Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Oct 2016

Film Room: Seahawks vs. Cardinals

by Cian Fahey

Not long ago, some of the best games the NFL had to offer were played between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers and Ravens were two of the best teams in the league. They were guaranteed to meet each other twice in the regular season, and regularly met again during the playoffs. From 2006 to 2010, the Ravens and Steelers played each other 12 times, including 10 regular season games and two in the postseason. In seven of those 12 games, they combined for fewer than 40 points. In two more the score was 23-20, with one game being decided in overtime. The Ravens and Steelers didn't just play close games, they played games that defenses dominated, while offenses hoped to put together just one or two drives that could prove to be decisive.

Now, whenever two teams come together to endure a low-scoring affair, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is recalled. Sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest. More often than not the games that are put on that pedestal aren't worthy of the mantle.

On Sunday, we got the rare exception.

The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks combined for 12 points in five quarters. That's 12 points in FIVE quarters. Only three games in history have finished with 12 or fewer points after going to overtime. The last came in 1992. Sure, there were terrible missed field goals at the end, and Russell Wilson's effectiveness was/is clearly limited because of his health, but this was a phenomenal game for those of us who long for the days when defense stood a chance. This wasn't a game where the score was low because you had two quarterbacks incapable of hitting open receivers. It wasn't a game where either coaching staff lacked creativity or called a cautious game plan. It was a game where the stars just happened to be on the defensive side of the ball. A game where two defenses dominated by winning one-on-one matchups within the structure of the play call to overwhelm their opponents.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

The Seahawks defense was on the field for more than 45 minutes in this game. Each play shown in this article took place in overtime, so keep in mind that these players weren't fresh when making the plays that they were making.

On third-and-7 during Arizona's second drive in overtime, Carson Palmer hit J.J. Nelson over the middle of the field for a 40-yard gain. It was the longest play of the game. Nelson ran a 4.28 40 at the combine the year he was drafted. He is one of the fastest players in the NFL. He is also the type of receiver who has given Richard Sherman trouble over the course of his career. He's small, agile, and extremely fast. Sherman's bulk and length works against him when trying to play aggressive coverage against those types of receivers.

On this play, as you can see in the above image, Sherman is lined up in off coverage at the snap. He is responsible for Nelson with a man coverage assignment.

Nelson is a Bruce Arians wide receiver. This means that he has been coached up in the finer points of routes, so even if he doesn't run them precisely, he will at least understand the concept of each route. This can be seen as Nelson leaves his route. He widens his stem as he approaches Sherman, using the threat of his deep speed to force the cornerback further outside. Sherman reacts well, accounting for the speed without overexposing himself to an inside break. Sherman is actually in the perfect position to cover Nelson as the receiver comes out of his break, but Nelson has been taught to use his arms so when he bumps into Sherman, he knocks the cornerback over. This is ruled incidental contact, and it gives Palmer a chance to hit Nelson in the chest with his pass. Sherman is left grasping at air when the ball arrives.

Sherman stumbling to the ground is huge here. It allows Nelson to swivel and run free upfield. Now the free safety is shifted into focus. What you can't see in the above GIF is that the Seahawks have rotated Earl Thomas into the slot to match the Cardinals' five-receiver formation. This leaves Kelcie McCray, Kam Chancellor's replacement at strong safety, as the deep-lying defender. McCray comes into the picture in the final moments in the above GIF.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

The above GIF begins when Nelson catches the ball. Palmer executed this play perfectly. He moved McCray with his eyes so the deep-lying defender was on the opposite side of the field from Nelson. McCray has a lot of ground to make up from the very beginning. He is a 6-foot-2, 202-pound safety. For comparison, he ran a 4.54 at the combine. 4.54 seconds is a very impressive number for a player of McCray's size, but it still doesn't mean he should realistically be able to catch Nelson, especially when he takes a bad angle. McCray should have initially conceded more ground than he did to cut off Nelson before the receiver could reach the end zone. Instead, he reaches a point in the play where Nelson should be able to accelerate away from him. That point is when the GIF freezes for the first time.

McCray needed all of his length and athleticism to make this play -- not to mention his stamina and effort considering it was the fifth quarter. When the GIF freezes for the second time, you can see how he only ever grabbed Nelson by one ankle. Nelson is a very light receiver, so taking him down by one leg isn't like taking down most receivers by one leg. Locating that leg while sprinting at full speed is an entirely different task.

