by Andrew Healy and Vincent Verhei
A quick glance at Football Outsiders' latest Playoff Odds Report makes the importance of Seattle's game against Philadelphia this weekend painfully clear. The Seahawks still have a slim but not unreasonable chance of winning the NFC's top seed, but they're more likely to miss the playoffs altogether, with anything in between a realistic possibility. Philadelphia's grip on the NFC East crown looks pretty secure, but they're still basically a coin flip to get a first-round bye. The winner of this game is likely to face a much easier path on the road to the Super Bowl than the loser.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
The Seahawks' offense has the fewest pass plays in the league, 16 fewer than any other team. Meanwhile, only two other squads have more non-kneeldown rushing plays. So stop the run and you stop the Seahawks, right? Well, it certainly helps, but that is much easier said than done. And as San Francisco learned on Thanksgiving night, even if you can find a way to stop Seattle’s running game, they can still beat you through the air when they have to.
Though they have slipped a bit as of late, Seattle's 28.5% DVOA in rushing offense is still miles beyond anyone else (No. 2 Miami is closer to the No. 23 New York Giants than they are to Seattle), and the best attack the league has seen since Cam Newton’s rookie season.
Stopping Seattle’s running game means stopping Marshawn Lynch, and few teams have done that this year. The eighth-year pro is second in the league in both rushing DYAR and DVOA, and sixth in Success Rate. Thanks in part to Lynch’s tackle-breaking efforts, the Seahawks offensive line ranks sixth or better in Adjusted Line Yards, Power Success, Stuff Rate, and Second-Level Yards. Their only “weakness” is in Open Field Yards, but even there they rank 15th, right in the middle of the pack. (These stats include the results of all Seattle running back runs, no matter who gets the handoff, but that has been Lynch more than three-quarters of the time this season.)
And Lynch might not even be the most dangerous running threat in Seattle’s backfield. Through 12 games, Russell Wilson has 233 rushing DYAR. That’s already the third-best single-season total for a quarterback since 1989, behind Michael Vick’s 241 in 2004 and 261 in 2006. Wilson needs 29 DYAR to break Vick’s 2006 mark; he has already topped 29 DYAR in a game three times this season (against Washington, St. Louis, and the Giants), so there’s a reasonable chance Wilson will be the record-holder come Monday morning.
Philadelphia’s run defense ranks a solid eighth in DVOA, mainly because they haven’t allowed a lot of big plays on the ground. They rank 11th or 12th in ALY, Stuff Rate, and Second Level Yards, but fifth in Open Field Yards. The line stats for both teams tell us that we shouldn’t expect a lot of 20-yard chunk plays, but Lynch should find plenty of 4- and 5-yard runs against the Eagles front. (If there's an exception to this rule, it could be on runs to left tackle, where Seattle's offense is 26th in ALY, but the Eagles defense has been the best in the league).
Our defensive line stats, though, do not account for quarterback runs. That can make it difficult to gauge a defense’s ability to snuff out a scrambling quarterback, but what limited data we do have suggests that Wilson could have another big day. We can’t really use DYAR to judge defenses, because opponent adjustments start to give circular results, but without adjustments the Eagles have allowed 70 rushing YAR to quarterbacks this year; only Carolina has allowed more. (Seattle, by the way, has allowed the fewest rushing YAR to opposing quarterbacks. Practicing against Russell Wilson probably helps.) Philadelphia has also allowed opposing quarterbacks to average 8.3 yards per carry (third-worst) with a 73 percent Success Rate (fourth-worst). This is all over a span of only 26 plays, so we’re talking the smallest of all small sample sizes, but when quarterbacks have run against the Eagles this year, they have had success. Colin Kaepernick gained 60 yards on five carries; Ryan Fitzpatrick, 49 on six; Aaron Rodgers, 32 on two; Austin Davis, 30 on three.
