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How the Seahawks Were Gashed and Why It Won't Happen Again

To understand the Seahawks run defense one must first answer an unanswerable question which has long plagued philosophers, and those philosophers of the modern age, stoners. Wait! Don't leave. There will be pictures! and cats! and gifs! and very little philosophy talk.

Earl Thomas picks his teeth with Jamaal Charles' cleats.
Earl Thomas picks his teeth with Jamaal Charles' cleats.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What is 'X'? When X is a type (say for instance "cat") with limitations but infinite permutations. What is 'cat'? Not a cat, which can be defined in specifics, but 'cat' conceptually.

This is a cat.


This is a more intelligent, less slovenly, better smelling and much cuter cat.


Both are 'cat' but much of what can be said about one cannot be said about the other. Like the top cat, Houdini, is an irredeemable sluggard who hasn't paid rent since dragging in a dead june bug in May.

This picture is deeply confusing to those skimming for content.

While the lower cat--

Let me cut to football right away so this dusn't get too ponderously awful.

What is defensive interception in NFL football? Defensive interception is when a defender legally catches a pass. But within that definition an infinite permutation of events. Some interceptions are deviously hard like this one Richard Sherman snagged:


And some are so damn easy that sack of crap Houdini could snag it in his plumeria pink paws. And so when we ask "How good are the Seahawks at intercepting passes?" We're asking an unanswerable question which we can nevertheless offer probable answers to. Sherman has exceptional ball skills, Earl Thomas has exceptional range and good ball skills, Byron Maxwell has good ball skills, etc. Though the question "How good are the Seahawks at intercepting passes?" is unanswerable, most people of knowledge could answer a question seemingly derived from that unanswerable question.

For instance, which secondary is likely to intercept more passes in 2014?

FS: Earl Thomas

SS: Kam Chancellor

CB: Byron Maxwell

CB: Richard Sherman

CB: Marcus Burley


FS: Tashaun Gipson

SS: Donte Whitner

CB: Buster Skrine

CB: Joe Haden

CB: K'Waun Williams

...and they would be wrong. The Seahawks five have five interceptions. The Cleveland Browns five have 12. But if the question were who would have more interceptions in the next five games, all else being equal, they would not be wrong. Or not improbably right, anyway.

We exist in a range between Total Knowledge and Total Ignorance and so polka dotted pink elephants raining on my roof may never happen, but water droplets doing likewise will and often. Nothing may be impossible but much is improbable in the extreme.

Every pass attempt and therefore interception attempt is different but similar enough that certain talents and skills enable and thus indicate interception-ability. And we therefore escape a Zeno-like paradox. As I think Wittgenstein pointed out, which paradox is a linguistic rather than logical paradox, anyway. Moving on-->

Everything from the jet sweep, to a pitch left, to student body right, to a stretch left, to a read option, to a dive play are run plays, and so when we ask "How good is the Seahawks run defense?" we are asking a question that can be induced but not deduced. We can make rational measures of how good it has been. We can make semi-rational prognostications based on semi-rational valuations of talent on how good it should be. But because the ultimate answer to the question requires knowledge of a sequence from an infinite set of run possibilities which sequence we cannot know beforehand, a truly correct answer is impossible.

But oh what a probable answer I have for you fine folks!

What the Hell Went Wrong

Gigantic gaping holes, [latently misogynistic Amanda Bynes reference]:

Blockers spurting through like homunculi in a preformationist's wet dream. (Preformationists were the people who thought semen was composed of tiny men who grew inside the womb and into a baby. Yes. These were men of high society, nobility, station and supreme rank! And the irony is that there is no irony in the preceding sentence. Science!)

And that those pictures could be transposed because both pictures feature gaping holes and at least one lead blocker, eh, spurting through said hole.

Now I've read that Pete Carroll blamed tackling for the Seahawks defective run defense, but "tackling" is one-removed from "execution." And execution is a football coach's favorite non-answer, because "execution" can be translated to "performance of play." Which means, if a coach is asked why something didn't work and he answers "execution," he is effectively saying "it didn't work because we didn't play well." Which answer is how a PR savvy coach avoids being honest and thus avoids a PR disaster.

