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Why the Seahawks keep running on 2nd & Long

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Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Even though the Seattle Seahawks sit inside the playoffs after thirteen weeks of the 2018 season, all year long many fans have complained about the propensity of the team to run the ball on 2nd & long. On Monday during the game between the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, Twitter went alight following this tweet by Evan Silva (@evansilva), who is a good follow for those who enjoy looking at football through the lens of analytics.

Twitter went back and forth about the matter, there are probably still football fans fighting back and forth about what is the right call on second and a mile, but let’s reign this discussion back in to the Seahawks.

Earlier this season former Field Gulls contributor Ben Baldwin noted that Seattle runs on second and long at a rate that is far above league average.

Now, those numbers are a few weeks old, but they do cause one to ask the question, why is it that the Seahawks run so frequently on 2nd & long? Why does Brian Schottenheimer call runs on second and long?

Well, the answer is relatively simple, and involves some base-level, in-game analytics. To that, let’s turn to the charting. Last week I looked at how the Carolina Panthers were effectively tricking the Seahawks into running into a loaded box by shifting just before the snap, and in the of charting that, I came up with some another interesting piece. To start with, let’s look at the charting for all the second and long plays against both Carolina and Green Bay.

Seahawks versus Packers, 2nd & long charted for offensive blockers vs box defenders

Down Distance Offensive Blocker Box Defenders Run/Pass
Down Distance Offensive Blocker Box Defenders Run/Pass
2nd 8 7 8 Pass
2nd 9 6 6 Run
2nd 12 5 6 Pass
2nd 13 6 7 Pass
2nd 8 7 8 Pass
2nd 8 6 8 Pass
2nd 12 6 7 Pass
2nd 7 7 9 Pass
2nd 21 5 7 Pass
2nd 9 6 6 Pass
2nd 9 7 8 Pass

And here is the same data for the game against the Panthers.

Seahawks versus Panthers, 2nd & long charted for offensive blockers versus box defenders

Down Distance Offensive Blockers Box Defenders Run/Pass
Down Distance Offensive Blockers Box Defenders Run/Pass
2nd 12 6 7 Run
2nd 7 6 8 Pass
2nd 8 6 7 Pass
2nd 14 6 8 Pass
2nd 10 6 7 Pass
2nd 9 5 6 Run
2nd 18 6 7 Run
2nd 8 6 7 Run
2nd 8 6 7 Run
2nd 7 6 7 Pass
2nd 12 6 7 Pass
2nd 12 6 7 Pass
2nd 8 5 6 Pass
2nd 10 6 7 Pass

There’s no readily visible pattern in that data, so is the fact that the Hawks are running simply the fact of the playcall coming in from the sideline? I don’t think so, and the reason for that is rather simple.

As I’ve noted multiple times throughout the season, every play is effectively three plays from which quarterback Russell Wilson is to choose from at the line of scrimmage based on his pre-snap reads. As a quick refresher, in general the three variants of each play from which Wilson may choose are:

  • a running play,
  • a passing play designed to defeat zone defense and
  • a passing play designed to defeat man defense.

Obviously, that’s a vast oversimplification, but to show just a piece of how these pre-snap reads look like, here are the same two tables with one extra column of data charted.

Seahawks vs Packers, 2nd & long with a new column of data

Down Distance Offensive Blocker Box Defenders Run/Pass New Column Data
Down Distance Offensive Blocker Box Defenders Run/Pass New Column Data
2nd 8 7 8 Pass 1
2nd 9 6 6 Run 2
2nd 12 5 6 Pass 1
2nd 13 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 8 7 8 Pass 1
2nd 8 6 8 Pass 0
2nd 12 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 7 7 9 Pass 1
2nd 21 5 7 Pass 1
2nd 9 6 6 Pass 1
2nd 9 7 8 Pass 1

And adding the same column of data for the game against the Panthers.

Seahawks vs Panthers, 2nd & long with a new column of data

Down Distance Offensive Blockers Box Defenders Run/Pass New Column Data
Down Distance Offensive Blockers Box Defenders Run/Pass New Column Data
2nd 12 6 7 Run 2
2nd 7 6 8 Pass 1
2nd 8 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 14 6 8 Pass 1
2nd 10 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 9 5 6 Run 0*
2nd 18 6 7 Run 1
2nd 8 6 7 Run 2
2nd 8 6 7 Run 0*
2nd 7 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 12 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 12 6 7 Pass 1
2nd 8 5 6 Pass 1
2nd 10 6 7 Pass 1

That new column of data seems to explain pretty much everything when it comes to whether the Seahawks run or pass on second and long. There are obviously three exceptions to the correlation in the Panthers game, but these are rather easily explained. The two exceptions which are starred took place in the red zone, which is understandable because teams often change their reads in the red zone. These two reads are consistent with what the Hawks have done in the red zone throughout the season, so it is not a problem to see expect to see the team change up its read.

The last exception, the run on 2nd & 18 against the Panthers came on a play in the shadow of their own end zone. First down was a sack for a loss of eight, and the Hawks likely wanted to play the field position game in order to avoid punting from their own end zone while also avoiding a safety. This is also consistent with what the Seattle offense has done this season, as they’ve gone back to playing it safe and playing the field position game, as we’ve seen with multiple draw plays on third and long.

So, if this single variable is so powerful and explains whether the Seattle offense will run or pass on second and long, what exactly is it? What is the magic predictor of whether the Hawks will run or pass on second and long?

It’s the number of safeties the defense has that are ten yards or more off the line of scrimmage. That’s it. No advanced analytics needed, as it is really that simple.

Based on what I’ve charted, it seems apparent that the offense switches up exactly what they do and what the key reads are depending on the opponent (which of course makes perfect sense), and so it becomes a matter of digging into the data and working to identify what the key reads are for the Seattle offense.

Once the all-22 for the Seahawks dismantling of the San Francisco 49ers is out, I will look to see if I can figure out what the reads were for the elimination of Niners Nation in 2018.