All told, then, Seattle seems to have the advantage on the ground. But even if Philly does keep Lynch and Wilson in check, does that mean the Seahawks can’t score? As it turns out, no. On Thanksgiving night, San Francisco decided they were going to shut down the run no matter the cost, and as a result Seattle hit several big plays through the air. By DVOA, Seattle’s offense had its worst rushing game this year against the 49ers, but its best passing game. Granted, all in all, they put only 19 points on the scoreboard, but that’s largely due to a sorry performance in the red zone, where they scored just one touchdown in five drives. If Seattle had finished another red-zone drive or two, that game might have been over early. And the Seahawks’ offense isn’t ordinarily that bad in the red zone, ranking 12th in DVOA (fourth rushing, 21st passing). Philadelphia's red-zone defense has been consistently mediocre (17th overall, 16th against the pass, 17th against the rush), so the slight edge here goes to Seattle.
Usually at this point in the game preview, we’d talk about the offense’s most dangerous or prolific receivers, and how they match up one-on-one with the key members of the opposing secondary. With Seattle’s offense, though, that’s a fool’s exercise, because the most dangerous or prolific receivers change so much from week to week. The following chart show’s each receivers’ share of Seattle’s targets for each week of the season, and if it looks like a jumbled mess, well, that’s my point:
Let me try to explain what this chart shows. Early in the year, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Lynch, and Percy Harvin were the clear leaders in targets. When Zach Miller was injured, Luke Willson stepped in at tight end and took on a larger role. And then Harvin was traded, and Seattle spent about five weeks giving Harvin’s targets to rookie Paul Richardson. Of late, though, Seattle has been throwing less to their wide receivers (Richardson in particular has disappeared) and more to their tight ends, both Willson and the newly signed Tony Moeaki.
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Seattle’s offense these days doesn’t focus on targeting a specific receiver or picking on a particular defender. Their best plays are birthed from Wilson’s improvisational play-making talent, his ability to elude the pass rush long enough for the pass coverage to break down. This isn’t the kind of thing we could ever realistically measure, but it seems like few quarterbacks throw to their third, fourth, or fifth reads on a play as often as Wilson. Most quarterbacks go through their targets in a linear manner: throw to Receiver A; if A’s covered, throw to B; if B’s covered, throw to C; if C’s covered throw it away. Wilson, on the other hand, reads his receivers like a Choose Your Own Adventure (respect!), flipping back and forth until he gets a result he likes, going from A to B, back to A, teasing a scramble (C), checking on D, going back to B, and finally throwing to E, who was originally blocking on the play but then peeled off an uncovered wheel route when Wilson left the pocket. Some teams take what the defense gives them. Seattle takes whatever the defense forgets about first.
With that in mind, rather than drop a bunch of defenders into zones, the Eagles might as well send a marauding herd right in Wilson’s face, because big blitzes have killed Seattle this year, which is a big change. Most teams average about 6.5 yards per pass play regardless of how many pass rushers the defense uses. As a rookie in 2012, though, Wilson was stifled somewhat by blitzes. So teams dialed up the pressure in 2013, but by then Seattle had adapted, and Wilson feasted on one-on-one opportunities downfield all the way to the Super Bowl. This year, though, while Wilson has fared well against five-man rushes, big blitzes have just crushed him. And unfortunately for Wilson, big blitzing is what the Eagles do best. (Pass rusher stats come courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)
|PHI Defense, 2014||6.3||6.8||3.7||66%||25%||9%|
|* Wilson was the quarterback on 97% of Seattle's passing plays in both 2012 and 2013.|
The interesting thing about Philadelphia's front seven is that everyone fits into one of two groups: the run defenders don't get sacks, and the edge rushers don't make plays in the run game. The top pass rushers are Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, Trent Cole, and Brandon Graham; the top run defenders (as measured by total run tackles) are DeMeco Ryans, Bennie Logan, Fletcher Cox, and Cedric Thornton. Both groups will need to deliver on Sunday if Philadelphia is going to win.
