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Identity Shift: Bill Belichick inadvertently explains the 2017 Seahawks to us

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
illusion of a running lane
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The whole premise of this column is that NFL teams are not static. A perceived strength can disappear over time; a new wrinkle in the offense can mean an extra win or two; a significant injury can derail a season.

And it doesn’t always have to be Aaron Rodgers donating his collarbone to every other NFC team’s playoff chances. Last year it was Earl Thomas’ absence that turned the Seattle Seahawks from a team that thrived on limiting the explosive play to one who suddenly had to keep up with the explosive plays of other teams.

Then, take 2015, when the Seahawks suffered injuries in their offensive backfield to the point it felt like karma had singled them out for past-due payments on the two, or three, Beastquakes. (Depending on how you count them.) In the final four games of that season, including the weird-ass 1-1 road playoff trip to Minnesota and Carolina, Seattle’s rushing attack broke down* this way:

  • Running backs: 78-282-1-3.6
  • Russell Wilson and others: 24-127-0-5.3

*you get it

Even to call it an “attack” was a stretch. The lone ground touchdown in there — it was scored by Bryce Brown, of Bryce Brown fame, just kidding, there is no Bryce Brown fame. Ten of the rushes came after the Seahawks took a 30-point lead in the second half Week 17, so there’s even a significant portion of the sample that comes from garbage time. Carrying the ball among the “others” were: Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Lockett, Jon Ryan, DeShawn Shead, and Kasen Williams.

The running backs featured were Christine Michael, Fred Jackson, and the aforementioned Brown, who have combined for 583 career yards since. All by C-Mike.

Why the sad history lesson? Because in their 28 previous games, the Seahawks had crossed 100 yards rushing... 28 times. With 11 games over 170 yards. And five games over 200 yards! The identity of the Seahawks was their unimpeachable running game. You, the opposing defensive coordinator, wanted to remove it, but you didn’t have the means. It was Who They Were. You weren’t going to make them fit into a round passing-shaped box when they were a square rushing peg.

Now, the most important word above is “Were.” After 2015 died a protracted death in Carolina, the 2016 team picked up right where its predecessor left off, averaging 3.9 yards per carry counting Wilson’s scrambling. The 2017 squad didn’t make much headway; all it has left is four healthy backs, who’ve accumulated a 52-156-1-3.0 line thus far. Nothing to text home about, let alone write. The good old days of the Seahawks imposing their will through Marshawn Lynch and others are through. At the moment.

Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls are both in bottom 10 in DYAR (a great footballoutsiders stat). Along with C.J. Prosise, they form a trio of running backs with negative DYAR, of which there are only 31 in the whole league. Seattle has three. Without Chris Carson, the 2017 Seattle Seahawks plain cannot run the ball. So who are they?

If you ask Bill Belichick, they are a team who is figuring it out. Which may not be a terrible thing after all. We’re going to get to the statistical meat of this post sometime today, but why hurry? Numbers fluctuate from week to week; weekly rankings tumble more than an Olympic gymnast in an industrial-sized dryer. What Belichick says below outlasts transient digits.

The type is small, so let me pull out three really key sentences.

“If you don’t increase the volume of your scheme on offense, defense, special teams every week, ... I don’t know how much stress you’re really putting on your opponent if that’s the way you do it.

“You can play your basic stuff and if it’s working well and you’re doing well with it then there’s no reason you change it. But I don’t know how many teams fall into that category.

“Saying that’s not the most common way teams evolve over the course of the year. You do what you do each week to try and win.”

A lot of what Belichick is saying, to me, is that execution can drive identity, rather than the other way around. Early in the year there are things you don’t do well, either because of your own failings or because the opponent took certain plays away.

The second big takeaway is that there rarely is an overarching story of a good team’s identity — unless that identity is adaptability and growth. Listen to him again:

“Each year you start over, start that process all over again, and build your team throughout the course of the year, through practice to repetition, through preseason to regular-season games, to evolving your scheme and that’s why each year is different and unique.”

In other words, you do what you gotta do to win? Fuck who you were — it’s what gets you the W that defines you?

There’s enough in Belichick’s soliloquy for a whole series of posts, but not today. You are owed a statistical check-in. Let’s make it quick, and painless if you skip over 3.

1. NEW: First-half vs. Second-half scoring

Last Week: Worth Monitoring

This Week: Worth Monitoring/Holding True

First-half points scored are 26; second-half points sit at 70. Huge gap. What’s more worth paying attention to is the point differential by halves. First-half differential is -4; in the second half it’s +27.

The numbers are skewed by the Colts game, possibly. Let’s remove those.

[removing, tap tap tap calculate subtract don’t forget to carry the two, and the beer from the fridge to the desk]

Using exclusively weeks 1, 2, 3 and 5 does in fact change the story. First half is +1, second half is -6. A-ha. If the Colts blowout doesn’t count, the narrative dies. Which, yeah, it does. But the Colts game is 20 percent of the season and if we remove any inconvenient data then it’s not a very honest exploration. First-half vs. second-half scoring stays at “worth monitoring.”

