Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California as the Seattle Seahawks will face the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what you should know:
SEAHAWKS’ OFFENSE HAS EXPANDED THEIR HORIZONS
After back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and winning a championship in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks began a slight decline that saw the team drop from the status of a Super Bowl contender to a mere playoff team. It was a time in which the Seahawks got away from their offensive identity a bit, which resulted in coordinators Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer being shown the door following diminishing returns.
Since then former Rams assistant Shane Waldron has taken over and naturally, he employs a version of his former colleague Sean McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the potential of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on handoffs and to have more room to get open down the field.
Beyond Waldron, the biggest change for Seattle has been at quarterback. Russell Wilson – one of, if not the greatest signal caller in franchise history, was traded in the offseason to the Denver Broncos in exchange for multiple players and draft picks. So far the Seahawks haven’t missed a beat, with former New York Jet Geno Smith taking over under center and surprisingly posting career highs in nearly every statistical category.
Smith’s transformation has been nothing short of a revelation. Early in his career Smith used to overreact to perceived pressure and check the ball to shorter routes, but nowadays he has been much more decisive. He’s also excelled with “12” (one back, two tight ends) and “13” (one back, three tight ends) personnel out of different formations and has gotten comfortable with bootlegs, rollouts and his receivers performing vertical concepts. As a result of using more base personnel, Smith has seen more basic coverages and defensive fronts and has done well.
Tyler Lockett possesses a ton of speed and quickness and has taken over the retired Doug Baldwin’s old slot duties in this scheme. D.K. Metcalf can run slants, posts, “sluggos” (slant and gos) and go routes from the boundary ‘X’ position (the single receiver on the opposite side of a formation while others line up on another). Metcalf, while not especially quick, has excellent body control and can make contested catches along the sidelines, while Lockett and tight ends Noah Fant, Colby Parkinson and Tyler Mabry can work the middle of the field. Backups Marquise Goodwin and Laquon Treadwell also get in on the action too, and this group ended 2022 12th in league standings in passing.
Seattle’s running game is typically zone-based and executed by rookie Kenneth Walker III and backups Rashad Penny, Travis Homer (both injured) and Deejay Dallas, who finished the regular season 18th in the NFL in rushing yards. The offensive line blocking for them is made up former rookie Charles Cross, Gabe Jackson, Austin Blythe, Damien Lewis and Abraham Lucas.
SEATTLE’S DEFENSE PUTTING NEW TWISTS ON OLD IDEAS
After Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn left to become head coaches, head coach Pete Carroll decided to stay in house and elevated names like Kris Richard and Ken Norton Jr. to the defensive coordinator post. However the group formerly known as the Legion of Boom, like their offensive counterparts, also declined and hit rock bottom over the last couple of years finishing near the bottom of the NFL in most categories.
Carroll then came to the realization that he needed to keep up with the times. A longtime 4-3 unit, his defense needed to become more athletic to deal with the ever-growing number of offenses using running games featuring the wide zone, faster off the edges and blitz and disguise their coverages more pre-snap to create pressure on quarterbacks. So while sticking to their traditional Cover Three fundamentals – three-deep zone coverage from the outside corners and a safety patrolling centerfield – Carroll and new defensive honcho Clint Hurtt have converted Seattle to a 3-4 while using more zone blitzes and man coverage on third down (Chris B. Brown of smartfootball.com wrote an excellent piece on Carroll’s coverage philosophy a number of years ago, check it out here: https://grantland.com/features/whos-laughing-now/).
While the results have been mixed – ending 2022 26th in total yards given up, 13th against the pass, 30th versus the run and 25th in points surrendered – the Seahawks were tied for seventh in sacks. More likely than not, Carroll and Hurtt don’t quite have the personnel to make it work yet, but that could change over time.
Their best pass rushers are Darrell Taylor and Uchenna Nwosu, who tied for the team lead with 9.5 sacks apiece. Defensive linemen Shelby Harris, Al Woods, Poona Ford, Quinton Jefferson and L.J. Collier are good at clogging gaps against the run, and sometimes Carroll and Hurtt will ask one side of their front-four to control two gaps while the other will be responsible for one – getting the best of both worlds in run support (additionally, this team also likes to overload one side of the line in passing situations and bring stunts and twists to create pressure).