Tackling differs from execution in that tackling is a specific skill, and therefore seemingly indicates a specific way to improve. But tackling difficulty ranges from the extremely easy, say the incidental trip up of a stumbling ball carrier approaching the sideline, to the extremely hard, say evading or fighting off a lead blocker and tackling a near-full speed Jamaal Charles in the open field. Which means that the way a team improves its tackling, especially against the run, is by improving its run defense on the whole--not by making Malcolm Smith into ca. 2000 Ray Lewis but by putting Smith into favorable positions.

Why did Seattle tackle so poorly?

Brandon Mebane. No. No. I mean, not Brandon Mebane. Or at least these are the polarities of explanation I've encountered. And here I may be that equivocating jerk sportswriter which is so in vogue now. Who archly comments on those with opinions while forwarding no opinions of his own, and concludes little but a rather patronizing "everybody's both right and wrong!" and "we can't know for sure!" But instead I'll be a different kind of jerk, a soda jerk. Ready your mugs for some cool, fizzy tape analysis.

(Three goals guide this piece: explain the Seahawks run defense, avoid the Curse of Knowledge, and explain regression to the mean in a way that hopefully both demystifies this new cliche of logic and redeems it from becoming the new "because I say so" of statisticians.)

Why did Seattle tackle so poorly? Let's get to the tape.

First Blood

Luckily for me, the runs that were most damaging to the Seahawks were also the most beautiful and the most representational of what went wrong for Seattle's run defense.

1st and 10 at SEA 30(7:21) (Shotgun) J.Charles right guard to SEA 16 for 14 yards (K.Chancellor).

Lest we forget the painful lesson of the Divisional Round of the 2007 NFC Playoffs, allow me to repeat: Nothing which happens in the first quarter of a game fully determines the outcome of that game. And a 14 yard run is not different. This play was worth a measly 4% win probability. But in retrospect we may see it as tiny slush ball just gathering momentum rolling down from way high up atop the Matterhorn.

Here the Seahawks are in their bear front just previous to the snap. Malcolm Smith has followed Travis Kelce and motioned from offensive left to offensive right.


To achieve this Wade Phillips style 3-4, the Seahawks have overstretched Michael Bennett and asked him to play 3-4 end. In this role, Bennett becomes the weakest link on defense, and in the ensuring breakdowns we shall see the disastrous consequences of that again and again.

The preferred camera angle of professional football broadcasts renders this play an incomprehensible jumble, but a better angle makes it painfully lucid.


Bennett has been single-blocked from outside the right hashmark to just inside the right hashmark--about two or three yards. Because of the dominance of that single block, and because nothing in the way of push has been created by the Seahawks defensive line, Chiefs left guard Mike McGlynn is free to pull through the hole ahead of Charles and engage Malcolm Smith.

There are three basic ways this run could have gone. Let's consider the best, the second worst, and what actually happened, i.e. the worst.

Here is a generic abstraction of the play. X's and O's.


Alex Smith is omitted because who cares?

The bottom 'O' is Jamaal Charles. He is positioned opposite of play-side (the side the pulling blocker moves toward) so that the left guard may beat him to the hole.

Here is the best case scenario, approximately.


Bennett and the Seahawks defensive line has not been bullied away from the hole. Those three defenders have in fact pushed back the offensive line, and that means McGlynn is struggling to pull free and through the hole. His path is obstructed by his own teammates. The outside linebacker to the play side, Cliff Avril, is outside his blocker, Kelce, simultaneously squeezing the hole closed and preventing Charles from bouncing outside. The outside linebacker to the back side, Bruce Irvin, is containing the backside and free of his blocker. That actually happened. And the topmost 'X's', K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, are free of blockers and redundant. If the Smith does not tackle Charles in that tiny hole or behind the line of scrimmage, Wright is there to clean up what Smith started.

Next, a slight decline in performance by the defense which may take a tackle for a loss and turn it into a tackle after a small gain.


I will only detail what has changed.

The Seahawks defensive line has not created push and McGlynn is able to lead Charles into the hole. But the defensive line has also not been bullied offensive left, and so the hole is narrow and if Malcolm Smith can engage McGlynn quickly, he can trap Charles behind his blocker and before the hole. The resulting cramped hole puts Charles and Wright "in a phone booth," neutralizing Charles's quickness and agility, and making Wright's tackle much easier. Further, if Bennett has not been bullied offensive left, it is possible he stays to the outside of his blocker, and thus the designed hole becomes a "sea of hands," in which a Bennett may grab some jersey or otherwise slow Charles.

