clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Drive: Seahawks run D is porous yet powerful

New, comments
NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Seahawks have not fielded a run defense this bad in over a decade. Seahawks opponents average a rather staggering 5.3 rush yards per attempt, which is worst in the NFL. Yet it is notable how little this weakness has seemingly affected Seattle’s season. Dallas averaged 8.7 yards an attempt but were stifled by Seattle, spending more than half the game in dire states of win probability. Carolina also averaged over eight yards an attempt, but actually forfeited value running the ball, and did not win. Despite the fantasy stats, the Panthers rush offense was lacking in value and unreliable. At the most critical moments of the game, at the highest leverage moments for their offense, when running metamorphoses from lowly atavistic tendency and becomes critical, Carolina failed rushing or opted to pass.

Rather than breaking down the tape, exactly, understanding the interaction of players and assigning credit and blame, etc., let us look at some of the pre-snap formations employed by each team and attempt to see whether Seattle is able to flex into being an effective run defense when necessary.

First, here’s a list of Seattle’s week-to-week run defense as measured by EPA—from best to worst.

Cardinals: 9.41

Panthers: 5.33

Cowboys: 3.16

Raiders: 1.65

Lions: 0.89

Bears: 0.41

Broncos: 0.38

Packers: -0.90

Chargers: -4.21

Rams: -4.40

Rams: -9.18

Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders offered a good explanation of how Carolina rushed for 220 yards but actually lost value through their ground game:

“[Christian McCaffrey] was 19th with 17 total DYAR. Actually had negative rushing DYAR, only slightly due to opponent adjustments (which took him from 3 to -3). As others have noted, he had three fumbles, which is a TON for a running back. He’s the only running back with three fumbles in a game this year. Only eight running backs have that many fumbles this entire SEASON, and nobody has more than four. Also, McCaffrey was explosive, but erratic. His success rate on 17 carries was just 53 percent (good but nothing special for a single game) and he is dinged for failures to convert on five carries with 5 yards or less to go for a first down.”

When you consider that the average team in the NFL has totaled half a point lost by running the ball, Seattle’s cumulative points lost through rush defense, 14.44, which is 27th in the NFL, is not great. In fact as measured by EPA, Seattle’s defense has steadily declined through the season and now ranks tied for 19th with Green Bay. But like last week’s oxymoronic play distribution on offense, Seattle ranking so poorly on defense doesn’t seem logical. The Seahawks rank eight in scoring defense and a respectable 11th by DVOA.

We’re looking at half a drive this week. Specifically the stretch in which Carolina’s opening drive cooled from blistering to absolute zero, as in zero points scored. We begin here:

1st & 10 at SEA 13

(9:14 - 1st) C.McCaffrey left tackle to SEA 8 for 5 yards (S.Stephen).

This was the last really neutral down and distance for Carolina, in which a pass or run is broadly speaking equally as likely.

Seattle is notably soft along the edges. Frank Clark and Barkevious Mingo are both aligned wide and standing. Nazair Jones and Dion Jordan are both playing 3-4 end. Here’s another look which really highlights how fanned out Seattle’s personnel were.

I obviously do not mean “soft” to criticize Seattle. Only, Seattle has responded to so-called 11 personnel with a nickel look that emphasizes coverage and pass rush at the expense of containment and outside leverage. This happens:

But Shamar Stephen (98), who can be seen above splitting a double team, shadows the ball carrier and tackles McCaffrey after a five yard gain. This put Carolina within the ten. The Panthers could convert the first by gaining five yards and could score by gaining eight. The cramped quarters and inability to produce an explosive play make this a run-first situation, and Carolina ran on the next three downs.

2nd & 5 at SEA 8

(8:34 - 1st) C.McCaffrey right tackle to SEA 7 for 1 yard (S.Stephen; B.Wagner).

Seattle anticipated this and look at how much more, shall we say, sturdy their alignment becomes.

“Force” is now centered and tight. The previous play, Seattle had four players within ten yards and between the tackles. This play, Seattle has six. Both ends have their hands on the ground and their splits are much narrower. In the first play Wagner can be seen playing back on his heels. Not that he is timid of course but he’s protecting the goal line, providing a last line of defense while also positioning himself to defend a pass. This play, before the ball is handed off, he’s attacking.

Jordan (95) and Clark (55) are containing and attempting backside pursuit respectively. The rush is stuffed and that stuff is pretty costly, losing Carolina 0.63 points.

