Aaron Schatz, the creator of Football Outsiders, and Brian McIntyre, a salary cap specialist who works for NFL.com, were both gracious enough to answer specific questions about the Seattle Seahawks prospects in the upcoming season.
Football Outsiders is a stat-based web site dedicated to providing football-specific information on the NFL. Seahawks general manager John Schneider is one of the many people in the industry who keep up with the detailed analysis Football Outsiders provides, and uses their information in their daily work.
Football Outsiders just published their annual Football Almanac, which provides a wealth of detailed breakdowns like personnel trends and running success rates on each team in the league. If you haven’t picked up one up already, it’s recommended reading in order to prepare for the upcoming season. You can find out more information on how to purchase this year’s almanac here in PDF form or in print. It’s also available at Amazon.com
McIntyre, who you probably remember from the excellent weekly personnel reports and contract analysis he provided for us over the years, wrote this year’s Seahawks chapter for the almanac.
The following are five questions I asked after reading over this year’s chapter
Q: According to this year’s Almanac, the Seahawks’ mean win projection is 7.2 wins, which I believe is the same as San Francisco. First off, how did you arrive at the number? And secondly, how did a team that finished 13-3 last season in San Francisco end up with such a low number. And lastly, based on your projection what will it take for Seattle to surpass the seven-win mark and compete for a playoff spot this season?
Aaron Schatz: The mean win projections are based on a complicated process. It starts with an equation that projects each team’s quality for the season based on a number of different variables – experience, offseason roster changes, different splits and various specific stats from the past two seasons.
We then simulate a number of different possible results from this equation, and then use the resulting ratings to play the season over and over. In the end, what we have are one million sample seasons that give us an idea of what we can expect from each team this year – what’s likely, and what’s unlikely.
I’ve written a lot about the San Francisco projection this preseason, since that’s the most controversial one we’ve made. Let me see if I can run down the issues quickly.
-- The Plexiglass Principle: Teams that make a dramatic improvement tend to decline in year three, while teams that make a dramatic fall tend to improve in year three. Since 1978, eleven teams have improved by seven or more wins from one season to the next. Not counting the 49ers, the ten other teams declined by an average of 4.7 wins the following year.
-- Offense is more consistent than defense from season to season, and defense is more consistent than special teams. The 49ers’ success was primarily built on defense and special teams, which are more likely to regress towards the mean than a similarly strong offensive team (say, the Patriots).
-- The 49ers were superbly healthy, especially on defense, and that’s unlikely to be the case this year; you have to assume that teams will generally have an average number of injuries each year.
-- Alex Smith doesn’t have a track record of being an above-average quarterback. He’s been in the league seven seasons, and last year was the first time he was above average, so it is hard to believe he’ll be above average again. (Objectively, that is; subjectively, we’re big believers in Jim Harbaugh’s coaching skills.)
As far as Seattle surpassing the seven-win mark, it could be anything – the range of results in the simulation is supposed to represent any number of possibilities. I think the most likely reasons for the Seahawks taking a big step forward would be: 1) Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson is better than expected as the starting quarterback; 2) Bruce Irvin has an Aldon Smith-like rookie year; 3) the non-Patriots of the AFC East are not as good as we are projecting, giving all the NFC West teams another win or two.
Q: With Chris Clemons recently signing a contract extension with the Seahawks, I thought the statistic of the Seattle defensive end dropping more in zone blitz coverage than any other defensive end other than John Abraham was an interesting nugget. How effective was the Seattle’s defense in those situations? And secondly, what are your projections for rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin in his first year?
Brian McIntyre: On those plays (36 in total), the Seahawks posted four sacks and an interception. Our game charters noted 12 other plays where opposing quarterbacks were under pressure and/or forced to scramble. Seventeen of 29 attempts resulted in completions, gaining 172 yards, eight first downs and a touchdown. Two additional first downs were gained by opposing quarterbacks on scrambles. Clemons was the nearest defender in coverage on two of those pass plays, and he had one pass deflection and allowed a six-yard completion.
Irvin’s remarkable sack production at West Virginia (22.5 sacks in 26 games) and impressive athleticism should have resulted in a high score on our SackSEER projection model, but the two seasons of eligibility Irvin missed and a lack of passes defensed lowered the projection to 11.1 sacks over five seasons.
