How the Seahawks Measure Up Through Week Two

Watching the Cowboys lose is always fun, but it’s even more satisfying when the team throttling them is the Seahawks.  As per usual, we’ll hear plenty of that tired old “the Cowboys beat themselves” shtick we’ve all grown to detest over the years, but that’s nothing new.  What’s important here is that we know the Seahawks rocked last Sunday, the only real question is how hard.

To that end, I thought I’d start spending a little time each week using some statistical metrics to examine how well the Seahawks performed in their last game and how they’ve fared over the course of the season to date.  I know that second part doesn’t mean much right now, since we only have two games’ worth of stats to work with, but it should become a lot more interesting as we go.

But before we get into all that, let me just say that I won’t be spending any time playing around with advanced stats.  Unlike baseball, where advanced statistical methods like sabermetrics are much easier to implement because the game can mostly be broken down into neat one-on-one matchups – pitcher v. batter, baseman v. runner, etc. – football involves a much more complicated and dynamic interplay of twenty-two moving parts.  The success of a passing play, for example, doesn’t just depend on whether or not a quarterback can beat a given defensive back; among other things, you also have to factor in the blocking of the offensive linemen (both individually and as a group), how well the offensive play call matches up against the defensive play call, the ability of the receivers to recognize the coverage and adjust accordingly, the communication between members of the secondary, the willingness of a given receiver to secure a catch even though it means taking a big hit, and the list goes on.

Because of all those varying factors, I tend to distrust stats that rely on endlessly complex, proprietary formulas that massage stats to within an inch of their life like ESPN’s QBR or measurements that replace the actual stats with a point grading system like Football Outsiders’ DVOA.  That isn’t to say that there’s no value in newer metrics like those, because there is.  I’m glad that there are people out there pouring so much time and effort into examining the game in new and exciting ways, but there’s a big difference between me acknowledging that sabermetrics-style statistical models could potentially be used to examine football and being convinced that one of the above stats is the one to finally do it.  No one’s done it to my satisfaction yet, and until they do I’ll be sticking with stats that I can work out on my own using nothing more advanced than a legal pad, a spreadsheet, a play-by-play printout, and a fistful of pens and highlighters.

Anyway, enough with the preamble.  Let’s start with some basic averages for the Seahawks.

Rushing Averages

Game Yds/Att Yds/Game Yds/Att
Allowed
Yds/Game
Allowed
1 (ARI) 3.48 115 2.15 43.0
2 (DAL) 4.44 182 3.06 49.0
Total 4.01 (12th) 148.5 (7th) 2.56 (3rd) 46.0 (2nd)

The defense began this season with the potential a top five unit, and through two weeks they’ve been able to be just that against the run.  Holding teams to less than 100 yards a game rushing is pretty good, but holding them to less than 50 is on a whole ‘nother level, especially when one of those performances happens against a guy who gashed the Seahawks last season for 139 yards and 6.3 yards per carry.

The improvement in the offense’s run game in week two is also encouraging.  After finishing the Cardinals game with less than three and a half yards per carry, against the Cowboys Lynch & company improved their average by nearly a full yard per carry.  Looking ahead, the offense’s season averages should only improve as the Seahawks’ next three opponents, the Packers, Rams, and Panthers, currently rank 30th (5.1 ypc), 32nd (5.5 ypc), and 24th (4.7 ypc) against the run, respectively.

Passing Averages

Offense
Game Yds/
Att
Yds/
Cmp
Net Yds/
Game
Cmp
%
TD % Int % Sack
1 (ARI) 4.5 8.5 139 52.94 2.94 2.94 8.33
2 (DAL) 7.55 10.07 133 75 5.0 0 9.09
Total 5.63
(32nd)
9.21
(32nd)
136
(32nd)
61.11
(17th)
3.7
(23rd)
1.85
(4th)
8.62
(24th)
Defense
1 (ARI) 5.97 10.75 210 55.56 2.78 2.78 2.7
2 (DAL) 6.28 10.91 247 57.5 2.5 2.5 2.44
Total 6.13
(5th)
10.84
(12th)
228
(14th)
56.58
(5th)
2.63
(7th)
2.63
(17th)
2.56
(29th)

(Note: net yards per game = passing yards – sack yards; sack % = sacks / (pass attempts + sacks))

I’m not entirely sure how to read the stats for the Seahawks’ pass defense just yet. They did a great job last Sunday bottling up Romo and his receivers, but the week before they posted almost identical averages against the Cardinals, a team that hasn’t been known for its passing game since Kurt Warner retired after the ’09 season.  For now, I’m inclined to wait until I can see how the defense fares against Aaron Rodgers before I jump to any conclusions.  About the only thing we can say for sure right now is that sacks are still concerningly few and far between this season.

The offense’s passing game made great strides last week by improving their averages in nearly every category, but week one’s stats are low enough to keep the Seahawks’ season averages in the cellar.  As with the defense, I’m going to wait until after I see how Russell Wilson and his receivers perform against the Packers (their pass defense is currently ranked 2nd in the NFL) before I take too hard a look at their numbers.

