Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Rams Game Cemented My Belief that the Seahawk's Defense is No Longer Elite

After the Seahawks 16-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams most expert's analysis focused on the Seahawks defense. The prevailing opinion was the Legion of Boom had shown itself to be as dominate as ever. They held the highest scoring offense in the league to just 10 points, all of which came in the first half. The defense also caused five turnovers. However, I left the game feeling it was just more proof the Seahawks defense doesn't have what it takes to win the Super Bowl on their own. They are not as good as they have been in the past. They are not elite.

The Seahawks defense didn't play poorly against the Rams. The defenders played like a middle of the road NFL defense. They made several good plays. They capitalized on Ram's mistakes. Most importantly though, the Seahawks had luck on their side and they won the game because of it.

The first drive against the Seahawks was a dominate showing by the Rams offense. It ended with what normally would have been a touchdown run, but instead was a fumble out of the back of the end zone, which resulted in a touchback. This was caused by an amazing play by Earl Thomas, but it was also incredibly lucky. If the ball had bounced out of the side of the field, instead of in back of it, the result would have been Ram's ball on the 1 yard line. If Gurley had reached out a second earlier it would have been a touchdown. If Gurley had tucked the ball in and powered forward it would probably have been a touchdown, or at least a first down on the 1 yard line. Nine times out of ten that drive would have ended with a touchdown. Regardless of the eventual outcome that drive was an impressive showing by the Rams. They were in such a rhythm that they never faced a third down. The team never once looked phased by the Seahawks defenders.

Later in the game, near the beginning of the second quarter Ram's Wide receiver Tavon Austin took a third down run 22 yards for a score. This play was concerning to me because giving up big runs has become a trend for the Seahawks in 2017. So far this year the Seahawks once stout run defense has been gashed repeatedly for 20 plus yard runs. DeMarco Murray ran for 75 yards in week 3 and his teammate Derrick Henry added another 20 yarder in the same game. In week 2 the Seahawks defense gave up a 61 yard run to Carlos Hyde. In three out of five games this year the Seahawks have failed to contain opposing running backs. The Rams game added to the evidence that the Seahawks struggle to avoid giving up big running plays.

Twice more the Seahawks defense escaped the Rams offense with the help of some luck. To start the third quarter the Rams had a 12 play drive that ended without points only because kicker Greg Zuerlein missed a 36 yard field goal, a distance that he hits 88.7% of the time in his career. Later in the game normally sure handed running back Todd Gurley tipped a screen pass, instead of catching it, resulting in a Sheldon Richardson interception (Richardson is a defensive tackle, which makes this super awesome). The interception was at the Seattle 25 yard line, ending a drive that normally would have resulted in a field goal.

The Seahawks defense luck hit again on the Ram's penultimate play of the game. With 12 seconds left in the game rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp beat Seahawks Strong Safety Kam Chancellor to get open in the endzone. Quarterback Jared Goff threw a dime that hit a diving Kupp in both hands before falling incomplete. That pass should have been a game winning touchdown for the Rams. The Seahawks defense didn't defend the Rams drive well and were extremely lucky to escape. On any other day, when the Rams had even a modicum of luck on their side, Kupp would have made that catch securing a victory for Los Angeles.

If you focus on the individual drives and not the final outcome the Ram's game highlighted the flaws in the 2017 Seahawks defense.  They have flashes of brilliance, but are not consistent. They feature several super stars, but lack depth. They are prone to untimely penalties.

This is bad news for the probable outcome of the season because the Seahawks offense is terrible, meaning the defense is going to have to be on the field a lot. They are going to have to put in a herculean effort every week and try to keep every team in the low teens. To pull this off the defense needs to be the most elite unit in the league. They need to be historic in their greatness. In the modern day NFL elite offenses are a dime a dozen so it is a sure thing that the Seahawks are going to face one in the payoffs. If the defense can't shut down a scoring machine like the Atlanta Falcons, the Seahawks won't have a chance.

Watching the first five games of 2017 has convince me that the Seahawks defense isn't elite. The Rams game was a perfect example of why they aren't. The team relied more on luck then good play to stop a dangerous Rams scoring attack. If the ball had bounced another way, quite literally in this case, the Seahawks would have lost that game.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Worse Than Advertised

Before the 2017 NFL season started, Seattle Seahawk fans, myself included, worried about the quality of the offensive line. They appeared to be a weak link that could sink the whole season. Now that the Seahawks 2017 season is underway it has become exceedingly obvious that the offensive line is worse than expected. That doesn't mean the season is lost, but it does mean that if they don't do something fast, to fix the porous offensive line, it will be over soon. 

