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Sunken Seahawks drives of 2018: There’s a sneaky culprit

Spoiler: it’s not too much running or too much passing

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
please, sir, can i have some less
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

How much you want to blame run-run-pass for the Seattle Seahawks’ stalled drives in the regular season and playoffs is up to you. They were guilty of overusing the sequence.

But I’m here to offer another culprit. Using data.

We know the Seahawks had good and bad games on offense; games where they looked unstoppable and games where they stopped themselves just fine, thank you. So I compiled drive details for the whole season (and the wild-card game, too), to isolate precisely what got most in the way of scoring.

This project will take weeks, plural, so look for follow-ups as the offseason zombies its way to the draft and beyond. But I’ve decided to focus on offense because it feels inevitable that Pete Carroll will bring the 2019 defense to a higher plane of performance than we saw in 2018. It’ll be on the offense to keep up; any step forward would possibly allow the Seahawks to win a couple more games while the Rams stew over their karmic last-second Super Bowl loss and figure out how to extricate themselves from the Todd Gurley contract.

Anyway, drives and scoring. There were 180 last year; I charted 161 of them, removing kneel-downs, end-of half surrender drives, and any drive ending in a turnover, as those interrupted a possession before its “natural” outcome could be discovered. No sense in trying to guess whether a drive would have resulted in a score, if only the defensive back had dropped the ball or the Seahawk had recovered his own fumble. (Fortunately, the Seahawks hate turnovers like your five-year-old self hated mushrooms, so that wasn’t a lot of lost drives.)

I tracked what happened to a drive when a 10- or 15-yard penalty went against Seattle, when Russell Wilson got sacked, and when neither of those unfortunate events unfolded. In certain drives, a sack and a major penalty may have both occurred.

There’s two ways I want to break up the data, and two major conclusions I want to share. As always, numbers can elicit more than one valid interpretation. Hey. This isn’t social media. There are multiple right answers and nobody’s an idiot for suggesting the opposite of what you or I conclude.

First four games (2-2 record)

Overall points per drive: 1.9

PPD with penalty: 0.6

PPD with sack: 0.3

PPD without either one (no flag, no sack): 2.8

Remarks: The Seahawks averaged 2.6 points per drive on the season according to my methodology. You can see, rather evidently, that they did not start the year well in any category. In September, a holding penalty or a sack meant basically zero points were gonna come on that possession. There were a total of two (2) scoring drives that overcame a flag or sack. Both resulted in field goals. As the Seahawks were figuring out how to run their new offense, on the road three times, they made it even harder on themselves more often than was advisable.

The offense was hard to watch in Weeks 1-4. They weren’t even that great when they managed to avoid big negative plays. Fortunately, it gets better. Way better.

Next four games (2-2 record)

Overall points per drive: 2.9

PPD with penalty: 1.9

PPD with sack: 1.1

PPD without either one: 3.8

Remarks: Now we’re clicking a little. It helps to play the Rams, Lions, Raiders and Chargers. It helps to be at home twice.

That 3.8 number is enormous. Ten TD drives in 21 tries. The Seahawks scored touchdowns on 29 percent of drives overall last year, but about half the time in this midseason stretch. Even counting the Nick Vannett non-touchdown in Detroit Week 8, when he caught an apparent scoring pass on fourth down, but had stepped out of the end zone.

Third part of the season (3-1 record)

Overall points per drive: 3.4

PPD with penalty: 5.2

PPD with sack: 1.0

PPD without either one: 3.8

Remarks: The Kansas City Chiefs, whose offense led the NFL in points, yards and coolness, scored 3.1 points per drive on the season. They were nothing compared to the Weeks 9-13 Seattle Seahawks. Nothing. Too bad those teams never met in 2018 — wait.

More on that later. Look at that 5.2, though. To collect holding penalties is not a sound scoring strategy. Still, they led to Seattle touchdowns in the third quarter of the season. Everything led to touchdowns. Obviously the 5.2 ppd is not repeatable. Obviously it’s noise. However, it is a testament to how the Seahawks offense had several moments in the season when they overcame a ton of adversity; even thrived on it.

