After analyzing the New Orleans Saints’ “pick” plays during the fourth quarter earlier in the week, I wanted to take a deeper look at the offense to see why they were struggling to produce despite having so many offensive weapons. This game had one glaring issue to me: Russell Wilson did not play well. He lacked pocket awareness at times and occasionally misread defensive coverages which led to his interception and a missed opportunity.
An example of his lack of pocket awareness can be seen in the Paul Kruger sack at the 6:05 mark in the first quarter.
The Seahawks use a six-man protection package keeping (32) Christine Michael in the backfield, while (76) Germain Ifedi pulls across the formation to block the edge rusher. The design of this play is use the play-action to pull the linebackers away from Wilson’s throwing lane to tight end (81) Nick Vannett. This is also the reason why Ifedi pulls across the formation. He is selling the run fake to the defense.
Unfortunately for Seattle, Paul Kruger gets in Wilson’s throwing lane and then he rips around the edge of Ifedi for the sack.
I actually blame Wilson and not Ifedi for this play. Wilson shows no pocket awareness after deciding that he can’t make the throw to Vannett. Instead of shifting to his right where he has a clean pocket, he stands stoically on the edge.
Since the rest of the defensive line is playing contain attempting to keep Wilson in the pocket, he had plenty of time to step up and find (88) Jimmy Graham who was cutting across the 45-yard line for a 10-yard gain. Instead, he gets dragged down by Kruger and the Seahawks punt a few plays later.
In the second quarter, Wilson threw his first interception in 203 passing attempts. The Seahawks spread out the Saints defense with “11-personnel” – 1 running back, 1 tight end, three wide receivers – in an empty-set shotgun formation. The Saints counter with Cover 2 zone while dropping defensive tackle (95) Tyeler Davison as the eighth man in coverage to bracket Graham underneath.
After the snap, Wilson finds the safeties confirming the two-deep coverage. He then looks towards his first read which is (15) Jermaine Kearse running a post-route between zones. Wilson throws the pass and he completely misses linebacker (54) Nate Stupar who was sitting in his underneath hook/zone responsibility. This interception is completely on Wilson.
Wilson needs to move the linebacker away from his throwing lane with his eyes and body language to set up the throw. Or he needs to wait until Kearse completely crosses behind the linebacker to create the clear throwing lane. He did neither and this allowed Stupar to read his intentions and intercept the pass.
In the third quarter at the 10:32 mark, it’s 1st and 10 on the New Orleans 30-yard line. Wilson has trips bunch on his left with Michael in the backfield. After the snap, the Saints drop into Cover 2 zone.
Wilson starts by reading the safeties watching them drop deep waiting for (89) Doug Baldwin to clear the first level linebackers on his post-route. Baldwin is covered well, so Wilson moves on to (88) Graham running a drag-route across the formation. Wilson feels the pressure from (93) David Onyemata and he moves to his left while keeping his eyes down the field. (99) Kruger crashes on Wilson forcing him to step back into the pocket. Wilson scrambles around before dumping the pass to Michael. The pass falls incomplete and Wilson gets hit to the ground.
This play was extremely infuriating to me. It had multiple opportunities to succeed but it failed since Wilson did not read it correctly.
First, you have the bunch formation on your left with Kearse’s seam route breaking into wide open space. Judging by the lack of defenders on the left side of the field pre-snap (two versus three wide receivers), this should give a clue that New Orleans was in zone coverage. If not, any sort of man coverage will be out of position.
With two safeties on the field, the quarterback will start his read by guessing the defense is in Cover 2 or Cover 4. After snap, the weakside safety bails backwards into his deep right responsibility giving away the Cover 2 defense.
Guessing Cover 2 pre-snap, Wilson should have started his reads with the bunch formation on the left and taken advantage of Kearse’s seam-route. Say, for example, Wilson didn’t like Kearse’s route since he drifted too closely to Baldwin, he could have moved on to Baldwin and then Graham’s drag route anyways. This is the point where he should have passed the ball to his tight end on this 1st and 10 play. Instead he holds it and tries too hard to create plays when he just needs to take what the defense is giving him.
The last play we’ll look at was the final pass to Kearse that fell incomplete to end the game. Seattle’s in shotgun in six-man protection with Michael in the backfield. The Saints play Cover 0 rushing six-men while doubling Graham on his post-route.
Cornerback (28) BW Webb is lining up opposite of Kearse in off-man coverage standing at the four-yard line. His positioning indicates that he’s expecting a fade-route. Although, the Seahawks have a size advantage with Kearse standing three inches taller than Webb (6’1” versus 5’10”), Webb actually had the highest broad jump (132”) and vertical jump (40.5”) at the 2013 NFL Combine.
After the snap, Wilson takes a quick three-step drop and throws the fade-route to Kearse in the back of the endzone. The two watch for the incoming ball with their arms on each other. Surprisingly, neither physically pushes or pulls before the ball arrives to jockey for position on this last play of the game.
Luckily for Webb, the ball was placed slightly too deep for Kearse. This didn’t allow him to come in-bounds with the game-winning catch.
From a play design perspective, I understand why Wilson tested this match-up. New Orleans double-covered Graham which probably was the first read on the play pre-snap. With the clock winding down a one-on-one match-up with a size advantage versus a backup cornerback would be very appealing. Additionally, any sort of underneath crossing-route might have been tackled before it reached the endzone if a different type of play is called. All in all, I’m okay with the play design, I just think Wilson needs to make a more accurate throw to keep Kearse in-bounds.
From a general theme standpoint, there were two other issues that stood out to me in this game. Penalties were a big factor. Seattle committed five offensive penalties, including three false starts with one by Michael(!), a clipping penalty and an illegal block above the waist penalty by George Fant (announced as Justin Britt). The Seahawks had to attempt multiple 10-plus yard distances in order to keep drives.
The other issue was the lack of run game in the first half. The Saints came into this game with a bottom-five run defense. The Seahawks should have ran it down their throats, but there were just four running plays in the first half and one was brought back by the aforementioned clipping penalty. It was no surprise to me that in the second half, Seattle adjusted and ran six back-to-back running plays gaining over 40 yards almost immediately. Somebody must have reminded Darrell Bevell to run the ball.
The Buffalo Bills have the 17th ranked defense according to FootballOutsiders. While that ranking is average, the Seahawks struggled to move the ball on both a bottom ranked team in the Saints and a top ranked team in the Arizona Cardinals a couple of weeks ago.
The defense is doing their part with Cliff Avril earning NFC Player of the Month honors. It’s time for Russell Wilson and this offense to pick up the slack.
Follow Samuel Gold on Twitter: @SamuelRGold.