In all three games this year the offensive line has been pushed around. They have been physically overmatched and sloppy. Defenders are able to push right through them or run around them. There have been several times when the majority of the offensive line is left standing untouched only able to helplessly watch the play unfold for a loss of yards. 

The line has failed to consistently provide lanes for the running backs. More often than not the Seahawks running backs have been hit behind the line of scrimmage. It has been a battle just to eke out a zero yard gain. This has resulted in the Seahawks averaging only 96.67 rushing yards per game. 

The struggle to sustain a running game also hurts the passing game. The other teams don’t have to respect the play action pass. The don't have the bring extra defenders in to slow down the ground game. Instead they can leave defenders in the secondary. Additionally, the line is unable to provide adequate protection to give Russell Wilson any time to pass. All of this has resulted in an anemic passing game able to squeak out 226.67 yards per game. 

All of this is depressing for Seahawks fans especially because it was foreseeable. Now the team has only two choice to try and fix the line. They can stick with what they have and hope that the players start to improve or they can turn to the trade market to try and add someone better then mediocre at playing offensive line. If they trade for an improvement they will have to give away future draft picks and most likely a quality player. Personally I think they should be willing to part with next year's first rounder to try and salvage this year. They should also consider trading one of their quality skill players. 

The 2017 version of the Seahawks offensive line is terrible. The line will most likely continue to hold back the offense. The o-line is like a governor on a racecar, keeping the team from reaching their full potential. The season is still young and isn't a lost cause yet, but the team needs to fix the offensive line.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why the Seahawks Will Not Win Super Bowl LII

While the Seahawks are definitely a favorite to win the NFC Championship, they are not a perfect team. The 2017 Seahawks have one glaring terrible flaw that could keep them from reaching the Super Bowl. Much like 2016, the 2017 Seahawks feature one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

For anyone who watched the Seahawks 2016 season memories of the offense usually involve the offensive line failing. They failed to effectively run block. The team averaged under 100 rushing yards per game. They failed to protect Russell Wilson. The QB was sacked 41 times and played hurt for much of the season. The o-lines ineptitude cost the team at least a few games. Week 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being the game where they played their absolute worst (if you don't remember this abysmal game consider yourself lucky. The game ended 5-14).

So, heading into the 2017 one would assume the Seahawks had spent most of the offseason upgrading the worst unit on their team. And try they did. Unfortunately, it appears that the team is still going to be terrible and frustrating when it comes to blocking.

The team picked center Ethan Pocic in the second round of the draft. They signed free agent Luke Joeckel, a former Jacksonville Jaguar lineman. They raved about second year player George Fant. They still had Justin Britt and awarded him with a new contract. One would assume they had a fifth starter in mind.

The thing is none of these moves are that impressive or really fix the offensive line. Ethan Pocic is a center. The only position where the Seahawks line was acceptable was center. Joeckel was a huge bust in Jacksonville. The Jaguars were so over him that they just let him walk. George Fant is a former basketball player with almost no football experience. He played poorly in 2016 and a huge improvement would only bring him to mediocre, but then he got hurt in the preseason. Britt is fine for an NFL starter, but he is no All-Pro.

During the season the offense will run hot and cold as drives are crushed by poor blocking and penalties. In the playoffs teams have good pass rushers and, without unexpected improvement by the lineman, Russell Wilson will have to scramble constantly. It will be up to the defense and special teams to shut down opponents and let the Seahawks squeak by with close victories. The margin for error will be tiny against quality opponents. If the Seahawks fail to make it to the Super Bowl this year it will certainly be because of their offensive line.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why the 2017 Seahawks Will Win Super Bowl LII

The 2017 NFL season is fast approaching. My favorite team, the Seattle Seahawks, is a very talented yet flawed team. Even so they look like a favorite in the NFC yet again. If they do manage to win the conference championship and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again it will be because of their defense.

