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Xs and Os: How the Packers Can Attack the Seahawks Through the Air

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Xs and Os: How the Packers Can Attack the Seahawks Through the Air

Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin runs away from Seahawks safety Earl Thomas by Benny Sieu—USA TODAY Sports.

Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin runs away from Seahawks safety Earl Thomas by Benny Sieu—USA TODAY Sports.

The talent of the Seahawks defense is well-documented. Their 2013 defense was one of the best in the past ten years. As you will see below, their coverage schemes are simple, and they rarely disguise their intentions, but they execute so well. This article will specifically feature ways that the Packers can attack the Seahawks in the passing game. In terms of the offensive gameplan as a whole, the Packers will have to lean on Eddie Lacy and James Starks in the running game in order to have success.

There are three main coverages that the Seahawks like to run: “Cover 3,” “Cover 3 Buzz,” and “Cover 1 Robber”. These aren’t exotic coverages, but they run them better than anyone in the league. Aaron Rodgers and the offense will definitely have their work cut out for them. However, through the use of 1) personnel packages/formations and 2) specific route concepts, there are ways that the Packers can attack the Seahawks defense in the passing game. There are four main route concepts/combinations that the Packers should use against Seattle’s defense: “Sail,” “All Go Special,” “Curls/Seams,” and “Drive."

One thing should be pointed out, though. If the Packers offensive linemen do not play the game of their lives, none of the strategy below will really matter. Pass protection will be the key for the Packers against ferocious rushers like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.


Cover 3 out of the 4-3

The Seahawks usually like to play a basic Cover 3 out of their 4-3 base defense. Cover 3 consists of three deep defenders (both outside cornerbacks and a deep middle safety) and four underneath defenders (two “curl to flat” defenders and two “hook zone” defenders). Let’s take a look at some pictures of their Cover 3 out of their 4-3 base and how the Packers could attack this.

When Seattle plays Cover 3 out of their 4-3, Kam Chancellor usually comes down in the box as the eighth defender to play “curl to flat”. To put it simply, the “curl to flat” defender’s job is to drop back in the curl zone until he sees a threat in the flat area. Here is their Cover 3 versus a basic I formation (Chancellor had “curl to flat” at the bottom of the screen):

In this next picture, the Seahawks played Cover 3 out of their 4-3 with Earl Thomas coming down as the “curl to flat” defender (he had “curl to flat” at the top of the screen). Since this was a 2x2 formation, Thomas came down instead of Chancellor—remember this observation, Packers fans:

How the Packers could attack this: Although McCarthy likes to use “11 personnel” (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) a lot, there are also times when he uses “20 personnel” (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR) and “12 personnel” (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, Seattle led the NFL by using a base 4-3 defense 53-54% of the time in 2013. If McCarthy uses 20 or 12 personnel on early downs, Seattle will probably counter with their base 4-3.

What are some route concepts that McCarthy could use out of these personnel packages versus Seattle’s base 4-3 Cover 3? Out of “20 personnel” (with John Kuhn and James Starks or Eddie Lacy in the backfield), he should use the “Sail” concept. The Sail concept is a popular Cover 3 beater, because it floods the deep outside 1/3 of the field and puts the CB in a bind. No matter what the CB does (stay with the vertical route or jump the Corner route), he really can’t be right, because the vertical route and Corner route flood his outside 1/3.

After a lot of film study, there were two great examples of the Sail concept against Seattle’s defense. First, the Saints offense ran this concept against Seattle in Week 13 of last season. In this concept, the outside WR runs a vertical route, the TE or slot WR runs a Corner route, and the RB runs a route to the flat. The Saints did that here. The outside WR (red circle) ran a vertical route, the TE (yellow circle) ran a Corner route, and the RB (green circle) ran a route to the flat:

The RB’s route occupied the curl to flat defender, while the Corner route and vertical route flooded the outside CB’s zone. Although the pass was incomplete, Jimmy Graham (yellow circle) was wide open on the Corner route, because the CB, Byron Maxwell (black arrow), stayed with the outside WR:

Here is the Colts’ Sail concept against Seattle’s Cover 3 out of their base 4-3. The outside WR (red circle) ran a vertical route, the TE (yellow circle) ran a Corner route, and the fullback (green circle) ran a route to the flat:

The route to the flat occupied the curl to flat defender, and Richard Sherman (black arrow) bit on the Corner route by the TE in his 1/3. Since Sherman bit on the Corner route, it left the outside WR open deep for the touchdown:

Next, if McCarthy uses “12 personnel,” Seattle will likely counter with their 4-3 as well. Here is something McCarthy could do with this: Move both WRs, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, inside to the slot and move both TEs to the outside, creating a 2x2 formation or 3x1 formation. He has done this before. Most notably, he did it in Super Bowl 45 on Greg Jennings’ first TD reception, and it forced Pittsburgh to stay in their base defense. Andrew Quarless and Donald Lee were lined up on the outside with Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson lined up in the slot:

