Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Oct 2014

Any Given Sunday: Rams Over Seahawks

by Andrew Healy

All's well that ends well. More than just a saying, that sentence explains how human beings are hard-wired to think about experiences from colonoscopies to vacations to football games. In a famous example, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his co-authors found that patients remembered colonoscopies as causing less total pain when a period of more mild discomfort was added to the end of the procedure. Conditions at the end of the colonoscopy dominated patients' memories rather than the total pain experienced over the whole procedure.

For me, watching Jeff Fisher coach Sunday was kind of like a colonoscopy that ended well. Except in this case, painful-to-watch passivity was followed not by somewhat-less-infuriating timidity but by a moment of sublime aggression that won the game.

The Rams needed that fake punt in large part because Fisher did what so many coaches do when they jump to a big lead: coach as if they are terrified of losing that lead. At the time when they took a 21-3 lead on another remarkable special teams play midway through the second quarter, the Rams' defense had held the Seahawks to just 4.5 yards per play on 23 snaps. They had three sacks of Russell Wilson, continuing a pattern from previous games. In their four career meetings, the Rams had sacked Wilson a total of 20 times, holding him to a QBR under 30 in three of those games.

Then Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams decided to abandon what had been so effective at stopping the Seahawks' offense. Exit aggressive and creative defense, enter passive and predictable. Before accumulating that lead, the Rams sent more than four pass rushers after Wilson on eight of ten dropbacks where the number of rushers was clear. Afterwards, they sent more than four rushers just three times on 26 dropbacks that were not screens or rollouts, generating little pressure and no sacks.

More importantly, they did little to vary their looks, bringing just their front four on almost every play and playing a vanilla zone behind them. Wilson picked that zone apart, leading touchdown drives of 82, 91, and 80 yards on Seattle's last three offensive possessions.

Fisher's failure to continue the aggression on defense is even harder to justify given how successful it had been early in the game. While indiscriminate blitzing is not a good strategy either, selective pressure would have made sense given Wilson's struggles against the Rams' pressure. After building a big lead with an aggressive pass rush, Fisher and Williams then called off the dogs.


Playing Passive: The Rams' Defense After Getting the Big Lead
 
Overall Offensive Statistics
Russell Wilson Statistics
Defensive Aggressiveness*
  Pts TDs Drives Yds per play Comp Att Sacks Net yds / att Attempts % plays with 5+ rushers
Before going ahead 21-3 3 0 3 4.5 5 10 2-14 4.2 10 80%
After going ahead 21-3 23 3 6 8.0 18 26 1-7 9.6 26 12%
* Includes all plays where Wilson dropped to throw except screens or play-action rollouts where the number of rushers was unclear.

Moreover, Fisher compounded that strategic failure with two poor fourth-down decisions that reduced the Rams' chances of winning. First, at the two-minute warning in the second quarter, facing fourth-and-3 on the Seattle 34, Fisher predictably sent out Greg Zuerlein to kick a field goal. Despite his cannon of a leg, Zuerlein has actually been close to a coin flip on kicks of 50-plus yards (now 9-for-18, with six of the misses coming on kicks from 50 to 52 yards). Making this decision even worse was the game situation. A successful conversion there allows the Rams to end the first half with the ball. By kicking, the Rams guaranteed that Russell Wilson would get the ball back with two minutes left to drive against the newly-passive Rams defense.

In the fourth quarter, when presented with another chance to deny the Seahawks the ball, Fisher again chose to give it away. Facing fourth-and-1 on the Seattle 45, the Rams briefly kept the offense on the field. As the play clock wound down, Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer appeared to be on the verge of simultaneous sideline heart attacks as they frantically waved off the snap (either that or they were doing the "Y" in the YMCA dance).

Fisher got what he wanted. There was no snap, just a delay-of-game penalty before a Johnny Hekker punt. The punt was a pretty good one, pinning the Seahawks at the 9. In part because of the Rams' change in defensive strategy, however, field position mattered much less than possession of the ball, and the Seahawks went 91 yards for the touchdown anyway.

