 11 personnel, and tight end Luke Willson (#82) as the isolated wide receiver to the boundary side. The Seahawks featured bunches often in this game. Los Angeles responds with a NASCAR pass-rushing look. They have two defensive linemen, Aaron Donald (#99) and Michael Brockers (#90), lined up as wide 9 defensive ends. They then have outside linebacker Connor Barwin (#98) and defensive end Matt Longacre (#96) inside in two-point stances. Finally, middle linebacker Alec Ogletree (#52) is sugaring the line of scrimmage from a 00 alignment.
Pre-snap, Seattle motions McKissic (#21) to the left of the bunch, placing him outside of the numbers. The movement provides quarterback Russell Wilson with valuable information. None of the linebackers follow McKissic to the field side. Instead, safety Blake Countess (#24) rotates down to about six yards off the line of scrimmage and over McKissic. This leaves a single-high safety look.
The Rams, therefore, are showing a Cover 1 blitz – possibly with one of the linebackers dropping as a spy. The Seahawks have Tyler Lockett (#16), the man at the top of the bunch, run a rub out route versus the press coverage of Nickell Robey-Coleman (#23). They then have Paul Richardson (#10) and Doug Baldwin (#89) run switch release crossing routes over the middle of the field.
Los Angeles does run a Cover 1 blitz, with some defensive backs executing a switch in order to deal with the switch release. The man coverage of Countess faces a big issue. The safety is forced to fight through the wall of receivers and defensive backs, as he is attacking hard downhill on what he thinks is a slant from McKissic.
However, McKissic is instead running a pivot route, which is wide open because of Countess’ aggression and the other routes carrying defenders away from the perimeter. Wilson is thus given a quick blitz-beating throw outside of the numbers. This is important, as passing fast over the middle is harder to create passing lanes for, and is therefore more likely to result in a batted down ball. Wilson hits McKissic for the eight-yard pick-up.
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Now behind 10-0, Seattle has 8:56 left in the second quarter and a 3rd and 4 situation to convert from their own 31-yard line. The Seahawks are in a shotgun trips formation, with the trips to the field side. To the boundary, they have tight end Jimmy Graham (#88) as an isolated receiver. The only previous two plays of this drive were targets to Graham. Pre-snap, McKissic (#21) shifts his alignment to the weakside of the formation.
The Rams are in an exotic, pass-rushing front—a 3-2-6 with the two linebackers, Connor Barwin (#98) and Alec Ogletree (#52), sugaring the B Gaps. Aaron Donald (#99) is head up on center Justin Britt (#68). The two-high safety look and the alignment of the cornerbacks suggests that the coverage is some form of a Cover 2 man.
Following the snap, both Barwin and Ogletree drop back into coverage and Los Angeles only sends three defenders. They also rotate their weakside safety, Blake Countess (#24), down into the box as a robber over the isolated Jimmy Graham (#88). The coverage from the defensive backs is indeed man, albeit a Cover 1 robber rather than a Cover 2 man look.
Seattle’s route concept again creates clear separation for McKissic. The play works in a similar way. Inner-most receiver Doug Baldwin (#89) runs a deep out. Outside receiver Paul Richardson (#10) runs a spot route. Slot receiver Tyler Lockett (#16) runs a drag route.
All three act as a natural rub, springing McKissic who is releasing away from the flow and into the flat – free.
Ogletree, the defender chiefly responsible for the running back releasing to his side, is forced to navigate his way around the drag of Lockett. Lockett must be praised for running his route well. He hesitates to get around Ogletree, halting the linebacker, but crucially does not commit offensive pass interference by making contact with the defender. It’s the perfect pick.
Once more, Wilson has a simple, fast, clearly visible throw. McKissic showcases his ability to transition from receiver to runner quickly, accelerating outside and turning up field, plus Ogletree is too far away to make a play. Running right up the sideline, McKissic picks up the first down and more on the seven-yard catch and run.
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Keeping the drive alive here would prove crucial; the Seahawks went on to score on this series and pull themselves back into the game.
