For years, it’s seemed that the Seattle Seahawks were incapable of playing a regular football game. Regardless of the competition, a blowout was rare for this ball club. Even when they were the superior team, Pete Carroll and company would purposely keep games close by grinding out the clock and electing to conservatively move the ball.
This often led to Russell Wilson executing some form of hero ball for a late victory. Thus, heading into the 2020 season, a different approach was needed. A strategic shift that didn’t seem all that hard to embody. One known as… Let… Russ…Cook.
Handing over the keys of the offense to your elite quarterback is something that all successful NFL teams do. It was time that Seattle at least leaned into what they have with Wilson and step away from the ball control, run first attack.
According to the sports analytics sight, teamrankings.com: In 2018, Seattle passed the ball 46% of the time on first down. The lowest rate of first down pass attempts in the league. In 2019, they ran the ball 35% of the time on first down. Good for the 6th most in the NFL.
What is most surprising about those metrics is that Seattle was the only team with an elite passer that ranked in the top half of these categories for both years. But during the first half of the 2020 season, this all changed. Seattle was throwing passes on 61% of their plays (eight highest in the league). More importantly, they were dialing up passes on first down 62% of the time (tenth-most in the league). At one point, Russ had more TD passes than incompletions. He was unstoppable and the nickname Mr. Unlimited seemed to be an understatement.
Unfortunately, the defense was on a historic pace of their own. One in which they were going to shatter the record for passing yards allowed. Upon film review of their defense, the blame was not just on one single person or one specific element of their play. Sure, they didn’t have much of a pass rush, but it was ultimately a continued collection of uncharacteristic errors across the board.
What seemed very clear is that if Seattle’s defense returned to a solid level, this team was going to destroy opponents.
Fast forward to week 9 where Seattle lost to the Bills. In many ways, this game ended up being the turning point of the Seahawks 2020 season. It was the last game of the regular season where the offense would score 30 points. It was also the last time the defense allowed that same number. While the yards and points looked good on paper, the offenses level of play didn’t match up. Russ was sacked 5 times. He also fumbled twice and tossed a pair of interceptions. While Seattle’s defense still gave up massive yardage through the air and surrendered 44 points, there was still silver lining.
Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr, elected to use a much higher number of A gap blitzes & increased the amount of 5 man pressure looks. This allowed Seattle to sack Josh Allen 7 times. This game shaped how opposing defenses played the Seahawk offense in the second half of the year. It also was the jumping off point of Seattle’s defense finding a way to boost their level of play.
Buffalo routinely runs a two high safety look and then rolls into different coverages from that split safety shell. Up until this point in the season, opposing teams had primarily played Seattle with one high safety. Some of this is due to the philosophy of their opponents who are single high safety teams by nature (The Falcons in week 1 and the 49ers in week 8).
Other times it was a matter of how their opponents chose to tweak their scheme to defend Seattle and the heavy run based approach they’d shown over the last couple of years (Patriots in week 2, Vikings in week 5). Then In week 10, Seattle played the Rams. A team that finished the year playing with two high safeties more often than any other defense in the NFL.
These looks caused Russ to hold on to the ball a bit longer in order to diagnose the coverage he was facing. They also provided help over the top to negate the effectiveness of Russ’ signature moon balls down the sidelines that he’s so good at. Russ again threw multiple interceptions. The high turnover rate for him was very unusual.
More on that later…
Again looking at the Rams game… the pressure on opposing QB’s continued here. Jamal Adams was unleashed as a blitzer upon his return from injury and he was excellent at it. While his designated position is strong safety, Adams lined up on the defensive line just a tick over 100 snaps this year and logged 99 blitzes during the season. Racking up 9.5 sacks and 25 total pressures. A mark that was 7 sacks and 16 pressures ahead of the next safety in the league according to Pro Football Reference. All while Adams still missed four games.
In addition to Jamal’s pass rushing presence, Bobby Wagner was also used as a blitzer much more this year. In short, by sending Adams off the edge and using Wagner as an A gap bitter, the defense found some traction through a couple of shifts in philosophy. Adding defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, on top of improvement from defensive tackle, Poona Ford, and flashes from rookie edge rusher, Alton Robinson, these were the key defensive differences in the two halves of the season for Seattle.
For the offense, their adjustment was much more subtle and while also being less effective. They reverted away from early down passes and dialed back the amount of downfield shot plays. They fell back into being a bit more conservative and didn’t provide any adjustments to the two high safety looks that their opponents deployed.
Beyond just first down passing plays called, Seattle also regressed on the number of passing plays they were calling within a neutral game script (a close game in which either team has an advantage based on score and time remaining in the game). During the first half of the year, Russ was dropping back to pass on 64% of plays while in a neutral script. Towards the second half of the year, he was dropping back to pass only 58% of the time during those close games.
However, the offensive decline is a shade deeper than play selection. Russ’ cooking also simmered because he was giving away too many free entrees to opposing defenses. From week 7 through week 10, the same QB that at one point had more TD’s than incompletions threw 10 interceptions and 10 TD’s in that four game-span.
By the end of the season, the two high safety look was deployed often (it also doesn’t help when you play the Rams three times in that stretch including the post season) and the turnovers from Russ were too much for the offensive brain trust to continue to completely lean into the Let Russ Cook movement. By season’s end, when Russ had one or less turnover, Seattle was 12-0. When he had more than one, they were 0-4. I’m still fully in line that turning the offense over to Russ is still the key for success with this team. It’s just that Russ himself, along with who they elect as the new offensive coordinator, will need to find some small tweaks to their approach that allow them to cook at a consistent level.
The season ultimately finished with a division title and what started out the eventual year for Wilson’s MVP, it didn’t conclude that way. It also ended with a defense that again looked promising even though they began as one of the worst unit’s ever.
Well before 2020, Seattle seemed incapable of playing a regular football game. But considering the massive shift that we witnessed this year, they’re also very much capable of playing an entire regular season in a very irregular way, too.