At the time this play seemed inconsequential, but it proved to be game-saving. At least, it did when paired with two more plays that followed. Nelson failed to score, but the Cardinals were still at the goal line.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

One of the criticisms of Earl Thomas throughout his career has been that he misses too many tackles. It's a hollow criticism that fails to recognize Thomas' true value. Thomas may miss tackles, but that's often because he is capable of becoming a factor in plays that most safeties can't get near. Thomas' range is truly unique. No other safety in the NFL combines the same ability to locate the ball with the sheer physical talent to cover the requisite ground to close from anywhere on the field. In goal-line situations, you would think that Thomas' skill set wouldn't be valuable. He's light and space tightens, so it's less about covering ground and more about getting off blocks. David Johnson would have scored on his first goal-line carry if not for Thomas' range (and again, his stamina and effort at this point of the game).

First thing to note in the above GIF is Thomas' positioning to begin the play. He's on what is ultimately the wrong side of the formation. Before the ball is snapped, he threatens to blitz before dropping into a central position. While he's dropping into a central position, he is also dropping deeper from the line of scrimmage. Johnson is taking the ball from his quarterback as Thomas drops to the goal line. The GIF slows down through the moments when Thomas is diagnosing the play. He never stops moving and transitions from dropping to pursuing as smoothly as any safety in the NFL.

It's a race to the pylon between Johnson and Thomas from here. Johnson has the momentum and a lead, but he has to bend around cornerback DeShawn Shead outside. Thomas actually overtakes Shead and beats Johnson to the pylon with literally inches to spare. Thomas' presence is the reason Johnson can't reach the ball forward to cross the goal line, and the reason Johnson's heel hits out of bounds before his foot can reach the end zone. No other safety in the NFL makes this play, and that is why Earl Thomas is the best safety in the NFL.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Entering this game, Johnson had scored four touchdowns on four carries from the 1- or 2-yard line. The only time he has been stopped that close to the end zone was on Sunday. Johnson is a behemoth, a battering ram that accelerates like it has been shot out of a cannon. If you're in a one-on-one situation against Johnson and he only needs to gain forward momentum, you shouldn't have a shot -- unless you are Bobby Wagner. In writing about Deone Bucannon before the season, Film Room noted how the Cardinals safety playing linebacker didn't play with the discipline of a linebacker. He didn't account for gaps or play with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. On this play, Wagner is never too cautious or too aggressive. He always has his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. He tracks Johnson as he works behind the line of scrimmage, almost guiding him to the outside gap with his presence. Wagner is then able to hit Johnson square, stopping him in his tracks before driving him backwards.

Technically, mentally, and physically, this is a perfect play from Wagner. He was in a situation where the running back is supposed to win 90 percent of the time, and he turned the 10 percent in his favor. Had Ray Lewis made this play with the game on the line, it would lead the montages that preceded his Hall of Fame induction.

Who knows, Wagner might get one of those one day too. He's certainly talented enough to be in that conversation if he can enjoy a career long enough to make his case.

The Seahawks had all of the spectacular defensive stops late in the game. The Cardinals were also consistently on top of the Seahawks offense throughout the game, though. Whenever you face a division opponent who has employed the same coaching staff for a prolonged period, you should be familiar with how their offense functions. The Cardinals showed off a clear understanding of how to counter Darrell Bevell's offense.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Russell Wilson's inability to be a rushing threat has limited the effectiveness of the Seahawks offense (20th in DVOA and 30th in rushing DVOA), but it hasn't impacted Bevell's approach. He doesn't have a talented offensive line to rely on, so he can't alter how they try to run the ball. The Seahawks scheme tries to stretch you horizontally and vertically. When healthy, Wilson is an impressive vertical passer and the Seahawks have deep threats across the field. When he's not healthy, the vertical threat is lessened. Wilson is integral to the Seahawks running game because he forces backside defenders to account for him. Most quarterbacks have to be accounted for -- Kirk Cousins just ran for an (almost) game-winning 20-plus-yard touchdown against the Detroit Lions when he was left unaccounted for on a read-option play last week. How much you have to account for them, though, changes based on the individual skill set.

With Wilson you previously had to be less aggressive and stay wider to contain him. Now that he's less of a running threat, you can be a little bit more aggressive.

The above play ends the Seahawks' first drive of the game. The first thing to note is the Cardinals' alignment. On the far side of the field they have three defensive backs to match three receivers. On the near side they have dropped a safety onto the edge. That safety is Tony Jefferson (22). Even though the Seahawks aren't in a natural read-option formation before the snap, Jefferson understands the offense and is prepared for it when Wilson steps backwards to execute the handoff. Wilson has his eyes on Jefferson, but Jefferson perfectly places himself to watch the ball and diagnose the play. He can track the running back if he has to while accounting for Wilson if the quarterback keeps the ball. A healthy Wilson would have been able to beat Jefferson around the edge here. But Jefferson knows Wilson isn't healthy. Therefore he can be slightly more aggressive than normal. Jefferson corrals the quarterback long before he can get to the line of scrimmage.

