At select opportunities Sunday, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers confused the Seattle secondary with man-beater patterns to earn key first downs
The Seattle Seahawks defense deserves plenty of credit for holding the Green Bay Packers to 17 points in Lambeau Field Sunday. Most of the consternation after the loss was directed at poor run blocking and pass protection by Seattle’s offensive line, and the whole offensive unit’s inability to score any touchdowns all day—plus an extra dash of saltiness toward the officiating.
Indeed, after an admirable first half shutout by the Seahawks defense Green Bay didn’t break through on the scoreboard until Russell Wilson virtually shovel-passed them the lead with a fumble at his own 5-yard line early in the third quarter. The other touchdown came on a miscommunication following a substitution error that, though no excuse, didn’t seem representative of the unit’s otherwise-superb performance.
Seattle’s front four mainly contained Green Bay’s rushing attempts until late in the game when a steep overhanging imbalance of possession started to exhaust the defensive front, after those same down lineman harassed Aaron Rodgers all day completing four sacks and visibly wearying the All-Pro as he limped and stretched following many other attempts. Sheldon Richardson looked every bit as good as promised.
However, although the Seahawks’ frequent inability to gain first downs when they held the ball definitely owns most responsibility for the 74-48 play disparity, breakdowns in pass coverage weren’t limited to the one folly when Bradley McDougald failed to sub in to Seattle’s big nickel alignment on time. On several key downs, the Packers took advantage of the Seahawks’ secondary or linebackers using shallow crossing patterns across the middle, or similar crossing concepts run deeper. Rodgers and Green Bay playcaller Mike McCarthy didn’t lean heavily on these plays, but each time they did the routes confused Seattle defenders’ assignments and tricked the famously disciplined pass coverage into costly mistakes that extended their time on the field.
Here is the first example, from the Packers’ opening possession:
It’s third and two from Green Bay’s own 39-yard line, with Rodgers in shotgun next to Ty Montgomery in the backfield. Seattle is in nickel—Jeremy Lane facing up Randall Cobb in the slot and Shaquill Griffin at the defense’s right edge at the top of the screen. When Martellus Bennett motions toward the play, Griffin eases backward with Jordy Nelson becoming the outside receiver on the short side of the field. Here comes the play design:
As Rodgers receives the snap, the defense looks like it has things sorted out: Lane sees Cobb cutting inside at the line of scrimmage and appears to pass him off to Bobby Wagner in the middle of the field. Unfortunately this leaves Lane covering no one, but suggests the Seahawks are in zone at least on that weak side of the formation:
Lane’s positioning would be good if Davante Adams runs a short in route, just to gain the first down at the sticks, which possibly explains his choice. However, a split second later and Seattle is now in a situation with two guys each covering one receiver near the boundaries and Wagner stuck trying to guard two targets moving in opposite directions in the middle of the field: Not good.
I’m hesitant to totally blame Lane, though, because the problem at the top of the screen is even weirder. For some reason, K.J. Wright and Kam Chancellor both break on the Montgomery’s wheel route toward the right flat. It looks like either Wright or Chancellor should have stuck with Bennett as he mirrors Cobb’s route crossing in front of Wagner. Here’s another diagram of the route combinations now with the Seahawks’ drops:
After Wagner steps up to cut off Bennett’s route instead of trailing Cobb, that leaves Cobb wide open right at the first down marker. Even worse, because Griffin’s back is turned as he follows Nelson through the play—plus with Wright and Chancellor mysteriously doubleteaming Montgomery way beyond the numbers and the deep safety Earl Thomas not having taken a step—Cobb just turns downfield for a huge 29-yard dash nearly untouched to the Seattle 32.
Whoever played it wrong, it’s a disaster of coverage that was luckily erased the very next down when Nazair Jones intercepted Rodgers’ throw. The rest of that following play wasn’t so lucky, as you know, but at least it got the Seahawks defense off the field briefly.
However, the Packers returned to this concept in different variations later in the game and each time it earned Rodgers’s unit a first down, keeping Green Bay drives alive in a game when the Seattle defense badly needed more rest. Here is a horrific example from the second quarter:
This one is third and 17, an excellent chance to get the ball back but instead it’s a ghastly hole in the coverage that this time leaves Adams blatantly wide open, again right at the first down distance.
The Seahawks are playing extremely soft coverage because of the long line to gain, and both linebackers remain the in their flats to prevent outlet receivers from picking up the ugly conversion. But that means Wagner lets Adams run right by him and cross underneath Cobb releasing toward the deep corner of the field. Lane’s replacement Justin Coleman sticks with Cobb, who gets covered by three men while no defender is within 15 yards of Adams when he makes the catch at midfield. This time there’s no extended run after the reception, and again Seattle managed to screw down and finish the drive without any damage to the scoreboard. But these failures to capitalize on third and long situations surely tire out the defense and add up to the ragged play that let the Packers finish the game with a drive that ate up half the fourth quarter in a one-score game.
Here’s another switch when Cobb is able to run by Coleman as Bennett comes across the field the other way, and turn a second and seven into a new set of downs in the fourth quarter:
It’s not so embarrassing as the earlier examples but it’s a similar tiresome result. Many of Rodgers’ big plays come from longer-developing routes known as “second-phase isolations” that let the Green Bay receivers search their own openings as Rodgers moves around to gain more time in the pocket, but Packers critics have for years been calling for McCarthy to deploy more quick rubs or crossing routes to combat man coverages and add a more choreographed dimension to that offense. This kind of flick of the wrist of a conversion is just as maddening to defenses as a miracle gainer in several acts.
Even so, Rodgers proved Sunday he is still capable of the classic kind of gritty conversion, here scrambling for a first down as the Seahawks struggle to sort out another maze of mirrored crosses:
Finally Seattle looks to have figured out how to switch off the route-runners and keep the seam defenders to their native sides of the field. But like a new lover this ploy to keep them guessing grabs attention from Wagner, Wright and Coleman just long enough that Rodgers takes it right up the gut to continue the series. Marty Bennett even generated a personal foul after the play, but with a fresh set of downs the backpedaled field position actually worked against the Seahawks in this case as the Packers just got more field to use. Seattle never got the ball back.
These four plays were the only times McCarthy and Green Bay used patterns crossing over the middle of the defense, and all of them resulted in handy first downs.
The Seahawks will have a chance to clean up plenty of things next Sunday against a less resourceful quarterback and the San Francisco 49ers, and there’s lots to be encouraged about as many others have said. Every team will be searching for adjustments after week 1. But even if we see improvement in the offense and continued dominance by the defensive trench, Kris Richard will have to instill better communication, route recognition or situational discipline in his back end group as 2017 moves on if Seattle hopes to solve its third down defense and grant Wilson and Darrell Bevell more reps to work out those other pressing issues.