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20 Sep 2016

Any Given Sunday: Rams Over Seahawks

by Sterling Xie

Evidently whatever hex the Rams have held over the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era Seahawks wasn't left buried underneath the Edward Jones Dome. St. Louis/Los Angeles is now 5-4 against the Seattle since 2012, the only team to play the Seahawks more than once and come away with a winning record over that span.

The latest rendition of this upset seems to both say a lot while also saying nothing at all about these teams. On one hand, it's past the point of coincidence that the Rams consistently give the Seahawks a rough time. Los Angeles' defensive line against Seattle's offensive line has represented one of the biggest annual mismatches in recent seasons, and for whatever reason, the Rams' mistake-prone offense tends to keep it together against the Seahawks' havoc-wreaking defense. Including Sunday, the Rams now have three wins under Jeff Fisher where they didn't turn the ball over. All three have been against Seattle.

At the same time, no matter who the opponent, is it a shock that both of these defensive lines overwhelmed in the trenches? Neither Case Keenum nor a limited Wilson had the playmaking capacity to compensate. In past seasons, the Rams' success over the Seahawks hasn't tended to tell us much about the rest of the schedule, and that will most likely be the case again in 2016. Compared to Week 1, the Rams' punchless offense improved from mortifying to meager, but they're currently scoring at a similar rate to the Dodgers. And although you're about to read why we can't simply assume the Seahawks will rebound effortlessly en route to another DVOA title, the next 1,000 words could easily look quite silly by December.

Wounded Birds

Losing to the Rams isn't Seattle's only strange pattern of behavior. While it's a little early to definitively say the Seahawks will not meet expectations over the first half of the season, it sure appears we're headed that way, particularly on offense. By DVOA, only once in the past four seasons has Seattle's offense or defense gotten worse in the second half of the year, when the defense went from incredible to above-average in 2012. But while it has been routine to see the Seahawks improve as the season wears on, that improvement has typically entailed a unit going from very good to great. Even with a reputation as slow starters (mostly on offense), no Seattle unit has ranked worse than 14th in the first half of a season.

Seahawks DVOA Splits by Halves, 2012-2015

Offense Defense

Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17 Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17
2012 5.7% (13th) 36.2% (1st) -20.6% (2nd) -4.8% (13th)
2013 8.9% (11th) 10.1% (8th) -16.4% (2nd) -39.4% (1st)
2014 14.0% (5th) 19.4% (3rd) -10.5% (5th) -23.9% (1st)
2015 2.0% (14th) 35.0% (1st) -7.3% (7th) -23.2% (3rd)

It's certainly reasonable to expect improvement from the Seahawks offense again in 2016, but it's also possible they'll be starting out from a much lower baseline this time. With 15 points through two weeks, this is the worst two-game scoring stretch the Hawks have endured under Wilson. Only two other times has Seattle scored below 30 points combined in consecutive games, and both instances came in the infancy of the Wilson era. From Weeks 3 to 5 in 2012, the Seahawks scored 14, 13, and 16 points, before memorably breaking out with a comeback win over the Patriots in Week 6.

Seattle's offense as currently constructed might be the wobbliest it has been since those days. To no one's surprise, the woefully neglected offensive line has fared poorly, allowing the likes of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, and Robert Quinn to routinely sabotage play designs before they can get underway. Wilson actually completed his first seven passes in this one, tying his longest consecutive completions streak to start a game. That stretch ended in Seattle's only points of the game after a 14-play drive, but from then on Wilson averaged just 6.5 yards per pass. Much of that came on a 53-yard completion to Tyler Lockett on the ill-fated final drive; on 27 other passes after that opening streak, Wilson averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt.

A lot of Wilson's difficulties stemmed from the limitations that the offensive line has placed on Seattle's passing game. There has been plenty of hand-wringing about this unit, and rightfully so when a team willfully decides to have J'Marcus Webb attempt to block Aaron Donald. Wilson's high ankle sprain stemmed from a blown block on the part of Garry Gilliam against Miami, and for all of his ability to avoid big hits, you can only expect your quarterback to escape unscathed so many times when he is getting tangled up with free rushers.