Easy tackles make for good tackles.

Finally, here's almost exactly what did happen.


Bennett has been moved horizontally. The hole is gaping. McGlynn engages Smith in the second level. And Wright must close from a distance, and in such a way that he eliminates the cutback lane.

Hard tackles make for broken tackles. And Wright does not secure the tackle.


First Blood Part II

The Chiefs second drive was especially damaging. In just four plays the Seahawks win probability sunk from 48% to 28%. Now those numbers alone may understate the true damage this drive inflicted upon the Seahawks. And Brian Burke's rational, clean and easy to navigate win probability graphs and charts only further undermine that grave import. Back when we were on speaking terms, I used to insist to Brian, these graphs need to be more sensationalistic! These graphs need to tell a story! These graphs need to shock thought right out of the reader's brain!

And so, by first eliminating extraneous context and setting the X and Y intersect at 20%, scrawling some mistakes into the graphic to underscore my amateur Seahawks-fan cred, and adding a little Revelations imagery, Brian's chart is rescued from banality and given life!


a) S.Hauschka kicks 65 yards from SEA 35 to end zone, Touchback.

b) (10:22) A.Smith pass deep left to T.Kelce to KC 43 for 23 yards (E.Thomas).

c) (9:40) J.Charles up the middle to SEA 29 for 28 yards (K.Chancellor).


(Charles is untouched 27 yards down field, but, you know, "tackling.")

d) (8:54) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short middle to A.Sherman to SEA 16 for 13 yards (E.Thomas).

e) (8:15) J.Charles left guard for 16 yards, TOUCHDOWN. C.Santos extra point is GOOD, Center-T.Gafford, Holder-D.Colquitt.

(No good camera angles here, but this desperation tackle attempt by Tony McDaniel (99) is the last time a Seahawk defender touches Charles before he was at the very brink of the end zone.)


Rambo 5: The Beginning

Incidentally, this is the first time Jamaal Charles has scored two touchdowns in the first half of a game. And of actual importance, the first touchdown featured all the hallmarks of Seattle's crumbling rush defense: soft edge, lead blocker moving into the second level, linebacker overmatched against a two-way go in the open field.


74, extra right tackle Jeff Linkenbach, has won against Bennett and Bennett is resorting to illegal hands to the face to survive. That has freed fullback Anthony Sherman to block Wright. (This is happening just above the Seahawks 59.) And Bruce Irvin is thus singled up against Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles. That he is almost able to chase Charles out of bounds speak to the incredible quickness of Irvin.

The Force of Freedom

This bit's getting stale. How's that usually expressed?


No, not quite like that. But close.

Here's the last and most deadly of Charles's Chelsea Handlers against Seattle.



(I do not fault Pete Carroll for blaming tackling for the Seahawks struggles defending the run. As explained above, that's just good stewardship of public relations. But it is a journalist's job to not simply defer to authority figures, and instead seek the truth. The average sports journalist with press credentials is so close to the team, and so contented with access, that apart from scandal mongering, there is little in the way of actual journalism. Most are simply disseminator of press releases, aggregator of coach speak, and amplifier of team agenda.)

Sir, do we get to win this time?

The defending Super Bowl Champion Seahawks lose on the road to the 7-3 Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs then travel to the Black Hole and lose to the 0-10 Oakland Raiders. Arthur calls that "demoralizing." Alexander cites it as example of why he loves football. Allow me to now debase this conversation with a word worthy Phil Simms "matchups."

The Chiefs are not the Cardinals are not the 49ers are not ...

Lisa's Brain: Poor predictable Bart; always takes Rock.
Bart's Brain: Good ol' Rock, nothing beats that!

Rock-paper-scissors makes a good metaphor because R-P-S is the fundamentally simplest game of strengths and weaknesses possible. One couldn't win a game of matter-antimatter. But once three we have a logic: rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, paper beats rock ... but only a metaphor and not a proof because a rushing offense is just a bit more complicated than all that.

As a quote often misattributed to Franz Kafka (but belonging to far less sexy dead intellectual Matthew Prior) said "In argument, similes are like songs in love. They describe much, but prove nothing."