Players can (and do) beat the projection. A great example of that is Jason Pierre-Paul, who also missed two seasons of eligibility and had outstanding athleticism. The initial SackSEER model had him for 3.8 sacks, a projection he beat in Year One (4.5 sacks as a rookie) and obliterated with 16.5 sacks in 2011.
As Seahawks fans know, 11 sacks is the same number that Clemons produced in each of his two seasons in Pete Carroll’s defensive system. Raheem Brock came close to double-digit sacks in this defense (nine in 2010) and Irvin is expected to play a similar role and similar number of snaps that Brock has the last two seasons.
Q: According to the almanac, the Seahawks had the third least healthy offense in the NFL last season, with a 53.4 adjusted games lost. And you also note that Tarvaris Jackson took 42 sacks last season, second only to Alex Smith. According to your charting, 17 of Jackson’s sacks were “long sacks”, where he held onto the ball for at least three seconds.
My question is, if Seattle names Jackson the starter, do you believe those numbers will improve with a healthy offensive line? Or do you believe that Jackson will continue to hold onto the ball too long? And how does a healthy Sidney Rice factor into that?
Brian McIntyre: If Tarvaris Jackson is named the starter, there is no question that a healthy and improved offensive line, and a healthy Sidney Rice, could reduce the overall number of sacks that Jackson takes in 2012. A healthy and improved line would be less dependent on Zach Miller in pass protection, which would give Jackson a nice safety valve in the passing game.
That said, Jackson is really good at following Pete Carroll’s mantra about ball security, which makes him susceptible to the “long sack.” Also, in very limited action with the Vikings in 2010, Jackson was sacked six times in 66 pass plays and had an average sack time of 2.7 seconds.
Q: You note that Seattle had dramatic splits in their performance before and after halftime. According to the Almanac, on offense the Seahawks went from 30th in DVOA before halftime to eighth after halftime. On defense, they went from 25th in DVOA before halftime to the best defense in the league after halftime.
First, can you explain what DVOA is, and what it measures? Secondly, I know you had a tough time figuring out the reason for the splits. I’ll offer a couple. Carroll is known for making pretty good halftime adjustments, particularly on defense, after seeing how a team is attacking him. Also, the Seahawks were outscored 103-58 in the second quarter in 2011, so usually they had to open it up offensively after starting the game conservatively. Lastly, I know the Seahawks finished +8 in turnover differential, good enough for fifth in the league. Perhaps a majority of those turnovers occurred in the second half, giving a bump to both sides of the ball?
Brian McIntyre: DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Every play is scored for its success based on the down and distance, then that success rating is compared to the league average adjusted for situation and opponent. It’s our main metric for both players and teams.
The Carroll halftime adjustments theory is an interesting one, but it doesn’t seem to be backed up by history. The 2010 Seahawks were 30th in defensive DVOA before halftime, 27th afterwards, not much of an improvement. The 1999 Patriots were 15th/16th. The 1998 Patriots did have a similar split: 18th before halftime, fifth afterwards. But the 1997 Patriots were the exact opposite: second in defense before halftime, 28th in the league after halftime.
You are definitely right about the turnovers though, especially on defense. The Seahawks had five picks in the first half of games, 17 in the second half. Again, we have no idea if this is a real meaningful trend or just random noise in the numbers.
Q: According to the Almanac, Seattle allowed 6.8 yards per carry and a league-worst 33.6% DVOA on handoffs to running backs out of the shotgun. That’s an interesting stat. What personnel grouping was on the field the most in those situations? And it appears that Seattle tried to upgrade that group by drafting Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and Korey Toomer, along with signing defensive tackle Jason Jones. How much will those changes help Seattle’s nickel package?
Brian McIntyre: On 80 percent of those running plays (handoffs to running backs) out of shotgun formations, the Seahawks were in a nickel defensive (4-2-5). Irvin and Jones were brought in to get after the quarterback and overaggressive attempts to get to the passer could leave them prone to giving up big plays on draws.
As for the linebacker position, former linebacker David Hawthorne made over 25 percent of the tackles on these running plays. Whether it’s K.J. Wright, Wagner, Toomer or Malcolm Smith, the “Mike” in Seattle’s nickel packages may not have the experience to sniff out a draw play.