Analysis Notebook, SBXLVIII: The Option
It wasn’t long ago that we were discussing whether the read-option had taken over the league and whether it was going to form the backbone of any new modern-thinking offenses. There were stories about NFL coaches spending their off seasons in college campuses learning from coaches used to seeing it each week how to best shut it down. It seemed like it was going to be a major feature of the NFL landscape for years to come.
And just like that, it dissipated. We’ve still seen option plays in the league, but it hasn’t been the devastating weapon it was a year ago, and teams have been using it more sparingly, even with different intentions in mind. Of over 12,500 rushing attempts this season just 1017 of them were option plays. Across 256 regular season games that’s fewer than four rushing attempts per game using the option.
The Seahawks, though, are still showing defenses an option look on a regular basis as they head into the Super Bowl.
In the postseason they have 15 rushing attempts using a read-option look, but the interesting thing is that over those two games they have handed every one off to the running back as Russell Wilson has yet to keep one.
I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, despite Marshawn Lynch kicking into full-on Beastmode™, teams have still respected Wilson’s athleticism and threat on the perimeter.
Take this play against the Saints a few weeks ago. Though Wilson has already handed the ball off to Lynch at the exchange point, Saints SS Roman Harper is still rigidly sticking to his assignment on the QB before he moves to Lynch and chases the run from behind once he is certain that Wilson hasn’t kept the football.
As long as a defense continues to play the option plays with the required level of discipline, the Seahawks will continue to hand that ball off to Lynch or Turbin up the middle. The Saints have improved their discipline this season and were consistently in the right place on these plays.
Here is another example, this time to the other side of the line of scrimmage. You can see OLB Keyunta Dawson breaking down and halting his charge up field when he reads option so that he can set the edge and contain Wilson if he keeps the football. Again Wilson reads this and hands the ball off to Lynch up the middle.
Against the 49ers it was a similar story except they were a little less obvious with how they defended the keeper. Their edge defenders cheated a little more towards the dive up the middle and any exposed edge was compensated for with a safety or defensive back ready to shoot up and contain the quarterback. Though this looked a little more attractive for a quarterback keeper, Wilson still handed every one of them off, passing up the opportunity to take one himself and test the run defense around the edge.
Seattle is using these option looks as much to manipulate the defense as they are as true options. On some of these plays it is clear Wilson isn’t really looking to keep the ball himself, but rather is using it to freeze an unblocked defender and allow the offense to gain a numerical advantage when it comes to blocking at the real point of attack.
That being said, the Seahawks have now put up a lot of tape of endless handoffs to Lynch in the postseason. During the regular season Russell Wilson averaged 4.6 yards per carry when he kept the ball on option plays, and I suspect that we’re going to see it again on Sunday.
Denver is a solid team at stopping the run up the middle, especially with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton in the form of his life, and the Seahawks have now spent fifteen straight option looks setting up anybody who was watching for the keeper. I expect them to continue to use those looks to try and open things up a little for Lynch up the middle, but I’m also expecting we’ll see Wilson test the Denver edge defense at least once or twice by keeping it himself and taking off into open field.
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