Washington Redskins vs Seattle Seahawks
FedEx Field, Washington
Who saw this one coming at the start of the season? Two rookie quarterbacks guiding their teams into the first round of the playoffs against one another and neither of them has done it playing the traditional rookie quarterback role. Instead of having their teams carrying them while they adjust to the speed of the NFL, both of these guys have made big plays for the offense and been an integral part of their success. Seattle holds a 2-0 advantage in the playoff series between these two teams, the most recent game coming in the 2007 season which the Seahawks won at home 35-13 to advance to Green Bay. That result ended the Redskins late season run following the death of Sean Taylor and it also ended the coaching career of Joe Gibbs. While neither team has a similar rallying cry to get behind this year, both of these teams have surprised many by finding themselves in this position and neither team has anything to lose from this point out and can play with that freedom. To work out each of their strengths and weaknesses as well as how they are likely to approach this game, two games from late in the season were studied to evaluate their scheme and analyze how they broke off big plays before working out how it will apply this weekend.
In their blowout of Buffalo up in Toronto, the Seahawks rode the mobility of Russell Wilson to a comfortable 50-17 win. Seattle’s play calling had the Buffalo defense confused and constantly picking the wrong option when Russell Wilson went to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the read-option. It resulted in a career day for Russell Wilson as he ran for three touchdowns and threw for another to tight end Zach Miller. What had to be a concern for the Seahawks was the pressure Wilson found himself under when he dropped back to pass. The Bills underperforming line had Wilson on the run, only missing out of sacks due to the mobility of the rookie as well as his smart decisions to throw the ball away when the play is dead. On the other side of the ball, the Seattle defense had a tough time slowing down C.J. Spiller who ran for over 100 yards on just 17 carries. They only really took him out of the game when they established a big lead which forced the Bills to go pass heavy with their play calling. Of course their pass defense was pretty impressive, especially up front thanks to their impressive group of linemen. Overall it was a performance that Seahawks had to be very pleased with that was full of largely encouraging signs for the team.
In a primetime bout with their division rivals two weeks ago, the Seahawks pounded the San Francisco 49ers 42-13 to continue their playoff push. On their first offensive possession, they showed that while they are not an explosive offense, they can break their share of big plays. They do so on the ground by simply overpowering the opposition at the point of attack; Marshawn Lynch hit a long touchdown run off the left side. They lined up both their tight ends, Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy on that side and it was a simple power run that lead to the score. Their defensive ends can generate big plays simply due to their speed and ability to get around their blockers, in one instance in this game; Chris Clemons was able to chase down a scrambling Colin Kaepernick, something not many linemen are capable of. Scheme wise they did not do anything overly complicated to try and confuse the young quarterback, they just simply relied on their athleticism and skill to slow them down. Even their special teams got in on the big plays blocking a chip shot attempt from David Akers before Richard Sherman returned the ball for a score.
It’s amazing to see how much the Redskins have changed their offensive system to cater for the unique skill set of their rookie superstar Robert Griffin III. With the ability to move around and make big plays with his legs, coach Mike Shannahan altered the system to make it more like what Griffin ran at Baylor. There is a lot of motion before and at the snap, to try and get the defense pursuing in the wrong direction and giving Griffin the chance to get outside the pocket and run around. What was interesting to see about the week 16 game against the struggling Eagles, was how the system was changed as Griffin battled a knee injury. While he is still a better athlete than most quarterbacks in the league, Griffin moved around gingerly and was missing that explosive step that made him incredibly dangerous. Against the Eagles the playcalling did not look all that different to normal, other than the number of designed rollouts and runs for Griffin were reduced. They leaned heavily on their rookie running back Alfred Morris who has some big play ability and can also grind out tough yards when asked to. Much like any 3-4 defense, the Redskins strength is in their linebackers, most notably iron man London Fletcher in the middle who nobody can get off the field as well as Ryan Kerrigan on the outside. Philadelphia had success against the Redskins getting their backs outside the rush and attacking their suspect secondary. The most notable weakness is DeAngelo Hall who is great at producing big plays but those tend to cover up plenty of completed passes.
