We’ve focused heavily on the Seattle Seahawks defense and their performance against the Tennessee Titans, but even with the 30 points scored it’s hard to defend the offensive display as anything impressive.
Seattle racked up 397 yards of offense, four touchdowns, and a field goal, but they also had just six points in the 2nd half (on a coverage bust that gave Freddie Swain the most open touchdown of his life) and went three-and-out on their final four possessions. Their touchdown drives were short and outside of the two-minute drill to end the 1st half they didn’t pick up multiple first downs on any of their other scores.
In the words of O-Town, the offense was...
It usually takes two to tango for a collapse. The offense has to not score/sustain drives to kill time and the defense has to keep allowing points. I think we’re familiar with this story if you recall the brutal 2-4 start to the 2015 season. I’ve often beaten the drum that the offense was really mediocre during this stretch and didn’t conjure up more than two offensive touchdowns in a single game until Week 10.
Here is the offensive drive chart for the 2015 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Do you see some similarities to last Sunday against the Titans?
The defense took the overwhelming brunt of criticism for squandering a 24-7 lead (even though they scored a touchdown themselves on a fumble return). But that offense? An opening drive TD, a one-minute drill field goal, a nice Thomas Rawls touchdown, and then only three first downs from late 3rd quarter through overtime on their final six drives. Three of Russell Wilson’s four sacks came during this stretch (all of them on 3rd down).
Cincinnati easily won time of possession, outsnapped the Seahawks 85-60, and by pure coincidence the Seahawks also had 10 penalties for 112 yards.
And here we are having just experienced something quite similar except the offense is supposed to be better than the defense.
The latter part of 2015 was the gold standard for the Seahawks offense right up until Thomas Rawls’ unfortunate injury. But Seahawks offenses of more recent seasons have become a tale of either/or. Seattle scores at a healthy clip, they’re more efficient than when Wilson was on his rookie contract, but with it comes a newfound level of punting and rapid-fire empty possessions normally associated with bad offenses. Through two weeks of 2021, this is extreme boom or bust.
Nugget that might be a little concerning for Seahawks fans— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) September 24, 2021
EPA per dropback: 8th
Dropback success rate: 27th
Offense is heavily reliant on big plays right now
Historically speaking, let’s take a look at the Seahawks’ rankings in points per drive and 3-and-outs per drive. (Higher ranking = good, Lower rankings = bad)
Seahawks’ points, 3-and-outs per drive rankings (2012-2020)
Let’s go to the crudely made chart!
Let’s throw in one for punting just for good measure!
Post-Darrell Bevell firing, the Seahawks have worked to get out of the cellar as far as 3-and-out possessions and despite their 19th ranking they were just below NFL average in this statistic. Before the November slide, Seattle was 10th in 3-and-out rate so you can figure out what happened afterward. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2020 was the “Let Russ Cook” season in which they weren’t pass-first out of necessity.
The only real oddity under Bevell was 2016, but there’s an easy explanation for that. Even with a hobbled Russell Wilson and a steadily crumbling running game, Seattle moved the ball effectively but had such a poor conversion rate in the red zone that they settled for more field goals than touchdowns.
So what have we seen through three years of Brian Schottenheimer and two weeks of Shane Waldron? They’re scoring more touchdowns than the Bevell offenses and as a result their points per drive are higher, but the percentage of their drives ending in points hasn’t actually improved.
For the rest of this article I’m going to set aside 2016-2017 data because those are the only two seasons in which the Seahawks weren’t top-10 in offensive DVOA and we also know the root causes for their struggles. I want to compare good/great offense with good/great offense directly. There’s also the full acknowledgement that we’re working with four full seasons from 2012-2015 compared to 50 games from 2018-2020 or 2018-2021 when applicable. Large enough sample sizes for me.
Behold! Another crude attempt at data visualization.
Note: Unlike the Football Outsiders data which excludes kneeldowns, the percentages here will be different because they’re based off of all drive outcomes.