Wilson's injury in combination with the offensive line's leakiness has created a cascade effect. With no time to progress to secondary reads, Wilson has largely made predetermined throws that have not stressed the defense very much. Against Los Angeles, that often consisted of immediate shots to deep fade routes when Wilson saw a wide receiver (typically Lockett) isolated one-on-one outside the numbers. Apart from two connections with Lockett for 88 combined yards, that strategy yielded very little fruit. It has been highly unusual to see Wilson struggle to throw deep. Last season, his 119.4% DVOA on deep passes ranked second among qualifying passers; that figure spiked to 161.8% after Seattle's bye week, when the offense really exploded.

It probably wouldn't hurt if the line could run-block -- Seattle's six first-quarter carries yielded minus-6 rushing yards -- but success on the ground wasn't really a defining component of the Seahawks' offensive breakthrough last season. Seattle was the league's best offense on third-and-long last season, posting an insane 157.8% DVOA, and ranked fourth (40.3%) when losing by more than one touchdown. It's not as though the Seahawks haven't thrived before without the threat of the run.

Of course, all that success came with a healthy Wilson, as well as a relatively healthy skill position corps. It's not as though Seattle's offense has completely avoided injury -- the unit did finish 22nd and 24th in Adjusted Games Lost in 2013 and 2014 -- but when a major player was injured, there was always a viable replacement waiting in the wings. When Percy Harvin couldn't stay on the field, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin turned into viable starters. Thomas Rawls emerged out of nowhere to pick up the post-Marshawn Lynch backfield, and when Rawls broke his ankle, Christine Michael was reasonably productive down the stretch, and has carried that performance over into 2016. Even Luke Willson posted solid efficiency numbers when Jimmy Graham got hurt last season.

This season, the Seahawks are already facing some dicey health situations. Obviously Wilson is irreplaceable, but it doesn't help that Baldwin and Lockett couldn't play the entire Rams game due to injuries, with the former claiming his knee "feels like crap." With Rawls hurting his leg and Graham slowly working his way back from last year's knee injury, the supporting cast around Wilson is similarly hanging on at the moment.

All of this presents some short-term quandaries, though in the long run, it's hard to envision the Seahawks slipping too far if their defense continues throttling opponents. Seattle will be happy to see the 49ers at home next week before a tough trip to New Jersey to face the Jets, after which they'll get their Week 5 bye. Bye weeks that early in the season usually aren't ideal, but right now, the Seahawks feel like a team that could use a week off to regroup.

This is Some 7-9 Bullsh*t

Jeff Fisher's "7-9" remark during Hard Knocks caught a lot of attention largely because it was such a meme-able quote. But maybe the more interesting takeaway was that it demonstrated an awareness on Fisher's part that he and his team have become a meme in the first place. The Rams are in on the joke, even though they themselves are the butt of the joke, and there's something both comical and a little sad about that.

Growing out of that joke is really a matter of having the same team show up every week, whether that version ends up being better or worse than the current one. The Rams' 28-0 shutout loss to San Francisco will almost certainly go down as their worst game of the season by DVOA (and if the Niners are as bad as we think, it might be the worst of any team this season), while any win over the Seahawks will probably look good by season's end once opponent adjustments are factored in. This is a familiar yo-yo for the Rams, who annually rank in the bottom half of the league in variance (i.e., week-to-week DVOA consistency, with the more consistent teams ranking higher). After ranking eighth in variance during Fisher's first season, the Rams ranked 31st, 32nd, 18th in the next three years. Los Angeles is at its best when no one buys into them and at its worst when we get suckered in. Since 2012, the Rams have won a league-leading 18 games as underdogs, and their .394 winning percentage in such games ranks 11th over that span. As favorites, though, their winning percentage is an even .500, which ranks 27th.

