Seattle Seahawks 2020 Team Study

Offense

Russell Wilson throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the league. Particularly when given time in the pocket, he can throw a moon ball that somehow drops right in the receiver’s breadbasket. He is also accurate on short passes, and his career-high 68.8% completion rate in 2020 was a big reason why the 6th-ranked Seahawks offense had such a strong showing.

But as impressively as Wilson throws the ball, many of these plays are by nature low percentage plays. Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf provide highlight reels that show up on AWS commercials indicating how unlikely (and therefore impressive) a catch was. These highlights are fun to watch but they don’t show the many similar plays that didn’t quite happen because a defender tipped the ball at the last second or the receiver’s foot touched out of bounds. Even an excellent deep passer like Wilson has a low overall success rate on these types of throws.

You can’t simply extrapolate Wilson’s completion percentage onto all of his passes equally. Although the Seahawks had a high completion rate and a high average depth of target, the numbers actually show that Wilson was far less successful when throwing downfield. In fact, Seattle was only one of five teams who averaged 2.4+ more yards on pass attempts than completions in 2020. The other four teams were Denver (Lock/Driskel/Rypien), the Jets (Darnold/Flacco), Cincinnati (Burrow/Allen/Finley), and Chicago (Trubisky/Foles). Not an auspicious list.

This chart shows each team’s Average Depth of Target (x-axis) versus its Average Depth of Completion (y-axis). The outliers to the low side are teams that were relatively unsuccessful when throwing deep compared to throwing short. Seattle was among them. But if Wilson is such an accurate passer, why would this be?

I believe it stems from two issues: First, the offense wasn’t creative or diverse. Lockett and Metcalf accounted for well over half the team’s receiving yards and no other player even had 50 targets on the season. Other offenses take advantage of coverage weaknesses by mixing up downfield routes and throwing all over the field. Seattle relied on the talent of Metcalf and Lockett winning battles. Second, Wilson was pressured at the NFL’s 7th-highest rate. It is much more difficult to throw accurately when you are constantly under siege.

But against defenses that do not pressure well or cover well, the Wilson-Metcalf-Lockett stack consistently won. Wilson maintained high percentage downfield throws against the worst passing defenses. So Seattle outperformed against teams that routinely allowed deep passes, which is an indication of poor downfield coverage and/or poor pressure.

This chart tracks Seattle’s offensive Adjusted Rating by each team’s ADOT allowed on the season. The Seahawks struggled offensively against teams that allowed the fewest air yards, averaging a -0.15 Adjusted Rating in five games against the Rams, Bills, and Giants (all top 3). Each of these teams had notably good cornerback play. By contrast, they averaged a stellar +0.98 Adjusted Rating against MIN, MIA, ATL, and NE, who allowed the highest air yards of any teams they faced.

The common narrative around the Seahawks was that they started the year “letting Russ cook” but then their offense trailed off as they tried to re-commit to the run. Some of the surface level numbers support this narrative.

SEA Late-Season Decline

SplitWilson Pass Yds/GameSEA Points/Game
First 6 Games31533.8
Last 11 Games22725.1

But I did not observe a fundamental change in offensive philosophy. Rather, they opened the year against a series of bad defenses and took full advantage. Their first 6 opponents averaged a -0.20 defensive Adjusted Rating and ranked, on average, 21st in the NFL. But every one of their final 11 opponents ranked 20th or better, and averaged a +0.21 Adjusted Rating. When your offensive success hinges on completing big throws, that extra pressure and coverage that good defenses bring can make a drastic difference in performance.

Deeper Look at SEA Decline

SplitCalled PassesCalled RunsYPAYPC
First 644.1719.838.65.25
Last 1142.2720.906.84.62

As you can see, there was a slight shift towards the run in the latter half of the season, but the biggest issue was efficiency. The Seahawks declined drastically both running and passing the ball. They were just much worse on a play-by-play basis against these stronger defenses, and that led to their offensive decline.

This, I think, is why Carroll started talking about being more effective in the run game. He realized the fragility of an offense that relies on completing low-percentage plays with elite talent and wants to establish more consistency with the aim of performing better against tough defenses.

