Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Winning by Reputation vs. Just Beating Bad Gameplans

It's being said that the Seahawks' defense is now shutting down teams by mere reputation.

In the last two weeks, Seattle has beaten two teams - Baltimore and St. Louis - who abandoned the run very early on after a token showing, then turned around and placed the game on the shoulders of their QB. Word is that their offensive coordinators, aware of Seattle's ability against the run, were planning a pass-heavy attack for that reason even before the game began. If opponents are smart enough to throw out entire facets of the offense before the game even begins, then hey, we must be pretty good.

There's a massive assumption in there: that relying on the passing game made sense for those teams. It's a faulty assumption. It actually made even less sense than trying to run against the brick wall of Seattle's defensive line. If you're going to kill the run, not only do you have to be craftier about it then giving Ray Rice only five carries, but you had better have a quarterback who can carry the team. Otherwise, the results write themselves.

Ravens fans are starting to lose patience with QB Joe "Perpetually One Weapon Away" Flacco. There is obviously still time for the fourth-year QB to improve, and his newest toy, Lee Evans, hasn't been on the field long enough this year to develop chemistry with him. But Flacco looked awful against Seattle, all on his own. His intermediate/deep accuracy is badly wanting. The OC assigned him a playbook similar to the dink-and-dunk checkdown offense that people were hoping Charlie Whitehurst could mince along with ("Hey, it beat the awful 2010 Rams in a game that just happened to be, through no accomplishment of Whitehurst's, a playoff-deciding win! So the Whitehurst Offense must be viable! Right?"). It just didn't have any punch, netting Flacco an appallingly measly 4.9 YPA and bearing a stark resemblance to the same listless offense that pulled Baltimore out of last year's playoffs. Overrated but quality RB Ray Rice was given no chance to help him, limited to five carries.

Speaking of the Rams, their decision to go with a pure passing approach was even more baffling. The Rams have handled Sam Bradford pretty poorly so far. He's stuck with an offensive coordinator who's overloading him just as much as Pat Shurmur underloaded him, and his general manager has only recently become aware of the wide receiver position. Against the Seahawks in particular, St. Louis was starting two backup offensive tackles (which has a ripple effect across an entire offensive line) and had just gotten Brandon Lloyd back on the field. And Bradford, for that matter. This is not a set of circumstances that supports a pure passing approach - at all.

But sure, let's take Pro Bowler Steven Jackson out of the equation entirely and telegraph our intentions all day by emptying the backfield and running spread formations with mediocre weapons, a QB with terrible stats in 4+ WR formations, and a crippled line. (Congratulations, Chris Clemons, you demolished a third-string tackle who'd just been pulled off the practice squad! Here's your national recognition!*)

Abandoning the run game is something you do when your QB is Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, someone who can shoulder the load. It's not something you do when your QB is Sam Bradford or Joe Flacco. The latter is on a run-first team by design; the former is still very early in his development and is looking more and more like a slow-maturing player. What he needs right now is support, not the Peyton treatment.

As for the reputation of our run defense, teams have flourished against the Pete Carroll Seahawks with a pure-passing approach before, so it's not a death sentence to be forced away from the run. It could be argued that Baltimore's 52 passing attempts was equal parts respect for Seattle's run defense and disrespect for its pass defense, given our struggles against any QB with more in his playbook than "Checkdown" and "Green 25, Screw It Go Deep". You just have to be smart about abandoning the run. Seattle has abandoned the run a lot in the last three seasons, and it hasn't helped.

It's easy and comforting as fans of the winner to jump on the idea that our defense might finally be keeping coaches up at night, but the approaches of Baltimore (only five carries for Ray Rice) and St. Louis (lots of empty backfield) really don't make sense objectively. You don't run schemes that your personnel can't support, and killing the run to that extreme takes away your pre-snap flexibility and play-action, makes you one-dimensional. Even a defense bereft of talent, which Seattle isn't, can scrape by if it knows exactly what's coming. Even if that RB on the field isn't expected to make a play, the defense still has to account for him. Maybe, just maybe, some rookie defender will make a rookie mistake and allow a game-changing long TD (KJ Wright on Jason Witten, anyone?).

This play-calling doesn't feel like adaptation. If the running game had been given at least the occasional chance, maybe it's understandable. But this extreme just feels like imbalance, overreaction, neglect of the team's best personnel. Especially coming right after DeMarco Murray had gotten done proving that good RB's are not necessarily impotent against this team. The most sense I can find in this thought process is the heavy emphasis on running backs as receivers, as Seattle's pass defense is ranked #31 in DVOA against RB's.

If we're going to point out that some of those teams' personnel problems are out of their control, like the Rams' injury issues, then that deserves a place in the discussion. But in that case, we're back to the part where Seattle is just grinding out wins through playing inferior competition, rather than through defensive excellence as is the word on the street now. There's talent on this defense, but defeating a completely unsupported Joe Flacco or Sam Bradford is not a quality test and racking up three sacks on a practice-squad tackle shouldn't really be causing a shift in popular perception towards the entire defense. It's too little too soon. I don't want to see another "pretender" defense like 2007's. We need a real trial here, from a full offense, legitimate QB, and an offensive coordinator who isn't on his third team in four years.

