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Play Action: 2009 Seattle Seahawks

In an effort to understand what the Raiders are likely to do on offense this year I took a look at Seattle Seahawks games from 2009.  Seattle in 2009 was the last year that Raiders new OC Greg Knapp was an offensive coordinator.  He served as QB coach in Houston in both 2010 and 2011 before returning to Oakland for this next season.

Knapp was previously designated offensive coordinator for the Raiders under Lane Kiffin but it was Kiffin’s offense and Kiffin also called the plays, so that may not be representative of Knapp’s style.

I looked at two games from 2009 – week 1 Seahawks vs Rams and week 4 Seahawks vs Colts.

There were a number of things that jumped out at me.  First, Raiders fans who are big fans of Hue Jackson’s dynamic offense may be dissapointed.  Knapp clearly runs his offense different.  Depending on the quarterback, he seemed to run things slightly different but he was substantially more conservative in his play calling.

First, formations.  Knapp likes to have a TE on the field.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times that he called a play that didn’t call for one or two TEs in the formation.

He also likes to run a lot of I and offset I formations with a standard FB/RB backfield.  When he brings in multiple receiver sets and has to take someone off the field it was most often the FB over the TE.  That could have been more personnel based, however, as Owen Schmidt wasn’t as gifted an athlete as John Carlson.

Knapp certainly goes 3 WR but it was rare that he went 4 WR and I never saw a 5 WR set.  When he put 3 WR out, the typical formation would be 2 on one side, 1 on the other, TE and single back.

There were a number of 2 TE sets.  He would sometimes use a balanced line (TE both sides) and sometimes and unbalanced line (both TEs on one side).  The TEs often went in motion to help the quarterback diagnose coverages.

The negative of this strategy is that it lacks the imagination to really confuse the defense.  Many of the most explosive offenses – New England’s, New Orlean’s, the Colt’s under Peyton Manning – use misdirection a lot.

Misdirection would be a lot of motion, confusing the defense as to who to key on.  They will move multiple players before the snap.  They will come out in what looks like standard personnel and then put out a non standard formation for that personnel so that the defense is forced to make very fast on-the-field decisions as to coverage assignments.

Knapp did not really subscribe to any of these methods.  In general, his formations are very standard and, aside from the occasional shift with a TE or a WR crossing the pattern, he doesn’t do a lot of pre-snap movement.

The positive of this strategy is that there are a lot of different types of routes and plays that can be called out of a base formation and Knapp can be a progression play-caller.  He can call a standard I run to the strong (TE) side one time, then call a sweep run to the weak side with a pulling guard the next.  Then, he can call a strong side play action pass the next time when the defense is thinking run.  That sort of thing.

Because so many different plays are coming out of one formation it’s more difficult for the opposing team to know what is coming.

Much of the playbook looked similar to what Kiffin called in his time with Oakland.  There were a lot of stretch plays and bootlegs and naked bootlegs (called that because the line goes one way and the QB goes the other, unprotected).  Those were all standard Raiders plays when JaMarcus was under center.

Knapp used screens often and effectively.  When defenses would start to key off on the QB he would call a screen with the back or a bubble screen with a WR to take advantage of the overagressive pass rush.

I did not see many crossing routes which is somthing that Carson Palmer had said he thought the offense was going to utilize.  He may have been talking about what he saw when he viewed tape of Houston’s offense last year and it’s also possible that Knapp didn’t use as many crossing routes in Seattle based on personnel.

Instead there were many routes that were designed for short completions.  There were a lot of curls and comeback routes and also slants or crossing routes.  There were vertical routes but they tended to be fairly straight and many times were simply to clear out underneath.

The negative of this philosophy is that it requires a QB and his players around him to be very patient.  Hue Jackson was a big believer in a deep strike and he would call deep passes or trick plays that were boom or bust propositions – they may end up in a big TD or may end up costing the Raiders their offensive possession.

Knapp was a much, much more conservative play caller.  Many of the routes that ended up getting the ball were shallow routes – a lot of those curls or comeback routes.  The TEs appeared to have been coached to stay at the line for a moment and chip block any defender that came into their area and if they weren’t immediately engaged they would float to an open area for a short dump pass, if the QB needed it.

The positives of this philosophy were that, when effective, the Seahawks had very long sustained drives.  Knapp’s philsophy appears to be to establish the run and make occasional long passes in an attempt to drive it downfield but if there isn’t anything long take the 3-4 yard the defense may give you and play the next down.

This sort of offense isn’t as exciting to watch but it’s very effective when the team buys into it.  Long sustained drives wear down the opposing defense all while giving your defense a chance to rest.  The Patriots and Colts have long used the philosophy of taking what the defense gives them in order to maximize their offensive abilities.

A couple of interesting points.  One, play action wasn’t simply used for long passing plays.  It was also used for some 5-6 yard completions to a tight end.  That’s a plus because it’s further confusing the defense where the ball is going to go.  Also, Knapp didn’t totall eschew trick plays.  I did see a type of flea flicker that was very effective for a long completion.

Knapp has a reputation as a West Coast offensive guy but this didn’t appear to be a West Coast offense.  The similarities to Houston are obvious and likely due to his involvement with that offense – the zone blocking, the emphasis on the running game, the mobile quartback using bootlegs, the heavy involvement of tight ends in the passing game.

Another analogy is the Steelers teams of 4 years ago or so before they started going very pass wacky under Bruce Arians.  In the Steelers analogy, the run emphasis is fairly clear – think Steelers when Willie Parker was on the team and still productive.

The Steelers traditionally ran the ball and ran it well and used a lot of playaction and rollouts, especially with Big Ben because that plays into his strengths.  Palmer is also good a moving QB – he isn’t a mobile QB like Vick or Cam Newton but he can move well along the line of scrimmage and buy some time with his feet.

Because of the many routes that are close to the line of scrimmage Heyward-Bey should be able to excel in this offense, if this is in fact what Knapp brings to Oakland.  His strength is receiving close to the line of scrimmage and creating yards after the catch.  He is substantially better at that than trying to catch a deep ball.  DHB would fill the Hines Ward role.

Denarius Moore, taking the analogy a little further, is the Mike Wallace role – clear out defenders and get behind the defense for long strikes.  And for those of you who may be yelling at me that Mike Wallace wasn’t doing that when Willie Parker was there, please be gentle on me in the comments.

The Raiders have the talent to be able to make this scheme work.  They will need to be patient and disciplined but if they can do that, they can make their way methodically down the field for long sustained drives and the occasional deep strike mixed in.

I will be taking a look at the Houston offense from 2011 in the coming days to see what that offense shows.  It seems likely that the Raiders will have many similarities to that offense as well, as many of the key players were involved in that offense for the last two years.

For more Raiders news and analysis or to ask questions or tell me what you think, follow me on Twitter @AsherMathews