And as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, coiner of the term Ludic Fallacy, said "Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories." Which is my way of calling back to my original argument that a run play is not one thing, but a range of possibilities, and so run defense is not one quality, but a set of abilities unknowable until they are tested.

We know now how Seattle's run defense failed. We do not know yet why Seattle's run defense failed. The most accurate answer is, who for sure knows? The best answer is more specific and entertaining, because this is sports writing, and who wants to read doubt, hedging, and appeals to uncertainty?

No, let us describe much and prove nothing.

Some of what has made the Seahawks run defense perform so well is known, at least partially. Brandon Mebane was an excellent zero/one-tech. Which just means he held ground or knocked blockers back, and kept his fellow defenders--specifically his linebackers--free of blockers. He's gone.

Michael Bennett, before being overstretched as a 3-4 type end, was an excellent strongside 4-3 end. Which just means he typically plays on the side opposite the tight end or fullback, and in that role, has effectively held ground, separated from blockers, and tackled or slowed the ball carrier when he has had the chance to.

Kam Chancellor is perhaps the league's best defensive back at defending the run. Despite missing time and playing injured, Chance ranks 5th in successful tackles (tackles in which the offense is worse off after the play than before the play, say a one yard run on 1st and 10.) A stat he's ranked top five in three of his four seasons.

Earl Thomas has tremendous range, is good at forcing fumbles, and though he's not a great open-field tackler, he often slows enough for his teammates to rally and gang tackle.

Richard Sherman and Bryon Maxwell are both sturdy run defenders--Maxwell more than Sherman.

Seattle's remaining defensive tackles are not bad, assuming they are manning a single gap, and Seattle's starting linebackers are actually quite good, assuming blockers are not streaming into the second level.

Though Mebane is gone we wouldn't expect the run defense overall to crumble. Yet it did. Why?

Rock beats scissors

I am not a fan of Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards metric. It wrongly posits that offensive and defensive lines are progressively less responsible for long runs. When, as seen above, this is anything but true. But it's the best we have, and so let's utilize it best we can.

The Chiefs excel at running off left and right end, ranking 6th and 7th respectively. The only other team that has really gashed Seattle's run defense was the Cowboys, who rank 5th and 3rd running off left and right end. Tre Mason did not rush enough times for the Rams to "run over" Seattle, but he did average 4.7 yards an attempt and scored a touchdown. St. Louis Ranks 2nd and 1st ibid.

And only the Rams from among the Seahawks final four opponents rank even in the top ten.

Opponents may game plan to exploit this, but as the saying goes, a zebra can't change its stripes, and I think it would be naive to assume Andy Reid drastically altered his game plan to target a weakness we are now seeing retroactively. In fact, it is naive, because what Reid did to so brutalize the Seahawks, is inscribed even in his preferred personnel.

Week 11 against Seattle, Reid liberally deployed additional blockers. Consider this list of snap counts:

Travis Kelce 46/48

Anthony Sherman FB 17

Phillip Supernaw TE 13

Donald Stephenson OT 6

Jeff Linkenbach OT (situational) 2

Dontari Poe FB (situational) 1

But Week 10 against Buffalo, he did the same.

Anthony Fasano: 46/60

Kelce 40

Sherman 17

Stephenson 1

And week 9, against a team very good at defending outside runs, the Jets, he ramped up the additional blockers even more.

Fasano: 56/58

Kelce: 30

Sherman: 13

Demetrius Harris TE: 7

Stephenson: 3

Linkenbach: 2

Poe: 2

It's clear Reid likes to buttress his edges with additional blockers. And the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition do not rule the gameplan. Because, as analysts like to point out, coaches want to exert their will on their opponent, playing to their own strengths, and not reacting or playing defensively.

Arizona and Philadelphia do not field second tight ends, fullbacks or additional offensive tackles. San Francisco does, but luckily Frank Gore has produced at about 1/8th the level of Jamaal Charles (as measured by DVOA.)

Simply put, what the Kansas City Chiefs do and have done since the beginning of the season, targeted a weakness the Seattle Seahawks probably did not even know before last Sunday that they had. But which weakness no other Seahawks regular season opponent can target as effectively, because those teams, those rosters, those coaches and their preferred schemes, are not designed to outmuscle and brutalize the Seahawks' weak edges.

