For those of you that haven't yet purchased the Football Outsiders' Almanac for 2014, I really must insist that you do so. I believe 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:
We've been partnering for to promote the FOA for a couple of years now, so for the 2014 Seahawks, Football Outsiders' excellent Scott Kacsmar was nice enough to answer some of our questions on the chapter.
Our questions (from Kenneth and me) in bold/italic, Scott's answers follow. Thanks again to Scott for taking the time -- I found his answers very illuminating!
1. The defense probably doesn't need to be historically good again in order for the Seahawks to have a legitimate chance at repeating as champions. Other than a vacuum-sealed-tight NFC title game against the 49ers, it looked like Seattle had a fairly wide margin of error last season, at least compared to most Super Bowl champions. Given that the defense will probably take a step back and just be "great," what area do you see the Seahawks possibly improving in the most this season in order to maybe make up for what they'll lose in historical pass defense?
Thanks for pretty much writing the start of my Seattle prediction this year. I think this team can repeat with a lesser defense, because the defense will probably still finish high in most of the important categories. The room for improvement comes on the offensive side of the ball. Instead of winning 23-17 games, they can win a few more 30-24 games where the offense has to step up.
Marshawn Lynch has pretty much maxed out his potential, but there's so much room for the rest of this offense to grow. There's a need to give Robert Turbin and Christine Michael more touches in the event that Lynch's time is limited with the team. I'm sure everyone's curious to see if Michael can add more speed to the running game.
Obviously, Russell Wilson's only going into his third year and his best days should be ahead of him, even if his best opportunity to rack up rings is right now. He can work on getting better in the pocket and scrambling less. Part of that has to come from the offensive line being at full strength, which wasn't the case for much of 2013. Health has clearly been an issue for Percy Harvin in his career, but we barely got to see him in Seattle last year. I'm not convinced he's a dominant No. 1 receiver type, but he can be a very good fit in an offense that doesn't need that type of threat to succeed. Jermaine Kearse made big plays last year and I think Doug Baldwin is very underrated (see here).
This has already been a very efficient offense the past two years with success on the ground and a vertical passing game. By opening things up a little more in Wilson's third year I think they can get even better.
2. As stated in the Seahawks' chapter, the Seattle pass rush pressured the quarterback 30 percent of the time when it brought just four men. No other team was above 23 percent. Overall, Seattle brought the most pressure of any NFL team at 34.4 percent of pass plays. How does this pressure rate with four rushers and/or overall pressure rate compare historically to some of the great pass rush teams? Is this type of consistently solid pressure something that teams have replicated year-to-year? More specifically, do you think Seattle has the horses to continue with this type of excellence in pressuring the quarterback?
Our pressure data in its current format only goes back to 2010, but the 34.4 percent pressure rate is the highest in that time. Unfortunately for Seattle, we just ran an article on defensive pressure that shows it's been incredibly inconsistent from season to season. Every team ranked in the top 10 in 2012 ranked 11th or worse in 2013.
Denver had the highest pressure rate in 2012, but fell to 11th last year. This wasn't just a 2013 trend either. Of the last 30 teams to rank top 10 in pressure rate, only seven returned to the top 10 the following year. One positive note is the Texans led the league in pressure rate in 2010 and 2011 despite a change at defensive coordinator.
There's always going to be roster turnover, but those are some interesting numbers. At least the Seahawks have played coverage as well as anyone the last few years. A strong pass rush makes the defense that more dangerous, but I would not count on a repeat of last year's performance.
3. We know that the league has shifted to a focus on passing, and that has meant there's an increase in 3- and 4-WR sets on offense. That said, per the FOA, the Seahawks still ran in their ‘base' 4-3-4 defense 53% of the time. Where does this stack up in terms of the league average? In other words, are the Hawks' more reliant their base package (i.e. their linebackers and safeties) to cover slot receivers than most teams? Have we seen a big increase in nickel/dime looks on defense over the past few years?
The league has certainly seen an increase in multi-receiver sets, and nickel/dime packages make up about half of what we see from defenses now. The Steelers are known as a 3-4 defense under Dick LeBeau, but they were in dime on a league-high 45 percent of their plays last year.
There are a lot of unique things going on with Seattle's defense here as well. Jacksonville was the only defense to use a base 4-3-4 on a higher percentage of plays (54%) than Seattle in 2013. Of course the connection there is coach Gus Bradley, former Seattle defensive coordinator. Seattle led the league by using four defensive backs on 57 percent of its plays. The Seahawks only ranked 27th in using five defensive backs. Seattle went to nickel on about 39 percent of plays compared to a league average of 48.6 percent.
Perhaps most interesting is how offenses attacked Seattle. Really, it's almost as if teams yielded to Seattle's scheme instead of dictating the chess match as offenses usually do. The most popular offensive personnel in the NFL today is "11" (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end). Teams only used 11 personnel 39 percent of the time against the Seahawks, the second-lowest rate in the league. The Seahawks had the best DVOA (-28.7%) against offenses using 11 personnel, but that's usually a good way to get quality receivers onto the field and force more nickel from the defense. Using the shotgun is another way to pressure a team out of their base, but the Seahawks were one of only three defenses to face shotgun on less than 50 percent of their plays.
Seattle puts a ton of faith in its base defense to get the job done. Great coverage and tackling in the secondary combined with a strong rotation of pass rushing up front is a hell of a combination. When everyone's executing, there's no need to get fancy.
4. In the FOA, you note that in his rookie year, Russell Wilson gained just 4.6 yards per pass when opponents blitzed a defensive back, the second lowest figure in the league. In his second year, Wilson gained 9.9 yards per pass against a DB blitz, second only to Philip Rivers. How do you think Wilson was able to improve so much in this area?
Splits happen? The young quarterback got better after a year of experience? I don't have any deep reasoning for why that improved, but I can tell you defenses only blitz a defensive back about 11 percent of the time, so it's not very common. Seattle faced 51 defensive back blitzes in 2012 and 46 in 2013. With that small sample size, hitting a big play or two (or losing one because of a dropped pass) can really change those averages from year to year.
I think Wilson's skillset is suited for those plays, because he's getting smarter at reading the defense before the snap and identifying where the blitz is coming from. If they rush him from one side, he's fast enough to run to the other and make something happen on the move. I thought the Monday night game against New Orleans was a perfect display of his full skillset. Rob Ryan didn't have an answer for Wilson that night. He can run away from defenders whether you blitz him or not, and he'll hold onto the ball for as long as you can keep covering his receivers. Eventually, someone gets open like Doug Baldwin in the NFC Championship Game. That's 51 yards, and that's a game changer.