The punch-counter punch nature of football is fascinating. The most brilliant minds in football go head-to-head trying to outsmart each other with live-action chess pieces. It is outrageous, and it is unlike anything else.
Every so often, the league puts on a masterclass of schematics. Last year’s Week 6 matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons fits the bill. On one side, Darrell Bevell coordinated the Seahawks offense. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn spearheaded the Falcons defensive game planning from the opposite sideline.
The battle between the two can be seen in one particular, yet recurring situation. Throughout the game, Seattle came out in a trips formation with a running back in the backfield and a lone tight end attached to the formation opposite of the trips set. The tight end was always lined up to the short side of the field, so as to give the trips side more room to work with. Seattle wasn’t trying to use the trips set, though. Bevell wanted to attack the short side of the field.
Below is one of the first times Seattle chose to use that formation.
On 3rd-and-Medium, the Seahawks wanted to get the ball out quickly. The Falcons defense showed blitz before the snap and forced quarterback Russell Wilson to adjust the play call. Wilson audibled for his running back to remain in the backfield and help with pass protection, rather than swing out to the flat like this play would normally ask of him. Wilson was right about the blitz and the running back picked up one of the pass rushers, but tight end Jimmy Graham wasn’t able to hold onto the well-thrown ball from Wilson.
From here on out, the running back ran a route out of this formation. Had Wilson not audibled, the running back would have ran to the flat area and forced a conflict for the linebacker. The linebacker would have had to choose between carrying the tight end up the field to aid the cornerback or sprinting out to the flats to stop any yards-after-catch opportunity for the running back. Therein lies the biggest battle of this game.
This was the next time the Seahawks used this formation. Once again, the Falcons look like they are going to bring more than four pass rushers, but the position of the linebacker over the tight end implies that there is no immediate coverage threat to the running back. The Falcons employ a “Fire Zone” blitz, which is a 3-deep shell with three middle-of-the-field defenders underneath. The middle defenders are designed to cover the hook/curl area first, and that leads to the linebacker carrying the tight end on his route. With the linebacker tied up on the tight end and the cornerback trailing off into his deep third, there is nobody in the flat to stop the running back.
Shortly thereafter, Seattle came out in the formation once again. After having just been burned for an easy completion in the flat, Atlanta’s defense didn’t want that to happen again. Seattle used Atlanta’s fear against them.
Seattle doesn’t attack the curl/flat conflict this time. Instead, Seattle clears out the hook/curl area with the tight end, who gets vertical to about ten yards and then breaks off a corner-post to the boundary. The vertical route clears the flat area and Kemal Ishmael, the defender tasked with the running back, anticipates a route to the flat. Running back C.J. Spiller stutter steps and fakes a quick route to the flats, only to break back inside and run free over the middle. Wilson runs up to the line of scrimmage to suck in the linebacker and tosses a pass over the middle to Spiller for a near-touchdown.
The Falcons defense then decided to prioritize the running back the next time around. Running backs had beaten them twice out of this formation, while the one pass to a tight end was dropped. It was time for Seattle to throw them off the scent.
These two plays were the next two plays ran out of this trips formation. In the first, the linebacker sprints out to the flat with little worry about the tight end. He quickly cuts under the tight end and carries the running back up the field. Considering the linebacker did little to block the throwing window to the tight end, Wilson was able to rifle in a throw between the linebacker clearing toward the flat and the cornerback trying to close from an off-coverage deep third alignment.
Having just been beaten for not paying attention to the tight end, the Falcons defense tries to slow-play the tight end the next time around. Once again, tight end Jimmy Graham gets vertical to about ten yards and searches for the open area in the zone, while the running back swings out to the flat. Ishmael slow-plays the tight end and locks in on Wilson’s eyes, waiting for him to throw to the tight end. Ishmael’s focus on the tight end leaves enough time and space in the flat for Wilson to throw a quick strike to the running back for a short gain.
For the remainder of the game, the Falcons allowed the Seahawks to the throw flat route whenever they wanted it. They figured that they’d force their opponent to dink-and-dunk to victory and hope that they would become impatient. Instead of impatience, the Seahawks answered with creativity.
Shifting into or out of common formations keeps a defense honest. Otherwise, a defense will quickly pick up on which coverages will best stop the offense. After having operated so often out of a basic trips formation with the nub tight end (lone tight end, no receivers), the Seahawks had to switch it up.
The Seahawks first chose to shift into a trey set, which is trips with a tight end instead of a third receiver. It is not the same exact formation that they’d been using throughout the game, but it serves many of the same functions and puts many of the same space constraints on a defense. It also creates the same look on the back side. The nub tight end and running back create the same conflict as in the original trips formation they had been using.
Of course, the Falcons sold out to cover that hook/curl/flats area from the tight end and running back. The Falcons were fooled. Seattle’s offense did not call for a route from the tight end or the running back, instead putting both in pass protection on a play-action pass designed to attack the right side of the field. The Falcons defense dropped three defenders into a space without a single Seahawks player. After the Falcons defenders further separated themselves from the line of scrimmage, the tight end who had motioned across the formation before the snap leaks out for a short check down pass. With all of the defenders deep, the Seahawks were able to pick up a handful of easy yards.
Seattle then opted to shift out of their common trips package. In doing so, they still put the linebacker in the same conflict he’d been in all game: slow-play the curl route or immediately get to the flat to cover the running back. However, the cornerback is now caught in a bind. The cornerback has to decide whether he wants to play safe over the top of the tight end or immediately clamp down on the curl route. Both the linebacker and the cornerback played it too indecisively.
The linebacker quickly loses sight of where the wide receiver is or where the quarterback’s eyes are going. Once he drops to delay the curl route for a short moment, his eyes drift to the running back and he gets lost. The cornerback, on the other hand, chooses to play over the top of the tight end at first. Truth be told, the cornerback likely did the right thing by helping his teammate over the top, but it allowed for Wilson to deliver a pass to the curl route as soon as the linebacker moved out of the way.
Both teams gave a little and took a little. By and large, the Seahawks won this battle of the wits. The Seahawks completed a pass out of this particular trips formation more often than not. The Falcons only answer was to surrender the easiest route on each play. While Atlanta forced one scramble in the middle of the game and swatted away the last pass against Seattle’s trips formation, it was largely a futile effort trying to stop the Seahawks from gaining solid yardage out of their favorite formation.
Seattle’s patience and execution prevailed in the end, resulting in a 26-24 victory over the eventual NFC Super Bowl representatives. A classic TKO.