On thanksgiving, Griffin had a career day on the national stage against the Dallas Cowboys in a game that would wind up having massive playoff implications. In direct contrast to the Seahawks, a lot of the Redskins big plays came from good designs as opposed to sheer athleticism. With the Dallas defense focusing so much on the running game, it opens them up to take shots down field off play action. They broke two big plays in the second quarter for touchdowns off play action passes. The first one, a 68 yard bomb to Aldrick Robinson came from the safety being frozen by Griffin putting the ball in the gut of the back before looking for his receiver deep. The throw itself deserves some credit because he had missed some easy short throws early on but it was bang on the money and right in stride for the receiver. The second touchdown came from a fake again as Griffin hit Pierre Garcon for a 59 yard touchdown. The victim of the fake in this instance was linebacker Bruce Carter whose brief hesitation allowed Garcon to get behind him and give Griffin a big enough window to throw the ball.
How the Game Will Be Won
With the Seahawks strength being in the running game, you know the Redskins will be selling out to try and stop Marshawn Lynch and the ground game. Luckily for Seattle, they have a secondary rushing threat in their quarterback that means they won’t be able to focus solely on The Beast. If they can gain traction through the middle and move Barry Cofield it will open up their whole offense. It will mean their running game opens up as the read option plays that Wilson uses so well can freeze the defense long enough to get big yardage on the perimeter. It also opens up the play action in the passing game which should give Wilson an extra beat to find an open receiver. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice had success working outside the numbers this season and Wilson should be able to find them along the sideline. It is imperative for the Seahawks to not let themselves get into obvious passing situations as they struggle to protect Wilson when that happens and we saw how effective the Redskins can be at blitzing just last week. When they do face those long distances, they will need to rely on extra blockers to pick up the pressure and allow Wilson to locate his open receiver.
It will be a big ask for the offense to generate enough points on their own to win the game on the road and that is where their defense and special teams will need to step up. Against another mobile quarterback, in Colin Kaepernick, the Seahawks backed off their pressure a little bit and focused on containment ahead of actually getting a sack. When they do get the chance, it would be wise of them to hit Griffin early and just see how confident he is in his knee. Their secondary is back at full strength following the return of Brandon Browner from suspension and suddenly their pass defense gets a lot better. In another year (and without the rumours of the failed drug test) the other corner Richard Sherman would be in the running for defensive player of the year with the season he is having. To shut down the Redskins they need to be disciplined in coverage and rely on Washington making the mistakes. To tilt the momentum on the road they will need a big play from the special teams as well, especially early on be it a fake punt or field goal, a block or even something as simple as a big return from Leon Washington.
Hosting their first playoff game since 1999, the Redskins will have a vocal crowd behind them as they hope to win their first playoff game since the 2005 season. The best way to set the aggressive Seattle team back a step is to hit them with a couple of early big plays and in an ideal world, a quick score or two. Building a lead will allow the Redskins to methodically control the tempo and force Seattle out of their comfort zone. Seattle have been experts at building a quick lead in their recent run so they will have to be wary of that being used against them as well. It means that they will not have to pay too much attention to the running game and force Russell Wilson to beat them with his arm alone. It helps that they have possibly one of the most explosive players in recent history on their side, even if he is a bit limited through injury. Speed kills this Seattle defense and they will need to play faster than them to counter their aggressiveness. A quick play fake out of the pistol and get the ball into the hands of a receiver running an intermediate route could bring big yards if they execute perfectly. Meanwhile on the ground Alfred Morris just needs to keep churning away and get his yards, his coaches know how to get yards on the ground and they will give him his opportunities.
With a suspect secondary, the Redskins front seven will need to carry the load in this game and hope that they can cause enough disruption to get by. Of course stopping the rolling Seahawks is no easy task as Marshawn Lynch will run over you while Russell Wilson will leave you grasping at thin air. The best thing for the Redskins defense to do is to contain and tackle well, most of Wilson’s success comes from making the first tackler miss before finding a receiver or preventing negative yardage by throwing it away. Fletcher is one of the league’s best tacklers and he will need to get his teammates using proper technique on Wilson. There is no point trying to take his head off, just wrap up and drive through the ball carrier. A lot of emphasis will be placed on the outside linebackers containing the read option plays and forcing Wilson to try and look for holes in the middle, if they can stop Seattle getting second chance yardage then that defence will have a much easier day. Their Australian punter, Sav Rocca will be key to negating the Seattle return game, a couple of big kicks can change field position and their impressive coverage units will be able to take care of the rest. Of course if Leon Washington does get free then Rocca can just try and decapitate him like he did to Dwayne Harris last week.
Overall this game will be tough, tight and draining for whoever wins it. The offenses look like they will cancel each other out while the defensive comparison has a slight edge going to Seattle. You just can’t look past the intangibles going in Washington’s favour, they will have a vocal home crowd behind them and Seattle has been questionable at best on the road. Look for Washington to scrape home 23-17 in a close game.