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The Russell Okung Difference

After a slow start to his career, Chris Long has developed into one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. He proved to be a pretty big problem for both Tyler Polumbus and Sean Locklear That doesn't surprise, because they're Tyler Polumbus and Sean Locklear, and he is Chris Long. But a spotty right tackle against a good to great left defensive end is not typically enough to kill an offense. The right is typically the strong side, and a mismatch at right tackle can be compensated for by a blocking tight end.

The bigger problem for the Seahawks was that Russell Okung was making his first professional start, he didn't look dominant against quality right defensive end James Hall, and once he was injured, the Bash Brothers were manning both tackle spots. One mismatch became two, and as runs were stuffed and pass rush mounted, the Seahawks offense fell apart, never scoring after Okung's departure.

The unsophisticated view of pass rush is that pass rush is evidenced most purely by sacks. A more nuanced perspective is pass rush and its impact on an offense is wide reaching and varied. It limits deep passes and we know deep passes are on average much more valuable than short passes. It forces additional blockers, and though we do not have research that additional blockers leads directly to worse passing performance, we know logically that the greater the ratio between defenders in coverage and receivers, the less likely a receiver is to be open, the tighter the window a quarterback must throw through and the more defenders that can make a play on the ball. Pass rush also forces worse decisions and worse passes by hurrying a quarterback to make a decision and potentially influencing his throwing motion. Pass rush can also help nullify valuable underneath patterns. Deep routes can run off coverage and open up outlet passes. Pass rush can force a quarterback to throw underneath before coverage has dropped away from that player's pattern. Seahawks fans are well versed in the toothless dump off, and without time to allow deep patterns to develop, that's typically how an underneath pattern ends: shortly after completion, in the arms of a charging defender.

Seattle didn't score after Okung left in week three, but that simplifies to a fault. Seattle did not score, but Seattle did not score because the offense could no longer drive the ball. In the three drives before Okung left the field, the Seahawks were averaging 42.33 yards. In the following 10 drives, Seattle averaged only 13 yards. That could indicate Seattle was particularly vulnerable to the Rams bookends, but it could just be a small sample fluke. So I decided to take the question further.

How much better has Seattle's offense been with Okung on the field?

There are a lot of ways to measure this, but I went with something simple and encompassing: drive stats. Drive stats measure the length of a drive, der, and so include passing, rushing and penalties. Drives stats also give us a nicely balanced set of bins. Seattle has conducted 85 drives with Okung and 95 drives without Okung.  If we start with just the comparative length of Seattle's drives with and without Okung*, it looks like this.

With Okung: 26.19

Without: 20.6

That looks good. According to Jim Armstrong's drive stats, that marks Seattle as the worst offense in the NFL without Okung, behind even the lowly Panthers, but a more respectable 28th with Okung, behind the Vikings. But maybe Seattle simply faced an easier run of defenses when Okung started. That doesn't accord with my memory, but we can attempt to factor that out. Using a little bit of algebra, we can create an expected drive length based on the opponents Seattle faced with and without Russell Okung.

From there we can create a drive length versus average rating. So, for instance, if you averaged 22.45 yards a drive against the ultra stingy Giants defense (first in the NFL) that would be 100% or perfectly average. The Seahawks look at average longingly, but, again, what is the Okung difference?

With Okung: 90.1%

Without: 73.9%

Wow. That's hefty. Projecting that against the Rams, Seattle would average only 21.17 yards per drive without Okung, but 25.81 yards per drive with Okung. Over 11 drives, which is a little over average for the 2010 Seahawks, that's a 51 yard difference.

That's generic though. It gives us substance but little specificity. To get back to our brutal bookends, Long and Hall created a special breed of misery for the Seahawks in week three. Seattle couldn't run. Seattle couldn't pass. Seattle couldn't hope to execute its offense with disruptive pressure attacking off both edges. Against one overpowering end, Seattle could counter with Chris Baker. Baker is a blocking tight end, and so throwing a block before dropping into some kind of abbreviated route would not be debilitating. That's more or less what Baker does. But against two deadly ends, Seattle was SOL. John Carlson isn't a great pass blocker and his foot speed isn't such that he can delay his route with an assist and still release into a down field pattern. Carlson sometimes so struggles blocking, he can't assist and then release into any kind of pattern at all. It's just not his game.

Losing Okung cooked Seattle's already half-baked offense. What's worse is that because Okung left suddenly, Seattle was not very prepared for his absence. Polumbus and Locklear were not the only two Seahawks offensive linemen to struggle, but it's plausible that the two had ripple effects on Stacy Andrews, Chris Spencer and Ben Hamilton. Andrews certainly didn't need a catalyst to struggle against Fred Robbins, but even in that case "struggle" is relative. Maybe Andrews still struggles but struggles less. Maybe instead of manning a Texas-sized turnstile, Andrews would have merely failed intermittently.

Regaining Okung should allow Seattle to scheme protection for Locklear without crippling their game plan. Better performance by Seattle's offensive tackles should put less pressure on Seattle's interior offensive line. Better run blocking could improve down and distance. Etc. Etc. Etc.

We know there's an Okung difference. We know that the Rams defense builds off its deadly complementary ends. Could that interplay lead to a surprising performance by the Seahawks offense? We shall see. We shall see.

*Tossing out the drive Okung started in week 7 but did not complete.