Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at Lumen Field in Seattle, Washington, as the Seattle Seahawks will face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what you should know:
SEAHAWKS’ OFFENSE HAS EXPANDED THEIR HORIZONS
After back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and winning a championship in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks began a slight decline that saw the team drop from the status of a Super Bowl contender to a mere playoff team. It was a time in which the Seahawks got away from their offensive identity a bit, which resulted in then-coordinator Darrell Bevell being shown the door following 2017. Head coach Pete Carroll came to the realization that quarterback Russell Wilson was more suited to operate an offense that can use rollouts, bootlegs and passing plays outside of the pocket – mostly due to his 5’11” frame, which limits Wilson inside the pocket. That explains the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer in 2018 to execute this vision, and Wilson has adapted accordingly.
Before landing in Seattle, Schottenheimer – like his father, former NFL head coach Marty – was known for leading conservative attacks with the Rams and New York Jets. But Schottenheimer, now in his third year with the Seahawks, has opened up his playbook more, resulting in this offense being one of the most pass-happy in the NFL. In addition to the aforementioned rollouts and bootlegs, this scheme is also characterized by deep vertical throws off of play-action, split-flow movement by the tight ends during said run-action to open up windows over the middle of the field and flood concepts that will attack the deep, intermediate and short levels of one side of the formation.
Wilson is among the game’s best deep ball throwers because of his arm strength, accuracy and impeccable mechanics. He feels pressure well within the pocket and can extend plays due to his quickness and second-reaction movement. Wilson also has a habit of sometimes dropping his eyes away from his receivers to the pass rush in front of him, but also the rare ability to pick them back up and refocus on what is happening down the field.
Tyler Lockett possesses a ton of speed and quickness and has taken over the retired Doug Baldwin’s old slot duties in this scheme. Second-year man D.K. Metcalf can run slants, posts, “sluggos” (slant and gos) and go routes from a boundary ‘X’ position (the single receiver on the opposite side of a formation while others line up on another). Metcalf, while not especially quick, has excellent body control and can make contested catches along the sidelines, while Lockett and tight ends Greg Olsen and Will Dissly can work the middle of the field.
Seattle’s running game is typically zone-based and executed by the underrated Chris Carson and backups Rashad Penny, Carlos Hyde, Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas, who finished the regular season 12th in the NFL in rushing yards. The offensive line blocking for them is made up former Pro Bowlers Duane Brown and Mike Iupati, and team newcomers Ethan Pocic, Damien Lewis and Brandon Shell.
SEATTLE’S DEFENSE HAS GOTTEN BACK TO THEIR ROOTS
The same scenario happened for their defense, as Kris Richard moved towards an approach based more off Cover-One – man coverage across the board with one deep safety and one in the box – and not on their traditional Cover Three (three-deep zone coverage). Carroll let Richard walk before 2018 and replaced him with former linebackers coach and Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and the Seahawks have gotten back to their zone-based fundamentals (Chris B. Brown of smartfootball.com wrote an excellent piece on Carroll’s defensive philosophy a number of years ago, check it out here: https://grantland.com/features/whos-laughing-now/).
While not the feared Legion of Boom unit from earlier this decade, Seattle has a youthful defense that finished near the bottom of the NFL in most categories – especially against the pass – but still has some talent. Their best pass rushers are former first round draft pick L.J. Collier and ex-Cincinnati Bengal Carlos Dunlap, who each have an abundance of power in their game and utilize strength and technique to get to opposing quarterbacks rather than speed. Defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Poona Ford are good at clogging gaps against the run, and sometimes Carroll and Norton will ask one side of their front-four to control two gaps while the other will be responsible for one – getting the best of both worlds in run support (additionally, this team also likes to overload one side of the line in passing situations and bring stunts and twists to create pressure).
Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain among the best in the NFL in coverage responsibilities (Wagner is also a quietly good blitzer) and the drafting of speedy rookie Jordyn Brooks allows Seattle to use their base defense at a higher rate than other teams. They rarely utilize extra defensive backs.
The Seahawks’ secondary is headlined by young cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar and safeties Quandre Diggs and the versatile and rangy Jamal Adams, who was acquired via trade with the Jets over the summer. Adams has been used much more often as a blitzer in Seattle than he was in New York, resulting in him setting the NFL record for most sacks in one season by a defensive back with 9.5. Dunbar is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery and has been replaced by D.J. Reed.
Seattle’s defense may be getting hot at the right time. They have allowed 17 points or fewer in five of their last six games and have allowed just 16 points a game in eight contests since they gave up 44 points to the Buffalo Bills in Week Nine – nearly identical to their output in their last Super Bowl appearance in 2014 (15.9).
RAMS’ DEFENSE IS TALENTED AND OVERLOOKED
Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit over the last three years was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who has appeared to keep the system in place.
Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, the underrated Michael Brockers, former Bear Leonard Floyd and gifted third-year linebacker Micah Kiser, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. Nevertheless, the team finished the 2020 regular season first in the league in passing yards allowed, third against the run, second in sacks and first in points allowed – the franchise’s best output on that side of the ball in more than 40 years.
Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last two years, out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes got burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Troy Hill, who shifts to the slot when the Rams go to their subpackages. John Johnson III and Jordan Fuller are the team’s primary safeties.
This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and company into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Staley mix it up more against Seattle?
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t have anything remotely close to fielding a good offense for a long time. That has changed ever since Sean McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including former Rams back Todd Gurley, who was also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats.
But Gurley, who helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII in 2018, was released by Los Angeles this spring after a knee injury compromised his production and his contract became an albatross to the team’s salary cap. In have stepped former backups Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson (who is out with an ankle injury) and rookie Cam Akers from Florida State, and they have performed well. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Joe Noteboom, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).
One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly in order to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.
Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate, intelligent and throws a better deep ball than people realize. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and he isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.
Goff is also sometimes a tad late when it comes to exploiting coverages. According to USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “(Goff) throws with anticipation to a degree, but he’s often throwing guys open when they’re already open, meaning that he’s throwing them closed and allowing defensive backs to jump and pick routes. The problem gets worse when his receivers are challenged.”
The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Woods has emerged as a solid possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills four years ago and Higbee and Everett have been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).
Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and Woods in what are known as “high/low” concepts – Woods being the low man on hitch routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take away his route, while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.