The Seattle Seahawks are poised to make a run at a second straight Super Bowl title, but this time around, the offense could play a much bigger role. The expanded playbook that this team has put on display in the preseason leads me to believe the unit will not only complement a defense that remains stellar in every area, but it will challenge opponents to come up with exotic schemes to defend a vastly improved offensive attack.
1) Seattle will allow Russell Wilson to become a bigger playmaker in 2014.
Despite recording a 24-8 regular-season record -- as well as 10 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks -- in his brief career, Wilson is viewed as a game manager by many observers. Skeptics suggest the third-year pro is simply a caretaker in the backfield who greatly benefits from a potent running game and a dominant defense.
Yes, the Seahawks heavily rely on the run (Seattle ran the ball on more than 50 percent of its offensive plays in 2013) and a devastating D, but I believe Wilson is a dynamic playmaker poised to join the ranks of the quarterbacking elite, thanks to the implementation of a diversified offense that will give him more opportunities to torment opponents with his arm and legs.
Now, I know the "12s" already believe Wilson deserves a seat at the table, based on his impressive two-year resume (see: 100.6 career passer rating and a 52:19 TD-to-INT ratio), but the fact that he has just three 300-yard passing games (playoffs included) to his name makes it hard to attribute the Seahawks' success to the presence of a franchise quarterback in the backfield. Considering Wilson has attempted 30-plus throws just seven times in 32 regular-season starts, it's safe to say Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has kept his young quarterback on a short leash.
Looking at the Seahawks' first two preseason games, however, I've seen Bevell incorporate a variety of formations and concepts to create more chances for Wilson to make plays on the perimeter. Although some of these tactics have been used sparingly by the Seahawks in the past, the continued maturation of Wilson as a passer and playmaker has prompted the team to open up the playbook more frequently.
Watching Seattle's 41-14 win over the San Diego Chargers last Friday, I noticed the Seahawks using a variety of empty formations with Wilson on the field. These formations are ideal for shorter quarterbacks (Wilson's listed height is 5-foot-11) because the spread set removes defenders from the box, opening up passing lanes. Additionally, the empty formation allows Wilson to quickly determine whether the defense is in man or zone, based on the deployment of linebackers and safeties. With Wilson's running skills also adding a dimension to the scheme, Seattle can really put defenses in a bind by clearing out the backfield.
Let's take a look at a few examples ...
In the following screengrab, the Seahawks break the huddle in an empty formation, with running back Christine Michael aligned at the bottom of the screen and tight end Luke Willson positioned in the slot. The Seahawks have moved their RB and TE into unique positions to make it easy for Wilson to read whether the Chargers are in man or zone, based on which defenders match up over Michael and Willson. When linebacker Manti Te'o runs outside to handle the running back, Wilson knows the Chargers are in some form of man coverage:
Wilson quickly spots the slot defender blitzing off the edge and looks for a hot receiver or an open running lane to flee the pocket:
With the secondary locked in man coverage, Wilson escapes the rush up the middle and finds enough room to run for a 13-yard gain:
In the next screengrab, the Seahawks are in an empty formation on third-and-8, with Willson and Michael aligned on the hips of the offensive tackles. The Chargers are defending the formation with a soft zone coverage designed to take away the deep ball, while conceding underneath throws to the flat:
Wilson reads the flat defender running down the seam and notices that the linebacker is too far away to make a play on Willson:
Wilson makes the easy toss to the tight end and watches Willson work up the field for a big gain on a simple "pitch and catch":
The Seahawks also used a mix of bootlegs and movement-based passes that put Wilson on the perimeter with the option to run or pass based on the coverage. Although Wilson will be encouraged to throw the ball more often to preserve his health, his ability to run around and pick up first downs with his feet can make up for a poor play call or exceptional coverage down the field.
Overall, the Seahawks have expanded their playbook to incorporate more traditional drop-back passes to complement the play-action concepts that comprised the bulk of the playbook in the past. With the zone-read running game also available, the Seahawks' offensive growth could help Wilson go from good to great in 2014.
2) The Percy Harvin Effect takes the Seahawks' offense to another level.
When the Seahawks traded for Harvin last offseason, I was curious how Carroll would take advantage of an explosive runner/receiver/returner threat. Injuries kept Harvin on the sidelines for all but three games (postseason included), but his mere presence on the field in those contests changed the way opponents defended the Seahawks, leading to more big plays for the unit.