All of this passivity had the Rams in position to blow the game as Johnny Hekker again came onto the field with 2:55 left and the Rams facing fourth-and-3 from their own 18. With the Rams clinging to a 28-26 lead, it seemed inevitable that the Seahawks would get the field goal they needed to win.

Then, Neville Chamberlain became Phil Ivey and the Rams had the first down they needed to win. The analogy to poker with head coach aggressiveness is useful. Too often, coaches who make poor decisions get called "conservative" when "passive" is more apt. Like Ivey, every good poker player is aggressive. Loose-aggressive players make decisions that look crazy to most, but are actually a series of calculated gambles that maximize expected winnings. Tight-aggressive players take fewer risks, but also never miss an opportunity to press an advantage when the odds are in their favor. Bad poker players, on the other hand, are passive. They take actions that do not maximize their expected winnings because they're thinking about the wrong things, often because they're focusing too much on the downside.

Passive head coaches are just like that. Most head coaches fall into that category with respect to fourth-down strategy, including those such as Fisher that are usually somewhat less passive than most. A few, such as Bill Belichick and Riverboat Ron Rivera, have earned the tight-aggressive label with careful risk-taking. One day, we will have some loose-aggressive coaches who punt only when absolutely necessary. In the meantime, Jeff Fisher's decision to have Johnny Hekker throw that pass qualifies as a rare moment of loose-aggression from an NFL head coach.

That decision, like Sean Payton's onside kick in the Super Bowl, is an easier moment of loose aggression than an ordinary fourth down because the coach has a clear upside to the call. He gets to be called a genius when the play works, unlike Fisher's fourth-down calls earlier in the game where going for it has mostly downside for the coach. Still, if we give the fake punt a 70 percent chance of succeeding -- which seems reasonable given that Hekker was a high school quarterback who is now 4-of-5 throwing and looks very comfortable in the pocket -- before we even factor in the Seahawks' success on their previous three drives, Fisher's decision increased the Rams' chances of winning by about 20% percent.


A Loose-Aggressive Decision that Tipped the Scales
Strategy
Potential
Outcome(s)
Conditional
Win Probability
Overall Win
Probability
1. Punt Seattle ball around SEA 42 48%* 48%
       
2. Go For It First down around STL 30 89% .70(89%) + .30(20%) = 68%
  Seattle ball around STL 18 20%*  
* Small differences with Bill Barnwell's analysis at Grantland arise because I used the adjusted probability that accounts for the pre-game line.

Given NFL head-coaching passivity, that's a gutsy call worth celebrating, even if Fisher could have avoided that situation with aggressiveness earlier in the game.

By the DVOA

The Rams won the DVOA battle on Sunday with their dominant special teams performance. Their 25.2% DVOA on special teams was the fourth-best special teams performance of the 2014 season, and that doesn't even include the fake punt. Currently, the fake punt is a pass that gets included with offensive/defensive ratings, something that will likely change with the next iteration of DVOA whenever the formula is next improved.


DVOA Off Def ST TOT
SEA 31.1% 15.1% -31.0% -14.9%
STL 25.9% 25.8% 25.2% 25.2%

VOA Off Def ST TOT
SEA 37.5% 16.8% -31.0% -10.2%
STL 20.1% 37.0% 25.2% 8.3%

In addition to the fake punt, the Rams had a 75-yard Benny Cunningham kickoff return and a 90-yard Stedman Bailey punt return for a touchdown.

Mountaineer Heaven

That second-quarter punt return play deserves a worthy name. One could argue that the Bears should have naming rights since they first tried the idea in a 2011 game against the Packers. However, I would argue that they forfeited the naming rights on two grounds. First, they managed to commit a holding penalty to negate the touchdown. Second, for some reason they wasted that incredible play in a game where they trailed by ten points with about a minute left. Learn from Billy Martin and save your best aces-in-the-sleeve for when you really need them!

