The Seattle Seahawks entered Week 15 with a chance to clinch a playoff spot against the team with the worst record in the NFL. Some three hours later, the Seahawks were on their way out of Levi’s Stadium, wet, defeated and without a comforting “x” next to their name in the standings.
Seattle will now welcome one of the NFL’s best teams to CenturyLink Field, as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patrick Mahomes air show test their high-flying offense against the Seahawks. For Seattle to clinch a playoff spot, it remains as simple as winning on Sunday night. Stopping the Chiefs and Mahomes in order to do so is considerably less simple.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Andy Reid is a product of one of the most celebrated coaching trees in football history, he’s coached in a Super Bowl and has begun to put together an illustrious coaching tree himself. But, because the NFL is a wild place, the defining moment of Reid’s career (up to this point) may be hiring a former head coach who was fired after five seasons and a winning percentage just over .500.
In 2013, Reid, in his second season as Kansas City head coach, hired former Vikings head coach Brad Childress as a spread game analyst. Childress’ job, you guessed it, was to analyze spread concepts that had already stormed college football and were leaking into the NFL game, much to the chagrin of the cocoon. Over the course of five years on Reid’s staff, Childress helped to vault the Chiefs into the forefront of NFL innovation.
It led to Super Bowl winning head coach Doug Pederson’s hiring in Philadelphia and soon-to-be Coach of the Year Matt Nagy’s hiring in Chicago. It will also be an important consideration when Reid decides to wear Hawaiian shirts year-round in retirement, and becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Reid’s background, steeped in the West Coast offense, has come together with spread and air raid concepts to form an offense currently ranking first in DVOA, weighted DVOA, yards per game and points per game. Motion, orbits and sweeps with Tyreek Hill are used to deceive or stretch a defense; 2x3 sets spread the opposition; RPOs maintain their efficiency; and Mahomes’ CGI arm threatens to take the top off a defense on any play.
On defense, Bob Sutton remains—though the clock may be ticking—and is in his sixth season as defensive coordinator. Sutton runs a 3-4 system with a secondary that relies heavily on press coverage. Their lack of talent in a secondary pressing so often has punished them this year, and they are the 26th ranked defense by DVOA. They’ve improved, if only slightly, over the last month (21st in weighted DVOA). The Achilles’ heel—if you can call it that for a team averaging over 35 points per game—is their defense, and it’s the only thing that will keep the Seahawks in the game in Week 16.
Numbers that Matter
40: This great, if not foreboding, nugget comes courtesy of BJ Kissel, who does terrific work for Kansas City’s official website:
The #Chiefs have played four games this year vs teams who run Cover 3 at least 40% of the time (Chargers (twice), 49ers, Cardinals).— BJ Kissel (@ChiefsReporter) December 19, 2018
In those games, Patrick Mahomes has completed 66% w/ an avg of 8.36 YPA w/ 11 TDs & 0 INTs.#Seahawks run COV3 45% of the time (No. 5), per @PFF.
As BJ notes, Seattle and Pete Carroll’s defense is rooted in cover-3. Though Mahomes’ yards per attempt and completion percentage are actually a touch lower than his season-long marks against cover-3, he’s been mistake free. Mahomes has an arsenal of passes reminiscent of MVP Steve Nash in the lane, and the way he can attack up the seam, with Travis Kelce, or over the top with Hill, against cover-3 is lethal. Without the impossible range of Earl Thomas, it becomes an even more difficult task to stop. Which brings us to our next number.
75: Unsurprisingly, considering their signal-caller has an arm that would make Uncle Rico blush, the Chiefs push the ball downfield often. Mahomes and Kansas City’s 75 deep passes (20+ yards) in 2018 rank fourth in the NFL, and their completion percentage of 43% on those throws ranks second among teams in the top-10. Mahomes himself ranks first in completions and yards, third in touchdowns and fifth in QB rating on deep passes in 2018.
The Seahawks and Tedric Thompson are vulnerable against deep passes, as evidenced last week, and I would expect Reid to call more than five deep shots on Sunday night. This potentially game-breaking challenge will only be more difficult if Bradley McDougald, the backbone of Seattle’s secondary, can’t play against the Chiefs. Kansas City has had their way with every defense they’ve faced this season and if the Seahawks can’t keep everything in front of them, Week 16 will be no different.
65.22: Despite their pace inside their opponent’s 20-yard line slowing down in recent weeks, Seattle remains one of the best red zone offenses in the NFL. Through 15 weeks, they sit eighth in the league, converting 65.22% of their red zone trips into touchdowns. Against an offense that scores at will, it will be imperative that the Seahawks finish drives with touchdowns.
