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The Drive: The case for starting Shaquem Griffin

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes we know a player’s contributions best by seeing the failures of his backup. Rather than rip anyone up, which seems distasteful to me today, let me just point out that Mychal Kendricks is out for the season. The Seattle Seahawks do not need to observe the orthodoxy of depth charts. They can be creative. Good coaches find snaps for their best talent. And for a team desperate for pass rush, no talent on this roster bests Shaquem Griffin.

Eyeballing stats from Pro Football Reference, the 2019 Seahawks rate 159th out of 160 at frequency of quarterback hits over the last five seasons. Their peers in futility are the 2018 Oakland Raiders and the 2019 Detroit Lions. But I think this understates the deficiency. Oakland and Detroit combined for a 7-24-1 record while being outscored by 259 points. Research shows sack rates increase as win probability drops. Seattle’s defense had this advantage and often. I do not know if hit rates likewise increase, but a hit is the closest thing to a sack which is not a sack. It would follow that it does.

What’s remarkable, and encouraging I think, is that Seattle’s defense played pretty well despite this glaring weakness. Seattle finished 18th in defensive DVOA and 15th in pass defense. Seattle finished 10th in adjusted yards per attempt allowed, which factors out sacks. Apart from instability at free safety, the Seahawks have fielded a consistent group in coverage. It’s a back seven that could work with consistent pass rush. Or back six, or back five, because Seattle probably needs to blitz to achieve pass rush in the postseason.

Seattle blitzed more often and more effectively this season than last.

That split only goes back two seasons. To contextualize, here are some player seasons which match the above ANY/A: Seahawks blitzing in 2018 led to results akin to Jameis Winston (6.38) or Dak Prescott (6.22) in 2018; no blitz: high-end Ben Roethlisberger (7.04) or a shabby Tom Brady (7.26); Seahawks blitzing in 2019: quality Kyler Murray (5.55) or crummy Josh Allen (5.72); no blitz: a head above Aaron Rodgers (6.71) but not nearly as good as Jimmy Garoppolo(7.22). Jeez that’s weird to write.

Among players who blitzed, no one touches Quem’s efficiency. PFR lists “QB Pressures” as “hurries + knockdowns + all sack plays.” Among players who blitzed, and this excludes defensive linemen conducting an ordinary rush, his hurry rate of 55.6% towers over others. Kendricks recorded six hurries in 59 attempts. Cody Barton has two in eight attempts. Wright is one for 40. Wagner: six for 71. Tre Flowers has also done well with his few attempts, recording not just two hurries but two sacks in only six attempts. That’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison which doesn’t factor the advantage of surprise or the disadvantage of taking a primary coverage defender out of coverage.

Kendricks played 664 snaps this season, and in nearly one in ten snaps, he blitzed. It was a foundational part of his job, and probably the role he was best at. He wasn’t a great coverage defender, and he missed one in five tackles—far and away worst among Seattle’s starters on defense—but as a former 4.47 40 guy with good bend, he could drag the right tackle wide and create opportunities for interior pass rushers. Maybe Barton can do that too. But Quem, Quem does it like a demon.

Let’s get to the tape.

Seahawks at Arizona

1ST & 10 AT ARZ 38(14:01)

(14:01) (No Huddle, Shotgun) K.Murray sacked at ARZ 33 for -5 yards (M.Kendricks).

Kendrick lines outside Jadeveon Clowney.

The blitz is a vanilla as it gets.

But it frees Clowney from turning the corner and plays to his power.

Kendricks runs free around right end and wins his matchup with David Johnson.

Clowney separates. J.R. Sweezy (64) finds it suspicious that he isn’t blocking anyone, checks to see that his jersey is red and not blue, and decides he better rectify that. He picks up Clowney and wins easily.

Indeed, as the next picture depicts, this was a one-man pass rush.

Now let’s compare that to what Quem can bring.

This is from Philly. Arguably, Shaquem Griffin is not blitzing on this play. Seattle has three down linemen and is rushing four, but that’s a semantic distinction. Griffin is shouldering the responsibility of a blitzer. His path is shorter and tighter. He doesn’t have the benefit of Clowney picking off the right tackle but it’s the same basic assignment.

Philly attempts surprise. Carson Wentz fakes an inside handoff.

Rasheem Green draws the double team. Q and Ansah are both single-blocked. Even this early in the play Shaquem’s advantage in speed is obvious. Halapoulivaati Vaitai sets way deep allowing an inside move.

And wouldn’t you know it?

If Ansah hadn’t tried his own crummy inside move, this is likely a sack and a safety.

It’s neither. Uncontained, Wentz scrambles left. Many players would struggle attempting to reverse their momentum either running hopelessly far from the scrambler or even falling. Quem grabs for Wentz ...

stumbles a bit as Wentz begins to escape left ...

but recovers enough to near a strip sack and force a throw away.

Here’s the thing. Vaitai is a crummy pass blocker. But, crazy coincidence that it is, he just played 100% of his team’s offensive snaps for Seattle’s next opponent the [Googles ‘Seahawks playoff opponent’] Philadelphia Eagles.

Seattle has gotten weird about starting vets over younger players. It’s a politburo mentality I don’t associate with Pete Carroll. The Seahawks need a jolt. Not a jolt of publicity but an animating jolt of youth, and that should mean finding snaps for some of the dudes struggling with this or that detail work in practice. Dudes who are raw but talented, inconsistent but thrilling when they execute, who haven’t the best average but the best pop, because the Seahawks are not going to go far in the playoffs depending on staid schemes, stale depth charts, and staying the course.