During Pete Carroll's time as head coach and grand poobah of the Seahawks the team has consistently been one of the best defensive units in the league. They have led the NFL in scoring defense four of the last five years. Their one miss was last year when they still finished a respectablethird at 18.2 points conceded per game. Matt Calkins describes the Seahawksstrategy well writing, "Seahawks football — at least for the past five years — is keeping opposing offenses to single digits and driving them to madness." The Seahawks defense is best described with one word, dominate.>

All of the key players from the Seahawks historic run of defense dominance are back. Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman still man the Legion of Boom. Wagner and Wright still fly around the field making crazy tackles. The defensive line is still anchored by Bennett and Avril. Although all of these guys are creeping up there in age, none of them have yet shown signs of diminished skills. If they continue to avoid father times grip the team will dominate yet again.

Personally I am excited for the return of Earl Thomas. The small, but powerful safety proved how influential he is to the team's success when he got hurt at the end of 2016. With Thomas the team went 8-2-1. Without him they went 3-4, including the playoffs.  The team's defense never recovered from the loss of Thomas. The Falcons dismantled their defense in the playoffs. I don't think Falcons QB Matt Ryan could have marched down the field so easily with Thomas lurking. Entering 2017 Thomas should be all healed and ready to return to his old dominate self.

The greatness of the defense is further augmented by the addition of Sheldon Richardson. The Seahawks traded  away mediocre wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for Richardson, who is a Pro Bowl caliber defensive tackle. The knock on Richardson is his off field behavior. Assuming he stays out of trouble Richardson should turn the Seahawks great defensive line into a potentially historic one. I would expect the Seahawks to stymie ever running back they face up against.

The defensive line did lose to key contributors from 2016 in Cassius Marsh and Ahtyba Rubin. Both played well in 2016, but are no longer on the roster for different reasons. Rubin appears to be a straight up causality of the NFL salary cap. He was getting paid too much money to keep both him and Richardson on the team. Marsh, on the other hand, is a bit more surprising. He was traded to New England for draft picks. I thought Marsh was progressing nicely and added value to the d-line for a relatively cheap price.

Even with the loss of these two players I think the defensive line should be amazing. Bennett, Avril, Clark, and Richardson are proven NFL stars. All four could end up Pro Bowlers. Jarran Reed has been progressing nicely and rookie Nazair Jones offers exciting possibilities with his talent.

The Seahawks defenses under Pete Carroll will end up legendary. NFL fans will be telling their children about the Legion of Boom. Opposing quarterbacks will sing their praises on talk shows for years to come. Despite getting another year older the end hasn't come yet for Seattle's defense. This team still looks set to dominate the NFL and for that reason the Seahawks have a legitimate chance to win Super Bowl LII.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Rise of Strikeouts

During the week of July 4th, on KJR, Seth Everett and Bill Krueger had a discussion about the rise of strikeouts in MLB over the last decade. They argued that the increase in strikeouts made the game less fun. More strikeouts means less balls in play, which means less athletic feats on defense or the base paths. Basically the rise of strikeouts has made the game more focused around the individual battle between the pitcher and the batter, which is slower and harder to enjoy for causal fans. From there the conversation progressed to their diagnosis of what was causing this rise in strikeouts. Both men agreed it was players chasing homeruns that caused more swings and misses. Their hypothesis got me interested and I started digging into strikeout, homerun, and walk trends over the last ten years.

First let me say, I agree with their original point. The huge increase in the number of strikeouts has made baseball more boring. Strikeouts are not rare or exciting anymore. Innings drag on when every at bat ends with a slow trot, with their head down in shame, back to the dugout. I would much rather see running catches in the outfield or diving stops in the infield. Watching tons of strikeouts every night gets boring.

Here are some stats to back up the rise of strikeouts. In 2016 teams averaged 8 strikeouts per game each. The batters for my favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, averaged over seven strikeouts per game every year between 2010 and 2016. The total number of strikeouts recorded in a season has risen every single year since 2007. There were 32,189 in 2007 and 38,982 in 2016. that is a rise of over 6,000 total strikeouts.

So Messrs. Everett and Krueger were right that strikeouts are raising every year and they are raising quickly. Are they also right that the chase of homeruns is driving the increase in strikeouts? I took a look at homerun totals in every year from 2007-2016. Teams hit 5,610 HR in 2016, the most in the last decade. However, unlike strikeouts HR totals have been a consistent trend. Instead they have been all over the place. The lowest of the last decade was in 2014 at only 4,186. The second highest was in 2009 at 5,042.