Looking back at his appearances against the Vikings, Saints and Broncos, it was apparent that those defenses paid close attention to his whereabouts, judging by the alignment of safeties prior to the snap. Still, Harvin made an impact on fly sweeps, bubble screens and quick routes, and he also opened up the field for the rest of the Seahawks' offensive weapons.
After watching the Seahawks' stellar performance against San Diego last Friday, it's clear to me Harvin will make a huge impact as a versatile weapon on the perimeter. Seattle will make a concerted effort to feed him on a variety of clever plays designed to get him loose in space. From the aforementioned quick routes and receiver runs to a handful of vertical throws, the Seahawks likely will attempt to get Harvin 10-plus touches per game.
In the following screengrab, on the first offensive play of the game against San Diego, the Seahawks motion Harvin to the outside of the formation to create a stack alignment in one of their ace formations. Harvin will take a few steps up the field before retreating to receive the screen pass from Wilson:
Harvin picks up a quick 8 yards.
These are the high-percentage throws that loosen up the defense early, help Wilson find a rhythm as a passer and eventually create more space for Lynch and Robert Turbin to run between the tackles.
The next series of screengrabs illustrates how Harvin's speed and quickness create big-play chances on vertical throws. The Seahawks break the huddle aligned in a trips formation, with Harvin positioned on the inside. He will run a sail route underneath a pair of go-routes:
The Chargers are playing man coverage, but Harvin's speed and quickness allow him to separate from the defender out of the break:
With plenty of room to lead Harvin away from coverage, Wilson throws a dart to the boundary that results in an easy first down:
In the next screengrab, the Seahawks are aligned in a trips formation, with Harvin again positioned on the inside. With Seattle facing a third-and-1, Harvin will run a bubble screen to lure a defender or two away from the box:
When Wilson notices that the Chargers are matched up well with Harvin on the perimeter, he executes the zone-read with Turbin between the tackles:
Now, let's take a look at one example of Harvin's mere presence creating a home-run opportunity in the passing game.
In the screengrab that follows, the Seahawks are aligned in traditional I-formation, with Harvin positioned at the bottom of the screen in the flanker spot. Harvin will run a go-route, while tight end Zach Miller will run a seam down the hashes. The Chargers are playing a cloud coverage on the strong side, with safety Jahleel Addae rolling over the top to take away the deep route to Harvin:
With Addae running to the sideline, Miller is left wide open down the middle of the field. Wilson delivers a perfect strike to his tight end, and the Seahawks pick up 37 yards:
3) Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are primed for expanded roles.
The Seahawks don't need to use a committee approach in the backfield, given the presence of bell-cow back Marshawn Lynch, but the team should consider giving Turbin and Michael more opportunities this season, due to their emerging games and the 28-year-old Lynch's advancing age. Turbin and Michael each offer the explosiveness and physicality that Carroll covets in his runners, yet they bring diverse skills to the offense that will help Bevell expand the playbook.
Turbin, a third-year pro, is a sledgehammer-type with a hard-nosed running style ideally suited for the Seahawks' zone-based ground attack. He is adept at spotting holes on the back side and wastes little time attacking the crease when it opens. What his one-cut running style lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for in efficiency: Turbin rarely loses yards on inside- and outside-zone runs, which is critical to staying ahead of schedule in today's game. With Turbin adept at executing runs from the traditional one-back and I-formations, the Seahawks can utilize the youngster as a power player at various stages of the game.
Michael, a second-year pro, is a flashy runner with explosive speed and quickness. He displays exceptional acceleration and burst in the hole while also showcasing outstanding vision, balance and body control. Thus, he is a home-run threat capable of breaking off big gains when he spots a crease between the tackles. Now, I must point out that Michael lacks patience at the point of attack, but his natural speed and athleticism make him a player who needs to see significant time on the field. In fact, I believe he is ideally suited to play in the Seahawks' shotgun sets; given his college experience in Texas A&M's spread, Michael is most comfortable executing the shotgun running game (zone-reads, draws and delays). With Wilson's extraordinary ball skills and running ability, Michael could prove lethal on a variety of zone-read plays.
Of course, I believe the Seahawks should continue to use Lynch as the lead dog, due to his proven production as a feature runner. But it's time to lighten the veteran's load during the regular season, to ensure he is fresh enough to make a big impact down the stretch and in the playoffs. The postseason is all about running the ball to win games, so clever utilization of a three-headed monster should make the Seahawks even tougher in the long run.