Russell Wilson, the Key For Seattle's Playoffs

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Run more, score less, hope for the best… on three… BREAK!

The bottom line in sports is winning. Period.

“You are what your record says you are” is what Bill Parcells once said.

With all due respect, that's wrong.

Thankfully, we now have access to substantially more data than we once did. We can use that data to understand the game better. What we’re trying to understand is “how do teams win games?” There is a ton of noise in football. Small things that have a huge influence. Singular plays that drive tremendous amounts of weight into a final result. Plays such as:

Turnovers
Fourth downs
Third downs
Red zone

Then, there are time periods that often can be less meaningful based on the in-game situation. Periods of plays that are reactionary, rather than planned. If I want to know what a coach’s strategy is, I’m not looking at third downs unless I want to know what his strategy is only on third downs. His game strategy, his plan, will be executed primarily on early downs in the first half of games. The fourth quarter in most games is full of reactionary plays based on the scoreboard. We don’t want those plays adding more noise in our attempt to understand what a team’s core philosophy is.

The bottom line is, we know certain plays or time periods in some cases add tremendous influence in games and in other cases, are full of noise.

The key to winning games is simple: move the ball as efficiently and as quickly as possible down the field to score points and do so as early in the game as possible.

In more detail: winning games is easiest when you are extremely efficient on early downs, avoid third downs, race to a lead early in the game and force your opponent to play desperate, predictable football in the second half while trying to catch-up from a large deficit.

Russell Wilson took the football world by storm. On a third-round rookie contract, the Seahawks were getting Pro Bowl performance for breadcrumbs salary. Their defense was out of this world. They spent on so many other positions other than quarterback they could stack the roster. Their defense ranked top-five from 2012-2016. But then it started to show cracks. By 2017, it was barely above average. A little worse in 2018. Below average in 2019.

Wilson's total cap hit from 2012 through 2014 was $2.0 million. It was only $7 million in 2015. But in 2016 it jumped to $18.5 million. That ranked as QB10. From 2016-2018, it averaged $19 million.

That’s a long way from QB19 in 2015, and an even further away from barely even registering in 2012-2014.

The combination of the more expensive cap hit factored in the defense falling off. But we’re not interested in the reasons why it happened.

What I want to show you is the impact.

Knowing Wilson’s cap hits started factoring into roster decisions for the first time in 2016 and the defense started falling off in 2017, examine how these elements played a role in the on-field results using halftime leads. How many regular season games did Seattle lead at halftime and how many did they win?

2012: 11 halftime leads, 11 wins
2013: 10 halftime leads, 13 wins
2014: 8 halftime leads, 12 wins
2015: 11 halftime leads, 10 wins
2016: 11 halftime leads, 10 wins
2017: 4 halftime leads, 9 wins
2018: 7 halftime leads, 10 wins
2019: 5 halftime leads, 11 wins

From Wilson’s rookie season 2012 through 2014, Seattle’s offensive coordinator was Darrell Bevell. Seattle always ran the ball at a top-10 rate in neutral situations. They won the Super Bowl in 2013 and made it back in 2014 but lost. In 2015, the team was still at a top-10 run rate, but looking at their season compared to prior years, it’s easy to see why there was a lot of extra thought put in during the offseason leading to 2016.

Seattle went from back-to-back division titles, 12+ win seasons and trips to the Super Bowl to finishing in second place in the NFC West, winning only 10 games and not advancing past the Divisional round. Examining the run rates from 2015 onward showed Darrell Bevell and Russell Wilson wanting to entrust the three-time Pro Bowler to use his arm more in 2016.

Examine the run rate on early downs in the first half by season, starting in 2015:

2015: 50% run rate, ninth
2016: 42% run rate, 28th
2017: 46% run rate, 23rd *Bevell was fired after this season
2018: 60% run rate, first *Brian Schottenheimer’s first season
2019: 50% run rate, ninth

During the 2017 season, even though Bevell ran slightly more than in 2016, it was still too much for Pete Carroll. Bevell would be fired after the season.

He was replaced by someone who would follow Carroll’s directive to return to the run. The savior of the offense. Brian Schottenheimer.

But something interesting was happening that started in 2017, and continued with the run-heavy Seahawks in 2018 and 2019. They weren’t having good first halves of football. This team went from having halftime leads in at least 10 games a year (most of the time, 11 games) to having halftime leads in only four, five, and seven games from 2017-2019.

