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Neanderball: Autopsy of a Pass Rush

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Obvious Disclaimer

No Seattle Seahawks column will feel complete this week unless it begins by mentioning that Jason Myers did his level best to lose us this game. In a contest the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took to overtime, Myers missed a field goal from 47 yards, another from 40 and an extra point. Had he made any of those kicks, the Hawks would have won in regulation.

Had Myers made all of those kicks (which a competent NFL kicker should have done: they had probabilities of about 70%, 85%, and 95% based on 2014-2018 numbers), and had Bobby Wagner refrained from giving Jameis Winston a schoolyard shove after an incomplete pass on third down in the Seattle red zone, fans would be celebrating a 41-30 shellacking of the Bucs in regulation instead of self-diagnosing serious heart conditions on WebMD.

But I don’t want to talk about Myers, because I don’t know how to predict kicker performance or improve it in the slightest, beyond getting them as close to the goal line as possible and praying to the football gods. They’re like dissolute A-list actors who might turn in a career performance and make your movie a smash hit…or might refuse to come out of their trailer and bankrupt your production company. Even worse, the A-lister coming off a career performance might be the one to bankrupt you: Myers went to the Pro Bowl last year.

The Teacher’s Pet

Looking past Myers to the performance of the rest of the roster, I find little to fault in a Seattle offense that produced (in essence) 41 points in regulation and cut Tampa’s throat in overtime with a game-sealing touchdown. An issue or two is sure to be hiding beneath those sparkling results, but focusing on the offense at this juncture feels somewhat beside the point - like trying to fix a leaky faucet when you’re hip-deep in flood water.

The Problem Child

The thoughts of every Seahawks fan - those that aren’t basking in an exciting win, anyway - are on our defense, which couldn’t stop a nosebleed. While I knew enough about what Jameis Winston can do to accept that we’d likely be gashed by more than one deep shot to all-world receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the extent of the carnage surprised me - as did our inability to take advantage of what Winston can’t do, which is make smart decisions with the football. The man has never met an interception he didn’t like, especially when under pressure, and the Seahawks defense managed to procure exactly none from him.

So now we come to the question at the heart of Neanderball: who are the villains behind a defensive performance that allowed 34 points? There’s enough blame to go around that I’m splitting the answer into two parts and focusing this installment on the defensive line, which is the first place the eye test from Sunday obliges us to look. The pass rush gave Jameis Winston all the time he needed to find Evans and Godwin downfield, and only sacked Winston once, on a blitz where the Buccaneers neglected to block Bobby Wagner.

Even the timely turnover the Hawks managed was, on review, Jameis being Jameis and losing his grip on the football, not the result of any heroics by our defensive line.

How the Sausage is Made

The terrible truth about pass rushing is that even your best is often not good enough. As our own John P. Gilbert has explained in the past, pressure rates (a combination of all the times a quarterback is forced to hurry a throw, scramble, take a hit as he throws, or is sacked) drop off a cliff when a quarterback is able to quickly complete a pass: in the course of a typical passing attempt with four rushers attacking five blockers, at 3 seconds the pressure rate is roughly 45%. At 2.5 seconds, that drops to about 25%, and at 2 seconds, the pass rush gets home on less than 10% of pass attempts. (Editor’s note: The following image is from ESPN Stats & Information and comes from the November 8, 2013 article “Measuring pass rush, protection” which can be read by clicking here.)

Still, the benefits of forcing the quarterback to be quick or face pressure are so significant that it’s worth sending four angry men upfield to attempt a tackle: according to Scott Spratt of Football Outsiders, when throwing under pressure, quarterbacks in 2018 produced only half as many yards per play (3.9 vs 7.8) and suffered a nearly 50% drop in DVOA.

