Analysis Notebook: TNF, Wk 7
Thursday night’s game proved to be about as predictable as you might have expected. Seattle didn’t play at their best, but really didn’t have to in order to beat the Arizona Cardinals, even on the road. The game itself wasn’t full of magical moments, but I wanted to focus in on the game’s opening score, a touchdown pass to Sidney Rice that is a perfect example of something we see every week in the NFL but rarely gets analyzed — the scramble drill.
As much as offenses plan for everything to run smoothly and the protection to hold up, we know there will be several plays a game where pressure forces the quarterback to abandon the play and start improvising as he scrambles. When that happens the quarterback is no longer sitting in the pocket with a view of every pattern being run, and coverage defenders have seen what the play was and have a better chance of jumping on a route. Any pattern being run deep down field will likely quickly pass out of the quarterback’s reach with a throw, especially if he is on the move when he attempts the pass, so in several ways simply sitting where your route ended or continuing on its trajectory is not workable. When receivers sense the quarterback is in trouble and has been flushed from the pocket, they start the scramble drill, with their only objective being to find space and give the quarterback somewhere to go with the football.
Depending on exactly what has happened to the quarterback and where they are on the field, there can be many subtle ways of getting open when everything has broken down, and often players that excel at finding the soft spots in zones are the guys who find that area of space time after time. For a long time after Deion Branch lost the ability to separate in close coverage he was one of the best players in the league at getting open when Tom Brady was forced to move in the pocket. If Brady was flushed and forced to buy time, you could almost guarantee the ball would end up being thrown toward Branch, and more often than not he found an area of space to make the throw work.
Some receiving groups have pretty sophisticated procedures to ensure that not every receiver automatically breaks to the same area of the field, but one thing you will almost always find is a receiver who was initially running a shallow route breaking deep. It may seem counter intuitive. After all they are then expecting the quarterback – scrambling to buy time – to hit a deeper ball, which are usually tougher to complete, but the act of that quarterback scrambling, and the initial reaction from defenders, is usually enough to break those routes wide open.
Seattle @ Arizona | 1st Q, 7:21
The Seahawks lined up with a bunch to the right of the formation and Golden Tate split to the left covered by Patrick Peterson, a theme for much of the night. That is worth mentioning if only because that was where Russell Wilson was initially intending to go with the football. The way the Cardinals defended the bunch meant they committed SS Yeremiah Bell to that route combination instead of their slot corner, Tyrann Mathieu, who blitzed on the play. When Wilson saw that pre-snap he knew that Tate was isolated in single coverage against Peterson, and whether it was cover-1 or cover-3 it was a matchup he liked.
The Seahawks deployed the bunch formation in a pretty standard set of routes designed to spread out the coverage to that side and hopefully find a soft spot in the zones for one of the three receivers. The issues started when Arizona decided to send a heavy blitz. Not only did Mathieu come off the edge from the slot, but all four of the front line rushed the passer, as well as one of the linebackers, Karlos Dansby. Seattle kept in the running back to theoretically have six bodies to block six rushers, but the stunt the Cardinals ran up front committed three linemen to blocking just two defenders, leaving Dansby a free run to the quarterback.
As an aside, this is why stunts and twists are key to any good pass rush. Had the Cardinals just rushed six guys to the Seahawks’ six blockers, they may well have all been picked up and never generated pressure. OK, so that pressure didn’t do them much good in this instance, but over the long-haul pressure always has a positive net impact for the defense.
At this point Wilson was forced to abandon the play and improvise. He avoided Dansby by scrambling out to the right, and at this point his initial target of Golden Tate was long forgotten. He is too far down field to enter consideration. Instead, he was forced to read the bunch and work out where the best pass would be. Doug Baldwin was open in the flat to that side, and would probably have been where Wilson went with the football if Sidney Rice hadn’t reacted the way he had. As soon as he saw his quarterback in trouble, Rice adjusted deep without hesitation. This turned his hitch route effectively into a stop and go that beat Bell like a drum. Bell had been covering Rice’s hitch out of the bunch formation, and was closing ground to make a play on it if he had to. Wilson breaking the pocket to the right just increased Bell’s desire to move toward the line of scrimmage. As a strong safety there’s a pretty good chance he’d be involved in stopping Wilson if he kept the ball and tried to pick up yardage with his legs. As soon as Rice broke deep, Bell was beaten. With him moving toward the line of scrimmage, and the corner to that side fanning out to cover Baldwin in the flat, Wilson suddenly had a huge area of field to put the ball over the top for Rice to run under.
The only other defender to worry about was the FS in the middle of the field, and he cheated enough in his drop that he was on the far hash mark. All Wilson needed to do was ensure he put it far enough away from him to prevent him getting involved in the play, and it’s an easy reception for six for Rice.
This score may have been the result of a broken play, but in its own way it was as well-rehearsed as anything in the playbook or on the chalkboard in Xs and Os. Quarterbacks and receivers have run this drill thousands of times, and their mutual understanding of what happens when the initial play goes to hell is why Wilson holds the ball a tick instead of instantly dumping it off to Baldwin for a short gain. He knew that there was a good chance one of his receivers would break deep and find space, and that’s exactly what happened.
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