After reviewing these numbers I am convinced that the allure of hitting homeruns isn't causing players to strikeout. You can see this lack of a trend in Figure 1 where I plotted the league wide strikeout totals and homerun totals year over year. This plot makes it clear that homeruns aren't climbing at the same rate as strikeouts. Additionally I looked at the correlation between HR and K and found it to be a low positive 0.23. The means HR and K are tied together in a positive direction but only loosely. It is pretty clear to me that if people are striking out more often so they can hit homeruns they should rethink their strategy because homerun totals aren't rising.
Figure 1

 Next I took a look at the walk totals over the last decade. My theory was that maybe people were striking out more and also walking more often because they were just taking more pitches in general. The rise of the value of On Base Percentage (OBP) is well documented. Maybe players were trying to increase their OBP by drawing more walks (BB) and a side effect of this is an increase in strikeouts.

I found something shocking here. Walks are actually trending negatively. They are going the complete opposite way of strikeouts. In 2007 there were 16,079 BB. In 2016 there were only 15,088. Walk totals dropped every year between 2009 and 2014. They bottomed out at 14,020 in 2014. In that same year the league struck out the third most times in the decade. Figure 2 plots walk totals and strikeout totals every year between 2007 and 2016. You can clearly see the two trends are opposite. Additionally the two are barely negatively correlated at only -0.13. If players are striking out more often in an attempt to draw more walks they are failing badly.
Figure 2

 This all leads me to believe that the cause for the rise of strikeouts isn't related as much to the batters as it is to the pitchers. I think that the quality of pitching has been steadily increasing over the last decade and hitting has kept up. We already saw that strikeouts have risen and walks have dropped. It is easy to see how both of these phenomena could be attributed to increased pitching skill. Additionally the average fastball velocity in MLB has increased from 92 MPH in 2007 to 93.5 in 2016. Figure 3 shows the year over year change in average fastball velocity. Upping the speed of pitches makes hitting more difficult.
Figure 3

 Anecdotally the increase velocity can be seen by looking at the Seattle Mariners pitching staff. This year the Mariners have three relievers (Diaz, Altavilla, and Pazos) and one starter (Paxton) averaging over 96 MPH on their fastballs. It isn't shocking to see guys up near triple digits. In fact it has become the expectation that your relief pitchers are flame throwers. Guys who can't hit 95 need not apply for late inning relief.

Strikeouts have clearly risen over the last decade of major league baseball. The increased rate of guys failing to put the ball in play is making the game less fun to watch. The culprit for this hitting ineptitude doesn't appear to be batters chasing HR or trying to draw walks. Rather the overall talent of major league pitching has  steadily increased. Teams are featuring more hard throwers making it harder to put the ball in play. Batters have failed to keep pace with the quality of pitching in MLB which has resulted in more strikeouts and less walks and homeruns.

Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball Reference

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Sounders Should Keep Their New Formation

On July 19th, after falling behind by three goals in only 50 minutes against D.C. United , the Sounders substituted Nouhou Tolo and Kelvin Leerdam into the game in the 54th minute. These players took over the left and right defensive back positions from Brad Evans and Joevin Jones, who each moved up to an attacking mid-field role. That new formation resulted in four unanswered goals for the Sounders in the final 36 minutes. Moved forward on the field and relieved of his defensive duties Jones started making plays and notched up two assists. Brad Evans also got involved with the offense netting a goal of his own. The new formation worked great against D.C United and resulted in a historic come from behind victory.

Head coach Brian Schmetzer decided to keep the line up in the Sounders next match against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 23rd. The decision to stay with what worked the week before paid off for the Rave Green yet again. Seattle had a sustained attack against San Jose and looked more alive on offense than they have most of the season. Best of all Seattle scored another three goals and held their opponent scoreless grabbing a win.

So, in the roughly game and a half that Seattle has played with Brad Evans and Joevin Jones as attacking mid-fielders, instead of their more common defensive back positions, the team has scored seven goals and given up none. I think that much of the credit for this offensive explosion has to go to the new formation. It puts a better defender, in Nouhou, at an important position and allows Jones to focus on what he does best, driving up the left side and crossing balls in front of the zone. It also makes room for newcomer Kelvin Leerdam to get on the field and, admittedly based on a small sample size, put him in a position to maximize his contributions to the team.

