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Football Outsiders Almanac 2015: Seahawks Q&A

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders' has dropped their Almanac for 2015, and it's probably the most important pre-season purchase an NFL fan should make to prep for the upcoming year. In my opinion, it's the best and most comprehensive all-around NFL season preview that exists on the market. FO mixes standard stats with their own proprietary metrics to take a look at each positional group on every team, adding free agency notes and observations on the Draft class to build a summary of what to expect from each team this year.

It's honestly a must have for any NFL fan. Buy it here:

Football Outsiders PDF ($15.00)
Football Outsiders physical copy ($24.95)

We've been partnering for to promote the FOA for a couple of years now, so for the 2015 Seahawks, Football Outsiders' Vincent Verhei (who wrote Seattle's chapter) was nice enough to answer some of our questions.

I polled Field Gulls' authors, and they all chipped in to help me with these questions.

1. Has history shown a negative correlation between playing a high number of playoff games over a 2-3 year period and a drop-off in success during the following years due to the toll that can take on a player's body (and collectively, a team)?

Verhei: We've never looked at that, and it would be a very hard thing to measure. You would need to control for the fact that all playoff teams tend to decline - after all, as a group, it's hard for them to get much better. Then you'd need to take those playoff teams, which is already a small group, and filter that down to teams that were actually winning in the playoffs every year.

So in the end, in the past 15 years, you would probably looking at the Colts and Patriots, with occasional appearances by Denver or the Pennsylvania teams or a few others. I don't remember the Patriots ever missing the playoffs and then saying "well, the problem is, we have made the playoffs too often in the past, so we were tired this year." So, in short, I wouldn't worry about it.

2. Despite the "shockingly bad offensive line" of the Seahawks, you note they boasted a historically great rushing attack in 2014. What about the passing attack? It has been noted that Drew Brees benefited in New Orleans from a strong interior offensive line, and that superior interior OL play is more important for shorter QBs like Brees or Wilson. With Unger out, a new player in at LG and the up-and-down Sweezy at RG, what can we expect? And historically, how does protecting a mobile QB like Wilson affect sack-numbers?

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Verhei: Thirty-nine percent of Wilson's dropbacks last year (including sacks, scrambles, and defensive pass interference calls) came under pressure. That was the most of any starter in the league last year, which is nothing new -- he was second in 2013 and third in 2012. If you've watched Seattle at all, it's obvious that some of those pressures come because Wilson holds the ball too long and gives defenders a chance to close in.

And this is usually the case - running quarterbacks almost always get sacked more than average. It's true for Wilson, it's true for Michael Vick, it's true for Cam Newton, It's true for Colin Kaepernick, it's even true for Aaron Rodgers (except last year). Meanwhile, the guys who have been hardest to sack in recent memory have been names like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and the Manning Brothers, four guys who would rather throw the ball to the waterboy than move faster than a light jog.

It's also obvious, though, that Wilson is often running for his life as soon as the ball is snapped, and it's not just from pressure up the middle. One of my favorite stats from 2014: Justin Britt somehow led the NFL in blown blocks leading to sacks and hurries allowed despite playing for the team with the fewest pass plays in the league. And now it looks like he has been moved inside and lost his job, perhaps permanently, to the immortal Garry Gilliam. This line is pretty clearly the weakness of the team, and I am downright terrified of what Aaron Donald and the Rams might do to them in Week 1.

(By they way, Wilson was the only quarterback to finish in the top five for value per play both when he was pressured, and when he wasn't pressured. If he and the Seahawks can get that pressure rate even to average levels, then he's an MVP candidate.)

3. After two straight years in the top 5 on Special Teams, the Seahawks dropped to the middle-of-the-pack with -1.7% ST DVOA. Will replacing the returner, assuming Lockett performs, be enough to make the difference here, or do we also need to see a change in performance from the punt/kick coverage units?

As for Ryan's high hang-time short-punt style: is this always accounted as relatively negative in DVOA, or could it be seen as "working" if the opposing return numbers are pushed to be extremely low? In other words, what accounts for net/gross differences for punting? Are you able to generally classify how many teams employ this hang-time/limit returns tactic, compared to distance & field position, compared to a situational mix?