2. The offense is incorporating up-tempo components and it’s working

Narrative status, last week: Holding True

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

In the two games the Seahawks have used up-tempo tactics extensively, they’ve put 73 points on the board. In the three games they haven’t, it’s 31 points. With the caveat that the sample size would have a hard time being smaller, 36.5 ppg against 10.3 is at the very least eyebrow-raising, and maybe even indicative of a trend.

Could also be that the Titans and Colts defenses were particularly soft and vulnerable to a quicker pace. That’s why we track stats over a whole season, and not just until the bye, right?

3. Pass protection issues

TrendCon level, last week: 2

TrendCon level, this week: 2

Three more sacks given up. Seattle is unhappily the fourth-worst team at allowing QB hits. Wilson has hit the deck 43 times, and the three teams ahead of the Seahawks (Cardinals, Browns, Packers) have all played an extra game.

Wilson’s time to throw still ranks 28th in the league, per Pro Football Focus, with an average of exactly 3.00 seconds per dropback.

And then there’s this little damning piece of info:

Only Deshaun Watson is pressured more often than Wilson. Overall, the Seattle line is still not protecting its quarterback. The eye test might suggest pass-pro improvement, but the statistical failsafe tells us otherwise.

4. The RB job will be done by committee, right?

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

With rushing lines like this, it’s preposterous and premature to anoint a lead back successor to Chris Carson:

  • Lacy, 25-74-0-3.0
  • Rawls, 13-24-0-1.8
  • Prosise, 8-20-0-2.5
  • McKissic, 6-38-1-6.3

That’s not to say nobody will grab the featured back’s job. But with Prosise’s and McKissic’s versatility running and catching the ball, it’s hard to see any one Seahawk getting 20 carries a game anytime soon.

5. Sack surplus

TrendCon level, last week: 3

TrendCon level: this week: 2

Once again the Seahawks find themselves unable to out-sack the opposition. The deficit on the season is a scant two sacks (13-11) but the trend is poor; from +1 to even to -1 to -2.

Russell Wilson is on pace to be sacked 42 times this season, which would be the least of his career since 2012, when it was just 33, somehow.

6. Shaquil Griffin’s role is large, especially for a rookie

Narrative status, last week: Holding True

Narrative status, this week: Worth Monitoring

Griffin has played 256 snaps to Jeremy Lane’s 134. Almost twice as much. With Justin Coleman firmly in the slot, the snap total must mean Griffin has wrested the starting position from Lane, right?

Unright. In the five games of 2017, Lane has been the clear starter every time he’s been healthy and available.

Game 1 snaps: Lane 8, Griffin 77. Lane was ejected in the first quarter. Because stuff.

Game 2 snaps: Lane 49, Griffin 20. Lane played more than 90 percent of defensive snaps.

Game 3 snaps: Lane 72, Griffin 30. Same scenario as Game 2.

Game 4 snaps: Lane 5, Griffin 55. Lane was injured early.

Game 5 snaps: Lane 0, Giffin 74. Lane was inactive. Interestingly, Griffin was in on 100 percent of the defensive plays.

Notwithstanding the final numbers, Griffin’s snaps depend on Lane’s injury status. That is not the sign of a rookie who has overtaken the veteran on the depth chart, but of a first-year player making the most of his opportunity through favorable circumstances. Which is something we like to see Seahawks do, but let’s not exaggerate Griffin’s role — a healthy Lane will probably be more on the field this coming Sunday.

7. The defense’s return to dominance

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

One game with five turnovers forced, representing again 20 percent of the data, has the chance to make a team look better than it really is. On the other hand, another game like that against the Rams — a good offense, maybe a great offense -- would solidify the Seahawks as a continuing defensive power.

Which they should be. There are still seven Pro Bowlers and All-Pros on the defense, even with Cliff Avril out. The four who haven’t scored such high honors yet — Frank Clark, Jarran Reed, Justin Coleman and Shaquill Griffin -- would be the young building blocks or cornerstones already of a respected defense anywhere else.

Points allowed: 17.4 (6th, up four spots)

Passing yards allowed: 202.8 (9th, down five spots)

Yards/attempt against: 5.7 (5th, unchanged)

Passer rating against: 70.8 (3rd, up five spots) — last year it was 87.0

Rushing yards allowed: 127.2 (26th, up one spot)

Yards/carry against: 4.9 (30th)

Sacks: 11 (T-22nd, down two spots)

Takeaways: 9 (8th, up nine spots)

Turnover margin: +4

The rushing defense continues to lag behind the high norms set by the 2013-2016 squads. Every other stat points to a defense that is good enough to win games by itself

That doesn’t mean you have to put it all on the defense’s shoulders again come Sunday, gentlemen of the Seattle offense. Just because you can is not a good enough reason for the game at MetLife to come down to

or some such heart-unhealthy play.