The difference between throwing in 2 seconds, before anybody can crash the party, versus 3 seconds, when it’s much more likely the pass will have been disrupted, is therefore a very big deal. This season, Cam Newton led the league pre-injury with an average time to throw of only 2.37 seconds, while Kirk Cousins turtles along behind the pack at 3.04 seconds. Keeping in mind that these are only averages, on a substantial number of snaps even the most patient (or indecisive) quarterback will likely rid himself of the ball before any rushers, no matter how good, can get to him.

Nor do those numbers - dismal as they are - fully convey the difficulty of the pass rusher’s trade. The rule of thumb you’ll often hear thrown around is that the pass rush has 2.5 seconds to reach the quarterback (even that might be generous in the modern NFL: “We know we have two seconds or less,” Eagles pass rusher Brandon Graham told Kevin Clark of The Ringer in 2018. “After that, you have to get lucky.”). Imagine that in the time it takes for the video clip below to play, your livelihood depends on tackling a man protected by a 6’4, 320-pound athlete who can bench press over 200 pounds for 20+ reps and run a 4.9 second 40.

If you want to survive in an ecosystem dominated by a stopwatch, you need to win your assignment immediately. You cannot grapple with an offensive lineman for a heartbeat or two and then hope to break free, because that second heartbeat marks the point when Jameis Winston sends the ball over your head to Mike Evans. You must summarily destroy your blocker or put your fate in the hands of the quarterback and your own secondary, which may or may not be able to cover the downfield receivers tightly enough off the snap to force the quarterback to wait for someone to come open.

I explain all this to demonstrate that what might look like a pretty good job on the broadcast footage is illusory. Much like killing Thanos, doing a “pretty good job” with the pass rush is worth nothing.

Hulking out and bull rushing an offensive lineman backward into the pocket is visually impressive, but it’s only strategically impressive if you manage it before the quarterback sets his feet and throws.

Pictured: a “pretty good job”.

The Game Tape

Of our defensive linemen, Jadeveon Clowney, Al Woods, Poona Ford, and Jarran Reed showed flashes of excellent, disruptive play, and I suspect I’ve just named the core we’ll be building around next year.

On the other hand, Branden Jackson, Ziggy Ansah, LJ Collier, and Rasheem Green all played like they were working unpaid overtime: they showed up in uniform and went through the motions, but little of what they did between snap and whistle accomplished anything of note. What successes they did have were handed to them by events on the field.

Since Collier (shown above) is our 2019 first round pick, this is more than a little alarming, but as I’ve said about other rookies in the past, I refuse to panic until preseason of his second year. Precocious performances are ideal, but the learning curve in the NFL is often steep, and many rookies need the icy shock of a mediocre first season to reflect on the holes in their college game and evolve. Suffice it to say that for our purposes, 2019 is probably a redshirt year for Collier.

As for the other villains, I won’t waste your time with a pile of tape that amounts to watching Seahawks pass rushers engage with their blocker and get nowhere. More creativity in the stunts and blitzes called may have helped, but if I had to put my money on any one factor, it’s insufficient coaching emphasis on winning with technique as opposed to winning through brute force. All too often, Seattle linemen seemed to put their faith in blowing their blocker into the backfield and figuring out Step 2 later, but it’s not a particularly effective tactic unless you can really put the blocker on roller skates...which very few players have the raw strength to consistently manage.

Jadeveon Clowney, our off-season home run trade from the Houston Texans, has not been as spectacular as many fans expected. But, as in his previous outings for us, a closer look at the tape reveals him wreaking all the havoc a defensive end can manage short of a sack, and drawing a disproportionate amount of attention, too.

On the first play, above, watch Clowney blow up his blocker, tight end Anthony Auclair, so decisively that he threatens to derail the entire running play. Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin is tasked with crossing behind the formation to act as the lead blocker for the Tampa running back, Peyton Barber. When Clowney runs right through Auclair, Godwin is forced to block Clowney, leaving KJ Wright free to fill the gap and tackle Barber for minimal gain. What looks on the broadcast like a messy disaster is actually the skilled work of a tradesman...who specializes in turning elegant play concepts into messy disasters.