Special Teams Averages

Game Kick
Returns
Punt
Returns
FG % Punts Kick
Returns
Allowed
Punt
Returns
Allowed
1 (ARI) 44.3 12.5 75.0 46.3 22.0 9.3
2 (DAL) 20.0 7.0 100 53.8 21.8 1.0
Total 38.25
(1st)
11.4
(12th)
83.33
(26th)
50.0
(7th)
21.83
(12th)
6.5
(8th)

Special teams got off to a rough start in 2011, but solidified as the season wore on.  Aside from a single blocked field goal against the Cardinals, this year special teams has been strong right from day one.  Leon Washington is back to eating up large chunks of yardage in the return game thanks to improved blocking downfield, kick and punt coverage has been solid, and Jon Ryan is doing his usual great job of giving the defense plenty of room to maneuver. 

Steven Hauschka’s one miss this year came on a blocked field goal in the Cardinals game.  Hauschka’s career percentage on long field goal tries (42.86% from 50+ yards) isn’t going to make anyone forget Josh Brown or Olindo Mare, but over the last three years (one with Denver, two with Seattle) he’s been very reliable on field goals shorter than 50 yards (94.74%).

Run-Pass Differential & Turnover Differential

Here’s where we start to get beyond the basics.  As I explained in this article from last season, the run-pass differential is a simple formula

(Rush Attempts + Pass Completions) – (Opponent’s Rush Attempts + Pass Completions)

that’s helpful in gauging the quality of a win.  When you combine it with the team’s turnover differential (takaways – turnovers) for the game, it becomes even more useful.  Here are the results from the 2011 season:

+
R-P
=
R-P
-
R-P
+
TO
110 W (91.7%)
10 L (8.3%)
5 W (62.5%)
3 L (37.5%)
41 W (57.7%)
30 L (42.3%)
=
TO
40 W (72.7%)
15 L (27.3%)
2 W (50%)
2 L (50%)
15 W (27.3%)
40 L (72.7%)
-
TO
30 W (42.3%)
41 L (57.7%)
3 W (37.5%)
5 L (62.5%)
10 W (8.3%)
110 L (91.7%)

As you can see, teams that finished games positive in both differentials won the game 91.7% of the time, teams that finished positive in turnovers but negative in run-pass differential won 57.7% of the time, and so forth.  The main usefulness of this measurement is in predicting how sustainable a team’s success is.  Win when you’re positive in both stats and you probably deserved your victory; win when you’re negative in both and odds are you just got lucky.  Here’s how the Seahawks have stacked up in both categories to date:

Game R-P TO Result
1 (ARI) +11 0 Loss
2 (DAL) +17 +2 Win

And there you have it, more proof that the Seahawks didn’t steal a win from the Cowboys, they earned it.  And while Seattle lost to Arizona, they did finish that game ahead in run-pass differential and equal in turnovers; if you look back to the table above, you’ll see that teams that finished games similarly last year won the game 72.7% of the time.  Statistically speaking, the Cardinals got away with one.

Toxic Differential

This is one of a few stats I’ve picked up in the last year or so from reading up on Brian Billick.  He’s best known these days for his nine years as head coach of the Ravens, a team that’s synonymous with great defense, but prior to that Billick was known as one of the best offensive minds in the game.  In three of his six seasons as offensive coordinator for the Vikings, his offense was one of the top ten in the NFL.  In 1998, his last season as Minnesota’s OC, the Vikings set the NFL record for most points scored in a season with 556.  The dude knows his offense.

A big part of Billick’s success as a coach was his willingness to spend hours at his computer analyzing statistical trends and tendencies.  In 1998, he hit on something he called the toxic differential (toxic because it kills your chances of winning if you’re on the wrong side of it), and since then it’s proven to be a remarkably accurate predictor of a team’s chances of making the playoffs.  Simply put, the toxic differential combines a team’s turnover differential with a team’s explosive play differential.  The higher your toxic differential, the more successful you’re likely to be.

Billick defines explosive plays a bit differently than the NFL does:

Explosive plays are measured by the NFL as gains of 20 yards or more.  A more detailed analysis shows a more valid measure being runs of 12 yards or more and passes of 16 yards or more.  These levels of production proved to be more significant as to what is needed to constitute and gain the effects of an “explosion.”1

Using that definition, I went back through the play-by-play stats for both of the Seahawks’ games and here’s what I found:

Game Exp. Plays Exp. Plays
Allowed
Exp. Play
Differential
TA TO TO
Diff.
Toxic
Diff.
1 (ARI) 2 6 -4 2 2 0 -4
2 (DAL) 6 6 0 2 0 +2 +2
Total 8 12 -4 4 2 +2 -2

A -2 differential isn’t all that heartening, I know, but at least the Seahawks appear to be headed in the right direction.  Also, two of the plays being counted against the Seahawks here are Wilson’s interception on a hail mary pass to end the first half of the Cardinals game and a 23 yard completion thrown by Romo on the very last play of the Cowboys game against soft coverage, but exceptions like those should begin to balance out as the season progresses.