There wasn't much about Sunday's win that would suggest the Rams are a new outfit that can either burst through that glass ceiling or fall beneath its floor. Their defensive line is terrifying when locked in, and dominated Seattle's offensive line so thoroughly that the likes of Coty Sensabaugh and Troy Hill didn't get exposed too badly in coverage.

On offense, Keenum would have been hard-pressed to put forth as disastrous a showing as he did against the Niners, even while facing a better defense. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Keenum went a horrifying 5-for-18 for 74 yards and two interceptions on passes traveling more than 5 yards in the air against San Francisco. Even the most incompetent quarterbacks don't struggle that badly every week, so it was reasonable to expect more than 3.7 yards per attempt this time.

And as it turns out, the Keenum-led passing game showed a pulse this week. The Rams' best offense was Kenny Britt beating DeShawn Shead downfield, with a little Lance Kendricks sprinkled in. In today's game, it's hard to construct a passing game that won't look good every now and then.

The problem is with the Rams' offensive foundation, which is something we have warned about in the past. Todd Gurley may very well be the heir to Adrian Peterson for the title of "Best Running Back Alive," but like Peterson, there's only so much Gurley can do his offense's predictable run formations allow defenses to sell out against the run. Turf Show Times, the Rams' SB Nation site, had a nice breakdown after the San Francisco loss of how the offense telegraphed its intentions to run. The gist of the article's first section: Whenever L.A. had a fullback in the backfield along with Gurley, they usually ran. And when they did run, they would typically motion the back or another tight end and run to the direction of the motion.

This tendency didn't change much against Seattle. By my count, nine of Gurley's 19 carries came with a fullback in the backfield; only one of his carries came from shotgun, a formation which would presumably see an uptick whenever Jared Goff breaks into the lineup. But even when the Rams didn't use 21 personnel, they typically had a tight end motion to a flex wing spot, usually allowing a Seahawks defender to break into the backfield and blow up or redirect Gurley's run.

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The only real variations in Los Angeles' running game were two fake jet sweeps with Tavon Austin and Brian Quick, where the receiver running through the backfield went the opposite direction of the Gurley rush. Gurley has now played 15 games in his career and rushed for under 3.0 yards per carry in a game six times, while going over 6.0 yards per carry four times. Public perception hasn't profiled Gurley as a boom-or-bust back, but it sure would be nice if Goff injected this offense with a little more variety.

The Rams were the only team not to score a touchdown in Week 1, and that remains the case after Week 2. This is the first time in a decade a team has gone the first two weeks without a touchdown, a feat the Raiders and Buccaneers both "achieved" in 2006. Los Angeles is the first team to win a game under these parameters since the 2001 Seahawks, and no team has reached the postseason since going without a touchdown its first two games since the 1990 Saints. Nothing suggests Goff is currently ready to break the decade-long trend of listless Rams offenses, which means Los Angeles will continue to rely on a defense that can steal a few games every year. Sounds kind of like a 7-9 type of team, doesn't it?

By the VOA

LARM -8.7% -26.5% 9.0% 26.8%
SEA -30.5% -14.9% 0.3% -15.3%

Even without opponent adjustments this was a game heavily skewed in favor of the Rams, and the gap will probably only grow wider if both these teams go on to perform as expected. The Seahawks had seven games with a negative overall DVOA from 2013 to 2015, and three of them came against the Rams. This will presumably make it four out of eight.

Assuming adjustments eventually keep Los Angeles' total DVOA above 20.0% for this game, the Rams will be on track to repeat their 2015 symmetry. The Rams' overall DVOA was either above 20.0% or below -20.0% in 12 out of 16 games last season, with six great showings and six poor ones. Los Angeles has also lost the following week each of the past three instances they have beaten Seattle, which bodes well for Buccaneers fans needing a pick-me-up this week.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 20 Sep 2016

1 comment, Last at 20 Sep 2016, 2:03pm by Tim R


by Tim R :: Tue, 09/20/2016 - 2:03pm

The rams have been among the youngest teams in the league, particularly since fishers 1st year. Does age have any noticeable correlation with variance?