As part of their zone-read option rushing attack, the Seattle Seahawks apply additional well-schemed concepts to keep defenses guessing. In Super Bowl XLIX, the New England Patriots will attempt to cope with creative wrinkles and a well-choreographed unit capable of controlling the time of possession and shortening the game. Brian Filipiak continues his look at the Seattle run game in this second installment of his series.
Zone-Read Wrinkles and Blocking
In the plays from part one, the wide receivers were mostly out of the picture, but perimeter offensive players can be instrumental to the success of a zone-read. The first concept involves using the wide receivers as decoys, which is particularly effective against man coverage:
By running fade-type routes instead of engaging in a block right off the snap, the wide receivers can, in essence, clear out the secondary force defender. With the Chiefs cornerback in press-man coverage on the eventual run side, notice how the wide receiver simulates a route and causes the defender to turn his back on a play heading directly toward him. Without even laying a finger on him, the wide receiver has “blocked” the much-needed run support defender.
To counter this problem, you will often see defenses ‒ even those with predominantly man-coverage tendencies ‒ elect to mix in more zone coverage against heavy run teams that have a dual threat behind center since it allows defenders to keep their eyes in the backfield and read the QB.
Packaging A Passing Option
Further clouding things, the Seahawks have built in a third alternative for Russell Wilson ‒ a passing option, such as a wide receiver bubble screen:
In this case, the screen option works as a decoy as, along with the run blocking action, it draws the attention of the St. Louis Rams secondary to the weak-side. Wilson has only the unblocked outside linebacker Alec Ogletree (#52) to beat with the entire side of the field unoccupied ‒ a difficult assignment for the defender who has no help to the outside or inside due to the seal out block by Cooper Helfet (#84). It’s likely that, based off the defensive alignment, Wilson had his mind made up to run before the snap.
But when the pass option becomes available, it can be a back-breaking play against the defense. Just ask the Packers about Week 1 and this pitch-and-catch from Wilson to wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (#83):
The design and execution of this play requires little analysis ‒ it’s a perfect read by Wilson, especially when factoring in that the Green Bay cornerbacks are playing bail technique. When the cornerbacks have their bodies turned toward the center instead of square and are peeking into the backfield to see the development of the play, they are highly susceptible to reacting to the run ‒ or a fake. Seeing the play action, the secondary force defender abandons Lockette in coverage, leaving the deep safety little time to respond based on his pre-snap positioning. The missed tackle and subsequent touchdown caps off the hard-to-defend play.
Executing Like A Beast
Thus far, most of the focus regarding the zone-read has been on Wilson, but when the QB hands the rock to Marshawn Lynch or backups Christine Michael or Robert Turbin, we get a clearer picture of the inner workings of the run blocking scheme and execution by the blockers. The run play shown below against the Kansas City Chiefs provides a textbook example on an inside zone run:
Wilson reads the unblocked force defender (Justin Houston, #50) and hands off to Lynch. From there a series of blocks develop that springs the ball carrier into the open field.
Behind the play, right guard J.R. Sweezy (#64) cuts down the backside pursuit linebacker and right tackle Justin Britt (#68) works with the tight end to thwart backfield penetration by the defensive lineman.
On the play side, left tackle Russell Okung (#76) kicks out the force defender (Tamba Hali, #91), creating one side of the lane that Lynch ends up exploiting. Finally, left guard Alvin Bailey (#78) and center Max Unger (#60) coordinate on a fold block in which Bailey engages the 1-technique defensive tackle while Unger pulls around to deliver a cut block on the stacked linebacker. Lynch sprints through the resulting opening for a 14-yard gain.
Don’t Get The Wrong Idea
The Seahawks offensive line is far from infallible, though, as Wilson, Lynch and a terrific scheme hide many blemishes both in run blocking and pass protection. While Unger ‒ a big and athletic anchor in the middle ‒ is All-Pro caliber at his position when healthy, the play of his fellow linemen has been largely uneven throughout the course of the season, particularly the right side of the offensive line.
