by Mike Tanier
Our Football Outsiders playbook doesn't contain any long passes yet. Obviously, we'll have to take a few shots down the field if we want our rollout options and empty backfield slants to work. This play, taken from the Seahawks' Week 14 loss to the Cardinals, is designed to exploit a specific defensive weakness: an inexperienced safety in deep coverage. Like any good deep pass, this play is loaded with safety valves; if our quarterback doesn't get the matchup he wants deep, he has several receivers to throw to underneath.
Hackett to the Post
The situation: first quarter, first-and-10 on the Seahawks 30-yard line, Cardinals leading 14-0. The Cardinals jumped to an early lead on a long touchdown pass and a Seahawks turnover. The Seahawks offense played poorly in its first three possessions. Mike Holmgren isn't going to push the panic button, but he and Matt Hasselbeck know that the Seahawks need to strike quickly or risk digging themselves a very deep hole.
The Seahawks align in a single-setback, bunch-right formation. They have four wide receivers on the field; from right to left, Darrell Jackson, D.J. Hackett, and Nate Burleson are bunched just beyond the right tackle (Figure 1). Deion Branch takes a wider split on the left side. This is obviously a passing formation, but the Seahawks will often run out of this set, so the Cardinals cannot sell out to stop the pass.
(According to the FO Game Charting project, Seattle in 2006 had 8.7% DVOA rushing with one back but -22.2% DVOA rushing with two backs. That's the second-largest gap in the NFL, behind only Indianapolis, a team which rarely used two backs.)
Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is very creative in his use of personnel packages and formations. Against the Seahawks, he often used a 3-3-5 nickel personnel package. Linebacker Karlos Dansby lined up as the right defensive end in this set, while safety Adrian Wilson played close to the line of scrimmage, essentially making him an extra linebacker. Most teams use a cornerback as the extra defender in their nickel package, but when Pendergast deployed his 3-3-5 set, second-year safety Aaron Francisco was the nickel defender. Francisco and Robert Griffith are the deep safeties on this play.
The 3-3-5 set gives Pendergast numerous options. Dansby and Wilson are excellent blitzers, and Pendergast likes to zone blitz. Wilson's presence close to the line allows him to help in run support. Figure 1 shows the defense that Pendergast probably called on this particular play: a three-deep zone, with four defenders underneath and Dansby rushing the quarterback on a stunt. Please note that this is conjecture based on the game tape, but it is clear that Wilson and the linebackers are in zone coverage underneath and that Dansby does stunt.
The weak links in this coverage scheme are the safeties: Francisco is an average player who lacks experience, and Griffith is more than a step slow in deep coverage. The Seahawks attack these safeties. At the snap, the bunched receivers cross. Hackett releases vertically, with Jackson running a drag route underneath him. Burleson freezes a second at the snap to allow Jackson to clear through, then releases into the flat. Branch runs a skinny post on the far side of the play. The Cardinals are in zone coverage, so no defender is rubbed off by the cross. The left cornerback (Antrel Rolle) picks up Burleson, the linebackers follow Jackson, and Wilson begins to drop with Hackett.
Hasselback takes a seven-step drop and Alexander stays in to block. The extra protection gives the receivers time to run deeper routes. Hackett works inside of Wilson, then runs a skinny post between Francisco and Griffith. Burleson peels off his flat route, climbs downfield to a depth of about 15 yards, then cuts to the sideline. Jackson keeps dragging.
Burleson and Jackson play important roles in this route combination. Jackson maintains the depth of the linebackers; as long as he is crossing the middle of the field and threatening their zones, they cannot release deep. Burleson's route draws Wilson away from Hackett. If Burleson had run a simple flat route, Wilson may have retreated as soon as Jackson left his zone, putting him in position to disrupt any deep pass. With Burleson threatening (and Alexander still in the picture on the offensive right side), Wilson is effectively neutralized.
Hackett easily splits Francisco and Griffith. Hasselbeck's pass isn't perfect; the ball hangs in the air a bit, and Hackett is forced to slow down while the two safeties converge. But even with the extra time, Francisco doesn't get good position on the ball, and Griffith (who also had to react to Branch's route on the far side) arrives late. Hackett out-leaps Francisco for a 47-yard catch. Hasselbeck, Holmgren, and Hackett know a weak link when they see one. The quarterback and receiver hook up for a 23-yard touchdown on the very next play, with Francisco trailing Hackett by several yards.
Interestingly, Jackson was open when Hasselbeck threw to Hackett. The veteran receiver had crossed the entire formation, and the linebacker to the offensive left was trailing him by two or three yards. Remember the game situation: trailing 14-0, an eight-yard completion on a drag route is fine, but it's time to take some calculated risks. Later in the game, when the Seahawks were down by three points and driving in Cardinals territory, they executed a similar play, but Hasselbeck passed to Jackson instead. Veteran quarterbacks know when to gamble and when to take what the defense offers.
The fact that Hasselbeck had two open receivers to throw to demonstrates the versatility of this particular play. Depending on the defensive alignment and the game situation, the progression of reads for this pass might be: 1) Hackett, 2) Jackson on the drag, 3) Alexander leaking out of the backfield, 4) Burleson working back after his sideline route. If Hasselbeck came to the line and saw no deep safeties, he might look first to Branch on the left side; if he read a heavy blitz, he might call a quick slant to Branch as a hot route.
A real NFL playbook would contain numerous variations on our skinny post play, from formation shifts and hot routes to receiver options and different protection schemes. Figure 3 shows a possible variation on the play. Instead of cutting to the sidelines at the end of his pattern, Burleson runs a wheel route up the right sidelines. Instead of a post, Hackett runs a 15-yard curl route. At the snap, this play looks just like skinny post. Imagine that you're a free safety studying tape of the Seahawks-Cardinals game. You see Bunch Right Skinny Post, and you know that the Seahawks will come after you with a play like this. During the game, you see Hackett coming at you, Jackson dragging, and Burleson running the curl. Do you slide back and wait for the post you saw on tape? If you do, you could be in trouble if the Seahawks run the play from Figure 3: in the Cover-3 defense shown, Burleson is your responsibility, and you are going the wrong way.
Once we've gotten inside the deep safety's heads, we'll be free to throw all of the underneath routes we like. In our next Play of the Day, we'll design some wide receiver screens to see what the fast guys can do in the open field.