Decoding Pete Carroll
Pete Carroll tends to be cryptic in his press conferences, but not necessarily as cryptic as he thinks. He has made a number of comments since the loss to New Orleans that revealed both some information about why the Seahawks offense may have looked as inept as it has in recent weeks, as well as some of what he is counting on to change it.
First, on the Brock and Salk show on Monday, he mentioned that the team was adjusting to a new offense. When pressed about what he meant, he offered that they were tailoring the play calls to protect Russell Wilson as much as possible. That makes perfect sense. There are some clear implications.
1. Quick passing limits big plays
Getting rid of the ball quickly is a big consideration with a quarterback in Wilson’s condition. That was obviously a big part of the emphasis during this stretch. What had been a wonderful accent piece to their overall passing game in 2015, became their only passing game in recent weeks. The number of deep drops has been drastically reduced. Seattle had a healthy amount of throws downfield against the Rams in week two, and against the 49ers the following week, but that has dropped to almost nothing since Wilson hurt his knee against the 49ers.
2. Limited play-action and bootlegs
A big part of how the Seahawks have generated big plays in the past was off their run game, and that run game was heavily reliant on Wilson’s legs. People know the read-option when it is a run play. What many fail to realize is that becomes one of the most prominent play-action pass plays in the Seahawks arsenal. Think back in your memory banks how many times you have seen Wilson fake the handoff to a back coming across his face, and then pull the ball back and look down the field to throw. It happens so much, it is almost as invisible as the snap of the football.
There is little point to that fake when the team is not running read-option runs. Nobody is going to honor it.
Another play-action favorite of the Seahawks is the bootleg. This is where Wilson fakes a handoff to a back going one direction, and then peels off the other way without the benefit of any pass blocking in front of him. This has been a staple of the offense for years. It relies heavily on the mobility of the quarterback, and leaves him open to some big hits if the defense reads it and does not buy the fake.
We had not seen this play run for weeks until the Saints game. Wilson looked great the two times he did it on Sunday, and Carroll made note of it.
“We may have been fortunate to be as far along as we are right now. With everybody coming back together—Russell really will be at his very best. I don’t know that he’s 100 percent, but he’ll be at his very best. He looked good yesterday. He had a great naked (bootleg) that he ran to the left, which is the best he has looked on the run throwing, and he hit a great shot there. I think you’re going to see some things happen that will help us get a little bit better here.” – Pete Carroll on 710 ESPN’s Brock and Salk Show
3. Rare throws on the run
Wilson has absolutely killed defenses in past years throwing while scrambling. Some of those are the memorable crazy spins and dodges that look like a rodeo clown avoiding on-charging bulls. There have been many more subtle moments where a single spin or escape to space has allowed Wilson to give his receivers a bit more time and allowed him to throw on the run. Nobody on the NFL is better at throwing while moving than Wilson.
One could argue Wilson is most accurate when on the move, and his throws on the run account for a significant chunk of his explosive plays. That has been shelved while he heals from various ailments. Unfortunately, both ailments were also the result of him trying to throw on the run. This will be a delicate balance to strike the rest of the way.
4. No read-option
This one we have talked about for weeks. Read-option is a base running play for the team. Wilson’s injury has removed it from the offense. This has forced the coaches and the running game to find something to replace it. So far, that appears to be short passes. There has been a total lack of commitment to the run early in games. Carroll has consistently talked about wanting to get to the run late in games when the team is ahead. That’s not happening. We saw the team run six straight times after half against the Saints with good result. None of those runs were read-option. It will be interesting to see if they start bringing it back as Wilson’s legs recover.
Baldwin to see more targets
Carroll also offered that Doug Baldwin more. That is welcome news.
“We have to get Doug (Baldwin) more involved. He’s doing well, but we need to get him the football more.”
It is rare that Carroll discusses getting a player the ball more. He resisted the notion of targeting Jimmy Graham more after the trade last year, often reinforcing the notion that he will get the ball in the rhythm of the offense. The last time I remember Carroll specifically calling out the need to target someone more was back during Wilson’s rookie year when he openly discussed a desire for Wilson to give Sidney Rice and Golden Tate more chances. That resulted in a significant increase in targets for both players, as Wilson left his comfort zone of only throwing to open players and instead tried to give his guys a chance to make plays.