As the Carolina Panthers showed in the NFC Divisional Round game, a disciplined defense with a defensive line capable of winning a share of one-on-one battles in the trenches can tame a ferocious running attack to some degree (103 rushing yards on 25 carries). In the play shown below, the Panthers’ lighter 4-2 nickel front is able to penetrate and stuff the outside zone attempt by Lynch:
Keying off outside linebacker Thomas Davis (#58) ‒ remaining composed in his contain assignment ‒ Wilson hands off to Lynch. Defensive end Charles Johnson (#95) attacks the B-gap, gaining a step on Britt before engaging the tackle. Johnson’s effort forces Britt to the run direction of Lynch. Defensive tackle Colin Cole (#91) duplicates his teammate’s success, delaying Unger’s progress to reach linebacker Luke Kuechly at the second level. Although not involved in the final outcome of the play, defensive tackle Kawann Short (#99) and defensive end Wes Horton (#96) also get the better of their one-on-one matchups.
Davis’s patience is rewarded as he crashes down into the backfield to toss down Lynch.
Counter and Stretch
While the zone-read is the heartbeat of their running game, the Seahawks also implement more traditional running plays with Wilson under center. One go-to run call is the counter trap that utilizes a fullback or tight end who starts from the strong side and pulls across the formation to act as a lead blocker on the weak-side run.
The trap element occurs when ‒ similar to a zone-read option ‒ the weak-side force defender is initially left unblocked, only to be kicked out by the pull blocker as seen against the San Francisco 49ers in the video below:
The misdirection steps by Lynch allow time for the pulling Moeaki to cross the center and cut down the penetrating outside linebacker, Aldon Smith (#99). As Lynch counters his run to the weak side behind the block of his tight end, the offensive linemen try to construct a wall inside, delaying the backside pursuit. Lynch rips off 16 yards against the 49ers defensive front.
Seattle ran a similar play against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, doing so against a loaded box:
In similar fashion to the prior play, fullback Will Tukuafu (#46) pulls across the formation at the snap to take on the unblocked linebacker, Clay Matthews (#52). With Matthews falling for the trap, Lynch evades the defender and shoots through the open alley. But where the 49ers failed above, the Packers run support from the secondary makes the play. The secondary force defender funnels the ball carrier back inside where safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (#21) ‒ avoiding the crack-back block from wide receiver Doug Baldwin (#89) ‒ trips up Lynch on the small gain.
Defending the counter or similar misdirection runs require the linebackers to adjust their keys, reading and reacting accordingly (such as following the pull-blocking tight end, not the guard and certainly not the running back). In addition, well-positioned secondary force defenders in run support can minimize potentially big gains.
A proper review of the Seahawks run game would not be complete without a traditional stretch/power run concept and the activation of Beast Mode. Operating out of the i-formation with no trickery involved, Seattle presses the run wide to the strong side with a lead fullback against the Panthers:
With tight end Luke Willson (#82) kicking out the edge defender while Sweezy and Unger wall off the defensive linemen, Lynch’s point of attack has been set with Tukuafu leading the way. As the fullback delivers the low block on safety Roman Harper (#41), Kuechly ‒ last year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year ‒ is in position to slow down Lynch after fending off Britt’s block attempt. But arm tackles don’t faze Beast Mode. This play highlights the importance of rallying to a ball carrier that has superior contact balance, finishing strength and a nasty stiff arm: No tackle can be taken for granted against Lynch.
As noted in the video, the Seahawks will work play-action bootlegs from similar formations and run blocking actions.
Patriots Run Defense: Plenty To Worry About
To say the least, the New England defense has to be ready for almost anything, especially when facing zone-read looks. No running game in the league challenges a defense in more different ways than Wilson, Lynch and the Seahawks.
While certain strategies can be used to curtail the QB run option element, for the Patriots defense to be successful against the run they must remain disciplined in their assignments, diagnose their keys, shield themselves from cut blocks to stay in the play and simply win more individual battles than their opposition. As the coach in the gray hoodie likes to say, “just do your job,” and watch as all the parts work together to form a unified defense that more than stands a chance in Super Bowl XLIX.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.
Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.