Between Seattle’s rushing prowess and Wilson’s ability to throw on the run, Seattle figures to have a lot of luck moving the ball on early downs this weekend. Philly’s best chance to win will be to limit the damage Seattle can do on long runs, stand firm in the red zone, and attack Wilson with every pass rusher they can find on third-and-long.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Until two weeks ago, the Seahawks’ defense had been pretty close to average this season, a remarkable fall from the historic heights of last year. Still, we might have predicted a substantial dropoff even before incorporating personnel losses such as Chris Clemons and injuries to players such as Byron Maxwell and Kam Chancellor. Given that you’re reading Football Outsiders, you probably know that defense carries over from season to season with much less consistency than offense does. The correlation coefficient for offensive DVOA from year to year has been about 0.51, compared to 0.38 for defense, meaning that about 38 percent of each year’s defensive performance carries over to the next, with the other 62 percent having no predictive value. And defensive consistency has been dropping fast over the last few years. Since 2010, the correlation coefficient for defensive DVOA from year to year has been just 0.22. The graph shows the trend in correlation from year to year over time.
This drop is probably at least in part a random blip, but still it is striking just how inconsistent defenses have become. Since 2010, defenses that were in the top three the previous year have ranked an average of 11.6 the following year, compared to 8.0 before that.
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Many expected the Seahawks to buck that trend of great defenses not staying great. They haven’t, though, and that surprisingly comes down to their pass defense. The 2013 Seahawks had the fifth-best pass defense by DVOA ever. The 2014 Seahawks rank just 10th in the league, actually two spots behind the Eagles. But Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Co. have shown flashes of 2013 the last two weeks when they held Arizona and San Francisco to six total points. Against the Eagles, will we see the reincarnated 2013 Seahawks defense? Or are we more likely to see the midseason 2014 Seahawks defense?
The most obvious reason to expect the dominant version of the Seattle defense is better health. While the Seahawks have lost their line anchor Brandon Mebane for the season, star linebacker Bobby Wagner returned to the lineup for the Arizona game. Perhaps as important, Kam Chancellor has looked much more explosive recently after being slowed and sidelined by nagging injuries in earlier weeks. Byron Maxwell and Max Lane continue to fight injuries, however, leaving the Seahawks thin at corner behind Richard Sherman. Previous injuries at corner thrust players like Marcus Burley and Tharold Simon into more prominent roles that left receivers running to huge holes deep in the secondary.
Those available throws deep down the field are the biggest difference between the 2013 Seahawks defense and the 2014 edition. In 2013, the Seahawks allowed a full 2 yards fewer than the rest of the league on downfield throws and intercepted 15.6 percent of those throws, more than two-and-a-half times the rate for the rest of the league.
|2013 Rest of NFL||10.4%||11.2||5.9%|
|2014 Rest of NFL||10.2%||11.4||6.2%|
In 2014, the Seahawks are allowing just 0.7 yards fewer than the rest of the league on deep throws, and have intercepted those throws at just half the rate of the rest of the league. Richard Sherman is listed as the primary defender on only six of those throws, although those throws have been successful, with quarterbacks going 4-of-6 for 138 yards and one interception. Last year, Sherman saw more action on deep balls, but his numbers were staggeringly good against those throws, as teams went 4-of-16 for just 88 yards and six interceptions throwing deep against him.
Against the Eagles, the Seahawks will continue to field complementary corners to Sherman who are not nearly as good as those who took the field at the end of last year. Maxwell is not 100 percent, and Walter Thurmond is now a Giant (and out for the season with a torn pec). The Seahawks are not impervious to personnel losses. Last year’s depth only made it seem like they could trot anyone out there and still obliterate opponents’ passing games. The Eagles should have opportunities to throw deep on the Seahawks that were not available last year.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, the Mark Sanchez-led Eagles are not particularly well positioned to attack Seattle down the field. While Nick Foles had thrown deep 25.3 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the league, Sanchez has thrown deep only 14.4 percent of the time, less than the league average. While Sanchez has fared better on those throws than Foles, averaging 14.4 yards per attempt, he has also thrown three interceptions on just 27 throws. We may not know until the playoffs if the Seahawks defense is really back -- they do not face a passing offense ranked in the top half of the league the rest of the regular season -- but the Seahawks have enough of their mojo back to be clear favorites in the matchup against Mark Sanchez and the Eagles’ offense.