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The Drive: Scene of a dominant pass rush

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Seahawks have the lowest percentage of opponent pass attempts which result in a quarterback hit, and by this particular measure of pass rush, they’re rare bad. The Seahawks have 48 quarterback hits total. That ranks 29th in the NFL. But the Seahawks have faced far more attempts than their brothers in ineptitude.

The Bengals, who rank last in the NFL at hitting the quarterback, have 44 in 335 pass attempts (counting sacks as pass attempts, which they are.) That’s a hit in about one out every eight pass attempts or 13.1%. Seattle lands a hit in about one in ten pass attempts or 10.4%. I’m eyeballing it because I do not have an official list but next worse would be the Raiders at 11.5%. Detroit rounds out the bottom three with hits on the quarterback in just 11.5% of all snaps.

Going back three years, only the 2018 Oakland Raiders are worse at landing a hit on the quarterback. But what might be craziest of all is that Seattle ranks so low even after buffing their number considerably on Sunday. Through 10 games Seattle had only 38 quarterback hits in 389 opponent pass attempts. That’s a QB hit in just 9.77% pass attempts. A kitten whisker from the terrible (and possibly losing on purpose) 9.74% of the 2018 Oakland Raiders. That year Oakland had the worst pass defense in the NFL, and the gap between Oakland and 31st-ranked Detroit was sizable: 3.6%.

The Seahawks landed 10 hits on Carson Wentz. I am not going to tell you that, for sure, the pass rush performed better because Jadeveon Clowney was out. I do not have any personal grunge against the guy or anything, and whenever I criticize a Seahawk, I do it with a hope of later being proven wrong. That’s part of the fun. But Seattle’s pass rush did perform better without Clowney, and it’s certainly not impossible it performed better in part because Clowney was out. Maybe Seattle had relied on him too much.

In basketball, when one player takes on too much responsibility for what should be a team pursuit, say scoring or rebounding, the team often suffers. Clowney has been Seattle’s primary pass rusher. Adjusting for Pete Carroll’s Sirius-levels of sunniness, and complete unwillingness to drag a player publicly, I couldn’t help but notice that this did not seem like a ringing endorsement of his performance in that role.

Clowney’s emergence and kind of getting comfortable here. It’s taken him a little while for it to show up pass rush wise.”

Assuming the “emergence” in question is Clowney’s performance against the 49ers, I would assume the “little while for it to show up pass rush wise” indicates Carroll does not conflate ESPN’s pass rush win rate with pass rush. I don’t blame him. Beating your blocker is part of rushing the passer. Part.

Clowney is hardly alone. Takkarist McKinnley is another player who seems more capable of beating his block than sacking the quarterback—he ranks second in win rate but has only 1.5 sacks. Atlanta has the 29th ranked pass defense and the 31st ranked adjusted sack rate. Win rate is an admirable attempt but I think it may be failing to see the forest for the trees.

The Seahawks pass rush rallied without its star. Like the 2011 Denver Nuggets, the Seahawks seemed to replace one inefficient focal point with a team of lesser known but more efficient contributors. Those Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony on February 22 and finished 18-7 after starting 32-25. The season before Anthony finished sixth in MVP voting. He was a bona fide superstar. What he wasn’t though was a particularly good player. He was an inefficient usage hog whose overall game seemed to not only deprive his teammates of shots but made those few shots harder.

Now it would take a lot of time to prove Clowney is anything like that. To some extent, it’s not possible. Whatever he does he’s not denying other pass rushers a chance by bogarting the opportunity. And maybe what I am about to show is more about Seattle’s ancillary pass rushers stepping up. Perhaps when Clowney returns his contributions will be additive, and the Seahawks may finally field a halfway decent, not at all contention-endangering pass rush. But there’s something so beautiful about this play. The teamwork, the coordination, the way that the sack could arguably be split four ways, it’s rare we see such perfection of execution.

3RD & 4 AT PHI 31(05:51)

(5:51) (Shotgun) C.Wentz sacked at PHI 23 for -8 yards (sack split by E.Ansah and J.Reed). FUMBLES (E.Ansah) [E.Ansah], and recovers at PHI 23. C.Wentz to PHI 23 for no gain (E.Ansah).

This play was worth 10% win probability or a fifth of a win.

Here are two looks at the moment Jason Kelce snaps the ball.

What stands out is Shaquem Griffin’s extremely wide positioning and that K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner seem slow to react to the Eagles’ motion.

Miles Sanders really does get wide open. It’s not entirely clear why Wentz doesn’t throw it though Ziggy Ansah’s authoritative movement around left tackle Jason Peters might be part of the explanation.

Football contains many of these subtle interactions. Moments where someone stopped something from happening which narrowed the possibility of what could happen and greatly increased the chance of a negative or positive outcome. If a 6’5” dude with a 35” reach hadn’t positioned himself in the passing lane, I suspect Wentz would have found Sanders for a very good, potentially touchdown-scoring reception. But Ansah did and Wentz decided to survey his other reads.

That gets us here.

But before we explore Quem’s excellent looping edge rush, let’s concentrate on the perfect execution by Quinton Jefferson and Jarran Reed performing a tackle-tackle switcheroo.

Reed is doubled by Kelce and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Jefferson targets Isaac Seumalo’s passive approach with a very aggressive slash left.

He screens off Seumalo creating a pass rush lane between the left tackle and guard. He also collides with Vaitai which assists Reed in getting free.

That’s more than enough but Jefferson also splits this contrived double team and gets free to the quarterback.

Hang this in the SAM.

Flesh and Blood: Working in the medium of Carson Wentz.

The pass rush is arriving at three levels and is very nearly inescapable. Quem is performing the Lawrence Taylor duty of running around the tackle and closing from behind the quarterback. Ansah is threatening at what might be called the five-step-drop level. Reed and Jefferson are closing head-on.

Jefferson should be awarded the sack.

It’s a coordinated effort aided by deception. No one player stands above his teammates. Every one of Seattle’s four pass rushers do their job perfectly. Ansah discourages the outlet pass and contains. Quem creates a strip sack opportunity and shortens the potential duration of the play. Reed draws the double team and disengages to ably shoot the pass rush lane. And Jefferson picks off three blockers and initiates the sack.

Seattle will not continue to pass rush this effectively. Philly’s right side had a rough day and both team’s pass defenses were heavily wind-aided. But it’s a glimpse of what’s possible.

Ultimately, I don’t care a great deal about Jadeveon Clowney. He’s a star like Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham and Sheldon Richardson were stars. This season he plays for the Seattle Seahawks, and so I hope he’s the best at what he does in the entire league. But I’m not a fan. I have no specific loyalty to Clowney and while I did not expect Seattle’s pass rush to do better without him, we can’t ignore that it did.

Not only do the Seahawks have the lowest quarterback hit rate in the NFL, Seattle has the lowest quarterback hit rate in the league despite a 9-2 record. Seattle has led, Seattle has forced opponents into desperate pass attempts, but Seattle has not punished opposing quarterbacks. They’ve allowed comeback after comeback.

Football is chaotic. It is the sum of infinite extremely sensitive interactions. Seattle’s most hyped defender missed a game and the rest of the defense performed better without him. Maybe it’s an aberration. I think it would be very foolish to assume it must be an aberration.