What's wrong with the Legion of Boom?
That's the question running through everyone's minds after watching the Seahawks squander yet another fourth-quarter lead in Sunday's loss to the Panthers. The defense's subpar effort in the later stages of games is one of the reasons Seattle is sitting at 2-4, on the verge of falling out of playoff contention. Given the ineffectiveness of the Seahawks' defense in critical moments, I thought it was time to take a look at the All-22 Coaches Film and try to figure out why the "Legion of Boom" is failing to close out games. Here's what the tape revealed:
1) The blueprint is out on how to attack the Seahawks' coverage.
The NFL is a copycat league, with coaches quick to steal ideas from successful game plans against winning teams. The Seahawks' defensive dominance over the past three seasons has forced offensive coordinators to spend more time in the film room looking for a weakness in the scheme. After watching Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers put up strong performances in wins over the Seahawks over the past two seasons, offensive play callers are attacking the single-high safety coverage (Cover 1 and Cover 3) with a myriad of seam routes, pick plays and checkdowns that exploit the vulnerable areas of the scheme.
I've previouslybroken down the Cover 1-Robber and Cover 3 tactics employed by the defending NFC champions. The Seahawks traditionally keep a safety in the middle of the field, with the other safety playing as a curl-flat dropper or in the hook zone (Cover 3 Buzz). The cornerbacks will press on the single-receiver side and use a "bail" technique (side shuffle) if they are on the side with two or more receivers. The presence of a safety in the middle of the field discourages deep throws between the hashes, while the press coverage on the outside neutralizes the fade and go-route. If the Seahawks are playing Cover 1-Robber, the defensive backs and linebackers are matched on the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, with the lurk safety hanging between the hashes to switch off on shallow crossers or dig routes.
To attack the Cover 3, the offense must attack the seams along the hashes or send receivers down the boundary on wheel or rail routes, to put the curl-flat defender in a bind. Additionally, the quarterback must exhibit patience and take the checkdown when the second-level defenders drop underneath intermediate routes inside the numbers. These are the tactics veteran quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Rivers, Brady and Rodgers) have used to move the ball successfully against the Seahawks. In other words, offensive coordinators have paid attention.
The All-22 Coaches Film revealed opponents repeatedly attacking the Seahawks down the seams. In Week 5, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson exploited the Seahawks' Cover 3 using a few intricate and cleverly designed routes. In the play depicted below, the Bengals are aligned in an empty formation, with receiver Marvin Jones positioned on the outside. He is instructed to run a seam-post route, with tight end Tyler Eifert running down the boundary on a rail route. Running back Giovani Bernard is running a flat route to the boundary. The pattern stresses the Seahawks' secondary defenders with the switch concept, leaving a void on the second level for the post. Quarterback Andy Dalton delivers the ball on time, resulting in a 44-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in that same game, Jackson attacked the Cover 3 with a snag-seam-flat concept, as you can see in the play depicted below. The Bengals are aligned in a dubs formation, with Eifert positioned at Y. He runs a seam, with Jones running a snag behind him. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor is assigned to play the hook zone, but he jumps the snag route. Chancellor's aggressiveness leaves a void down the middle, resulting in an easy touchdown for Eifert (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against Cover 1, opponents are using various crossing routes to set picks on Seahawks defenders over the middle. In the play depicted below, from Seattle's Week 6 loss to the Panthers, Carolina runs a mesh route, with tight end Greg Olsen running a shallow cross underneath Ed Dickson's high crosser. With Seahawks corner Cary Williams shadowing Olsen on the crosser, Dickson is able to create a pick and free the Pro Bowler for a big reception (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Two plays later, the Panthers run a wheel route to exploit linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis in coverage. Olsen is aligned in the slot and runs a flat-and-up to get down the boundary. He quickly wins on the route, leaving quarterback Cam Newton with a big-play weapon to target, resulting in a 22-yard gain that sets up a touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Opponents are finding increasing success attacking with seams, wheels and switch routes, meaning the Seahawks must discover a way to adjust their coverage to match those routes. Pattern reads are not normally a part of Seattle's coverage, but opponents attacking the "spot drops" and voids are coming up with big plays in the passing game.
2) The mass exodus of blue-chip cover corners has hurt.
