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The 2015 Seattle passing offense: Russell Wilson's air yards are back in town

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The offensive line is struggling, but the arrow may soon be pointing up for Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing attack.

Probably throwing the ball downfield.
Probably throwing the ball downfield.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote last year a few times about air yards, once specific to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks and again on a league-wide basis. The Seahawks offense was different in 2014 when compared to previous years, with passing game yardage shifting to yards-after-catch (YAC) rather than air yards (i.e., "yards-before-catch"). While many attributed this change to the presence of Percy Harvin, it's notable that the numbers didn't change much after Harvin left the squad in early October.

Wilson was still throwing for fewer air yards than ever before, the offense relying upon a much-maligned receiving corps to accumulate YAC. Now, it may have been difficult for the team to change plans in midstream, that the offseason allowing Darrell Bevell and the offense to re-calibrate. Either way, something was just off with the 2014 passing game.

Things are a little different in 2015, and they look a lot like they did in 2012 and 2013. Shown below are plots with the two key statistics: AY/ATT (air yards per attempt) and %AY (air yards/passing yards). Note that the plot bounds do not include the y-intercept. The y-axis is at a rough approximate league max/min for each stat.

AY-ATT

AY-PER

This is obviously a macro-level look at things, and we only have a four game sample. The main point is that the passing game peripherals are quite promising. Wilson is back to his typical passing yardage distribution; we may be seeing him take a step forward in his development, only for the step to be obscured by some troubling pass protection. This also isn't a case of Wilson having to go deeper because of game script, as he had a low AY/ATT during the sputtering Seahawk start to 2014.

The average Russell Wilson performance, by year:

2014: 17.8 completions, 28.3 attempts (63.1%), 217 yards, 4.4% TD, 1.5% INT, 7.7 YPA

2015: 22.8 completions, 31.8 attempts (71.7%), 245 yards, 3.9% TD, 1.6% INT, 7.7 YPA

This is very encouraging. Wilson is throwing for significantly more air yards and relying less on YAC while also completing passes at a much higher rate and maintaining the same yards-per-attempts figure. The TD mark is down, but we're at the stage where just one more touchdown would put him above last year's mark. Yes yes yes, small sample small sample small sample, stranger danger, but there's still a story here. The list of full QB seasons over 70 % comp. and 7.5 YPA is not extensive.

The story gets even more compelling when we account for just how terrible the Seahawks have been at passing to running backs, these passing attempts primarily coming on screen plays where the offensive line looks about as clued in as Gary Busey filing a tax return. FG writer Jacson Bevens noted yesterday on twitter just how good Wilson has been at throwing to his top targets:

Wilson is effectively at or above his season YPA mark when throwing to his receiving corps, meaning there are other targets being used very inefficiently. Let's look at that RB hunch...

Wilson to Lynch, Rawls, Jackson: 25 targets, 17 receptions (68% catch rate), 134 yards, 5.4 YPA

Wilson to everyone else: 102 targets, 74 receptions (73% catch rate), 845 yards, 8.3 YPA

Wilson is not only throwing for more air yards, but he's more effective throwing to receivers downfield than he is when targeting his running backs. Also note that most of the RB production comes from Jackson, with Wilson only averaging 3.8 YPA on passes to Lynch and Rawls. This is a good indicator, mainly because Wilson has a track record of being very efficient when targeting Lynch and Turbin. This is probably something that will improve as the offensive line gains traction, the three new starters (hopefully) becoming familiar with new roles. Wilson had a 8.1 YPA mark when targeting Turbin and Lynch last season. If the RB passing game does get on track, we'll start seeing Wilson's overall efficiency rise significantly.

While Seattle's WR/TE group wasn't good enough last year, the additions of Lockett and Graham have his YPA up to elite levels when not targeting his backs. The excellent Sheil Kapadia noted the following after Seattle scraped by the winless Lions:

The sack number could have easily been 10 or 12 Monday night without Wilson's elusiveness. He was brilliant outside the pocket, and when he gets time, he's been very accurate. Wilson has completed 76.3 percent of his passes when he stays in the pocket. I think we're seeing him grow as a passer, but the results are a bit all over the place because of the struggles up front.

--Sheil Kapadia, ESPN

The OL is obviously the elephant in the room, though, as stated by Kapadia, Wilson does play a part in their struggle. Still, he's playing well from the pocket, the ball's heading downfield, and the receiving corps is capable. Overall, this is good. This is very good. Seattle will have this offensive line in 2015, yes, but the sack rate has tended to decline over the course of the season in recent years. They've figured things out just a bit toward December. The sacks also aren't a necessary evil with Wilson throwing further downfield, as the 2014 sack rate was comparable to that of the young quarterback's first two seasons.

Wilson's improvement is far more important than current OL struggles. He'll almost certainly be Seattle's quarterback for another decade, and the data shows that he's taken a step forward. There's no guarantee that this will continue, or that it's anything more than small sample size theater, but it matches the eye test, and he's certainly not been buoyed by an elite run game so far this year. He's playing well when given time, and he'll probably be given more time as the season goes along. Kindly place your "Russell Wilson: Only a Game Manager" narratives in the nearest incinerator, please and thank you.

While the Seattle passing offense DVOA ranks only 24th and the sack rate is well over 10%, things are somehow looking up for Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks passing offense.