When the tackles become easier, the tackling will improve, and the Seahawks will progress toward a progressive mean.

Heroes never die ... They just reload

Now what in hell does progress toward a progressive mean mean? you may be asking.

Let's first accept that regression doesn't happen without time travel. Further, regression as in regression toward the mean (or to the mean) is sloppy in its phrasing, because the so-called regressive force is equally at play when something that was formerly good, like the Seahawks run defense, plays poorly. We call it regression because it moves back toward a previously defined quality, but that's confusing because in this case, the Seahawks run defense would be improving. Further still, it doesn't make sense for the Seahawks to lose a prime run defender, play much worse in the next game, and for us to assume that inferior performance is, what?, an artifact of small sample size?

And so the Seahawks will move forward toward a standard which is in flux, i.e. progressive. A standard informed by the past but not anchored to the past. But a standard which is not ignored simply because of one recent deviation.

From a theoretical standpoint there is no absolute explanation for why things regress. This allows the phenomenon to be anticipated without any specific explanation being necessary. But it's not hard to observe how things change and why they progressively move back toward normal.

Week 7 the Seahawks lose Derrick Coleman to a broken foot suffered during pregame warmups. Having no substitute and needing a fullback, Robert Turbin is pressed into duty. Turbin proves awful at lead blocking.

The Rams game will be the biggest deviation in normality for the Seahawks when it comes to lead blocking. The injury occurs after Seattle's already practiced certain plays all week, and those plays must be executed. The replacement lead blocker must come from Seattle's 45-man gameday roster, and no one on that roster is a fullback.

Each week, the Seahawks have more time to learn what Turbin can do, to mitigate his impact, and audition replacements. Each week Seattle heals the wound and so each week Seattle progresses toward the steadily changing baseline. Eventually Will Tukuafu is signed, and the Seahawks once again have a competent fullback, and a new normal based on the old normal is established. Thus: change, outlier, progression toward mean.

Tukuafu, in strange as fiction fashion, played eight snaps at fullback in Week 11, and four snaps at defensive end. So one kind of solution became another kind of band-aid. But this week, next week, and every week after, Seattle will be that much more prepared for life after Brandon Mebane, both schematically and from a personnel perspective. Tukuafu, I hope, will not play end. Bennett, I hope, will not play 3-4 end. And, at least, the Cardinals will not be so perfectly designed to punish Seattle if he does.

GO ON! Get out! Go home!

One of the treacherous marvels of the Internet is the ability to pretend to knowledge you don't have. I for instance have never seen even five minutes of a Rambo movie. Pop culture references function much as the Christian Bible once did in the West, and Confucius does to this day in much of China. They say: we are like, I am friendly, we have shared experiences and values, and so engender goodwill in the reader. Oftentimes the more embarrassing the admission, think of Bill Simmons' fixation with Saved by the Bell, the more endearing the reference.

Likeability, jargon which speaks to "expertise," unsound but truthy statistical methods, unfortunately these make careers.

There was a certain novelty to tape analysis eight years ago when I first started writing for Field Gulls. I did it because I wanted to create original content and not depend on linking news and offering snarky commentary. A method which dominated blogging then. Whatever I may read like in print, privately I am very humble about my knowledge of gridiron football. Which is to say I don't think I know too much and pretend to no expertise. So I was greatly gratified when the Seahawks did as I predicted and countered the loss of Mebane with a 3-4 alignment built around a bear front. And then greatly horrified when that tactic utterly failed.

But knowing, really knowing something, is fun.

After the Seahawks were run over by the Chiefs, a lot of people postulated as to why, and those people it seemed mostly relied on assumed expertise, and "the tape." Which is of course the game on DVR or whatever. The tape means nothing unless it is broken down to provide evidence. Only then may an open discussion about specific events and their causes be conducted.

The above is my particular attempt. This kind of analysis is just an inspiration to write. With luck, my ideas are sound. At least though I hope you enjoyed reading my disorderly revelations and of my peculiar fascinations.


. . .

John Morgan wrote a book and then re-wrote it over the winter. It is called 100 Things Seahawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. But the author refers to it as Sentimental Education of a 12.