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Identity Shift: Maybe the Seahawks can beat anyone after all

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Seattle Seahawks
oops we did it again
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

How many times does one team have to do something exceptional before it stops being ascribed to luck? Twice? Thrice? Surely, if a single team pulls off the same game-changing play four times in four seasons, they’re no longer getting lucky, right?

You know where this is going. You knew after the first sentence.

December 28, 2014

October 5, 2015

October 8, 2017

December 3, 2017

There’s a common denominatEarl to the four plays. ET’s there to make the actual chop twice, and there to assist on the tackle at the one-yard line twice as a teammate relieves the offender of the ball.

The only piece of luck associated with the four plays, which all resulted in touchbacks, is that K.J. Wright was not flagged for an illegal bat out of bounds on the Kam Chancellor haymaker.

Likewise, at what point does the pass protection of the 2017 Seattle Seahawks tip from bad, to decent, to actually good? Is it after four games? Eight? Longer? When it passes the eye test? Authentic questions, all. After four games there might be luck involved that made the offensive line look better than it is. Maybe a dominant opposing player missed a game, or the defensive lines in question were subpar, or a couple usually inconsistent Seahawks happened to play well for a couple weeks.

After eight games of pretty good play, it’d be tempting enough to call the OL consistently average or above average at pass protection.

We’re not at eight games yet. But the equivalent of half a season of good pass pro is approaching. What then? Does a diehard narrative about the Seahawks... die?

Done asking questions for a while. Have a platter of stats.

1. The Seahawks are a second-half offense

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

Man, it was nice to see those Seahawks put 10 points up on the Eagles in the first quarter. Philadephia came in having allowed only 18 total points in the first quarter — all year. Small wonder they were 10-1 before their misadventure in the CLink. When you go ahead in the first quarter by two scores, it’s a lot easier to win a game.

Seahawks scoring:

Qtr 1: 16th, 4.1 ppq

Qtr 2: 25th, 5.2 ppq

Qtr 3: 11th, 5.7 ppq

Qtr 4: 1st, 9.2 ppq

Still tops in the league for late scoring. But now Seattle’s pretty average, on the whole, at other game moments. Why so many late points? Easy.

First in fourth-quarter passer rating, first in TD percentage, second in Y/A, and don’t forget Russell Wilson also now holds the record for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a single season, with 15. He shares it with Eli Manning. He also has four games left to add to his total. Nice knowing you, Eli.

(By the way, nobody would refuse 10 first-quarter points again this coming Sunday in Jacksonville. The points don’t have to come in the fourth quarter.)

2. The explosive plays are breaking the wrong way

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

TrendCon, this week: 3 (medium)

Seattle is at just plus-16 for the year, on pace for plus-21, which would be the Seahawks’ second-lowest differential in the Russell Wilson era. But what we saw in the Eagles game was that — predictably — turnovers supersede explosives. The Eagles turned it over on downs, threw an interception, and fumbled the ball away, while the Seahawks did zero such things.

We wrote about the power of explosive plays at Field Gulls as far back as the summer of 2013, and by “we” I mean former staffer Davis Hsu, who unearthed this cool tidbit:

A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome.

Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive and the opposition will score over 75% of the time for the period studied.

Limiting explosives matters. Turnovers are an equalizer. But if the turnover battle is close, look to explosives.

3. Penalties called against Seattle are excessive

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

TrendCon, this week: 3

Through ten games, the Seahawks had committed 103 penalties. Your math skills are good enough to figure out they were averaging double digits. So many flags. Too many flags?

Net penalties (last week’s ranking)

5. Cincinnati, 16 (unranked)

4. Kansas City, 19 (5th)

3. Denver, 20 (3rd)

2. San Francisco, 25 (2nd)

1. Seattle, 33 (1st)

Net yardage lost via penalties (last week’s ranking)

5. Dallas 134, (4th)

4. Kansas City 165 (2nd)

3. Cincinnati, 190 (not ranked)

2. San Francisco, 197 (3rd)

1. Seattle, 262 (1st)

Two weeks ago the Seahawks were more than 300 yards in the hole, with yardage lost on par with the sum of the two teams chasing them. Now Seattle’s trending in a better, cleaner direction. Will they keep it up against a moderately disciplined Jaguars team, which ranks 13th in penalties and in yards surrendered?

(P.S.: Haha Bengals.)

4. The Seahawks are now a passing team

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

The playcalling count is 67-55 over the last two weeks. 67 pass plays, 55 run plays executed by your Seahawks. It’s not what we would call either balanced or unbalanced. But Darrell Bevell, Tom Cable and Pete Carroll did reverse a trend of doubling down on the passing game through Week 11.

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

Through Week 13: 59.9

The nadir of Seattle’s running game came of course in Week 8, with the 16-5-0 line “produced” by its running backs, while Wilson single-handedly kept pace with the Texans. It’s hard to fault the braintrust for abandoning handoffs (relatively). In only one game this season, the stable of Seattle RBs have exceeded 4.0 yards per carry -- the Colts game in Week 4. That one had the special circumstances of being a 46-18 home win against one of the four worst teams in the league.