(All of the other outcomes are missed/blocked FG, blocked punt, end of half/game but really aren’t of value in the graph)
Now a 1.6% increase in drives ending in punts doesn’t seem like much, but the Seahawks are bucking a trend. From 2012-2015, teams punted an average of 40.6% of their possessions (including blocked punts). Fast forward to 2018-2021 and that number drops to 36.6%. So in effect, the Seahawks have been punting more often at a time when the NFL is punting less.
Only the New York Jets, Washington, Jacksonville, Denver, Miami, Cincinnati, and Arizona have punted more frequently during this 50-game span. Arizona might be a surprise to you but they played Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen in 2018 and rookie Kyler Murray in 2019 which hurts their stats.
In contrast, the top-3 offenses in scoring rate — Kansas City, Baltimore, and New Orleans — all punt far less than the Seahawks while also keeping turnovers low. I suspect some of this is the aggression to go for it on 4th down over punting but that can’t be all of it.
Kansas City, New Orleans, and Baltimore are not just 1-2-3 in touchdown rate, they are all in the top-10 in field goal rate. The Seahawks are 5th in touchdown rate but just 27th in field goal rate under Schottenheimer/Waldron. Under Bevell, Seattle was 3rd in field goal rate and 5th in touchdown rate (and they’re still top-5 in both if you wanted to completely remove the 2015 season). Granted, the Seahawks played such a slow pace back then that possessions and total plays were lower than they are now.
All of this is to say that for the most part, Seattle’s offensive drives have been totally imbalanced in ways the NFL’s perennial premier offenses — New Orleans declined in 2020 with faded/injured Drew Brees and will likely keep sliding in 2021 under Jameis Winston — are not.
What might be some of the causes? I have some thoughts on that.
The scoreless drives aren’t going very far
You’re not always going to score, but a drive that also goes nowhere is a shitty drive. From 2018-2021, Seattle’s average yards per scoreless drive (excl. kneeldowns) is just 14, two yards below the league average and one of the lowest rates in the NFL. The 2012-2015 Seahawks averaged 15.8, which was the league average. What plays into short drives for not many yards?
More specifically Russell Wilson’s 3rd downs.
I know there’s a lot of debate about the value of 3rd down efficiency when the ideal outcome is to avoid it altogether on offense and get there on defense. As cool as it sounds in theory, it is completely impractical to always avoid 3rd down and it’s been basic situational football for an eternity.
Through nine complete seasons under Wilson, the Seahawks have had one season in the top-10 in 3rd down conversion rate and that was, you guessed it, 2015.
It's not a blanket statement. I'm just going to hope that "HOF QBs aren't consistently good on 3rd down because of 2015 Peyton Manning" is the worst argument I see this week.— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) December 22, 2020
Here, figure this out. https://t.co/x4EbQFh0ri pic.twitter.com/dp1lhajMRa
Great QBs are usually great on every down but Wilson becomes consistently worse on 3rd compared to 1st/2nd on a year-by-year basis. Don’t believe me? Play around with the EPA tool on Rbsdm.com.
Remember the Chiefs, Ravens, and Saints? Those are the top-3 teams on 3rd down conversions since 2018. I wonder why they don’t punt it so much.
As for the Seahawks, there are no overly impressive stats on either side of 2015 but what has happened is an increase in sacks.
Russell Wilson’s 3rd down sack rate
2012-2015: 10.4% (60 times on 576 attempts) League Ave sack rate 8.8%
2018-2021: 14.25% (65 times on 456 attempts) - League Avg sack rate 9.9%
No hyperbole, his 3rd down sack rate post-Bevell is almost akin to David Carr’s full season sack rate from the 2002 season. It is proven that sack rates increase for everyone on 3rd down versus early downs, but for QBs like Wilson who already get sacked at an above-average clip, it makes their issues that much more glaring.
And while your likely knee-jerk response is to assume Seattle is constantly facing 3rd and 10+, it really doesn’t matter what distance he’s facing. Wilson is getting sacked at a comical rate even in short yardage.
