The NFL is cyclical and every few years we see schematic and philosophical patterns that impact game plans, roster construction, play calling, etc. One thing you may have noticed is that there’s been a major change in the passing game as of late.
ESPN did a deep dive in the declining rate of long-range passing, which for the purpose of this column is defined as 15+ air yards past the line of scrimmage. This doesn’t mean the deep passes are less efficient, but they are less frequent.
There were 3,416 attempts at least 15 yards downfield during the 2022 regular season, the fewest in any season since 2006.
But when quarterbacks did let it fly, they were pretty successful. Completion percentages on those attempts of at least 15 yards downfield was 45.1% — the second-highest completion percentage in a single season since 2006.
The trend continued through the first week of the 2023 regular season, too. Both air yards per attempt and number of passes attempted of more than 20 air yards were lower than the 2022 averages — and the 2022 Week 1 numbers. Just 9.2% of all passes attempted were deep balls, down from 10.4% in Week 1 of 2022, while air yards per attempt decreased from 7.3 to 7.1. Passers produced the fewest yards (6,225) and TD passes (37) in a Week 1 since 2006. They averaged 6.25 yards per attempt, the lowest Week 1 output since 1996.
Now the one thing to note about this year’s Week 1 numbers is we had several games in the midwest and along the Atlantic in which bad weather influenced the game script, so it would’ve been unwise to let it fly. But we didn’t have 18 weeks of bad weather last season, so I don’t think rainy conditions were the primary reason for Week 1’s continuation of the 2022 trend.
One of the culprits is the marked increase in two-deep safety looks, which isn’t an elixir for eliminating all downfield passing but it does discourage those plays more often than not.
Another point highlighted was the increase in reliance on yards after catch (YAC).
In 2006, about 43.5% of the passing yards generated by offenses were produced by receivers after catching the football. By 2022, that mark was north of 50%.
Call it the Tyreek Hill effect.
Hill’s ability to burn defenses over the top but also take advantage of underneath space with his speed in the open field make him one of the unique threats in the game. Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, and other running backs who excel as receivers are also notable YAC threats and are used accordingly. So the emphasis on YAC means quarterbacks will take safer throws and let the receivers do the rest.
The San Francisco 49ers were 29th in pass attempts of 15+ air yards but had the best YAC/reception for the fifth consecutive year under Kyle Shanahan.
And then there’s running the ball. Yes, running the ball.
Consider the phenomenon an offensive see-saw. While the volume of deep throws decreased across the league, the run game surged. In 2022, offenses averaged 4.5 yards per rush and 121.5 rushing yards per game — both record-highs since at least 2006.
At least through the midway point of last season, rushing efficiency was as strong as it’s been NFL-wide in a decade. Part of that is the rise of the dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, and Daniel Jones, whose abilities as passers all vary quite a bit but they’re all formidable running threats. So it’s not necessarily about giving the ball to the running backs more often, either.
None of this is to suggest permanence in the way the NFL operates, but the latest trends may be bad news for the Seattle Seahawks unless they adjust quickly.
Pete Carroll likes explosive shot plays and that’s how the Seahawks have largely operated on offense under his tenure. We also saw what happened when defenses adjusted to the “Let Russ Cook” approach and it’s been a significant turning point in Russell Wilson’s career. At least in 2022, Geno Smith was outstanding on pass plays of 20+ air yards and was the highest graded deep ball passer, ranking 9th in attempts.
With that said, the Seahawks have been a terrible offense at generating yards after catch and outside of 2021 have regularly been at the bottom-tier of the NFL in this statistic. In other words, if the Seahawks can’t get their downfield passing game going, they have no other fallback plan.
As far as the running game (which Pete also likes), the Seahawks might have had a 1,000-yard rusher in Ken Walker last year but they were a below-average run blocking unit and one of the least efficient rushing offenses in the NFL. Geno may be more mobile than he’s given credit for but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect him to be Lamar or prime Russ or any of the other top rushing QBs.
On defense, Carroll has been nearly hellbent on not getting beaten over the top, and in the prime LOB years you seldom could get successful shot plays because of air-tight coverage and an elite pass rush. No coach wants to see a 60-yard moonball dropped on their head so there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in recent years they’ve gotten absolutely smoked at defending YAC. Setting aside how the Seahawks got beaten deep on three occasions (but only one was actually completed) in the Rams game on Sunday, this is what I wrote late last season:
But to my eye the Seahawks haven’t necessarily operated the same way in 2022; they just have no answers for getting beaten underneath. Their DVOA against deep passes (16+ yards down the field) was 9th this year and 5th last year, but their DVOA against anything within 15 yards is complete toilet. Funneling teams to short routes is only worthwhile if you can prevent them from getting yards after catch, and for the second year in a row the Seahawks are getting reamed there.
The run defense, it goes without saying, was pretty bad in 2022 but is off to a reasonably good start this year.
So at a time when YAC is emphasized and teams are selling out to take away the deep ball, the Seahawks offense is about as poorly equipped as possible to handle when their Plan A is wrecked. The pass defense has been better than you might think at preventing deep ball successes, but a lack of pass rush and sub-standard tackling pretty much invites a YAC party.
None of this bodes well for the Seahawks in the short-term, and it’s not a new problem because I’ve written about this for five years now. But as the ESPN article illustrates, a lot has changed league-wide that exacertbate Seattle’s long-term weaknesses. The only outcome we’re going to see moving forward is failure unless these issues are finally corrected.