That was Wilson's only rushing attempt of the game. The Seahawks ran the ball 19 times for 52 yards, with a longest run of 10 yards. Without the ability to run the ball, it was easier for the Cardinals to set themselves up against the Seahawks passing game.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Wilson isn't a quarterback who is comfortable holding the ball within the confines of the pocket. He wants to catch and release before the edge rushers get level with him. If he can't do that, he wants to escape the pocket and work from the flat outside of structure. His physical limitations this season have prevented him from escaping the pocket as effectively, meaning the Cardinals pass rush didn't have to rush contain. His reluctance to hold the ball in the pocket meant that the secondary could be more aggressive against the first action of the receiver. Double moves were less of a threat, and extended plays that surpassed the design of the route weren't as common. Wilson threw the ball 37 times and finished with only 225 yards. Exactly 100 of those yards came in overtime, as the Cardinals blanketed the Seahawks through the first four quarters.

The Cardinals didn't need to blitz to get to Wilson. On 44 plays, they rushed four or five defenders after the quarterback 42 times. Behind those pass rushes they relied on aggressive man coverage, understanding that their cornerbacks would only need to win the initial route. The third-quarter play shown above captures how they challenged the Seahawks receivers. You can't typically do this to the Seahawks offense repeatedly because Wilson will eventually take advantage of the space that is naturally created to scramble.

Despite Wilson's struggles for most of the game, he still made those plays in the fourth quarter, so it's not like he wasn't a threat when the Cardinals were holding him down. It was much easier for the Cardinals defense to contain the Seahawks offense than it was for the Seahawks defense to contain the Cardinals offense -- but it wasn't necessarily easy.

At a time when it has never been easier to score, when it has never been easier to play quarterback, and when defenders are more likely to be punished than rewarded for executing a play perfectly, this game was refreshing.

Maybe enjoying this game makes you a football hipster, but the negative response to it was confusing. The quality of play in the NFL has declined in part because defenses are no longer fighting a fair fight. With defenders always at a disadvantage, offensive players rarely have to overcome great challenges to be productive. Football, like most sports, is at its best when great players overcome great obstacles to do great things. If the rules are such that the offensive players don't have to overcome great obstacles, it all looks too easy, and in turn, less spectacular.

Nothing was easy in this game. The great players overcoming great obstacles just happened to be the guys who don't touch the ball. Whether it was Bobby Wagner meeting David Johnson in the hole or Kelcie McCray chasing down J.J. Nelson to tackle him by his ankle, Sunday night was a reminder of what it was like to watch great players doing great things. A reminder of what it was like to watch great football.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 27 Oct 2016

13 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2016, 12:21pm by mrwalterisgod

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 2:59pm

McCray was at less of a disadvantage than you might think. In the wide view of the play, he clearly gets about a 10-15 yard start on his run before Nelson has a chance to start running.

Nelson ran a 4.28-40, but his 10-yd split was 1.50s. His last 30 yards took 2.78s.

Long story short, that 10 yard flying start means McCray could run roughly half a second faster than his standing start time, or a 4.04-40 vs Nelson's 4.28-40. Accordingly, he made up a bad angle and caught him.

5
by ngb43 :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 7:16pm

McCray had also been on the field for more than 100 plays at the time of that tackle so he had a pretty huge disadvantage.

2
by Perfundle :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 3:21pm

Curious approach by Arizona in the second goal-line play. In the first one the blockers immediately took on Wagner and Wright, and took both of them out of the play. In the second one they ignored both of them, and Wagner makes the tackle on Johnson while Wright nearly got there. It looks like Fitzgerald should have come off of Lane to help block Wagner.

3
by wrbrooks :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 5:30pm

I'm not a football expert, but my understanding of pre-snap reads in the rushing game is that the QB counts the defenders to the left and to the right of the center, and if the offense has more blockers to one side than the defense has defenders, then if necessary he'll switch the play to run that direction.

So why do the Seahawks line up for both goal-line plays with the same number of defenders left and right, even though the Cardinals come out both times with three tight ends on the left side of their line? If Wagner (54) and Bennet (72) hadn't tossed their blockers aside, the first play would have been an easy TD. The second play, I recall, was hurried to try and catch the defense un[prepared, so I can better understand the alignment there.