First Down Efficiency

In this section I’m going to look at two different stats Billick talks about in Developing an Offensive Game Plan, the first being how many yards a team gains on first down.  His belief that a good team should gain enough yardage to put itself in a manageable second and medium situation is hardly new2, he just happens to be the first person I’ve seen put a percentage on how often a successful offense does it.  According to him, NFL teams typically gain 4+ yards on first down about 40-50% of the time, and the better offenses in the league are at the top of that range.  Here’s how the Seahawks have done on first down:

 

Game 4+ Plays <4 Plays 4+ Plays
Allowed
<4 Plays
Allowed
1 (ARI) 10 (34.48%) 19 (65.52%) 7 (26.92%) 19 (73.08%)
2 (DAL) 9 (36.0%) 16 (64.0%) 9 (37.5%) 15 (62.5%)
Total 19 (35.19%) 35 (64.81%) 16 (32%) 34 (68%)

As with the toxic differential, the Seahawks’ offense still has plenty of room for improvement.  They did improve slightly from week one to week two, but it’s small enough that it could simply mean that the Cardinals played better defense than the Cowboys did.  We’ll learn more as we add in more game stats.

The defense’s stats are much more encouraging, with them holding both the Cardinals and Cowboys well below the 40-50% range.  I’m interested to see how they hold up in this category against the Packers’ pass-heavy assault.

The second statistic looks at how often a team converts on first and second down instead of third down.  According to Billick, only about 25-35% of a team’s first down conversions should occur on third down.  That means 65-75% of a team’s conversions need to happen on first and second down plays.  Here’s the Seahawks’ stats:

Game 1st & 2nd
Conv.
3rd & 4th
Conv.
1st & 2nd
Conv.
Allowed
3rd & 4th
Conv.
Allowed
1 (ARI) 9 (45.0%) 11 (55.0%) 12 (66.67%) 6 (33.33%)
2 (DAL) 10 (52.63%) 9 (47.37%) 10 (58.82%) 7 (41.18%)
Total 19 (48.72%) 20 (51.28%) 22 (62.86%) 13 (37.14%)

(Note: penalties resulting in first downs and all scoring plays are counted here as conversions.)

Here we can see improvement on both sides of the ball.  The offense is still below the norm here, but hopefully it will continue its upward trajectory.  After the defense let the Cardinals finish in the bottom end of the normal range, seeing them force a more competent offense like the Cowboys to make a higher percentage of their conversions on third down is a positive sign.

Red Zone Efficiency

How often a team scores any points (FG or TD) when it enters the red zone.  This one is pretty simple: an offense should score points every time it enters the red zone.  The league average is 80%, so the goal on offense is to meet or exceed that mark, while the defense is going to want to keep teams at or below that mark.  Here’s the Seahawks’ stats:

Game RZ Trip
w/ Score
RZ Trip
w/o Score
RZ Trips
Total
RZ Trip
w/ Score
Allowed
RZ Trip
w/o Score
Allowed
RZ Trips
Allowed
Total
1 (ARI) 3 (75%) 1 (25%) 4 4 (100%) 0 (0%) 4
2 (DAL) 3 (100%) 0 (0%) 3 0 (0%) 1 (100%) 1
Total 6 (85.71%) 1 (14.29%) 7 (3.5 per
game)
4 (80%) 1 (20%) 5 (2.5 per
game)

Seattle’s offense has failed to score on just one red zone trip, the one at the end of the Cardinals game where they failed to score in seven attempts at the end zone.  That one hurt, but it’s good to know that they’ve come away with points on every other visit they’ve made this season

Looking through the play-by-play stats for the Cowboys game, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Cowboys didn’t visit the red zone until Romo connected on a pass to Felix Jones on the very last play of the game (his earlier touchdown pass was thrown from just outside the red zone).  That was just a great all-around defensive effort.

Penalties

Since penalties have been a big problem for the team under Pete Carroll, I thought I’d finish with a running tally of the Seahawks’ penalties to date:

Game Off.
Pen.
Def.
Pen.
 ST
Pen.
Total
Penalties
1 (ARI) 7 5 1 13
2 (DAL) 5 0 0 5
Total 12 5 1 18 (28th)

After finishing last year as the second-most penalized team in the NFL (i.e. 31st), 28th isn’t much of an improvement.  Oddly enough though, it’s the offense, not the defense, that’s been committing the majority of the penalties this time around.  I don’t think that really counts as progress, but it’s something.

*        *        *

Now that I’ve gotten all the introductory explanations for these stats out of the way, I’ll leave them out in upcoming weeks and just link back to this article for those who want to read them again.  That way I can keep these short and spend the majority of my time each week writing about other stuff.

If there are any statistical metrics I’ve forgotten to include that you’d like to see me track as we go along or if you notice a mistake I’ve missed, don’t hesitate to tell me.

*        *        *

1 From Developing an Offensive Game Plan by Brian Billick (1997), page 11.

2 “First down: Use a strong play that should make five yards or more if it works.” From Championship Football by D.X. Bible (1947), page 170.  This is just the first example that came to mind.

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