Nobody is open more often on this team than Baldwin. It felt like Wilson and the offense benefitted greatly from using him as the primary target at the end of last season. If you don’t think teams were trying to take him away back then when he was lighting the world on fire and there was no Graham to worry about, you are kidding yourself. There is no new coverage teams are playing to take him away. There should be a symbiotic relationship between Baldwin and Graham. The defense cannot take both away, and even if they try, both players have the ability to either get open or make a contested catch.
Reasons for optimism on offense
Wilson’s health improving
Wilson started to look healthy on Sunday, and was absent the ankle brace while reportedly wearing a smaller knee brace. That is welcome news, and should allow the team to start getting back to their bread-and-butter plays on offense. It may not mean the team is back to read-option runs, but it should allow more of the play-action passes and sprint outs where the pocket is moved. What we do not know is whether his pectoral injury is going to limit his deep throws or certain throws that rely heavily on arm strength. Time will tell.
Tyler Lockett’s finally looks healthy
Lockett was set to become a dynamic impact player this year, but got his knee twisted in the Rams game and has been a non-factor since. He was back to his springy self against the Saints, but was not a significant part of the game plan as the team tends to want to see a player get through a game before increasing their load. Look for him to get more chances starting this week. He is the team’s best deep threat.
Offense showed more life than you think against the Saints
Seattle gained 39.9 yards per drive this past Sunday. That was their highest mark of the season. Their previous best was 32.2 yards per drive against the 49ers. They had not been over 30 yards per drive since that game against San Francisco. That came along with a season-high 6.6 yards per play. Yes, they had the big trick play that helped, but so did the 4.4 yards per carry, which was also a season-high.
Their 45% conversion rate on third downs was their second-best mark of the year. Their 359 yards of total offense was also second-best. They gave up only one sack and are now 7th in the NFL in opponent sack rate. What really hurt was the 1-3 performance in the red zone and the failed field goal attempt before half. That 20 points could have easily been over 30 with a few breaks.
It is completely fair to rip into the offense for not doing enough to win that game, but a fair evaluation would give them some credit for showing a pulse where there had been none.
C.J. Prosise has stayed healthy for two games
The team clearly likes what it sees from Prosise, and why wouldn’t they? This is a guy who averaged nearly seven yards per run in college. He is showing that same explosive ability so far in limited chances. He will likely play a larger and larger role as the season wears on, and it may not be limited to just third down and two-minutes packages.
Thomas Rawls will eventually return
Best guess is Rawls will be back for the Eagles game, but there is an outside shot he could be back for the Patriots game. No matter the reason, the team is not comfortable slamming Christine Michael up the middle time and again. They absolutely are comfortable doing that with Rawls, and the team needs it.
Off year in the NFC
Look around the NFC and show me the powerhouse. Everyone loves the Cowboys because their record is 6-1, but would anyone fear a game against them? That defense is in the bottom half of the league, and they were getting throttled at home by the Eagles before Philadelphia fell apart.
The Falcons won last night, but are 6-3 and already have a loss to the Seahawks. The Vikings are 5-2, but have worse problems than the Seahawks on offense and a considerably worse offensive line. Yes, you read that right. Go check their sack totals and rushing totals and compare them to the Seahawks if you want to feel good about your team.
Seattle is the only other team in the NFC with fewer than three losses. It’s a mess. Imagine a worst-case scenario where the Seahawks do not get a first or second seed and have to win on the road to get the Super Bowl. None of these teams come close to approaching the quality of the Panthers from a year ago, or even the Vikings. The games would be indoors, and against teams with either severely flawed defenses or severely flawed offenses.
Granted, Seattle has a ways to go before they can reliably beat a team with a powerful offense, but they did it against Atlanta without Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett for the whole fourth quarter. The Seahawks are fortunate to be in the position they are with the injuries they have suffered. They are in the middle of the toughest stretch of games any team will face this season. The rest of the NFC has far more to fear from a Seattle team that rights the ship than Seattle has to fear from any of them.