Friday, November 25, 2011

The DVR Run Analyst Joins 17 Power

Since 2007, I've been reviewing almost every Seahawks run play in slow motion on my DVR over at the Northwest Sports Talk Forum under the alias, CamasMan. (I just posted my analysis of the Rams Game there.) Brandon invited me to join this blog and I immediately accepted. Is there a better title than 17 Power for a blog analyzing the Seahawks' running game?

Here some background. I'm the height and weight of a wide receiver, have the hands of a linebacker, the speed of a nose tackle, the tactical savvy of a long snapper, and the toughness of a place kicker. So, in organized sports, I'm a breaststroker. I was never meant to play football.

I first became an obsessed fan back when Bill Walsh first became the 49er's head coach. My best friend's dad had been Walsh's roommate at San Jose State. So here we were, a bunch of young guys in LA, rooting for San Francisco. Hey, timing is everything. A few years later, my young family moved to Grass Valley in Northern California, and the ride continued. In '96, we moved up here to Camas, and watched more High School ball than the pros. I happened to catch Game 5 of Seattle's 2005 season, and quickly became hooked. Again, timing is everything. Screw the '9ers!

In 2007, I was embarrassed that our fans were calling for Alexander's head. Sure, his numbers fell off, but show the man some respect! I wanted to know the cause, and had just gotten an HD DVR, so I started my DVR Running Game Analysis on the NWSportsTalk Forum. It didn't take long before I saw that our line wasn't getting it done. We had busted plays, shedded blocks, no push, defenders in the backfield - and the occasional big run to keep our averages from hitting the basement. Big Walt still played well. Locklear was mixed - he might have a stinker of a game one week, but play perfectly the next. I had a hard time evaluating Spencer. Sims was inconsistent. Gray was clearly weak and soon retired.

Alexander was often criticized for not being a bruiser, but my numbers showed that defenses needed more men to bring him down than they did Mo Morris. Looking back, the problem was that Alexander was a patient, vision kind of back, and the few holes that appeared didn't stay open. We were slow off the ball, and the longer the play clock ticked, the more our line crumbled. Patience was not a virtue for a Seattle running back in 2007.

Lest one think patient backs stink, DeMarco Murray was patient and used vision, and he gouged our normally stout run defense pretty badly. He's a good match in Dallas, but he would have been smothered in Seattle four seasons ago.

Regardless of fault, Alexander wasn't getting any younger and was out of Seattle and soon out of football. But our numbers got even worse as we brought in Julius Jones, a parade of left guards, Mike Solari as line coach, and had to fill the vacancy left by Walter Jones. My DVR analysis continued to show that we were weak between the tackles, and that Locklear had good days and bad. On our "good" days we'd continue to have a string of bad plays and the occasional big play. And long third downs. And three and outs. On "bad" days, it was the same, but without the bursts. Our defense didn't get much rest.

Come 2010 and we drafted a new left tackle, but a long contract negotiation and a teammate falling on his ankle kept Okung from getting up to speed quickly. But Okung clearly had talent. We also had Alex Gibbs as the new line coach, until we didn't. We still had a revolving door at left guard. I liked Hamilton's ability to go after linebackers. Andrews was big, but too big to get to the second level and engage. We had a weapon in Carlson - a tight end who contributed to the running game. He didn't get a reputation as a good blocker, but I found that he was especially effective at slashing behind the line to push out defensive ends. We had a new fullback in Michael Robinson, but he was pretty green at the position and as often as not, our interior linemen would lose their blocks just as Robinson ran by. We continued to have lost blocks, busted plays, and zero push up the middle. Lynch arrived and showed us what a bruising, downhill runner looked like, but his best ability seemed to be improvising in the backfield when the line screwed up. At least we were getting gains of one on plays where we used to suffer three yard losses. Beast Quake (on a play call of 17 Power) was the highlight of the season, but the running game still depended too much on breakaway runs, rather than consistency.

In 2011, we cleaned house and went young on the line. It didn't help right out of the box. We looked terrible in preseason games as well as the first games of the season. Injuries continued to haunt us, and the line looked like the Keystone Cops. We had gone from weak to incompetent over a strike shortened off season. TJ was getting hammered on pass plays. Beast Mode was caged on run plays. Previously elusive Forsett hardly saw the ball and when he did, he was met in the backfield where he couldn't elude anybody. Washington had a bit more success on pitches and screens to the outside. But all the while, things looked different to me. When the linemen weren't looking stupid, they were looking stronger than we had looked before. We had a number of guys who could get to a linebacker, engage, and sustain a block. I was optimistic.

We played well in New York - and the win was great! - but it was still feast or famine. Again, our good yardage and YPC numbers depended on the big play. I missed the "Ohio" games due to international travel and didn't have the heart to go back and analyze those losses. The '9ers were surging, and I figured that we were toast.