McKissic’s third and final reception of the game came with 9:24 remaining in the third quarter. Seattle has the ball on their 28-yard line and is attempting to convert this 2nd and 8. The Seahawks come out with 21 personnel, making an i-formation likely. (Seattle often lines up with Tre Madden as their lead blocker)
Instead, the Seahawks are in a spread shotgun formation. Fullback Madden (#38) is lined up at the top of the screen as a wide receiver. Tight End Jimmy Graham (#88) is in a two-point stance, almost as a slot receiver, and is on the boundary side like Madden. Seattle has twins receivers to the field. Los Angeles is in more of their 4-3 stand up end/3-4 under, based on the alignment of their front five. Behind it they have nickel.
Before Wilson hikes the ball, he motions McKissic (#21) from the backfield to the fieldside hashmark. This, once more, makes identifying the pass defense a simpler process for the passer. Moneybacker Mark Barron (#26) follows McKissic outside, moving his alignment from the boundary hash to the field. Alec Ogletree (#52) also comes down to the line of scrimmage in a press-man coverage look over Jimmy Graham. These keys clearly suggest that the Rams are playing Cover 1.
Crucially, Barron is in off coverage with McKissic. This results in him getting walled off by the Seahawks’ route combination. Deep safety John Johnson’s (#43) primary responsibility is assisting Ogletree against any seam route from Graham. Outside receiver Paul Richardson (#10) clears out the space to the field sideline with a go route. Slot receiver Doug Baldwin (#89) runs a perfect hitch pick route.
Barron, with his six-yard cushion, is forced to run around Baldwin’s route to break on McKissic’s wheel route. He also must take the shallow angle, with cornerback Trumaine Johnson (#22) acting as a barrier as well. As a result, McKissic is left with great separation.
The stunt that the Rams run up front is superb, with Aaron Donald (#99) occupying both left tackle Rhees Odhiambo (#77) and left guard Luke Joeckel (#76). Coming inside on the stunt, edge Robert Quinn (#94) shows superb patience. This sees him become a totally free rusher versus the Seahawks’ scat protection, leaving Wilson with no room to step into the throw from his five-step drop.
The pass, therefore, is slightly underthrown to the wide-open McKissic. However, following a perfectly run route, he adjusts to the ball mid-flight and high-points it for the 21-yard gain. This helped to kick-start a go-ahead drive, following a Greg Zuerlein missed field goal.
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Where McKissic must improve is his pass protection, which is a crucial skill for a third down back. Carson’s injury has also starved the Seahawks in this area, with Bevell including rollouts in third and long circumstances to move Wilson away from incoming pressure.
Additionally, McKissic has only had four catches in the two games he has featured in this season. His sole previous reception came versus the Indianapolis Colts, where Seattle took advantage of an un-set defense and exploited McKissic’s mismatch on linebacker Jonathan Bostic, out wide from an empty set, for the game-icing touchdown via a go route.
However, the second-year pro is not the sort of player who will rack up big numbers in this offense. Rather, he will be an important cog in the attack as a mismatch in the passing game on important downs. The scheme for him, getting him open via lots of pick and rub concepts, has been intelligent. Furthermore, motioning him pre-snap provides Wilson with an easier coverage diagnosis.
McKissic can also be a valuable change of pace runner thanks to his speed and burst. This works best on outside runs, as demonstrated in his four carries for 38 yards and long touchdown run versus the Colts.
Finally, McKissic is a threat as a misdirection player for defenses. Recently, the Seahawks have run jet and orbital motion with receiver Tyler Lockett. McKissic can execute similar movement pre-snap, sucking defenders downhill and/or outside.
With Seattle having a week 6 bye, the offense can work him further into the game plan ahead of their road game at the New York Giants in Week 7. The chances of that happening, and Prosise having a role too, seem to have increased following Carroll’s October 10th press conference. No longer did the head coach stress running the ball, instead mentioning his desire to get to at least 50 completions and carries combined.