When the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season, teams do what they usually do, and emulated what they viewed as the key to their championship success. For them this meant copying the "Legion of Boom" secondary that shut down Pro Bowl quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning in the playoffs, and getting an advantage over these record passing numbers.
There were eight defensive backs drafted in the first round, including the picks by the 49ers, Broncos, Cardinals, and Packers. There were a lot of big money deals handed out to cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis in New England, Aqib Talib in Denver, Alterraun Verner in Tampa Bay, Antonio Cromartie in Arizona, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in New York. There were also safeties changing teams like TJ Ward to the Broncos, Jairus Byrd to the Saints (who also signed Champ Bailey), Antoine Bethea to the 49ers, Donte Whitner to the Browns, and Roman Harper to the Panthers.
How well did these moves pay off?
New England went from 14th in pass DVOA in 2013 to 12th this season. The Broncos showed a much bigger improvement, going from 21st to fifth, and a lot of that success was centered around the improved play of Chris Harris. The Giants dropped from eighth to 21st and fired their defensive coordinator. The Bucs went from 11th to 23rd and went 2-14. The Packers went up to 11th after finishing a godawful 28th last season. The 49ers went from 10th to fourth and it didn't matter. All of which is to say (shrugging emoticon).
Passing yards went up from 120,611 yards last season to a new all-time high of 121,247 this year. Overall, it's an increase of roughly 20% from what it was in 2003. It's still really hard to stop quarterbacks from putting up a ton of yards but it's even harder to emulate the Boom. Seattle finished third in pass defense DVOA this season behind the Buffalo Bills (who actually lost Byrd, the top free agent safety) and the Cleveland Browns.
The Seahawks also might sheepishly tell those other teams, "Oh, did we forget to say that our front seven is just as important as our secondary?"
Seattle finished first in defensive DVOA not just because of their pass defense, but because they finished second in rush defense. The Seahawks rushed for 1.9 yards per carry more than their opponents this year and continue to run with the philosophy that you've got to have a running philosophy. They rushed for more yards than their opponent in every game except for their loss to the Dallas Cowboys at home. That is also true of their loss to the Cardinals at home last season.
For the Carolina Panthers to win on Saturday, they're going to have to have a more successful ground game on both sides of the ball. What are the odds of that happening?
The Panthers finished 22nd in run defense DVOA. They went 2-5-1 in games in which they allowed 100 or more rushing yards, including 264 rushing yards in a 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In an article published this week on Football Outsiders, author Vincent Verhei says this:
With (Luke) Kuechly in the middle, the Panthers' run defense has been fairly steady all season. And generally, they have been pretty good, ranking 10th in Adjusted Line Yards and eight in Stuff Rate. In Open-Field Yards, though, which measures a defense's ability to prevent long runs, they were worst in the league. And though Carolina's defense improved in so many ways at the end of the year, this wasn't one of them. Through Week 13, they were giving up 1.21 OFY per carry. Since Week 14, that number actually got worse, climbing to 1.50. In the last four weeks of the year, they gave up a 63-yard run to Doug Martin, a 26-yarder to Isaiah Crowell, an 18-yarder to Charles Sims, a 17-yarder to Jacquizz Rodgers, and 16-yard runs to Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and even Josh McCown.
So basically ...
Carolina isn't prone to giving up long runs, they're basically guaranteeing it will happen. Not only should it benefit Marshawn Lynch and his backups, but Russell Wilson, who finished with an NFL record for rushing DYAR by a quarterback, should also shine his cleats today.
Verhei points out that quarterbacks are gaining a "successful run" on 77-percent of their carries against the Panthers this season, the highest rate in the league. Their 7.0 yards per carry against Carolina is the sixth-highest in the NFL.
At this point I might sheepishly say, "Oh, did I forget to tell you that Star Lotulelei is out?"
The Seahawks rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 of 16 games this season, their lone failure being the loss to the Cowboys. Their second-lowest output was 108 in a loss to the Chargers.
It would not be at all surprising to me to see Seattle run the ball play after play to start the game, mixing in a few deep passes once they show the Panthers that they need to step up and defend the run. If the Seahawks finish with 40+ carries (they averaged 32 carries in the regular season, second-highest in the NFL) I would not be at all surprised.
And how will Seattle do on defense against a ground game that's gained a lot of traction in the last month thanks to the improved play of Jonathan Stewart? Back to you, Vince:
On the other hand, Stewart's DVOA over those five games is just 0.4%, and the Panthers' average offensive DVOA in those contests was 6.2%, so it's not as if the new attack has been steamrolling opponents. That 5.1-yard average is mainly the product of 15 runs that have gained 10 or more yards, especially his 69-yard touchdown in Week 14 against the Saints. Stewart is averaging 1.37 Open Field Yards per carry in his last five games; to put that into perspective, the Baltimore Ravens led the league this year with 1.30 OFY per carry. At the same time, though, Stewart has been stuffed for no gain or a loss on more than 20 percent of his carries (which is a little worse than average), and his Success Rate has been hovering right around the league-average rate of 45 percent. So though Stewart has been explosive, he has not been particularly reliable or consistent.
Jon Stewart's daily showing against those five teams includes matchups against defenses that were, and I'm not kidding, ranked 32nd, 31st, and 30th against the run.
The Seahawks ranked second in run defense DVOA, and as Verhei points out, they were fifth in adjusted yard lines per carry, sixth in stuff rate, and eighth in OFY. But that's over the course of the season, which includes games missed by Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor. Since Week 12, they are first in AYL, first in OFY, and fifth in stuff rate.
While the Panthers have their own running quarterback, the fortunes aren't quite as bad as "worst defense in the league against QBs." In fact, Seattle was second in yards per carry allowed and first in success rate (45%) against QB runs.
There are so many reasons to not compare the game these two teams played in October because these are barely the same two teams from October. I expect that the Seahawks will open the game running and if they get a lead, they might Forrest Gump this game aka never stop running. If that happens, then the Panthers will be forced to start airing it out and it's doubtful that you'll see Kelvin Benjamin catch another 51-yarder over two of the best defensive backs in the league. Maybe they can count on Brenton Bursin for that.
Yes, it's true that Seattle has the most talented secondary in the NFL, but when teams start to re-emulate the Seattle Seahawks in this upcoming offseason, they might want to take a closer look at that front seven and figuring out how to be successful on the ground, both offensively and defensively.
The Carolina Panthers might struggle with that themselves on Saturday.