Russell Wilson’s 3rd down sack rate by distance (2018-2021)
1-3 yds: 14.6% (13 times on 89 attempts)
4-6 yds: 12.9% (18 times on 140 attempts)
7-9 yds: 14.8% (15 times on 101 attempts)
10+ yds: 15% (19 times on 126 attempts)
By the way, the Seahawks are 24th in 3rd and 1-3 yds conversion rate since 2018 (28th passing, 18th rushing). Their total from 2012-2015 ranked 11th (11th passing, 9th rushing).
Seattle’s offense is a perennial middling to below-average 3rd down unit and it has consistently killed drives. Pete Carroll’s 4th down hesitancy only compounds the problem on possessions where you could argue for going for it. I focus on 3rd down sacks over early down sacks because drives are theoretically still salvageable after an early down sack.
Russell Wilson - The reduced (and diminished?) runner
Young Russ was one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. You had to commit defenders to a prime Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. Not a fair fight for most of the league. Older, more refined pocket passer Russ is no longer a threat on designed runs and just flat out runs the ball less often.
In 2020, Wilson was credited with only 7 designed runs. You do not need analytics to tell you that his speed is gone and while he’s still an efficient scrambler, the absurd escape acts that turned sacks into drive-extending gains are largely a thing of the past. There is virtually zero chance Wilson makes this same play in 2021.
Unfortunately I do not have any tools to separate scrambles from designed runs, but when subtracting kneeldowns (which count as rush attempts), Wilson has had 181 rush attempts over this 50-game post-Bevell stretch. Just in 2013 and 2014 he had 180 rush attempts over 32 combined starts.
From 2012-2015, Wilson accounted for about 26% of all Seahawks rushing first downs. Since 2018 that number has dropped to just under 19%. To give you perspective, 2012-2015 Wilson was 18th in the entire NFL in rushing first downs and 2nd among QBs (and Marshawn Lynch was 2nd among all players). The 2018-2021 version is outside the top-40 (while Chris Carson is tied for 4th).
If you haven’t figured out what I’m getting at, Wilson is running less and getting sacked more even when adjusting for increased attempts, and more sacks (regardless of down) = more possessions that can be destroyed. I think those two things are connected in some form and it ends up impacting both the passing and rushing attacks in ways that I feel matter more than directly replacing Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ rushing success rate has dipped post-Bevell and I suspect it has less to do with the quality of running backs and more to do with the near total eradication of Wilson’s once terrific designed rushes, which unlike scrambles count towards rushing EPA and played a major part in those offenses.
I want to be clear in saying there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with moving away from the old Seahawks system! I bet you Lamar Jackson is not going to be running as proficiently at age 32 as he is now. The improvements of Wilson as a pocket passer were needed to offset his physical decline as a runner, and the end result is he’s still an elite quarterback! But the flip side of that is his diminished running skills no longer cover up the limitations he still has as a passer, and I’m of the opinion that a lot of Seattle’s more recent “all or nothing” habits are a byproduct of Wilson’s transformation into being a more conventional QB (whose affinity for big play hunting fits right in with an “all or nothing” mentality).
The 2021 season and indeed Shane Waldron’s OC tenure is still young, but if the first two games are anything to go by, the “Let Russ Cook” offense (which is the only post-Bevell unit not to fall into a season-long boom or bust cycle) is not returning. If that’s the case, a repeat of the 2018 and 2019 teams can’t happen. And especially not with a defense that has faced the most plays in the NFL since 2020 and (obviously) fails to consistently get stops.
Seattle has already played more one-possession games than anyone else since 2018, and I see the offense’s “all or nothing” approach as the root cause — yes, more than the idea that Pete Carroll deliberately seeks close games, don’t pretend they didn’t win most of their 2012-2015 games by 10+ points. If this isn’t corrected then buckle up, because we’re in for another season of hoping the Seahawks continue to be on the right side of close game variance.