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Seattle @ Buffalo: Losing Up The Middle, Winning On The Edges

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"Adrian Beltre has been awful."

I have this friend at work. Cool guy. Studying to be a math teacher. We talk sports when we can. Today, I mentioned that I thought the Mariners were run a bit like Nintendo: Esoteric, not overtly competitive but ruthlessly profitable. He brought up some of their stupid free agent signings. I thought: Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva, Richie Sexson, but no, Adrian Beltre.

It then occurred to me, not only can I refute that claim, but it's provably false. Think about that. Provably false.

That ability doesn't exist in football. Even a player as unproductive as Alex Smith has semi-legitimate excuses. I cannot prove Alex Smith hasn't suffered from playing under multiple offensive coordinators. I can't. I can be skeptical. I can consider that fact as relatively minor, but inevitably I'm making a judgment.

That's what I love most about football. Anyone above the dregs of the bell curve can read a chart and know the value of Albert Pujols or Adrian Beltre. It, then, requires no critical thinking. It's literal. A player hits a homerun or not. A player walks or not. Projecting future performance is a little harder, but not much. Marcel has proven how far simple regression can go, and how little advanced models improve accuracy. But how valuable is Marcus Stroud? Does anyone know?

What then can we say about Statapalooza? Is it really instructive to list the Bills' DVOA against #1 receivers when I'm not even sure who Seattle's #1 receiver is? Much less, why the Bills play well against #1 receivers. I realized late last season that any accuracy found within Statapalooza was incidental. What's that logical fallacy? Proof by verbosity? So I retired it. Instead, a holistic approach, considering personnel, statistics and scheme.

So here's my admission of ignorance. I don't know if the Bills will be good against the run. I do know that according to a pretty reliable tool, they ranked 13th last season. How will they play against the Seahawks? Let's see if I can make an educated guess.

We start with a 13th ranked unit. We add Paul Posluszny and Marcus Stroud. Because of injury, we subtract Angelo Crowell. What do those players contribute?

Posluszny is considered a great run stopping linebacker that has trouble shedding blockers. One way that might be expressed is lots of tackles, but few successful tackles. In just 2+ games, Poz recorded 20 tackles against the run, 11 were after successful rushes, 9 were after unsuccessful rushes. Though a small sample, that's in line with the above: active run stopper; often chasing the rusher. In that sense, Poz plays a bit like Lofa Tatupu did his first two seasons.

A big part of masking Tatupu's early problems shedding blockers was getting a big body in the middle that could absorb blocks. Stroud replaces recent Seahawks cut-ee, Larry Tripplett. The 2007 Jaguars, though a poor overall rush defense, did allow runs of 10+ yards on only 7% of all plays. The Bills, a better overall rush defense, but saddled with the easily blocked Tripplett, allowed runs on 21% of all plays.

Even if Stroud is incapable of reaching his former level, he should improve the Bills' ability to prevent long runs and help Posluszny make more successful run tackles. That's a net positive and I think Buffalo will greatly improve its ability to stuff runs up the middle. I don't foresee much success for Seattle at running up the middle. Draws are a possible exception, relying largely on surprise, the success of a draw can be tough to predict. But on runs behind center and both guards, I think Buffalo will more than holds its own.

What Stroud won't affect, at least not on Sunday, is the Bills ability to stop rushes to the outside. Looking at the Bills last season, they were remarkable at stopping runs around left end. First in the NFL, allowing only 1.5 adjusted line yards per rush. I don't buy it.

Aaron Schobel mans their right defensive end spot. Schobel, just 243 pounds, is decidedly of the light/fast edge rusher profile. Now 31, a player so reliant on his quickness, it's reasonable to think Schobel is firmly entrenched in decline. His 6.5 sacks in 2007 tie with his rookie season for lowest of his career. Though much has been made of the Bills defensive decline, the unit was almost on par with the 2006 unit, and was head and shoulders about the 2005 unit. On each, Schobel recorded double digit sacks.

For Seattle, the offensive left is almost exclusively their "weakside". Therefore, the Bills should line Kawika Mitchell over Schobel. Mitchell, on his third team in three years, is a good run stopper, but more in a downhill vein. Julius Jones and Maurice Morris rushed 34 times in the preseason, 11 to the end or tackle, 9 to the left end or tackle. I expect Seattle to attack the edges with sweep rushes, pulling Mike Wahle and using Walter Jones' ability to seal off Schobel to get Morris and Jones a free release to the outside. From there, Mitchell will attempt to stunt or shed Wahle, retard Morris/Jones and hope Posluszny or Donte Whitner will be able to shoot in and tackle the rusher.

Now we talk about Crowell. The drop from Angelo Crowell to Keith Ellison is complete. He's a worse run stopper, worse in coverage and worse blitzing. The easiest way to hide Ellison is give him support. Given that Ellison will be playing on the strong side, the team should simply instruct Whitner to "stay at home". That is, keep "strong" to protect against cutbacks and screen passes and lean more on Mitchell. I think that will, to an extent, minimize his contributions on the strong side. That leaves Wahle to stop Mitchell from tackling Jones/Morris and more importantly, Wahle to stop Mitchell from retarding the rush and allowing Posluszny to track down Jones/Morris from the backside.

It's an early test for Wahle. Last season, his pull blocking contributed to Carolina's 3rd ranked run blocking on rushes off the left offensive end. It's a test I think Wahle will pass, and I think running outside, especially the outside left, will power Seattle's rushing attack.