That's the question I asked myself after witnessing the San Diego Chargers' 30-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks from my press box seat in Qualcomm Stadium. While I wasn't completely surprised the Chargers were able to take down the Seahawks on their home field, I never anticipated Philip Rivers and Co. rolling up 377 yards of total offense and scoring 30 points on a defense that's been nearly impenetrable for the past two seasons.
1) Focus on controlling the tempo.
The Chargers dominated time of possession against the Seahawks, with a 42:15 to 17:45 advantage on the clock. This decided advantage reflects the keep-away strategy employed by San Diego. From milking the clock with a clever no-huddle approach to incorporating a ball-control game plan featuring a host of short passes and power runs, the Bolts seemingly operated in turtle mode against the Seahawks, wearing down one of the NFL's top defenses while keeping Russell Wilson and Co. on the sidelines.
Now, several teams have attempted to use this tactic against Seattle over the past few seasons, but few have executed the plan as well as the Chargers did Sunday. Rivers, in particular, was superb in orchestrating the Chargers' no-huddle offense from the line of scrimmage. He consistently checked the Chargers into the ideal play call against the Seahawks' aggressive front, keeping San Diego on schedule for most of the game. In addition, he focused extensively on stringing together completions on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws and checkdowns. While those completions didn't light up the stat sheet, they helped the Chargers stay in manageable down-and-distance situations, leading to an impressive 59 percent third-down conversion rate (10 for 17) and 26 total first downs.
The Chargers also committed to running the football against Seattle's stout front seven. San Diego finished the game with 37 rushing attempts, wearing down the Seahawks with a barrage of inside runs. Despite the underwhelming per-carry average (2.7 yards), the Chargers' commitment to grinding it out prevented the Seahawks from teeing off on Rivers in the pocket.
2) Use creative pre-snap formations to decipher the Seahawks' coverage.
Rivers certainly deserves plenty of credit for his fine execution of the Chargers' no-huddle offense, but let's give some major kudos to offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who crafted a clever attack that kept the Seahawks' defense on its heels. The first-time play caller installed a game plan that featured a variety of empty formations and 3x1 sets that allowed Rivers to easily identify Seattle's defensive tactics. Although the Seahawks are a team that prefers single-high safety coverage (Cover 1, Cover 3 and Cover 6), the savvy deployment of tight ends and running backs outside of slot receivers allowed Rivers to determine whether Seattle was in man or zone.
Additionally, showing empty formations during the pre-snap phase discourages defenses from using exotic blitzes or pressures. Consequently, the Chargers were able to shift the tailback back into the backfield to run an assortment of inside-zone plays and draws against a passive defense.
In the play depicted just below, the Chargers originally align in an empty formation, with running back Danny Woodhead flanked outside to the right. Rivers spots cornerback Richard Sherman matching up with Woodhead, indicating zone coverage by the Seahawks. Rivers reacts by instructing Woodhead to shift back into the backfield. The veteran quarterback notices the Seahawks are light in the box and checks to a running play to exploit the defensive call. Rivers hands off to Woodhead on a slip draw, and the diminutive rusher rumbles for 13 yards (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Although the Chargers mustered just 101 rushing yards on nearly 40 attempts, their most productive runs spawned from these types of "cat and mouse" tactics.
3) Commit to playing "dink and dunk" football.
The Seahawks' unique coverage scheme forces opposing quarterbacks to adopt a patient approach in the passing game. The hybrid Cover 3 puts cornerbacks in press coverage on the outside, with the four underneath defenders dropping to designated areas (numbers, hash, hash and numbers, etc.) at around 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. The underneath defenders are instructed to play with vision on the quarterback, to help them make quicker breaks on throws within their respective areas. When the coverage is played correctly behind a ferocious pass rush, the Seahawks cast a net around vertical-based passing attacks and snag a ton of interceptions off tips and overthrows down the field.
The Chargers wisely instructed their veteran quarterback to maintain his patience. Rivers worked the underneath areas of coverage, tossing a number of quick screens, slants and option routes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Of Rivers' 37 pass attempts, 28 were thrown to tight ends, running backs and the slot receiver (Eddie Royal), suggesting that the five-time Pro Bowler was content to take what the Seahawks were conceding in coverage.