Seattle’s secondary is headlined by young cornerbacks and rookie Tariq Woolen is the best of the bunch. A fifth-round pick out of UTSA, his rise has been similar to that of former Seahawk Richard Sherman, himself a low draft pick. Woolen represents the typical Carroll corner – he excels in press man, off man and zone coverage and has had an excellent season.
Woolen’s teammates on the back end include Mike Jackson, Coby Bryant, Justin Coleman and Artie Burns. At safety is the versatile and rangy Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams, who was acquired via trade with the Jets in 2020. Adams has been used much more often as a blitzer in Seattle than he was in New York but he’s out with a quad injury and replaced by Jonathan Abram. Linebackers Jordyn Brooks (out with a knee ailment), Bruce Irvin, Cody Barton and Tanner Muse are solid in coverage responsibilities.
49ERS’ OFFENSE DEADLY
As mentioned previously, the relationship between 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and McVay goes back a long way. Their time together in Washington was very influential on their offensive beliefs, thus it’s no surprise that both of their offenses are extremely similar.
Like McVay (and his father Mike before him), Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.
The 49ers’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most agile left tackles who excels on screens), Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford (who have replaced last year’s interior of Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill), Mike McGlinchey and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
There are, however, some differences between the two coaches. While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power plays, traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).
The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while also taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creating more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”
In years past, these concepts by the Bay were usually carried out by veterans like Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Matt Breida, but neither of these backs had the ability to affect defensive gameplans both on the ground and through the air. Enter former Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey, who three years ago became just the third back in NFL annals to have both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others). Acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for draft pick compensation, the explosive McCaffrey is arguably the most talented running back either Shanahan has ever had play in this scheme, and he and speedy backup Elijah Mitchell have wreaked havoc for the 49ers.
Handing the ball off to them usually has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. When he’s been on the field Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, and solid arm strength. Yet he’s rarely healthy or consistent (like this year, once again out with an injury – this time with a broken foot), prompting Shanahan to draft the physically gifted Trey Lance from North Dakota State in the spring.
The problem is, Lance is also out after fracturing his ankle in September – forcing Shanahan to rely on rookie Brock Purdy. A seventh-round pick in April out of Iowa State (and 2022’s “Mr. Irrelevant”, aka the last selection of the draft), Purdy has been steady and efficient while holding down the fort to the tune of a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion percentage of 67.1.
San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Three-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Samuel has also emerged as a dangerous ballcarrier on reverses and end-arounds and will sometimes line up at running back (backups Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud III sometimes get in on the action as well).
Similar to his predecessors, Shanahan will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them additional space to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.
San Francisco has had good production in 2022, finishing the season fifth in total yards, 13th in passing and eighth in rushing. Additionally, they were sixth in scoring.
SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDANT OF SEATTLE’S
When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley was one of the original architects (along with Carroll) of Seattle’s fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield), which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.
Saleh has since become the head coach of the New York Jets and his replacement is former assistant coach (and ex-linebacker) DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has kept the 49ers’ system intact and they ended 2022 first in total yards given up, second against the run, 20th versus the pass and first in points allowed (not to mention tied for 10th in sacks and first in interceptions). Their base coverage remains Cover Three, but they have added in more split safety zone coverages like Two, Four and Six to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.
The prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years has been for them to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage – so the 49ers have made sure that three corners on their roster (Charvarius Ward, Dontae Johnson and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. Emmanuel Moseley, Deommodore Lenoir and Jason Verrett are also important cogs on this unit, but Verrett, Johnson and Moseley are all out with various injuries. Safety Jimmie Ward – who played multiple defensive back positions in his earlier years – is now the team’s nickel corner out of necessity, and Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga are the starters on the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best in Fred Warner (Azzez Al-Shaair is their third linebacker). In front of them is one of the NFL’s elite defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Arik Amrstead, Javon Kinlaw and Samson Ebukam.
These players are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Ryans – like Saleh before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates any potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Ryans will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations and especially out of five-man tilted fronts.