So let's go with the Rams' choice of "Mountaineer" after the alma mater for the two main participants: Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Austin, the Rams' first-round pick out of West Virginia in 2013, headed towards the right sideline as Jon Ryan hit the punt, drawing almost the entire Seahawks coverage team with him. Bailey, the Rams' third-round pick out of WVU in 2013, headed back from the line of scrimmage at the snap, caught the punt over his shoulder at the ten and went 90 yards for the touchdown.

Watching the Seahawks cover Jon Ryan's previous punts from around midfield, John Fassel's contention that Ryan almost always punted to the left bears out. Going back to at least the Denver game, Ryan has kicked every punt inside the twenty outside the left hash. The punt that Bailey returned thus marked at least the tenth punt in a row that Ryan hit inside the twenty and to the left side of the field. Fassel deserves a ton of credit for finding this advantage to exploit.

I remember thinking when the Bears ran this play that it would be five years until you could run it again. It turned out that three was good enough. Since this play stood and came in an important game situation, coverage units will likely respond by locating the ball before pursuing.

Film Room: Seattle's Vulnerability to the Deep Cross

In addition to their special teams struggles, Seattle had a not-great day on defense. Until the Rams final touchdown drive, however, they had held Austin Davis to an unusual stat line: 14-of-16 for 86 yards (4.8 yards per attempt). Davis had one pass over ten yards in those first 14 completions, and that one went for just 14 yards. For most of the game, Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling gave every impression that he and Fisher thought it better to play it very safe with Davis throwing against the Seattle secondary.

But the Seattle secondary is showing that it is more vulnerable now than in the past and not impervious to personnel losses. When Schottenheimer called for more aggressive throws on the Rams' last touchdown drive, Davis completed throws to Brian Quick for 19 yards and to Lance Kendricks for 13. With Byron Maxwell out and his replacement Tharold Simon hurt during the game, DeShawn Shead (known more for being a romantic guy than a shutdown corner) manned the corner opposite Richard Sherman on the crucial play of the touchdown drive.

On third-and-6 from the Seattle 44, Schottenheimer called the play that he may have been saving for such a crucial situation. The play called for Chris Givens to run a deep cross from the slot. It was the same route concept that Dallas utilized on two second-quarter plays the previous week against the Seahawks. In each case, the play design resulted in a wide-open receiver down the field.

The previous week, Dallas ran almost the exact same play at the 5:27 mark of the second quarter, and then at the 1:10 mark. Each time, they departed from their norm and lined up Dez Bryant in the slot. Here is the All-22 footage of the first of those plays, with Byron Maxwell in coverage.

On this play, Tony Romo made one of his only poor throws and Maxwell recovered to break up the pass. Four minutes later, the Cowboys ran almost the exact same play, except Sherman covered Bryant in the slot with Maxwell injured. Bryant got significant separation again and Romo found him for 23 yards.

Like Dallas and St. Louis, other teams will try to exploit Seattle's vulnerability to the deep crossing route from the right slot. With Seattle preferring to play a single safety over the top, they are vulnerable to plays run from the slot to the deep corners of the field, particularly away from Sherman. Dez Bryant is one thing, but Chris Givens coming wide-open downfield isn't supposed to happen against the Seattle secondary. But this secondary, while still having superior talent at the top, does not have the depth it had the last two years. In addition to those personnel troubles, teams are starting to exploit holes in their scheme, and Seattle will need to adjust.

If you would like to read more about this game, check out Clutch Encounters.

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 21 Oct 2014

18 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2014, 5:28pm by Grendel13G

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 12:38pm

I heard today that the Seahawks got pressure on the qb on about 1/3 of the passes thrown against them last year, and that the number has dropped to about 17% this year. I don't know if that charting was done with a stopwatch, however, so I don't know if that difference is mostly due to decline in pass rushing, or whether the dbs last year just forced a lot more coverage pressures.

6
by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 3:22pm

Just based on the last two games, it looks like both have played a role. Amazing how open the deep crosses have been. But Davis was releasing very quickly and short most of this game, minimizing the chances for pressure to get there.

2
by nath :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 2:55pm

Wow, a relevant and accurate poker metaphor! So rare to see one of those.

