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Identity Shift: Seahawks experiment with a cleaner style of play, for once

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The final five contests of the season (where has the year gone!?) will confirm some facets of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2017 identity. Other perceived facets will be exposed as mirages. And then, in the blink of a blitz, the season will disappear into history.

Something that might make the cut as a late arrival in terms of identity: the Seahawks’ road performance. Exactly at the same time as Seattle relinquishes its home-field advantage, with two straight home losses and two tough foes ahead, the team has begun to play well enough on the road to win most weeks. No matter that the three most recent road opponents were the New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers — a road win is a road win is a road win. There are no cheapies in the pros.

While it’s nice to see a team show the necessary maturity and discipline to perform well enough on the road, it also comes at possibly the most convenient time in franchise history. Should the Seahawks fail to win the NFC West, they stand to face two or three opponents on the road in the playoffs.

(Of course, Seattle will win the division, rendering one-third or more of the above argument moot. But just in the most hypo-rhetorica-thetical case it doesn’t happen like we planned, and the path to the Super Bowl goes through someone else’s city, the convincing road wins provide encouragement.)

1. The Seahawks are a second-half offense

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Definite Identity Match

The gap between early and late scoring lives on.

Qtr 1: 20th, 3.5 ppq

Qtr 2: 21st, 5.6 ppq

Qtr 3: 10th, 5.5 ppq

Qtr 4: 1st, 9.5 ppq

Based on quarter numbers, the eye-popping number is of course that big Number One in fourth-quarter scoring. By manner of contrast, consider the Philadephia Eagles. They’re 10-1, in case you skipped the first 12 weeks of the season, and they’re coming here on Sunday, in case you’re on this site by pure accident.

The Eagles lead the league in 1Q scoring at 7.1, a feat impressive enough on its own merits. But they also happen to lead the league in 1Q defense at 1.6.

You’d be statistically correct to conclude that Philly enters the second quarter of games with, on average, a 5.5-point lead. The Eagles jump on opponents, often forcing them to play catch-up. Small wonder they have the fewest losses of any NFL team.

If you and your opponent are evenly matched on a neutral field, and you have the ball, 1st and 10 at your own 25, down five points to start the second quarter, your win probability has already fallen to 35.3 percent. It is bad to fall behind.

If now your opponent (who we’ll call... the Schmiladelphia Schmeagles) owns that 5-point lead and holds the ball, with fair field position, 1st and 10 at their own 35 to start the second quarter, your win probability has fallen to 29.5 percent. It is even worse to fall behind and not have possession.

Early leads matter. The first quarter matters. Late leads are good too because the game is almost over and your opponent doesn’t have multiple opportunities to rally. But early leads have a way of holding up over the course of the game.

No matter what happens from here on out, the Seahawks’ season will be partly defined as one where their offense exploded in second halves but blew chances to put away inferior teams early, or donated too many early points to their opponents. Thinking specifically of the Titans, Skins and Falcons losses here.

2. The explosive plays are breaking the wrong way

TrendCon, last week: 4 (second-least worrisome TrendCon level)

TrendCon, this week: 4

Increasingly, Seattle’s 2016 9th place finish in explosives differential is looking like a blip. The team’s plus-19 after 10 games held steady after a 5-5 explosives standoff with the 49ers. With an outside shot at +30 in explosives, and on pace for +28, the Seahawks are poised for another finish in the top 5 in explosive play differential, just like they enjoyed in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Unless, of course, the Eagles and Rams run up and down the field in chunks. Not unlike the Texans and the last-drive Skins.

Background to remember: Washington and Atlanta both came into CenturyLink Field, lost the explosives battle, but won the game battle.

3. NEW: Penalties called against Seattle are excessive

TrendCon, last week: 2 (second-most worrisome TrendCon level)

TrendCon, this week: 2

One game of relatively clean football does not erase a season of historically sloppy execution. Six flags for 35 yards in San Francisco most certainly helped the Seahawks stay on schedule and extend drives. It would do the same against Philadelphia in prime time this coming Sunday night.

But on a season-long level, Seattle continues to lap the competition in penalties, and not in the way you’d like.

Chase for the bad kind of history update: The 2011 Oakland Raiders hold the record for most penalties, with 163. Last week the Seahawks were on pace for 165. Now it’s a “mere” 159.

Net penalties (previous week’s rank)

5. Kansas City, 16 (last week: 5th)

4. Buffalo, 17 (3rd)

3. Denver, 18 (4th)

2. San Francisco, 21 (2nd)

1. Seattle, 35 (1st)

Net yardage lost via penalties

5. Buffalo, 100

4. Dallas, 152 (3rd)

3. San Francisco, 173 (4th)

2. Kansas City, 175 (2nd)

1. Seattle, 280 (1st)

The four cleanest teams in pre-snap penalties are all bunched at the top. Minnesota has 16, with Dallas, New Orleans and Detroit all right behind at 17.

Seattle has been flagged for a whopping 35 pre-snap penalties. More than twice as much as any of those teams. Penalties of aggressiveness are something the Seahawks will probably always struggle with under Pete Carroll. But the offensive execution brain farts put you in second-and-long and third-and-long situations from which it is hard to recover. The offsides put other teams in second-and-short. If they’re going to clean anything up, it would be nice for it to be the procedure ones. Because look: Seattle is 1st in offsides and 4th in false starts.

But the Seahawks are also 2nd in offensive pass interference and 6th in holding. Again, explosive plays or plays that keep drives on schedule are getting eliminated by sloppy errors. Or judgment calls that keep coming up tails instead of heads. Either way, it’s going to take more than one good game to reverse the tide of yellow set forth by Seattle.