It sounds cliche, but in rings true in this matchup: Field goals will not help against an offense like the Chiefs. It was the same situation in both matchups against the Rams, and at home, they succeeded in this goal—they were 2/2 on red zone trips and came up just short, losing by two points. In L.A., they stalled in the red zone once, and that was a crucial difference in a five point loss.
Kansas City’s ineptitude on defense extends into the red zone, where they rank 29th. Opposing offenses are scoring touchdowns on 73.08% of trips to the red zone against the Chiefs. If Seattle hopes to keep pace with a devastating offense, they must finish drives with seven, not three.
Matchups to Watch
Ethan Pocic versus Chris Jones: Now in his third season, Jones has made the leap to disruptive star inside for Kansas City. Week 15 marked Jones’ 10th straight game with a sack, a game in which he registered 2.5 sacks, five QB hits, a pressure and a pass breakup. On the season, Jones has 14 sacks and is one of six front-seven defenders to have a disrupted dropback percentage of three or higher.
A week after DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas wreaked havoc against the interior of the Seahawks’ offensive line, Seattle now has to slow down one of the league’s hottest pass rushers. And they have to do it with (likely) their third string right guard. (Granted, Carroll said D.J. Fluker would attempt to play this week. Without practicing, it’s unlikely.)
Jones does his damage against the pass lined up over the guard’s outside shoulder. From there, he can use his exceptional foot speed to loop all the way outside and around the tackle, or put both hands into the guard’s chest and drive them backwards with power.
Interior pressure is often catastrophic to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. After early season optimism, Seattle’s pass protection has rocketed back down to earth, currently sitting 28th in adjusted sack rate. As seen in every game of Aaron Donald’s career against the Seahawks, elite play from defensive tackle can completely disrupt Seattle’s offense. Whether it’s Pocic or Fluker lining up across from Chris Jones, they can’t afford to let him throw off their gameplan.
Seahawks’ secondary versus Travis Kelce: Not only does McDougald’s injury and potential absence on Sunday leave Seattle even more susceptible to Mahomes’ deep ball, it severely limits what the Seahawks can do to contain Travis Kelce. Kelce has been again incredible in 2018, often lining up as the closest receiver in the Chiefs’ 3x2 sets. He has feasted against defenses up the seam, and leads the league in both receiving yards and yards after the catch out of the slot.
#Chiefs film: Vertical route concepts in the red zone/strike zone vs. #Steelers to beat split safety coverage. Target the inside seam with TE Travis Kelce. QB Patrick Mahomes put some heat on this throw. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/AXPFa1jAqF— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) September 19, 2018
If McDougald cannot play in Week 16, Delano Hill would be forced into the lineup, and therefore unlikely to matchup with Kelce 1-on-1, as was the plan against the equally dominant George Kittle. Shalom Luani would see an extended run as the third safety, but he too is no match for Kelce. The Athletic’s Sam Gold outlined the case for more man coverage on Thursday; due to McDougald’s injury, that switch is unlikely.
Containing Kelce is going to take an entire team effort. Austin Calitro and Bobby Wagner need to be disciplined and proactive in their hook/curl zones, passing off correctly, and Thompson has to be quicker to react than he was against Kittle.
Opponent to Know
Damien Williams, RB: There was a concern surrounding Kansas City’s offense that they would lose a key element when Kareem Hunt was released at the end of November. Like the Rams, the Chiefs utilized a productive running game and play action to perfection. And, like L.A., their screen game to Hunt was devastatingly productive.
In Hunt’s place was Spencer Ware, who started the two games following Hunt’s release. He performed well enough, putting together 181 yards on 35 touches. However, Ware wasn’t the threat on the perimeter in space that Hunt was. Enter Damien Williams, who started in Ware’s place in Week 15. Though Williams’ numbers weren’t any splashier than Ware’s (123 yards on 16 touches), his usage was much closer to Hunt’s.
Ware will return from injury in Week 16, but Williams should remain in the fold, used on deep screens, swing passes and split out wide. Seattle has given up an average of over 150 scrimmage yards to running backs on a weekly basis since their bye week, and Williams is the kind of chess piece they’ve struggled to defend.
In the Seahawks’ current state, Kansas City is a terrifying matchup for them. Their defense is nowhere close to good enough to slow down such an electric offense, and they may not have the weapons to keep pace on offense. If Seattle can’t win on Sunday night, it’ll come down to Week 17 to punch their ticket into the playoffs.