Then, in Dallas, something changed. Our linemen stopped making boneheaded mistakes. They were using better technique. You could see exactly how the line play was designed. Right and left zone and slash plays were easy to see. We were executing. And, we were doing it with push. It was clear that our guys were "getting it." And that confident play led to getting off the ball quickly. And that gave us more leverage. That leverage led to push. And all of a sudden, we were getting strings of 3, 4, and 5 yard runs. That led to more runs, and more confidence, rhythm, and speed. This looked nothing like any Seahawks running game I had charted since that first time I opened a football spreadsheet in 2007. Hallelujah! (Too bad our run D and quarterback play didn't match our running quality. That was a game we could have won.)

Surely, we wouldn't continue that against the Ravens. Yet we did. Even with Moffitt out for the year in the first quarter. Yes, their D is great. They limited us to a long of eight yards. But our offensive line was able to deliver consistent three and four yard runs. I was extremely impressed by Jeanpierre as well as the rest of our running game.

As I see it, the line is responsible for plays between -3 and +2 yards. The running back is responsible for everything else. Our backs have been good enough to deliver the occasional break away, but our line wasn't able to deliver those consistent first two yards. Now we are.

Except Jeanpierre won't play as we need to play it safe with our backup center. McQuistan isn't bad, but until the Rams game we had only seen him as part of our "bad" line. Carpenter is out. Can Breno hold down the spot against a strong defense? Personally, I think our running game depends more on our inside three than the tackles, so I expect us to be okay. I just hope he can do his job well enough to keep TJ upright.

We regressed a bit against the Rams, but that's to be expected. We were running behind yet another group of starters who hadn't played before. The inconsistency was back, but not where you would expect it. Giacomini played surprisingly well. McQuistan started out weak, but tightened up his game in the second half. Okung was mostly solid as were our tight ends. If anything, Gallery had the toughest game, and Unger bungled more blocks than is normal for him. They might have still been a bit beat up from the Ravens game.

Now we have the Redskins coming to town. Hopefully, Gallery and Unger get back to recent form. McQuistan should start feeling more comfortable on the right side. Let's hope Giacomini continues his solid play. They'll have the 12th Man on their side. I'm not too worried about yards per carry. I want to see us get that consistent push back - and I want to see it continue.

Go Hawks!


  1. Welcome. I feel like DVR breakdowns are the most essential part of Seahawks blogging, particularly on the offensive line and secondary, because those areas are team efforts and usually away from the football, thus, individual performances are lost on the casual viewer.

    I'm right there with you about Shaun in 2007. I was at a couple home games that year, and I just wanted to deck some of the fans. I haven't been to a Seahawks game since. Granted, a running back who needs good blocking to be decent isn't usually very good, but Seattle's run blocking was a joke in 2006-2007, and Shaun was a vision based back who needed a running lane SOMEWHERE to succeed.

    I liked this line you had:

    "As I see it, the line is responsible for plays between -3 and +2 yards. The running back is responsible for everything else."

    Its a touch over-simplified: I've seen bad backs turn 3-4 yard gains into 3-4 losses with terrible rushing instincts, and I've seen backs "get skinny" and pickup 3-5 yards when nothing was there. And of course, vision matters and running instincts matter. It doesn't show up in the stats, but when a running back doesn't see a cutback lane big enough to drive a car through, or makes a second level cut outside when running north and south would have done better (or vice versa), it silently takes yards away from an offense. Good running backs make these mistakes less often, and it translates into more big gains, more positive plays and a higher YPC. This is why sometimes you see great running backs that make their lines look better than they really are instead of the other way around. Just like a great quarterback can.

    But MOST of the time, I agree with that line of thinking. Its part of the reason why I had tempered enthusiasm for Lynch's performance against Baltimore. He was consistently getting positive gains, but behind a line that was consistently 2+ yards downfield. Particularly the middle of the line. Which isn't to say Lynch had a bad game, but it did beg the question of what a better back could have done with some of those opportunities. Lynch's long for the game was 8 yards. In that sense, the only difference between that rushing performance and a terrible one is the extra ~64 yards of push the line provided on those 32 runs.

    I don't really know if I can agree with the idea of Seattle gaining a lot of its yards from big plays in the running game. In 2007, yeah absolutely. Spot on. But in 2011, Marshawn Lynch has been allergic to the big play, and that's never been more evident than in the last two games, where he's had 59 carries and the longest was for 12 yards and the second longest was for 8. And this is not new. In his whole career he only has two runs over 40 yards. That's a big part of what made the run in the playoffs so mind blowing.

    But in fairness, Seattle has put the lion's share of investment on the run blocking, not the running backs. We have 3 guys who were drafted in the first round, a center drafted in the 2nd round and a right guard drafted in the 3rd round. Compare that to a 4th, 5th (or 6th), 5th, and 7th for Lynch/Forsett/Washington (although technically Lynch is an ex-1st rounder). In a way, I guess its only logical that our running game has lived and died more with the blocking than many other teams.

    Great addition Brandon.

  2. Jon, I have maintained, against some criticism, that Sims was over rated at guard. There was no shortage of crying about his trade at Field Gulls. You don't specifically mention him, so where did you stand on Sims?

  3. @Kip - Great comment! I think I'm going to like this gig at 17 Power.