4
by Perfundle :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 6:38pm

Seattle doesn't have the same number of defenders left and right. First off, in both plays they have nine visible players with two in the middle, so they have three on the (defensive) left and four on the right. Second, in both plays Arizona has ten visible players. Presumably they have a wide receiver on one of the sides with a defender across from him, which means that there is one more Seattle defender unaccounted for, and it's likely that he's on the defensive right in both plays.

6
by wrbrooks :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 7:24pm

Freezing both plays at the moment the ball is snapped, Seattle has four men to the defensive left, four to the right, and one linebacker aligned with the football. A few frames after the snap of the first goal-line play, Arizona has hat-on-hat blocking to the playside, and both Earl Thomas and Kelcie McCray (33) are on the backside. Earl is beginning to recover but if Bennett and Wagner hadn't embarrassed the guys trying to block them, Johnson could have reached the end zone untouched.

Thomas' speed allowed him to make an incredible recovery but it seems like he should have been lined up over the strong side to begin with.

On the second play, Arizona had the numbers to block hat-on-hat to the playside, but their receivers double-teamed Jeremy Lane (20), leaving Johnson one-on-one Wagner for that amazing tackle. At the same time, Seattle has two men left unblocked on the backside. My best guess is that their decision was to maximize backside pursuit in hope of getting a tackle for loss.

7
by Perfundle :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 8:13pm

The second one is more arguable, but this is the first play at the moment the ball is snapped:

https://imgur.com/a/Ljmxg

If you call #50 aligned with the football then #98 is as well. I just watched both plays again and #33 Shead is lined up on the far defensive right in both plays, so there's your missing defender on the right side.

Earl is beginning to recover but if Bennett and Wagner hadn't embarrassed the guys trying to block them, Johnson could have reached the end zone untouched.

I think Shead's extreme wide alignment causing Seattle's overall lack of bodies in the box is because Seattle was forced into a sub-optimal defensive strategy due to circumstances. Normally, the defense's goal in this situation is to prevent the touchdown. Here, Seattle's goal is to try to force a turnover, because even if they do stop them, Arizona would've had a near certain field goal. So Seattle has Shead out wide to make Arizona run the ball, so they can try to force a fumble during the run. They risked the possibility of Johnson running in untouched to prevent Arizona from passing the ball to the flats or the corner of the endzone, because there would be an extremely low possibility of Arizona losing the ball on such a pass.

8
by wrbrooks :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 9:16pm

That makes sense.

9
by wrbrooks :: Thu, 10/27/2016 - 9:16pm

That makes sense.

10
by Joe Pancake :: Fri, 10/28/2016 - 10:55am

"Maybe enjoying this game makes you a football hipster, but the negative response to it was confusing."

Couldn't agree more. Especially since there were zero (!) combined turnovers, and the only true kicking gaffe was Hauschka's shank job. There weren't even many dropped passes (Michael Floyd and Jimmy Graham each had a bad one, but that's all I remember) and when the QBs missed opened receivers it was because they had pass rushers in their faces.

People were citing the Cardinals kicking woes as examples of "bad" football, as if Bobby Wagner timing the snap count and leaping over the line (legally) had nothing to do with it. It was one of the greatest blocked field goals I've ever seen, and I think it pretty clearly affected Catanzaro's second miss. If that's bad football, sign me up!

Even the blocked punt wasn't sloppy. Tanner McEvoy just overpowered the blockers and got a hand on the kick. It's not like the Cardinals missed an assignment and let him come free. He just made a great play.

If every game was this like, yeah, it would get boring. But that's not the case, and I found this game a refreshing oddity that I'm unlikely to forget anytime soon.

11
by tuluse :: Fri, 10/28/2016 - 11:04am

I only caught the 2nd half and OT, but I also loved watching this game.

12
by dreessen :: Fri, 10/28/2016 - 11:49am

The Seahawks 3 to 6 loss to the Browns in Cleveland in 2011 with clipboard Jesus vs. Colt McCoy was bad football. This was good players on defense making good plays.

13
by mrwalterisgod :: Fri, 10/28/2016 - 12:21pm

"His reluctance to hold the ball in the pocket..."

Funny, we critique QB's for holding the ball too long as a norm, but on a night when Seattle's tackles couldn't withstand a wet paper towel, it's now Russell's fault for not holding the ball. Okay.

The real culprit was the holding penalties, some of which were just garbage calls (as was the holding on Richard Sherman, which negated an Earl Thomas INT). Seattle had no chance in 1st or 2nd and 20.