One bad Seattle number stands out, among all the offensive wizardry led by Wilson, the running backs, Tyler Lockett and Brian Schottenheimer. One hideous number. We’re going to get to that number later, when it shows its ugly face again in the final tally.

Fourth quarter of the season (3-1 record)

Overall points per drive: 2.4

PPD with penalty: 2.3

PPD with sack: 1.6

PPD without either one: 3.2

Remarks: This series of games includes the MNF defense-fest in Week 14, the Ethan Pocic holding debacle of Week 15, the glorious triumph over the Chiefs in Week 16, and the Sackapalooza of Week 17. It’s a mess for the offense, statistically, on a game-by-game basis, but as a composite quarter of the season, it doesn’t stand out so much. Everything is pretty much more or less in line.

A lot of month-to-month numbers just threw themselves at you. Add it all up, why don’t we.

Entire regular season (10-6 record)

Overall points per drive: 2.6

PPD with penalty: 2.3

PPD with sack: 1.0

PPD without either one: 3.3

Rapid remarks: The hierarchy hinted at earlier manifests itself. The Seahawks offense is going to do better than a field goal when it avoids negative plays. A penalty doesn’t mean the drive is over. But a sack...

Conclusion 1: Sacks were the worst

Seahawks went from 0.3 to 1.1 to 1.0 to 1.6 en route to an overall 1.0 points per drive when a sack occurred. Short of a turnover, it was the worst thing that could happen to a Seattle possession.

Gving up 51 of them, the eighth-most in the NFL, is a crucial part of understanding the offense’s failures. More plays that get the ball out quickly, more (gasp) running plays when the defense expects pass, and more decisiveness from RW would cut down on the drive-killers. And raise points scored, dramatically, more than maybe any other tweak.

Easier said than done, though. Pete Carroll enjoys explosives, which demand time in the pocket. You can’t really run that often on 3rd and long, or even 3rd and medium. Wilson magic is going to come attached with costly sacks. They’re inseparable.

But ten fewer sacks would mean more 3.3 points per drive... drives, and fewer 1.0-point drives. 41 sacks instead of 51 might mean another win or two, or possibly three, in a season where the Seahawks lost six times by a single possession.

Conclusion 2: The poor bookends to the season obscure a larger reality.

Which is, the offense was good overall, and great for long stretches. Elite. Comparable to the very best offenses in the league. Reread the remarks about the third part of the season.

But when the offense was bad, it was bad and visible.

Games 1-2-17-WC would be probably the offense’s worst four-game stretch.

Overall points per drive: 1.9

PPD with penalty: 2.0

PPD with sack: 0.4

PPD without either one: 2.8

Each of those numbers is worse than the overall annual figures. Seven-tenths of a point off the average overall, and even the clean drives lost half a point. It doesn’t help impressions that in the wild-card game, two crucial drives were ruined, one by a sack and the other by a penalty. The sack came on third down and forced a punt; the penalty halted a drive in the fourth quarter. Those events tend to stick out in a first, and last, impression of a football team.

It’s also important to remember that the Seahawks finished sixth in scoring for a reason, and tenth in scoring percentage (41.4) for probably the same reason: they can move the ball, they have the quarterback and the playmakers, they have coaches who’ve been there, they have the ability.

Just not always at the right time.

Recovering from sack-related setbacks is going to be one way the 2019 Seahawks can improve upon 2018. But with a quarterback who likes to push the envelope with his scrambles, and doesn’t always get the ball out quickly, taking more sacks than average is going to be a part of the Seahawks offense. That’s not changing. Like it or not. With Wilson, you take the drawbacks with the

You take the “Nonononononono ahhh you needed to throw that, Russ” with the “NononononononoYESYESOHMYGODYES.” But maybe you try and take the under on 51 sacks again.

This isn’t the end of my drive analysis — there is so much more to consider. Namely, did sacks affect the Seahawks more than the average NFL team, and how much did the decrease in penalties called on Seattle this season impact scoring in a positive way? I’d also like to dive a little deeper into some of the season’s most infamous drives, and the effect of run-run-pass sequences on scoring. (Who knows! It might even be positive. You don’t know until you look.)

We’ll get to most of those questions, if not all. Week 1 isn’t exactly going to sneak up on us.