In 2014, it would probably be Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers outside with Nelson and Cobb inside. If it’s a 2x2 formation, it would force the rangiest safety in football, Earl Thomas, to come down as the curl to flat defender – recall the picture above where Thomas is forced to come down versus 2x2 formations in their Cover 3. This personnel package/formation would take Thomas out of the middle of the field (where he’s at his best), and put a less athletic Kam Chancellor back in the deep middle at safety. Chancellor is really good, but the Packers would rather have him back there than Thomas. The Packers can also run this out of a 3x1 formation, but a 2x2 formation forces Thomas to come down. Having both WRs in the slot is beneficial from a speed standpoint, and it also reduces Richard Sherman’s impact since the primary receivers would be in the slot.

Out of this personnel package, McCarthy can run “All Go Special” and “Curls/Seams”. “All Go Special,” commonly called “Four Verticals,” is the most popular route concept versus Cover 3, because it is difficult to defend four vertical routes when you only have three deep defenders. Here is Packers offensive coordinator, Tom Clements, explaining All Go Special (particularly pay attention up until the 1:35 mark):

In addition to All Go Special, the Packers can run a route combination that is just as effective as All Go Special, but it is not as popular. This route combination features Curl routes by the outside TEs and Seam routes by the WRs in the slot. This route concept puts the deep middle 1/3 safety in an immediate bind, because the outside 1/3 CBs are occupied by the Curl routes, and it is tough for them to react quickly enough to help out on the Seam routes. Also, this concept can be particularly effective inside the 20-yard line:

Cover 3 Buzz and Cover 1 Robber out of the Nickel

Next, we will look at Seattle’s Cover 3 Buzz and Cover 1 Robber out of their Nickel defense. Cover 3 Buzz is essentially the same as normal Cover 3 – it’s simply a variation of Cover 3 where the safety “buzzes” down underneath to be the hook zone defender instead of being the “curl to flat” defender.

There is one thing to point out. When Seattle plays their Nickel defense, their starting outside linebacker, K.J. Wright (#50), usually tells you what coverage they are playing based on his pre-snap alignment. If he is removed from the box and lined up over a WR or TE, they are going to play Cover 3 Buzz or Cover 1 Robber. Aaron Rodgers will need to locate him. Again, Seattle does not disguise their coverages very well, because they have the talent to do that.

Here are two pictures of Seattle’s Cover 3 Buzz out of their Nickel (the OLB has "curl to flat" as illustrated by the red arrow, and SS Kam Chancellor has a hook zone as illustrated by the green arrow):

Here are two pictures of Seattle’s Cover 1 Robber out of their Nickel. In this coverage, both outside CBs, the Nickel CB, and both LBs play man underneath while one safety comes down to the middle of the field as the “robber” and the other safety plays back in the deep middle (Earl Thomas is the “robber” versus 3x1 formations, and Kam Chancellor is the “robber” versus 2x2 formations):

How the Packers could attack Cover 3 Buzz and Cover 1 Robber: When an offense comes on the field with “11 personnel” (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) versus Seattle, the Seahawks really like to play Cover 1 Robber. It is very difficult to throw against Seattle’s Cover 1 Robber because of three reasons: 1) their outside CBs are so good, 2) K.J. Wright is one of the best cover LBs in the NFL (great at covering TEs), and 3) the middle of the field is extremely restricted. So, even though McCarthy likes to use “11 personnel,” it would be better if he used more “10 personnel” (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) against Seattle. Why? Because K.J. Wright cannot cover a WR in the slot like he could a TE. That is the key. If McCarthy uses “10 personnel,” Seattle will have to play Cover 3 Buzz, or else K.J. Wright will be at a huge disadvantage. The Packers would probably have better opportunities to complete passes against Cover 3 Buzz than Cover 1 Robber. McCarthy and Clements should see this on tape.

The Packers should run “All Go Special” and the Curls/Seams combination (refer back to the diagram above) out of “10 personnel”. This would likely force Seattle to play Cover 3 Buzz, and these two route concepts would put a lot of stress on that coverage. When you watch Tom Clements explain “All Go Special,” out of a 3x1 formation, you see how it would put Earl Thomas in a bind in the deep middle of the field. Since the #3 WR would be crossing Thomas’ face on a Post route, the #2 WR should be open in the seam area. Again, when you watch this, particularly pay attention up until the 1:35 mark:

Even though Clements explained this using “11 personnel,” it can still be run out of “10 personnel”.