Yep, the running attack has looked better as a whole because of Wilson’s 6.1 and Tyler Lockett’s 5.8. Once you remove their contributions, the rushing lines look like this, by week:

Week 1 at GB: 15-53-0-3.5

Week 2 vs. SF: 25-97-0-3.9

Week 3 at TEN: 15-43-0-2.9

Week 4: the good game

Week 5 at LAR: 19-39-0-2.1

Bye: still no rushing touchdowns

Week 7 at NYG: 25-80-0-3.2

Week 8 vs. HOU: 16-5-0-0.3

Week 9 vs. WAS: 18-71-0-3.9

Week 10 at ARI: 18-56-0-3.1

Week 11 vs. ATL: 16-50-0-3.1

Week 12 at SF: 21-68-0-3.2

Week 13 vs. PHI: 19-70-0-3.7

Apologies for the waterfall of digits, but the bolded ones point the way. Never in excess of 4.0, even some 2.somethings sprinkled in for effect and distaste. What’s more interesting to me, however, is how at no point did the running backs drop below 15 handoffs granted. The commitment to trying out Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis, Chris Carson and J.D. McKissic is consistent. Unfortunately, so are the collective results.

Two sections down, though, we’re going to address the possible birth of a new trend, as the possible Davis era (why not) comes to define our end-of-season experience.

5. Pass protection issues

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

TrendCon level, this week: 4 outright

Because of this graphic.

It’s a busy little tweet. Let us unpack.

Using PBE (Pass Blocking Efficiency, a proprietary stat based on pressures), the Seahawks were the third-worst at pass protection before Brown’s arrival. That jibes with the eye test, and the history of the team, and its youth across the line, and the fact that Rees Odhiambo allowed 10 of those 110 pressures in one single game. While Odhiambo may well develop into a strong guard or even a swing tackle for Seattle, he’s not there yet.

The Browned Seahawks are 10th-best in pressures. The gap is enormous. Given a 40-dropback game, the old Seahawks would have allowed 15 pressures, on average. Now, on the same 40 theoretical pass plays, the pressures drop all the way to nine

The offensive line is giving its quarterback six better opportunities each game. six cleaner pockets with which to work. You think that’ll lead to a couple more big plays?

For seasons, Seahawks fans have clamored for a league average offensive line, claiming it only needed to be okay for the rest of the talent to shine to its fullest potential. Well, they’re knocking on the door. Prepare to all hail John Schneider and Duane Brown, Protectors of the Realm. (The Realm is Russell.)

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

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Worth Monitoring

About the recent games: if you didn’t know that the Seahawks had been “running” a committee up until now, you’d guess that when healthy, Davis is the lead back, Lacy the punisher, McKissic the third-down multipuprpose weapon, and Rawls the fourth back, to be deployed in case of emergency or blowout or desperately needed change of pace.

Against the Falcons, Davis received the start, and six of the first nine carries. McKissic got a couple, including one at the goal line. Lacy got a crack at the end zone. Following exactly the job descriptions.

Davis was out against the 49ers. Against the Eagles, though, more of the same as before. 16 of the 18 RB carries went to Davis, and he reached the 4.0 yards per carry threshhold (16-64) that has been eluding other Seahawks all year (see two sections earlier).

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a defensively stout bunch. They’re second in team defensive DVOA. Moving the ball against them should be... difficult? Eh, maybe not on the ground. While the Jaguars are first in pass DVOA, they’re a mere 23rd against the run.

Truth is, the Seahawks have been hunting for their lead back all season. Carson filled the role until his unfortunate early-season injury. Lacy was tried out multiple times. Davis seized the role, sat out a game and a half, and reclaimed it. And why not? He has a 2015 Rawls-like ability to shuffle out of trouble in the open field.

Doesn’t this shoulder-lowering move also look a lot like Rawls from two seasons ago? Fearless.

Weeks 14-17 will tell whether the committee returns, or whether Carson displaces Davis, or one of the current backs experiences some sort of renaissance. The final ground chapter of 2017 makes no promises to be like the first three.

7. The defense’s return to dominance

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Holding True

The Seahawks went 2-2 in their last four games preceding the Eagles beatdown. During that time, they were -1 in turnovers. Going +3 against Philadelphia made a world of difference.

Defensive rankings

Points allowed: 18.5 (8th, up one spot)

Passing yards allowed: 222.8 (14th, down four spots)

Yards/attempt against: 6.1 (8th, no change)

Passer rating against: 79.9 (6th, up one spot)

Rushing yards allowed: 98.3 (7th, up two spots)

Yards/carry against: 3.8 (7th, up two spots)

Sacks: 2.7 (T-9th, up four spots)

Takeaways: 1.6 (T-9th, up one spot)

Turnover margin: +7 (does not count stops on downs or safeties)

Don’t dwell on the passing yards permitted. The Seahawks can stop anyone. They’ve allowed 20 points, combined, to the NFL’s top two scoring offenses. One game was on the road; one at home. If the Seahawks were an average defense, you’d have expected to see about 60 points dropped on them by Philly and LA. That really, really didn’t happen.

The defense is good enough to win a playoff game. The quarterback is, too. Together they can win multiples, no matter the location. Though it might be better to get a home game or two along the way, purely for convenience’s sake.