Credit coach Pete Carroll and his staff for developing a handful of late-round picks and street free agents into the most dominant secondary in the NFL. The Seahawks have suffocated foes with stifling bump-and-run tactics on the perimeter, utilizing a couple of single-high safety coverages (Cover 1 and Cover 3) to eliminate throws down the middle. With opponents forced to throw the ball to the edges against a number of long, rangy defenders on the perimeter, quarterbacks struggled to complete passes at an efficient clip. In 2013, the Seahawks held opposing quarterbacks to a 59.1 percent completion rate and 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Most importantly, they surrendered just 30 completions of 20-plus yards and held opponents to a 63.4 passer rating. This dominance continued in 2014, when opposing quarterbacks posted a 61.7 percent completion rate and 6.3 yards per attempt, and Seattle allowed only 32 completions of 20-plus yards and a passer rating of 80.4.
While most observers attributed the Seahawks' success to the stellar play of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Chancellor, I believe the unheralded contributions of Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond played a major role in the unit's dominance over the past few seasons. The trio capably manned the right cornerback and nickel back positions, respectively, which allowed Carroll to confidently employ a variety of man-to-man tactics on the perimeter. Most importantly, their spectacular play on the perimeter allowed the Seahawks to play it straight in the back end without forcing their top corner (Sherman) to "travel" to match up with the opponent's WR1.
Alas, Browner, Maxwell and Thurmond were all lured away as free agents, leaving the Seahawks to count on youngsters to fill key roles in the secondary. Jeremy Lane emerged as a standout nickel corner prior his injury (torn ACL) in Super Bowl XLIX, but he has yet to hit the field this season, and his absence has forced the team to turn to other options in secondary. Cary Williams signed on shortly after his release in Philadelphia to fill the CB2 role opposite Sherman. Despite his struggles with the Eagles, the veteran brought Super Bowl experience and a gritty game to the Pacific Northwest. Considering the supporting cast around him, most observers expected him to hold up well in the Seahawks' scheme.
But the All-22 Coaches Film shows that Williams has repeatedly been picked on by opponents in recent weeks. Quarterbacks are targeting the veteran on a variety of throws, including go-routes, short crossers and slants to exploit his deficiencies in one-on-one coverage.
Against the Bengals in Week 5, Dalton specifically targeted Williams throughout the game whenever he spotted the veteran in bump-and-run on the perimeter. In the play depicted below, Dalton sees Williams aligned opposite A.J. Green and takes a shot down the boundary on a fade route. Green wins quickly at the line of scrimmage and works to get on top of Williams on the route, and Dalton delivers a dime along the sideline for a 22-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Williams' struggles have forced the Seahawks to move Sherman from his traditional LCB spot to "travel" more against elite WR1s. Most importantly, it has left the Seahawks vulnerable to deep throws, leading to an uptick in explosive plays allowed by one of the premier defenses in the NFL (23 plays of 20-plus yards through Week 6, seventh-most in the NFL).
DeShawn Shead and Marcus Burley have spent time on the field as sub-defenders, but neither has played up to the lofty standards established by their predecessors -- Thurmond, Maxwell and Lane were upper-echelon CB3s. Shead must show opponents he can lock down shifty slot receivers to discourage throws between the numbers. Until Shead or another young defender steps up and becomes a dependable nickel corner, the Seahawks' secondary will continue to have problems defending "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) on the perimeter.
With the veteran core of the "Legion of Boom" also experiencing their share of struggles due to holdouts (Chancellor), injuries (Thomas) and miscommunication, the Seahawks' vaunted secondary looks ripe for the picking this season.
3) The defense is still adjusting to new coordinator Kris Richard.
A unit often takes on the personality of its coach -- so it is not surprising that the Seahawks' defense looks like a work in progress at this stage of the season, with the 35-year-old Richard having spent the previous five seasons tutoring the defensive backs. Although he is certainly ready for the role after developing one of the top defensive backfields in the NFL, Richard is undoubtedly working through growing pains as a play caller.
From understanding the nuances of organizing and developing game plans to putting his personal stamp on the philosophy of the defense, Richard is learning on the fly while attempting to live up to the standards set by predecessors Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley. He must step up and show his peers that he understands how to adapt to his personnel while making adjustments to the tactics opponents are using to exploit the vulnerable areas in coverage. Additionally, Richard must demonstrate the ability to anticipate the opponent's next move and make calls to neutralize their counter-tactics in the middle of games. The best play callers in the game are always one step ahead of their opponents. Richard must exhibit a mastery of his scheme and provide suitable answers to the problems that have popped up in the fourth quarter of their recent losses.
Finally, the onus is on Richard to make sure his defenders are communicating with each other throughout the game and are on the same page prior to every snap. Whether it is getting the call in earlier to provide his defenders with enough time to receive the signal or scaling back the checks or adjustments tagged with each call, Richard has to find a way to get his defense to play with the speed, tempo and physicality that made the unit the most feared in the NFL.