Let's take a look at a few examples ...
In the play diagrammed below, the Chargers are aligned in a trips-flex formation, with Antonio Gates and Woodhead positioned on the near side. The Chargers are running an F-angle play, with Gates clearing out the middle on a short crossing route and Woodhead following on an angle route vs. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright. When Wright widens out to cover the flat, Woodhead quickly breaks inside and snatches a toss from Rivers for a first-down conversion:
In the next play just below, the Chargers are aligned in a trips-bunch formation, with Woodhead in the backfield. San Diego is running all-go, with Woodhead instructed to run a checkdown route out of the backfield. When the Seahawks' underneath defenders fly out of their zones to defend the vertical routes, Woodhead slips out over the middle. Rivers spots Woodhead open in space, and the running back proceeds to pick up 14 yards on an easy pitch-and-catch:
In the following play, the Chargers are aligned in an empty formation, set to execute an all-curl passing concept. Rivers is ordered to read the flat defender (Wright), to determine whether to throw the curl to Keenan Allen or hit Ryan Mathews in the flat. When Wright sinks under the curl, Rivers fires the ball to Mathews. The back proceeds to pick up 16 yards and a first down:
Of course, every NFL quarterback says he is willing to take what the defense gives him, but few are disciplined enough to stick with that approach over the course of a game. Rivers took his fair share of shots down the field, yet continued to work the underneath areas when the Seahawks left checkdowns uncovered. Most importantly, he avoided forcing balls into coverage and used his feet to pick up first downs on nifty scrambles.
Rivers kept the Chargers in manageable situations by making sound decisions from the pocket -- and showed the football world that a patient approach could yield big dividends against Seattle's vaunted defense.
4) Use motion, shifts, stacked alignments and 3x1's to isolate defenders.
I know I've already heaped a ton of praise on Reich for his general game plan, but he deserves specific credit for using several tactics that isolated and exploited the Seahawks' defense on the perimeter. While the Chargers' biggest offensive play netted just 21 yards, a steady diet of positive plays eventually wore down Seattle.
That's why offensive coordinators around the league would be wise to copy some of the schemes used by the Chargers to take advantage of the Seahawks' signature coverage. One of the tactics that I would expect to see more opponents use against Seattle is the 3x1 formation. Watching this game from my seat in the press box, I was surprised by the success the Chargers enjoyed when using a variety of trips formations against the Seahawks, particularly in the red zone.
In the play depicted below, the Chargers align in an empty formation, to give Rivers an opportunity to determine the Seahawks' coverage. The quarterback spots a safety (Earl Thomas) matched up with Woodhead, indicating man coverage. Rivers instructs Woodhead to shift into the backfield and calls a passing play designed to exploit the man coverage on the outside. With Gates matched up against a linebacker (Malcolm Smith), Rivers checks to an angle-corner concept, to exploit a one-on-one matchup on the perimeter. When Rivers sees Thomas following Woodhead on the angle route, he knows he has a big-play opportunity with Gates on the corner route against Smith. The wily veteran tight end wins on the route to snag one of his three touchdowns on the day:
Teams also should take note of how the Chargers exploited Seattle's man coverage by using a variety of stack formations and rub routes to spring receivers on the perimeter.
In our final play breakdown, the Chargers are aligned in a dubs formation, with Royal motioning to a stacked alignment behind Gates to run a snag-corner concept. Sherman is shadowing Royal in man coverage. Royal starts across the field running a shallow cross, but quickly redirects and runs a snag route, breaking out to the sideline. The quick maneuver fools Sherman, who anticipated a crossing route and attempted to run over the top of the inadvertent pick set by Gates. With Sherman unable to close on Royal on the snag route, the shifty receiver runs away from coverage for a big first down:
The Chargers' brilliant game planning exposed some cracks in the Seahawks' defense, but even with the winning script in hand, it still takes flawless execution to defeat the defending Super Bowl champs. It will be interesting to see how many teams can copy San Diego's blueprint for success against Seattle. The Denver Broncos, still smarting from a Super Bowl XLVIII beatdown, will get a chance at redemption this coming Sunday.