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Thursday Night Football: Seahawks vs. Rams statistical preview

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this year, Johnny Hekker kicked the longest punt in Super Bowl history. It was an iffy punt shanked a bit off Hekker’s foot, but by virtue of falling well short of rookie return man Riley McCarron, it was able to bounce. And bounce it did, first striking at the Los Angeles Rams’ 44 before skittering and sidewinding into Patriots’ territory. Hekker’s punt did not skip on forever either, though it seemed to take heart, or did it renew fear? from its encounter with the turf; but despite this urging each bounce was less, like that shortness of breath which grows the greater, the greater effort is required—and poom . . . . . . . . poom . . . poompoompoompumm was its heart’s register and all it was.

Well that was self-indulgent but I enjoyed it. That set of bad punt and good luck was worth 7.9% of win probability, which is an absolute ton. McCarron is now out of the league, and Hekker, after years of being one of the league’s best punters, is mired in a slump. Both the Seattle Seahawks and Rams field crummy special teams units. LA’s biggest weakness is its punting unit. Seattle’s, its punt return unit.

According to Football Outsiders:

FG/XP | KICK | KICK RET | PUNT | PUNT RET

LA

-0.1 | -0.4 | -0.2 | -5.7 | 2.1

Seattle

-0.1 | 0.3 | -0.7 | -0.6 | -1.7

The Seahawks also do not excel at punting. Punt returning is LA’s lone above average special teams unit. The Rams have a dedicated punt returner. Jojo Natson, who does not feel cramped by economy seating and is likely to enjoy longevity, only cost the Rams tuppence and a roster spot. Tyler Lockett, well, he hasn’t contributed punt return value above average since 2017 (0.1), and seems less inclined than ever to risk a return. I don’t blame him.

Special teams always factors in the outcome of a game, but in a game between such evenly matched opponents, it seems extra important. According to FO, the Seahawks are slightly better overall, but few other analytics agree with that assessment. The Rams blow away Seattle according to Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System. Seattle rates 18th with a -0.15. Rams are fifth at 7.21. LA is fourth by ESPN Football Power Index, 4.5. Seattle is 15th, 1.4. Number Fire’s nERD rankings especially favor the Rams. They rank third at 5.45. Seattle’s way down at 20th, -0.58. Make of all that what you will, FiveThirtyEight still projects the Seahawks to be slight favorites at home against LA. Seattle wins in 55% of projected matchups.

This is a Seahawks blog and thus we will explore further FO’s sanguine rating of Seattle’s ability. Seattle’s defense is bad, just not bad bad. Both the rush defense and pass defense are equally bad, rating 18th and 17th respectively. The Seahawks rank 14th in points allowed, but have faced Andy Dalton and a hapless Bengals’ offense, an injured and errant Ben Roethlisberger who was replaced mid-game by Mason Rudolph, Teddy Bridgewater in his first meaningful start since his knee gave way, and Kyler Murray in his fourth NFL start ever.

However much FO has accounted for this, I would guess it’s not enough. LA has not been nearly as good as they were last year, but the Rams are the first O Seattle will face that is neither debuting a new system, nor starting an injured quarterback, nor starting a struggling rookie or career backup. The Rams rank 11th in total offense, led by their rushing unit. Jared Goff is coming undone. That doesn’t mean he can’t “get right” against Seattle’s 21st ranked pass rush, and its secondary which has two interceptions since Earl Thomas was injured. Justin Coleman, who pushes that number to three, is now thriving in Detroit. I want these guys to rise to the occasion, but it would be foolish to assume they will match well against LA.

Luckily, after many years of transitioning, consummate pocket quarterback Russell Wilson has arrived. This offense is very good, and the passing offense is in fact elite. Seattle rates seventh in overall offense and third in passing offense. And if you think that’s a little conservative, weeeeell, by those numberFire folks, Seattle ranks--oh God oh man oh God oh man21st. Yep. I guess if you’re a gambling man, numberFire would strongly advise betting Rams, because their system interprets this as a mismatch. As a dedicated fan who invariably watches every game multiple times, I will say that I do not think Seattle’s passing offense is elite, however much Wilson has matured.

Lockett has dramatically increased his target volume but his efficiency is roughly a third of what it was last year. The Seahawks do not have another receiver contributing regularly. Malik Turner has done well with his six targets, Jaron Brown well-enough with his nine, but David Moore is modestly inefficient in very limited opportunities, and DK Metcalf has caught only 43% of his 23 targets. Will Dissly has been Seattle’s second best receiver, and while I’m coming around to him—he’s certainly a savvy route runner, reads the ball well in the air, and has the kind of modest and consistent catching ability which makes an NFL career—we shouldn’t be surprised if his production levels out. Arizona, in particular, is beating down a path of historically awful defense against tight ends.

That’s a bummer, every last bit of it, especially that weird mangling of William H. Gass I shoehorned in earlier, but 3-1 is 3-1. It’s not so many games we should assume any statistical rating is accurate. It’s two wins above .500, and that’s bankable. But Seattle is about to face a beast unlike any it has faced in this short season: a likely very good team. This is the first boss, so to speak, and the NFL has never sought balance, incremental growth in difficulty, or any of the seductive means video game makers use to make an utterly worthless use of time fun. A whole bunch of selfish individuals want to stomp heck out of Seattle and send them into a tailspin. For Seattle to avoid that, they’re either going to have to get lucky, the Rams are going to have to collapse further, and/or the Seahawks are going to have to play a lot better.