Five running plays that lost yardage illustrate the blocking breakdowns and schematic issues that doomed the Seahawks’ running game in a loss to the St. Louis Rams.
The Seahawks are definitely feeling the sting of injuries. That reality struck me on a fourth-and-short pass Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, as I watched Kevin Smith pick for Cooper Helfet.
Injuries only partly explain what happened to Seattle’s pass protection and running game in the 23-17 loss to the Rams, however. Seattle had four-fifths of its offensive line and gave up a combined 17 quarterback hits and sacks on Russell Wilson, while the Rams allowed none.
Seahawks running backs, meanwhile, totaled just 26 yards rushing on 15 carries. A handful of negative rushing plays exemplified Seattle’s difficulties. Here are a few thoughts:
• Lead stretch right to Christine Michael for minus-4 yards: This was Seattle’s first running play of the game, one presumably scripted. Within the Seahawks’ zone-blocking scheme, right guard J.R. Sweezy would combo block with right tackle Gary Gilliam on an initial double-team block against Rams defensive end William Hayes, who was aligned on the inside shoulder of Gilliam. Then, depending on the pursuit angle of the defender at the linebacker level (in this case safety Mark Barron), either Sweezy or Gilliam would release from the initial double-team of Hayes to block Barron. Generally, greater emphasis is on getting good movement with the double-team, so the problem occurred when Gilliam released too early, leaving Sweezy with a difficult reach block on Hayes, who was aligned wider than Sweezy and had favorable leverage against Sweezy on this wide run. Hayes easily shed Sweezy to tackle Michael.
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• Bad snap recovered by Michael for minus-6 yards: “Aborted” was the official description, but “funky” was how Russell Wilson described the shotgun snap that center Patrick Lewis lobbed over him. Fortunately for the Seahawks, they were in a rare pistol formation, with Michael directly behind Wilson and in position to catch the flub. The play call was an inside zone-blocking run to the right, so Gilliam was unprepared to block the surging Barron, who ran wide of Gilliam in reaction to the errant snap to drop Michael. The blooper nature of the play masked a major breakdown by Seattle: Because tight end Luke Willson aligned on the left of the formation, and because they had no lead fullback, the Seahawks were running out of blocking bodies to run right against this Rams front. Seattle would require left tackle Alvin Bailey to reach far inside to the right to block Aaron Donald — perhaps the NFL’s best defensive lineman this side of J.J. Watt — who was aligned inside, over left guard Justin Britt. This would have been a difficult block for Walter Jones in his prime, so Donald had easy penetration. Even with a perfect snap from Lewis, this play probably would have lost 4 yards. The better course would have been for Wilson to check “opposite” and run the play to the left where Willson provided one extra blocker.
• Third-and-one stuff of Will Tukuafu and fumble-return TD: After a Baldwin reception for 15 yards on second-and-16, Seattle fooled no one with a fake toss to Michael paired with a dive to Tukuafu on third down. Lewis blocked the nose guard capably, but three poor blocks doomed the play. 1) Britt whiffed while trying to block the more athletic Barron at the linebacker level. 2) After an initial combo block with Gilliam, Sweezy was late blocking the middle linebacker. 3) And Donald again beat Bailey to the inside at the point of attack. The fallout from the Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls injuries left Seattle turning to Tukuafu, who had four career carries before this fumble.
• Lead stretch left to Bryce Brown for minus-5 yards: Early in the second quarter, Seattle started a drive facing a defense with two high safeties. With a lead fullback, this should have been a favorable situation to run the ball. It seems to me Bailey should have stayed in the core of the formation to block the defensive end over him, but for some reason, he climbed to the linebacker level where he blocked — no one. In this outside zone-blocking scheme, Britt and Lewis should initially double-team Donald at the line of scrimmage, but at the play’s onset, Britt climbed straight to the linebacker level. That left Lewis with the impossible task of reach-blocking Donald, who was aligned over Britt to the playside. Lewis appeared abused, but to execute this block he would need to be as quick as Earl Thomas and as strong as Watt. Even if Donald had missed the tackle, the unblocked defensive end and the cornerback — missed by Helfet — were there to stone Brown.
• Inside zone right to Michael for minus-3 yards: Late in the second quarter Seattle went with a four-receiver “double-stack” formation, with two wide receivers each far to Wilson’s left and right. Wilson checked to see if two pairs of Rams defenders moved out to cover those receivers. When they did, he executed the run play. With six defenders in the box, teams usually show a 4-2 alignment, with four defensive linemen and two linebackers. In this case the Rams went 5-1, which apparently confused the Seahawks’ offensive line. With Wilson’s read-zone fake holding the sixth defender (the backside defensive end) in the box, Seattle had five linemen to block five defenders. Britt and Lewis needed to combo block the nose guard, Michael Brockers, with either Britt or Lewis then climbing to the single linebacker. But Lewis went straight to the linebacker, and Britt helped Bailey with the defensive tackle over Bailey. That left Brockers unblocked for an easy stuff.