5
by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 3:19pm

Thanks, nath!

3
by MJK :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 2:58pm

Are you still reporting good defensive DVOA as negative? So both teams played very badly on defense, but STL was absolutely abysmal?

4
by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 3:18pm

Exactly right. STL had a very bad day on defense, with the numbers driven by those three 80+ yard drives to end the game.

7
by Bernie :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 6:27pm

I really don't know why the perception exists that Jeff Fisher is a good coach. He's only had about 5 winning seasons his entire career. If you want your team to hover around mediocrity, he's your guy.

8
by tuluse :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 6:33pm

Context. The Titans were not well managed on the salary front during his time coaching there. So they twice were in salary cap hell and had to purge.

11
by gomer_rs :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 6:17am

It's easy to forget on these stats pages where we discuss strategy and tactics that these represent some of the least important parts of coaching.

For instance David Shaw the HC at Stanford is the least tactically sound coach ever. He makes Jeff Fisher and pre-analytic Ron Rivera look like tactical gods, but his Stanford teams are always great on defense and are often effective on offense. Why? Because most of coaching is teaching a set of skills to people and organizing them in a useful way into pre determined plays.

I use Shaw as the example because coaching is way more important than tactics in college and as you go down the football skill ladder.

Jeff Fisher is a good coach because his players perform better than you would expect based upon the skills they had before playing for him. He is strategically unsound and sometimes tactically sound.
_______

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

12
by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 8:38am

Hiring a staff, talent evaluation (depending how the organization is set up, the importance of this job varies), and teaching (which is tied to hiring a staff), are the most important tasks of a head coach. The rest of it is of lesser importance, by a substantial margin.

9
by Grendel13G :: Tue, 10/21/2014 - 6:38pm

Long time lurker; I registered just so I could say how excellent this article was. Spot-on analysis of the importance of aggression and the cost of passivity. Poker and colonoscopy analogies for the win!

The NFL would be so much more entertaining with a few loose-aggressive coaches (LAGs!) in the mix. Heck, I'd settle for just a few consistently tight-aggressive coaches. BB is the closest we have right now, but even he gets out TAG-ed by the 4th Down Bot.

15
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:31am

Yeah, the poker metaphor for coaching was great. I have a harder time distinguishing, in football terms, between loose passive and tight passive, but I could see some kind of stat categorizing coaches by their aggression, just like poker sites do for poker players.

16
by Andrew Healy :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 5:30pm

Just wanted to say thanks for the kind words. I'm definitely looking forward to the time when we have our first few LAGs.

18
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 10/23/2014 - 5:28pm

You're welcome. Thanks for the great articles. I had some musings about tight-passives and loose-passives that was blocked by the spam filter... maybe the post will resurface soon!

10
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:29am

My question is: how can a punt coverage unit not know which side of the field their punter is kicking to?

13
by Sakic :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 9:03am

I wondered this myself both when reading this article and remembering the Bears similar punt return attempt that was mentioned in the article. The only answer I can come up with is the safety factor and that it makes more sense for the punt coverage team to lock on the return man than to try to follow the flight of the ball. Think about it, you can follow the ball head up in the air not paying attention to your surroundings and getting your clock cleaned by a blocker or focus on the return man because logic dictates that he's going to where the ball is going.

Of course, this is as opinion of a guy who never played football beyond the schoolyard but it seems to make sense. My question is how the heck did Jon Ryan not know where the ball was going...he had to have seen it go off his foot and he knew where he was aiming it.

14
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:26am

If you watch the replay, he did. He was the only guy running in the right direction, probably screaming his head off at the rest of his team. Of course he had no chance to stop the guy.

17
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:55pm

My point is that punting and kicking are not entirely random. The kickers aim for certain areas of the field, barring blocks, bad snaps, and the shanks that get them released. Weather was not a factor here because the game was in a dome. As noted in the article, the Rams knew of Ryan's tendency to punt toward the left. How could his own teammates not know? Isn't this set up before the punt is made?