Jones has had a hot and cold season. On the good side he has notched nine assists, almost all of them on crosses from the left side of the field into the box. Much of this is because so far this season the Sounders attack has focused almost exclusively on this tactic. They relentlessly push the ball up the left side to Jones and give him opportunities to cross it. With as many chances as he has had the nine assists aren't as impressive. Additionally Jones plays left back, a position that requires good defensive skill, something Jones has failed to show consistently in 2017. Number 33 is regularly out of position on defense, often because he hasn't hustled back from the previous crossing attempt. This poor defense has let to several goals by Sounders opponents this year.

The player replacing Joevin Jones at left back in both games is rookie Nouhou Tolo. Watching him play it is obvious he is raw and full of energy. He often makes aggressive decisions and has exaggerated effort, but it has been effective. Nouhou (who at only 20 years old has apparently already earned the right to go by only his first name) is usually in the right spot and he is willing to tackle to make a stop. He is already a better defender than Jones and with more experience he should continue to get better at defense. The one things I dislike about Nouhou's play is his continued attempts to score a goal from 40 yards away. The shots are always errant and have no chance of working. Again this is something coaching and experience should fix.

The other big change in the new formation is the addition of right back Kelvin Leerdam. The Sounders just recently signed Leerdam and the game against D.C. was his first with the team. He made his presence felt and did a great job shutting down the right side. Against San Jose Leerdam was even more impactful. He continued to play solid defense and use his speed move all around the field and shut down attackers. In his limited playing time he appears to be a very solid defender.

Also, Leerdam's massive throw ins led directly to two of the goals. Speaking of those throw ins, wow they are amazing. The guy can huck it like no one else I can remember on the Sounders. He can turn an out of bounds throw in into basically a corner kick. This is a huge advantage for the Sounders and should continue to lead to goal scoring chances.

Moving Jones away from the left back position and into an attacking role allows him to focus on offense and it mitigates the risk of him not being in the correct defensive position. The change also gives the team room for Nouhou and Leerdam to play and both of these players are superior defenders to Jones. Leerdam also brings his strong throw ins to the team boosting their offense. Overall the position change improves the teams chances of winning and I for one hope they stick with it.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Tony Romo Did the Right Thing

In April, coming off a major back injury that caused him to miss most of the 2016 season, veteran Quarterback Tony Romo announced his retirement from the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL. Romo has a gig as a color commentator lined up at CBS. At 36 years old Romo is at the point of his life and career where most quarterbacks begin to regress. Father time and the abuse of playing professional football catch up to them and their skills diminish. So, his decision isn't entirely unexpected. That said there were many that were shocked at Romo's decision. There are several NFL teams with bad to mediocre quarterbacks slated to started in 2017. More than a few of these would probably have been interested in giving Romo one last chance to start in the NFL. Tony Romo did the right thing by resisting the temptation to get back out on the gridiron and instead retiring.

Even in a league as beset with injuries and medical trauma as the NFL Tony Romo stands out as someone whose body took a severe beating. In 2010 Romo broke his left collarbone for the first time. He would go on the break the same bone twice more in his career, both in 2015. Romo also broke parts of his back three times in his career, in 2013, 2014, and 2016. summed it up pretty well with this quote, "During his career, Romo played through broken fingers and ribs, a broken back and a punctured lung. He rushed his recovery from broken clavicles and fingers, often finishing games with a significant limp or hunch."

The glorification of Romo's toughness is a symptom of the NFL's dangerous worship of those players willing to continually put their bodies at grave risk for the good of the game. Romo should have probably retired years ago. Breaking your back once should be a wakeup call. When you break it a second time it is a flashing red siren to get out and let someone else take the physical punishment.  Waiting until now, after his third broken back, to retire is better late than never I supposes.

Hopefully Romo has a long and happy life outside football. I hope that Romo realizes how lucky he is to be able to walk and function as a relatively normal adult and decides to use his new position as a NFL game broadcaster to speak about the dangers of the NFL and the sacrifice that players make for the chance to entertain us.

I hope that Romo doesn't use his influence to voice a glorification of the violence in the NFL and the culture of toughness and manliness that it perpetuates. Americans need to see Romo as an example of someone making a decision based on his own personal health and celebrate it, not question his desire to win a championship. Romo did the right thing by retiring.