4. The Seahawks are now a passing team

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Definite Identity Match

So, we saw one of Seattle’s more balanced run-pass efforts of the season in San Francisco — 34 passes and 30 runs. As a result, the passing percentage retreated back toward the 60 percent mark it’s been circling all year.

Through Week 8: 59.5 percent passing

Through Week 9: 60.0

Through Week 10: 60.1

Through Week 11: 60.8

Through Week 12: 60.1

Another down-specific look, brought to us by beat writer Bob Condotta and the Titans blogosphere, tells the story of the Seattle Seahawks, first-down passers.

You can click through, or you can accept on faith the reality that only nine teams pass on first down more frequently than the Seahawks. The question is — are we witnessing an evolution in Carroll’s offensive philosophy or a symptom of a chronically underperforming run game?

5. Pass protection issues

TrendCon level, last week: 3 (medium concern)

TrendCon level, this week: It’s time to consider a 4

From last week:

with Oday Aboushi out for the near future (dislocated shoulder), the imminent return of Luke Joeckel, the steady hand of Justin Britt, the high ceiling/inexperience of Ethan Pocic, the baffling inconsistency of Germain Ifedi, and the uncertainty around Duane Brown’s ankle, I’m going to hold off a week and pass a more sweeping judgment here after the 49ers game.

What happened in Week 12 vs. the 49ers, as Brown and Joeckel made their returns and Pocic claimed the starting RG job, was a continuation of one of 2017’s biggest subplots: whether or not the offensive line was ever going to start protecting Wilson. They have, and they are.

I’m not going to make a habit of quoting too many other bloggers here, but Brian N. has the data and the story contained in one precious tweet.

Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) is not PFF grades. It’s a real stat, whose computation is based on pressures allowed. Wilson is still getting hit too much (4th in QB hits) but the sacks are down to 15th most allowed, and the pressure is falling like a barometer before the storm. Except there is no pass rush storm! Terrible analogy, unless the storm shows up and then I look brilliant. But better if no storm arrives.

The 49ers produced pressure on just 23.1 percent of dropbacks. It’s the fifth consecutive time the Seattle OL has kept pressures under 40 percent, after earlier going five straight games allowing more than 40 percent pressures. A trend is confirmed. Pressures are diminishing. We all remember Wilson’s implausible escapes from oncoming free pass rushers, but the statistical reality is that he’s put in a bad situation less and less frequently to begin with.

Brown’s a real left tackle. Joeckel might be a lousy tackle but he’s a competent, or good, guard. Britt is a known asset with a positive track record. Pocic isn’t looking overwhelmed as a rookie. Ifedi is inconsistent, which means there’s often good moments alongside bad ones, not just bad ones alongside bad ones.

Age-wise, Brown is the only Seattle starting lineman older than 26. It’s time to open our minds to the possibility — even the nascent probability — that the 2017 Seahawks have figured out how to pass-block for their franchise quarterback, and with a young core at that. Run-block? That’s maybe a different project for a different season.

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

Narrative status, last week: Holding True

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

Eddie Lacy carried the load in San Francisco, to the workmanlike but not exactly productive tune of 17-46-0. Thomas Rawls was in for one snap and J.D. McKissic got all of four carries as the multi-purpose guy.

RB Carries

Lacy: 68

Rawls: 49

Carson: 49

McKissic-C.J. Prosise-Davis combo: 49

What happens when Mike Davis returns, and if Chris Carson beats the odds to return from his October 3 surgery and play again in 2017?

I need to see his workouts and see what they’re saying about it, but the thought is he’s really ramping it up to see how hard he can go with the trainers and all of that, and then we’ll see. But there’s a chance in the next few weeks that he has a shot to come back. -- Pete Carroll, on Carson, in an 710ESPN appearance, Nov. 27

It’s fair to doubt that Lacy, with his 2.6 yards/carry, will be asked to lead the running attack forever. This week he looks like the lead back, by default. Default runs out someday.

7. The defense’s return to dominance

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Worth Monitoring

In the last four games, the Seattle defense has allowed 1093 total yards on 258 plays. Per play, that’s a puny 4.2 yards on average. For reference, the 2013 team allowed 4.4 ypp. The Jacksonville Jaguars, the current NFL leaders in that category, sit at 4.5 ypp.

The problem’s been a -1 turnover ratio, as the Seahawks were unable to force multiple turnovers in any of the last four games. The 2013 team settled for zero or one takeaways in just four games, total.

Defensive rankings

Points allowed: 19.3 (9th, up one spot)

Passing yards allowed: 213.4 (10th, up three spots)

Yards/attempt against: 6.0 (8th, up one spot)

Passer rating against: 79.1 (7th, no change)

Rushing yards allowed: 98.4 (9th, no change)

Yards/carry against: 3.9 (9th, up three spots)

Sacks: 2.6 (13th, up one spot)

Takeaways: 1.5 (10th, no change, but also two safeties forced)

Turnover margin: +5

The defense is not elite at any one thing, but is above average at everything and top ten in most things. It’s extraordinarily well-rounded, even after spending two full games without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.

The difficulty level might increase with the two most prolific offenses coming up in December: the Eagles (first in scoring) and the Rams (second). Remains to be seen whether Seattle can benefit in either case from home-field advantage the way they used to, or whether the CLink has lost the impenetrability that once defined it. Hey. That’s another narrative to add to the list.