However, let’s say McCarthy goes with “11 personnel” a lot like he usually does. What can he do if Seattle plays Cover 1 Robber when he chooses to use “11 personnel” (a blatant tendency of Seattle’s)? There are not many specific route concepts that can “beat” Cover 1 Robber. The main formula is to win the one-on-ones outside.

There is one route concept, however, that may work against Cover 1 Robber—the “Drive” concept. This is an old West Coast Offense concept that is still used some today. This concept, if run out of a 3x1 formation, can take Earl Thomas out of the play and use K.J. Wright’s (the man covering the TE) leverage against him. Here is what the “Drive” concept looks like (this is from Mike Holmgren’s 1997 playbook):

Since the Nickel (slot) CB would be trailing the “Drive” route by the slot WR, the “robber,” Earl Thomas, would have to help the Nickel CB with the Drive route. This would take Thomas out of the play immediately. This would clear out the middle of the field and allow the TE (maybe Richard Rodgers) to run the intermediate “In” route away from K.J. Wright. Since Wright would be playing man with outside leverage, it would allow the TE to run away from Wright to the inside. This should be a decent gain for the TE. It should be easier to create separation at the top of the route versus Wright since he is in outside leverage.

Everything above is based off Seattle’s defensive tendencies, which repeatedly show up on tape. Do they occasionally blitz, play basic Cover 1, and play Cover 2 on long-yardage situations like other defenses? Sure, but their main tendencies are featured above. Will McCarthy and Clements implement all of these specific route concepts/personnel groupings in to the gameplan? Maybe not all of them, but they should if they want to be successful in the passing game.

Thanks for reading, Packers fans. Follow me on Twitter at @RobertOlson92 for daily analysis on the Packers.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (49) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Ibleedgreenmore's picture

Just score more and we win, not asking for to much.

zerotolerance's picture

Excellent. You apparently must have some significant background.

The TKstinator's picture

I love this kind of stuff.
I especially appreciate the comment right up front, stating that without pass protection none of these well laid plans matter.

OK's picture

Wow, I'm pretty new to this website, but this was an awesome article. It's tough to find a lot of great 'X's & O's' articles in general, let alone specific for the Packers. Not sure if this is a staple of your in-season content, but would love to see A LOT more hardcore football articles like this all season.

packeraaron's picture

This type of article is exactly why we brought Robert on board. You'll be seeing more, trust me.

DrealynWilliams's picture

And why I love football. I got to the "2x2" portion and I just got anxious while reading. In that scenario,I would hope TE 1 & TE 2 will force the defense to respect them and not just be another body on the field. Just make a few plays which would then allow Jordy & Cobb/Boykin to tear apart them Nickel CBs (since Sherman can't follow WRs)


The TKstinator's picture

And, for all of the "enemy intel" fanatics out there, the article goes on to state that Seattle doesn't try very hard to disguise what they're doing. They are successful because they have great players executing their schemes.
As Vic says, "players, not plays".

zerotolerance's picture

If the Packers win Thursday - will you go away?

zerotolerance's picture

Maybe not, if you are also a liar.

zeke's picture

Of course he's going to show up. He gets off on the attention.

zerotolerance's picture

i.e. - a liar?

zeke's picture

As he said several seasons ago, he realized that he got a lot more reactions when he posted the really negative stuff that is now commonplace. I would consider that being an attention whore rather than a liar, but of course your mileage may vary.

zerotolerance's picture

Robert - sorry about the exposure to some that post in the comment section of this excellent site to extreme negativity. It seems it can't be helped. However, your excellent post is most welcomed, and please continue this fine work. It may be best, however, to skim over, which we all should, the negative post thus referenced. Thanks again - and go PACK!

packeraaron's picture

"i actually think it's outstanding."

God forbid you lead with that before jumping to your usual doom and gloom nonsense. But of course you can't help it. It's who you are.

RCPackerFan's picture

This observation is based on what? The 2 total quarters we have seen of the Packers starters this preseason?

Cow, what happened buddy? You were doing so well with optimism and full of faith. Most of us were really starting to like the new Cow. Then all of a sudden the old Cow comes back and everyone is miserable again.

4thand1's picture

Is Robert POC ?

packeraaron's picture


They're 13, 8 and 6 years old, by the way. That's the level of discourse you both bring to this site.

Just so you're aware.

GBjohnny's picture

Thank You, I hate listening to these Jackwads whine and cry about each other on every post.

RCPackerFan's picture

Is Goldfinger - Arlo?

murphy's picture

The quality of the posts is certainly similar.