3rd & 4 at SEA 7

(8:06 - 1st) (Shotgun) C.Newton up the middle to SEA 5 for 2 yards (J.Coleman; B.Wagner).

This is a bit wind-blurred but what matters is still obvious.

Carolina is still in 11 personnel. Seattle is pretty spread out. Bradley McDougald is well positioned to cover McCaffrey—especially McCaffrey as a receiver. Wagner is aligned over the soft edge outside Jones (92). This is particularly notable I think because though Seattle is not quite in a run-stopping alignment, its best run defender is not tied up in coverage. He’s reading Cam from the get-go and wouldn’t you know it?

That proves decisive. Carolina sheds even more value, losing 1.3 points of field position and down and distance.

4th & 2 at SEA 5

(7:23 - 1st) (Shotgun) C.Newton right guard to SEA 4 for 1 yard (B.Wagner; A.Calitro). Carolina challenged the short of the line to gain ruling, and the play was Upheld. The ruling on the field stands. (Timeout #1 at 07:15.)

Now a run is very likely. Norval Turner does not disappoint (the Seahawks.)

Tre Flowers (37) has inched forward, and now nine Seahawks defenders are within five yards of the line of scrimmage. They are organized into two distinct waves. Five to stifle blockers and four to stuff the ball carrier (it’s obviously not that neat but you get my gist.) Quinton Jefferson (99), Seattle’s big defensive end, is aligned strong side.

Carolina achieves no push whatsoever.

Calitro, McDougald, and Flowers are all ready should Cam want to pitch it. Calitro, to his credit, actually is able to wrap around from the back and get in on the tackle. But of greater interest: We see Wagner wholly unblocked, Jefferson standing up his blocker, Mingo with outside leverage, and the stunt performed by Naz (his knee is just to our left of Jarran Reed (90)) achieving a big knot of confused bodies up the middle and freeing Reed to further close off Newton’s potential lanes of attack.

It all works. Wagner stands up Newton. Calitro drags him down from behind. Jefferson ensures this is all happening close to the line of scrimmage and with minimal opportunity for Newton to build momentum, and Seattle forces the turnover on downs.

Rather quickly Seattle improved their scoring potential by 4.58 points. This performance jibes with another stat which seemingly contradicts Seattle’s overall poor rushing defense. The Seahawks rank fifth in Power success. Which, while I won’t restate the definition here (click the link!), basically is what it sounds like: success at preventing first downs and touchdowns in short-yardage situations.

Here’s another thing to consider. Earl Thomas played in Seattle’s first four games. Thomas is not the best run defender, but he is by my estimation the best center fielder to play safety since Ed Reed. Reed is the greatest safety I’ve ever seen and arguably the greatest safety of all time. Thomas’s extreme range allowed Seattle to concentrate force closer to the line of scrimmage. Tedric Thompson has taken over since Week 5 and Seattle has understandably been more inclined to protect Thompson.

Rush defense with Thomas starting: 3.34 extra points added a game. Rank: 1st, just ahead of the Bears who average 3.32 EPA a game.

Rush defense without Thomas: 1.55 extra points lost a game. Rank: 27th, exactly where Seattle currently ranks.

That’s not perfect, of course. Notably, the Rams appear in the latter sample. Twice. But it’s a huge swing, and I think informative.

The Seahawks face a very weak 49ers offense this weekend. Nick Mullens has performed a shade better than CJ Beathard, but in reality a blunderbuss would nail `em both with one blast. While San Francisco’s overall rushing offense is among the worst in the league, Matt Breida has performed very well, averaging 7.2% DVOA a rush, just below former NFL player and newest exemplar of why a conscientious fan of the NFL must follow their passion with a queasy ambivalence: Kareem Hunt, and tenth overall. Despite battling an injury, Breida is elite fast, and whatever Kyle Shanahan may say, it would be remarkable if Breida isn’t the focus of the 49ers offense this Sunday.

Maybe this is a trap game. Maybe a good running back with home run ability should be thought especially dangerous against a team averaging 5.3 yards allowed per rush. But I think Seattle can flex into being a better run defense. I think through adjusting personnel, alignment and spacing, the Seahawks can be downright ferocious defending the run. This season, maybe, Seattle cannot effectively defend pass and run. Maybe. Or maybe Thompson’s earning trust. The Seahawks are a young and incomplete team figuring stuff out. That facilitates criticism which could be read as pessimism. But after two seasons of outlandish hopes becoming infinite resignation, I am happy to cheer on a team growing into its future rather than bitterly clinging to its past.