The offense also struggled a bit when both Carson and Hyde were unavailable in 2020. None of the backups were able to provide the value that Carson provided, but at least Hyde did well enough to keep the run game moving. The offensive line was not good enough to provide value no matter who was back there. Seattle was faced with a tough decision in the offseason with Carson’s pending free agency, and did well to re-sign him without breaking the bank.

Overall, this offense could score on anyone at any time. When pressed, they could perform and made some incredible plays. Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But their vanilla approach and lack of diversity led to a decline when they had to face tough defenses. They cannot maintain the status quo from 2020 and expect to be an elite offense against the top defenses in 2021.

Defense

While Seattle’s offense declined in the latter part of the year, their 17th-ranked defense got better. But just as their offensive schedule was lopsided, so was their defensive schedule. Just take the opposing quarterbacks: Omitting teams they faced in both the first and second half of the season, in their first 8 games, they played Matt Ryan (with Julio), Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins, and Josh Allen. In their back 9 games, they played Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Colt McCoy, Sam Darnold, and Dwayne Haskins. Hard not to play better with that slate.

But even accounting for matchups they did improve somewhat. Their Adjusted Defensive Rating, which measures performance against the strength of each opponent, trended upwards throughout the year.

Their identity shifted somewhat over the course of the season. They saw the offense struggle and played extra hard on defense to make up for it. They also overcame some early defensive injuries, including to Jamal Adams, and rookie first-round pick Jordyn Brooks got increasingly involved and played well late in the year. They weren’t as sloppy defensively and they exerted more pressure.

Overall, the Seahawks defense was noticeably stronger against the run than the pass, allowing the 4th-lowest yards per carry but only the 15th-lowest yards per pass play. This made them stronger against teams with poor quarterback play in particular, as those teams were more reliant on the ground game for success. This could help explain why they played better, even relative to competition, in the latter half of the year.

The defense also played much better at home in 2020, even though crowd noise was not a factor. The Seahawks have one of the strongest home field advantages in the NFL, not just because the fans make noise, but because traveling to Seattle almost always involves a big trip (and, conversely, every time the Seahawks play away from Seattle they are on a big trip). When they get their 12th man back next year, this advantage should be even stronger.

This chart shows the Seahawks’ defensive Adjusted Rating in Home games (blue line) v. Away games (green line), from worst to best. They almost always played above average at home and rarely played above average on the road. If they can carry their defensive momentum into 2021 and get a boost from the crowd, they should be a strong defense, particularly at home.

Putting it All Together

Betting Takeaways

  • The Seahawks are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were overrated to start the year, but came back down to earth and people saw it by year’s end.
  • The Seahawks can win against anyone. Wilson can make magic happen, particularly in clutch moments, and their defense is no walkover. Be cautious betting against Seattle on the money line or when they are underdogs.
  • Expect Seattle to outperform offensively against teams that don’t pressure or cover well, but to underperform against defenses that do pressure and/or cover well.
  • Expect Seattle’s defense to outperform against bad quarterbacks and teams that rely on the run for success.

Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways

  • For fantasy football purposes, a concentrated offense like Seattle’s is a good thing. Russell Wilson is an elite fantasy quarterback who scores a lot of touchdowns. Metcalf, Lockett, and Carson all provide reliable production as clear focal points of this offense.
  • Carson has never played a full NFL season. With Carlos Hyde gone and Rashaad Penny healthy, Penny makes for an intriguing late-round stash if you have the bench space. He has shown flashes of decent play in his career and could step up if needed.
  • Wilson uses tight ends effectively but it’s tough to say who is the beneficiary here with Gerald Everett coming to town. I would look elsewhere for my tight end production.

Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year

In Week 11, the Seahawks hosted the overrated Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. In their first matchup, Seattle outplayed Arizona on the road but got unlucky in an overtime loss where it looked like they just ran out of gas. In the two weeks leading up to the rematch, Seattle lost two tough-fought games on the road against two of the best teams in the NFL (the Bills and Rams). Sentiment was down and we were gifted a 3-point spread for the home favorites against a team they simply outclassed. I predicted that the Cardinals defense would not be able to slow down the Seahawks the way the Rams had, and that Murray would not be able to keep up with Wilson on a short-week road trip. I happily took SEA -3 for 5 Units, predicting that Seattle would win comfortably, and that I would likely push at worst. The Seahawks were in control from the start, and fended off a late comeback attempt by the Cardinals to win and cover, 28-21.


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