RCPackerFan's picture

thats my thinking as well..

packeraaron's picture

Robert is not POC, who, for the record, was not "driven away."

robertolson's picture

The 3:36 mark in the actual game, or the 3:36 mark in the highlight video? If it's the 3:36 mark in the actual game, what quarter? The 4th quarter?

robertolson's picture

On that play, the Packers were playing their 2-3-6 Dime, and they ran a "Cross Fire" zone pressure (Cover 3 behind it).

robertolson's picture

No, it's Cover 3. Capers runs Cover 3 behind his 5-man pressures in Nickel and Dime. It looks like Cover 1, because they are "pattern matching" (essentially a "matchup zone"). Pattern matching is necessary in zone pressures, because you don't want guys running wide open. Bush is responsible for anything to the flat on the weak side of the 3x1 formation. Bush would take Forte if he released. Tramon has the outside 1/3. Since Marshall went deep, Tramon has to run with him. Tramon was playing "off" with inside leverage and correctly flipped his hips and ran with Marshall.

J0hn Denver's Gavel's picture

You are as cocky as you are dumb. Packer nation hates Goldfinger.

robertolson's picture

I've seen this article by Matt. Cover 1 and Cover 3 can look similar. Even in zone (Cover 3 in particular), outside 1/3 CBs have to run with WRs deep like Tramon and Sam did. CBs can play "off" or in "press" when playing man or zone. Here's my advice: watch Hyde and Burnett on this play.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

Please don't be turned off by their bickering. I'm excited to read more articles like this one. It's awesome.

robertolson's picture

Burnett's job is to "wall off" the #3 WR (the TE), and he essentially has a hook zone.

zerotolerance's picture

I can't stand the suspense - who was correct?

zerotolerance's picture

Sorry - I just now saw the response.

lucky953's picture

Can't you guys just agree to meet outside a bar somewhere and either get drunk and be friends or just kill each other and leave the rest of us to enjoy hanging out as Packers fans?

Oppy's picture


Otto's picture

Ha! I was hoping they'd go back and forth long enough their 'reply' column would be one letter wide.

murphy's picture

Give it time...

Duke Divine's picture

Mashed Potato Mike scheming again!!

The TKstinator's picture

What's "Mashed Potato Mike" supposed to mean?
And no, it's not the first time I've heard it.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

Great Job Robert! I'm going to have to read this a few times to make sure I got it all.

packeraaron's picture

Well GoldFinger and Stroh, you had a great run.


PackerBacker's picture

Dude, acknowledge your part. For every Trollish post he wrote, you had a response. You want to seem like the bigger man? Stop responding. Everyone will know you're better if you do that. PLus, you won't have to apologize for taking over a thread, because you WON'T TAKE OVER THE THREAD.

Otto's picture

Well done, Robert. Excellent article.

Alfredo Martinez's picture

came for the Packer article, stayed for the grown ass men arguing like little children...goddamn lol...

RCPackerFan's picture

Robert - I really appreciate you joining us. This is a great website and looks like your going to provide a great new look on things.

My question for you is, do you think the Packers could successfully attack the Seahawks defense using 2 RB's (Lacy and Harris) together in the backfield?

Lacy has now become a threat for defenses that they have to focus on him. Where Harris has such good speed and as we have seen in the preseason he has that ability to make people miss. I really think they could be effective in the backfield together.

I don't really expect to see them use them together at the same time just based on not seeing anything like this in the preseason.
I was just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

robertolson's picture

I don't think I've seen McCarthy use two pure RBs together in the backfield, so I wouldn't expect to see that. When McCarthy uses two backs in the backfield, it's usually Kuhn (a fullback) and another RB. Also, this preseason, he occasionally put Richard Rodgers in the backfield with a RB when the Packers had 3 WR on the field.

When I saw your question, it reminded me of when Mike Holmgren put Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens on the field at the same time.

Evan's picture

Wow...looked like I missed quite the shit show last night.

If they're both really's about damn time. I think it was clear that goldfinger's sole existence was trolling Stroh (and that he had been on here previously under different names), but, jesus, Stroh just couldn't help himself and kept taking the bait.

EDIT: Great post, Robert. I understood maybe 5% of it.

RCPackerFan's picture

Yeah, i missed something as well...

Is Goldfindger - Arlo?

Evan's picture

I don't think so...I remember Arlo as being more openly hostile to everyone on here, all us "homers," not just Stroh.

RCPackerFan's picture

Yeah, i wasn't sure.

That is true, arlo was attacking everyone. Goldfinger just goes after stroh. Must be the Stroh-Hater guy, and other names...

packsmack's picture

What about the 5 wide set that McCarthy utilized during the Super Bowl season but has gotten away from in recent years due to O-Line instability? Do you think he brings it back against the Hawks in certain circumstances? The key to beating an agressive man-zone team is to beat them at the point of attack, and 5 guys at the point of attack have a better shot than 2 or 3. Obviously it's not a set you call a lot, because it takes Lacy off the field and puts the tackles on an island, but I have to think it's still in the book. Can you perhaps show those route concepts with 5 wide?

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