* This is more a diss on the purveyors of national recognition than on Clemons. He's one of the most underrated pass defenders in the NFC and is playing hard and disruptively on an island in Carroll's scheme. Frustrating that only sack numbers get you any kudos in this league.


  1. Maybe your best work, B.

    Bradford is a study in how a franchise quarterback cannot save a subpar team all by himself, and that not even supreme talents may transcend poor scheme. Josh McDaniels runs an option route heavy offense, and was clear on Sunday that both quarterbacks and receivers struggle to read the option routes correctly. trying to fit the talent to the scheme is backwards. I still covet Bradford as a QB and I think he still has the makings of an elite level player.

    Flacco, not so much. And once again, the offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, trys to fit the players into his offense, not the other way around.

    One way I disagree about Baltimore, they hung 31 on the Bengals a week after being shut down in Seattle. They were a test.

    Seattle can only play the teams on the schedule, so I don't know any other way to measure them. Rather than guess as to the aptitude of the opposing team and OC as if I am Football Outsiders measuring a metric, I simply ask myself if the Seattle Defense I saw that day physically dominated and outclassed the offense that was put before it. And that question has been fairly easy to answer the last few weeks, win or lose.

  2. I haven't finished reading yet, but I wanted to comment on one point. Seattle isn't being successful with the opponents one dimensional game plan simply because its one dimensional. They are being successful because they have a VERY talented secondary.

    Thanks to Brandon Mebane and later Colin Cole, Seattle actually had above average run defenses in 2008 and 2009, but got smoked on pass defense. Marcus Trufant had a terrible season in 2008, and was ordinary in 2009. Kelly Jennings was terrible in both of those seasons. We had Brian Russell at free safety. If simply knowing what was coming was enough, those would have been good defenses. Instead there were some of the very worst in the NFL despite stopping the run.

    Which isn't to say I disagree with the spirit of your argument. Becoming a 1 dimension offense is usually bad, especially when you have less than an elite quarterback. I think Flacco is a pretty good quarterback, but he feeds off of Ray Rice a lot, kind of like how Keith Price does or Jake Locker did with Chris Polk at UW. By taking Ray Rice out of the game, you automatically made Joe Flacco a much worse quarterback.

    I think our secondary deserves a lot of credit. Seattle has the 3rd best YPC against stat in the NFL amongst some elite company, and if we still had guys like Kelly Jennings and Brian Russell back there, we'd be in big trouble.

  3. True enough Kip, even Bradford got things done against last year's secondary. I am having a hard time giving proper credit to this secondary, perhaps because they haven't yet been able to shut down a real QB. But they shouldn't be expected to do so without some help from the front seven, so maybe I'm being harsh. This secondary is certainly good enough to take those frustrating losses from '08-'10 and turn them into contests, if not wins all the time.

  4. Scott: Flacco is gaining notice for his tendency to beat teams in his own division but then go Flaccid (see what I did there? I'm totally the first one to think of that) against anyone else. It's odd. Their fans are grumbling that the Ravens are overly obsessed over focusing on their own division at the expense of the rest of their sched, but I don't know much about that argument.

  5. Well, since Sherman has come in. The secondary has done basically outplayed A.J. Green, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Lloyd.

    Remember what that group looked like before Pete/John arrived.

    The tone of this piece annoys me. What do you expect here? Them to become elite within two years after starting with basically nothing. Enjoy the ride. Most of the key players here are very early in development.

    Hate the glass half-empty approach to this. Kip nailed it on the head. You have to look at what this team has added since the new regime has got here. You can't just expct them to all of a sudden to become GREAT.

    I See your point but I don't think its fair and I think it's a terrible way to view the situation.

  6. Absolutely understand what you're saying. I'm not implying that there's been, or will be, no defensive improvement since Pete and John arrived. There has, quite a bit of it.

    The WR's you named were being thrown to by Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, and Sam Bradford. Not exactly an intimidating lineup, so we'd expect our defense to do well there. Ryan, Manning, and Romo have been a much different story.

    But that's to be expected right now. Like you said, our defense is very early in their development. It's not a condemnation, either of this front office or its new gestating defense, to point out that they've done great against decent-at-best competition but disappeared against tougher QB-WR's tandems. There's plenty of time to reach the plateau of the big boys. Richard Sherman, after just a handful of starts, is showing enough real talent to make me grin over his potential.

    All I'm saying is, we're not there yet. That may seem obvious, but there are people out there saying that Seattle's defense is "turning a corner", showing "elite" potential. That's what I'm disagreeing with, especially since that tack of opinion is largely resulting from one good game against an opponent with a shattered backup O-line. We won't be doing empirically, consistently, unbeatably well until we get a consistent pass rush going. But we have some of the foundation laid, no doubt.

    Hope you keep posting!

  7. O.K., that is much clearer than what I originally took out of your piece. I couldn't agree with you more there.

    I agree with everything you said in this post. Defence can't be elite without consistently getting after the quarterback.

    Sorry for the criticism before, guess I misinterpreted the tone. Love what you said in this writeup. Much clearer to me!

    Good work Brandon!

  8. No problem. I can see how my tone mighta been a bit caustic at first and not allowing for any perspective.