The Elephant in the Locker Room: The Middle of the D Could be the Hawks’ Achilles’ Heel

be-back-smBy Greg Wright

I, for one, was greatly relieved to see Bobby Wagner have a great game last week.

For the last five years, it’s been tremendously obvious to most serious fans (and just about every offensive coordinator in the league worth his salt) that the Seahawk defense’s strengths are its secondary and its line play against the run. That leaves, generally speaking, the middle of the field on passing downs as the Hawks’ weakness.

And it’s by design. In Carroll’s scheme, if you push the offense to the middle of the field, that’s where things are going to get the most chaotic; and when there’s chaos and you’re on defense, good things are gonna happen. Just look at the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win (not to mention the rest of that season).

The last two years, though, have looked a lot more like 2012 than 2013. Team after team has had success exploiting the middle of the field with mismatches on tight ends and running backs in particular, and on occasion a sharp slot receiver.

Part of the responsibility for that defensive lapse, of course, falls on the scheme in general; but part also falls on the safeties, and part falls on the middle linebacker: “defensive QB” Bobby Wagner.

A lot has been said in the media about the play (and lack of play) of Chancellor and McCray. So as a case study of what we hope not to see in the regular season, let’s instead take a close look at how Wagner was repeatedly caught out of position in the opening defensive sequences against Kansas City and Minnesota.

KC 1 1st and 10 5 yard gainJPG

1st and 10 at midfield. Wagner drops into pass coverage (see spotlight)… but as you can see, he drops a yard or two deeper than the other linebackers. The pass is completed underneath for a five-yard gain. Wagner gets his only tackle of the series.

KC 2 2nd and 5 11 yard pickup

2nd and 5. Bobby is late calling the defensive signals and is caught flat-footed as the run play goes up the middle for 11 yards. Bobby just ends up watching the action unfolding downfield.

KC 3 9 yard gain ware

On 1st down, KC runs Ware again. Bobby takes on his man but doesn’t shed the block in time to prevent a nine-yard gain… up the middle.

KC 4 ware bobby wagner had a chance at him 2 yards first down

On 2nd and 1, KC runs Ware again. Bobby has a chance at Ware at the line of scrimmage, but whiffs and Ware picks up 2 yards for the first down.

KC 5 3rd and 9 for 20 yards 8-second scramble

No need for a spotlight here. 3rd down and 9 to go. After a full eight seconds and a scramble, Smith finally gets the pass off. Bobby is caught in no-man’s land between Smith and Maclin, and the pass goes for 20 yards and first down near the goal line. It’s good coverage by Lane and a great catch by Maclin, so this isn’t Bobby’s fault… but with eight seconds, I imagine Matthews or Kuechly would have been in a better position to make a play. (I know… cheap shot. But seriously, look what happens next. And think again about Matthews or Kuechly.)

KC 6 touchdown ware

Touchdown, Ware. While Ware is getting the handoff from Smith. Bobby runs into Shead and gets knocked to his knees… effectively getting taken out of the play by his own guy. Ugh.

So that’s the way Seattle’s first team opened against Kansas City’s first team. Not very auspicious.

The next week against Minnesota was a little better, but only to the degree that the Vikings did not score.

M1 1st and ten 2 yard gain

Running play on 1st and 10. Bobby seals the corner (but does not shed the block) and Minnesota settles for 2 yards.

M2 18 yard completion on delayed blitz

On third and long, Seattle dials up a blitz. Bobby initially gets hung up on the left side, then in a delayed move spins around the right end. If nobody is open, it’s a sure sack… but receivers are open, Hill goes untouched and unhurried, and the pass is completed for 18 yards.

M3 8 yard first down

Another third and long. Bobby draws the tailback in man-to-man coverage and gets easily screened off from the play inside. By the time he recovers, the ball is well on its way to Asiata and the pass goes for 8 yards and a first down. Bobby makes a sure tackle (his only one of the series again, after giving up the first down)… but you can see a trend developing: how teams are going to create and take advantage of mismatches in the middle of the field. It’s like opposing offenses are listening to Brock Huard’s chalk talks: “formations, players, plays”… creating one-on-one matchups that their players can win.

M4 5 yard pickup

On 2nd and 10, a swing pass to the flat. Bobby’s patrolling the middle of the field… but nobody is there. The pass picks up five yards.

M5 incomplete punt

Finally, on 3rd and 5 the D forces a punt on an incomplete pass. But again… look at Bobby’s drop. He’s two yards behind the first-down marker, and a good yard deeper than the other linebackers. It’s important that Bobby keep things in front of him… but if a receiver comes open in front of Bobby and catches the ball, it’s still a first down.

Why am I picking on Wagner?

I’m not. Remember, I started off by saying how pleased I was to see Wagner’s great play against Dallas.

But play stands out when there’s a contrast, and Wagner’s film from the first two weeks illustrates a weakness, and a weakness we can expect to see exploited unless Wagner has a career year. He’s generally right about his calls, about diagnosing the plays, and about who’s going to get the ball. But he needs to play more instinctively and less conservatively, and he needs to make the defensive calls more quickly so he can keep his eyes on the offensive play rather than his own teammates’ backsides.

There’s no doubt that Wagner is Pro-bowl caliber; but our linebacking corps is not the cream of the crop the way that our secondary is, or the way our line is against the run. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and if I’m an offensive coordinator, I know what Seattle’s weakest link is… and I’m going after it.

And those two series in preseason play show exactly what that can look like.

Now… imagine what it would be like if Wagner gets injured and Brock Coyle is manning the helm.

Scary, huh?

After four playoff appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us weekly for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.


2 Responses to “The Elephant in the Locker Room: The Middle of the D Could be the Hawks’ Achilles’ Heel”
  1. Big Z says:

    It’s preseason.

    • Greg Wright says:

      I think I mentioned that it’s preseason several times… and that’s why I’m just looking at the series where the first team D played against the opposing first team offense.

      I’m glad you’re not concerned, really. But this column isn’t about bright shiny happy thoughts. It’s about overlooked details. And I think this is a pretty significant overlooked detail.

      Feel free to disagree, of course. After all, what the hell do I know? I’ve never coached a game in my life. I’m just a columnist.

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