On the second play, note an instance of a season-long trend: blockers holding onto Clowney for dear life, risking the flag over the harm Clowney might cause colliding with their quarterback. Surprisingly often, the refs either don’t notice or don’t care and the blocker’s audacity is rewarded. While drawing a holding call isn’t as sexy as doing a sack dance over the body of the other team’s most valuable player, the injury done to the offensive drive is about equal.

Al Woods was a dark horse coming into this season. He’s a 10th-year veteran at defensive tackle, drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints and without an accolade to his name. He’s played eight other stints with seven other teams, including a year with the Seahawks in 2011 that I doubt any of us remember. If you dare say you expected anything from Woods, I’ll call you a liar. And yet here we are halfway through the season with Woods as our most effective interior force.

In both plays above, watch Woods display urgency, aggression, and most importantly superior technique with his hand-fighting instead of relying on his size. He may never have made a Pro Bowl or found a permanent home, but he’s survived ten years in a league where every summer, dozens of the best athletes in America show up in the prime of their youth, bursting with desire to live their dream and ready to send veterans to the unemployment line to do it. Holding down a roster spot for a decade is all by itself an extraordinary accomplishment. We’re luckier to have him than we knew.

Jarran Reed was solid but not outstanding today. While there were flashes of the force he’d become by the end of last season, he doesn’t seem like quite the same player yet. Mind you, Reed’s also presumably rusty coming off of his suspension, so I’m withholding judgment for now. I only mention him to show you the play above, where the old Jarran is clearly, for the moment, back on the field: first beating his blocker inside without missing a step, then reorienting in a flash to chase down the ball carrier when Winston managed to get the pass away. A little patience and I think we’ll see him back in form.

Poona Ford, sophomore undrafted free agent and perennial Seahawks nominee for the Best Name in Football award, continues to impress far beyond what his nonexistent draft status gives us any right to expect. Like the rest of the defensive line, this season isn’t working out wonderfully for him, but grading on a curve compared to his Seattle line mates, he comes out looking very good indeed. More than any big play of his own this game, Ford provided value by drawing and holding double teams, enabling the other pass rushers to take on their blocks one on one. It was a subtle contribution rendered almost totally invisible by his teammates’ chronic inability to take advantage of the gift Ford gave them.

Jameis Winston, Fastest Gunslinger in the West South

This troubling account does come with a significant caveat that partially, perhaps even mostly absolves the defensive line: Winston was murderously quick to throw on most of his passes. It held true for short and long passes alike, but it’s best illustrated by looking at the long bombs he dropped on the Seahawks defense. By my tally, Tampa Bay’s five most explosive passes against Seattle ranged between 18 and 25 yards, and the time elapsed between snap and release looked like this:

That’s a median time to throw of 2.31 seconds, with a high of 2.52 and a low of 1.75, and nothing I saw on the tape causes me suspect that if I dug deeper, I’d find anything markedly different.

As you’ll remember from earlier in this screed, a typical four on five pass rush produces pressure less than 10% of the time at 2 seconds, rising to 25% at 2.5 seconds. If Winston was clocking in at less than 2.5 seconds on almost all of his deepest throws, i.e. the plays where you’d expect the pass rush to have the most time to hit the QB, it was bound to be a long day for the Seahawks’ defensive line.

Of course, Winston’s not usually this twitchy on the trigger. His average time to throw in 2019 is a middle-of-the-pack 2.79 seconds, which is par for him: his time to throw in 2018 was 2.80 seconds. This suspiciously snappy outing (by Winston’s career standards), combined with the fact that here at Neanderball Inc. we’re in the business of assigning blame, leads to a loaded question: if Winston was regularly finding open receivers 20 yards downfield only 2 seconds after the snap, what in blue blazes was our secondary doing?

Tune in again later this week for the second part of the inquisition - the pass coverage edition. It’s going to get spicy.