Verhei: Special teams numbers are so volatile from one year to the next that it's not really worth worrying about. And really, the Seahawks were only below average in two categories: kickoff returns (where they were 31st) and punts and punt coverage 21st, and they'd be a lot higher if we took out that stupid Rams loss).

There's a long explanation of our special teams ratings here:

But the short version is that there is no reward for consistency. Each punt is graded based on where the ball was kicked, where it was fielded, and how many yards the returner gained (or if he fumbled), and the grades for each punt are then averaged out. Now, if you're Seattle and your team is rock-solid across the board, you don't need your punt team to boom 60-yarders, you just need them to not kill you (see: the stupid Rams loss). So you'd be happy with a C-/D+ punt game all year as long as you can avoid those Fs. Our grades for that unit, though, are still going to be at a C-/D+ level.

Just for fun, and because I don't think we've ever looked at anything like this before: 46 percent of Seattle's punts had a net gain of at least 50 yards last season. That was 14th in the league, right in the middle of the pack. However, 22 percent had a net gain of less than 30 yards, worse than anyone except Chicago. Now that doesn't account for field position, weather, etc., but it's still clear that Seattle had a high number of lousy punts last year.

4. The worst split by far for Seattle on either side of the ball was the 9.8% DVOA in the red zone for the defense (good for a 5th-worst ranking). Did any particular reason for this stand out in game charting? How closely does Red Zone defense correlate to overall defense, and is there a reason to anticipate some regression to the mean here and thus potentially some overall defensive improvement in 2015?

Verhei: Funny you should ask. We have data on all NFL teams back to 1989. You know who had the best red zone defense DVOA we've ever measured in that quarter-century of football? The 2013 Seahawks, by a pretty good chunk over the 2000 Ravens. That 2013 Seattle team was merely good against the run in the red zone, but their pass defense was off the scale, giving up only 10 touchdown passes inside the 20, while collecting eight interceptions and three sacks.

Think about that for a moment. Quarterbacks were more likely to get sacked and/or turn the ball over against Seattle than they were to throw for a touchdown, IN THE RED ZONE. And that's regular season only, so it's not even accounting for The Tip.

After a season like that, they were destined to decline (it's not like they could have gotten any better) and Seattle was much worse in the red zone in 2014, 28th by DVOA. They gave up 13 touchdown passes inside the 20, with no interceptions and only two sacks.

The most common defender in pass coverage last year wasn't Richard Sherman or Byron Maxwell, it was actually "uncovered." Those eight passes - all screens or dumpoffs from single-back sets - resulted in eight completions for 48 yards. Three resulted in touchdowns and two others went for first downs. The other three: a 4-yard gain on first-and-goal from the 10; a 6-yard gain on second-and-9 from the 11; and a 5-yard gain on third-and-13 from the 20.

So the most effective tactic against Seattle in the red zone last year was to spread the field horizontally, throw underneath the coverage, and let the receiver navigate his way through the defense. That's not something a specific personnel move will address, that's going to take better recognition, pursuit, and tackling from everyone in the front seven, plus safeties.

To answer your last questions, defense, in general, is much less consistent than offense, and it gets even less consistent when we start to split the field into zones. Overall, the year-to-year correlation for defensive DVOA is 0.388, and in the red zone that correlation falls to 0.219. That's on a scale from 0.0 (absolutely no pattern from year to year) to 1.0 (every defense is exactly the same each season), so things for Seattle could still swing quite a bit in either direction.

5.  The chapter states that Russell Wilson's passing DVOA fell from 12.4% on first downs to 6.0% on second downs, and then to -6.1% on third downs in 2014. How does this compare to Wilson's 1st down/2nd down/3rd down passing DVOA in 2012 and 2013? What were his rushing DVOA numbers for those downs (1st, 2nd, and 3rd down) in 2012/2013/2014?

Verhei: I went ahead and put all these numbers in one table:






































Wilson's third-down struggles last year probably say a lot more about his receivers than they do about Wilson himself. Wilson was very effective on third downs as a rookie, when he was throwing to Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Zach Miller. It's a lot harder converting third downs throwing to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Paul Richardson.


Excellent work by the inimitable Vincent Verhei. Go to Football Outsiders and purchase their Almanac (seriously, do it, you'll be the smartest fan in your company/family/city/state/prefecture), then go follow Vincent on twitter. Huge thanks again for answering our questions!