    Yeah, the line being "responsible for plays between -3 and +2 yards" is an over simplification. We've seen Lynch improvise his way out of some bad deals, and we've seen Forsett get hammered in his tracks. What I really want to see is 1) the line keeping defenders kept out of the backfield, 2) some push, and 3)finishing blocks. Item (1) avoids losses, item (2) generates movement that can open lanes, and (3) can give the runner some daylight.

    Recently, our backs have been seeing things pretty well. Lynch doesn't get skinny like Forsett, but he's able to intimidate people, break tackles, and muscle his tacklers forward. Justin is more likely to squeeze through a tiny hole before the defenders can react. Very different styles.

    Alexander in his prime had a blend of the two, plus great instincts and vision. As you point out, we've invested in the line and coaches first. We'll worry about getting an elite (quick + strong + instincts + vision) back later.

    Our backs are being coached differently this year. They're lining up further back on many plays. Rather than slowing to see the lanes, those extra two steps gives them the time to see the flow. They can keep their speed up, take a one step cut as needed, and keep going. This works well for Marshawn and not so well for Justin. Justin thrives more on the element of surprise, so I like to see him further forward.

    Regarding the big play, yeah, Lynch and Forsett aren't going to flat outrun people. Lynch powers through tacklers with his straight arm, Forsett out accelerates heavier players, but they both get caught before they gain 20. But a few 10 and 12 yard plays for Lynch and the occasional 18 yard play from Forsett can offset a string of dud plays and give us a four plus yard average. But those duds lead to long 3rd downs and three and outs. On the other hand, if we could get 4+ yards on every running play and no long gains, we'd be a force!

    Anyway, it's not that our long runs have been awesome but that those occasional long gains have masked how many poor plays we usually get in each game. Against Dallas and Baltimore, we virtually eliminated bad running plays. If we can get back to that level of consistency and still add the occasional 8, 12, and 18 yard play, well, that would be sweet!

  4. @ Scott

    I agree that Sims wasn't getting the job done for us. My numbers showed that at the end of his career, Gray was playing the weakest, but that Sims was the second most likely player to contribute to a poor running play.

    I'm not sure exactly the cause. I don't doubt his physical abilities. Was it technique? Brain fade? Poor coordination with the guys next to him? Poor speed off the ball? A combination of the above? I'm not exactly sure. But he wasn't getting the job done.

    As I recall, Alex Gibbs didn't care for Sims' style of play and that was a big part of why he was let go. But when Gibbs left, that was a problem. Gibbs liked quicker linemen like Hamilton (who was really good at going forward to take on LBs.) I'm sure he didn't recommend that we pick up (big, slow) Andrews, who was terrible at engaging at the second level.

    Anyway, Sims wasn't getting the job done. Gibbs didn't believe in him, so that would have been a bad match. But then, Gibbs wasn't the coach during the season and we didn't replace Sims with anybody better. In the near-term, we would have been better off with Sims. But if he needed a long-term contract, it was probably better that we let him go.

    The things we will never know are, 1) would Cable like Sims as a guard, and 2) would Sims improve with Cable's coaching and philosophy? If the answers to those questions are "yes", then we should have kept him. But we'll never know.

    In any case, we needed an improvement at Sims' spot. Moffitt is an improvement. Jeanpierre was also an improvement in 3/4 of a game. So far, McQuistan is probably a wash. Hopefully, McQuistan will get more comfortable on the right side and will gel between Unger and Giacomini quickly. We need him to own the position until Moffitt is ready again next year.

  5. The Lesson of Rob Sims: Beggars can't be choosers.

  6. Jon, one other question: Do you live in Camas?

  7. Yes, Scott. I've been here nearly 16 years. Time flies!

  8. Jon,

    Interesting observation about the running backs starting further back and how that might have impacted Lynch/Forsett.

    Alex Gibbs, the creator of modern ZBS, put a huge emphasis on eliminating negative plays and Seattle has done a very good job of that in recent weeks. However, Football outsiders uses 4 yards as the definition of a "successful" run except on 3rd/4th down, where the definition changes to "enough to get a 1st down." If Seattle was getting 4 yards per carry every time, but didn't have big plays, I'd be fine with that. But getting 3 yards per play and no big plays? No thanks. Like FO, I draw the line at 4 yards. I can deal with not being explosive if Lynch is keeping his average at 4.0 or higher.

  9. Today's game is a great example of what I'd like from Lynch. His long for the game was only 12 yards, but he averaged 4.65 a carry. That's a great performance.

  10. Oh, I live like 10 miles from you Jon. I hike around Lacamas Lake/Round Lake all the time. Probably should have mentioned that.

  11. Yeah, I would have probably used the 4 yard measuring stick had our running game not been so terrible the past few years. I want 4+. I've been willing to settle for 3. :)

    And, yes, had we finished well, this would have been a great game. We had no plays for losses. 75% of Lynch's runs were for three or more yards. This is a huge improvement compared to our previous habit of letting defenders into the backfield near the point of attack. I plan on sticking with my three yard cutoff for the rest of the year. Next season, I'll up the goal to 4+.

    Ha! Last summer my wife and I took countless walks along the Lacamas Lake trail. We've probably been narrowly missed by the same bikes. I live up in the hills above Fern Prairie.

    Small world!

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