This wasn’t the same team as it was during Russ’s rookie deal, when they could be a top-10 run-heavy team with a top-5 defense and lead at halftime in over 60% of their games. Their offense had to be more aggressive and urgent if they wanted to lead at halftime. But they weren’t...

...until after the 2019 season, when both Russell Wilson and Brian Schottenheimer saw the light. I predicted the strategy in last year’s Seattle chapter. “My plan: They need to entrust Russell Wilson with the ball earlier and more often than they’ve done in the last five years. They need to race to be up on the scoreboard at halftime.”

Take a look at where 2020 slotted in here among the seasons with Brian Schottenheimer at the helm:

2018: 60% run rate, first
2019: 50% run rate, ninth
2020: 40% run rate, 28th

Now, take a look at where that first half pass-heavy and ultra-aggressive strategy got them:

2016: 11 halftime leads, 10 wins
2017: four halftime leads, nine wins
2018: seven halftime leads, 10 wins
2019: five halftime leads, 11 wins
2020: 11 halftime leads, 12 wins

It only made too much sense. Wilson is a one of a kind talent. Look at every team that’s winning games, they’re passing the ball. The Pats and Bucs trusted Tom Brady and were one of the most pass-heavy teams. The Chiefs trusted Patrick Mahomes and were one of the most pass-heavy teams. Go back to the Eagles in 2017 or the Pats in 2016 or the Broncos in 2015 and on and on…. Every Super Bowl winner since Seattle won in 2013 on Wilson’s rookie deal with the best defense in football has passed the ball at an above average rate in neutral situations.

Wilson wanted to be that guy. Schottenheimer knew he was that guy. And it worked, at least in terms of trying to find the fastest path to victory — racing to first half leads.

The recipe to get there had to be different. Seattle’s run game last year was outside the top-10. Their pass game was top-10. Passing is more efficient than running. The defense isn’t as good. If they want a halftime lead, they’re going to have to throw the ball. The logic is there, the pieces are there, the execution was there and it worked.

Until it hit a literal speed bump.

Seattle raced to a 5-0 record into their bye week. Russ was favored to win MVP. He was passing, they were scoring, they were undefeated. They emerged from the bye to watch Russell Wilson, in primetime, throw three interceptions and lose to the Cardinals in overtime. Seattle led the game 27-17 at halftime. Seattle led 34-24 with 2:30 left in the game. It was an anomaly. It happens.

Follow it up by another relatively easy win and it’s 6-1 heading to Buffalo. The problem with Buffalo was what happened against Arizona on Sunday night. The Seahawks lost both RB1 Chris Carson and RB2 Carlos Hyde. Their starting running back in Buffalo was DeeJay Dallas. Not great. It wasn’t Wilson’s fault the Bills offense played out of this world. Buffalo returned the opening kick 60 yards and scored a touchdown three plays later (all of which were passing dropbacks). Seattle’s first drive went three-and-out. Tipped pass, screen to Dallas, incomplete to David Moore, punt. Buffalo’s next drive was 10 plays, 72 yards, and another touchdown (all 10 plays were passing dropbacks).

Down 14-0, Seattle’s next six drives went 85 yards, 75 yards, 70 yards, 48 yards, 44 yards, and -2 yards. The -2 yard drive was a sack-fumble. The drives reached the Bills’ 1, 4, 5, 26 and 27-yard lines. But they scored only two touchdowns, two field goals, and had two turnovers.

Yet it was still a one-score game entering the fourth quarter. It was an epic quarterback duel. Brian Daboll kept calling pass plays. Brian Schottenheimer kept calling pass plays. Josh Allen finished with 415 yards, Russell Wilson with 390. But Wilson threw two interceptions and the Seahawks lost, as Seattle’s defense gave up 44 points.

I’m not sure what Carroll wanted Schottenheimer to do. The Bills offense was insane and carved up Seattle’s defense. Should Shotty have called more run plays? Because RB1 DeeJay Dallas and RB2 Travis Homer were really lighting up the scoreboard with their *checks notes* 3.6 YPC. No, the answer wasn’t to run the ball more.

The next week, RB1 and RB2 were both out and because of how poor both RBs played last week, the Seahawks started Alex Collins for his first game of the year. Seattle stuck with their pass first approach, which made even more sense without any reasonable running back options and it yielded solid results. The very first drive of the game, Seattle drove 78 yards and scored a touchdown. Following a punt, Seattle drove again into the Rams’ red zone, but this time they settled for a field goal. Wilson threw an interception at the Rams’ 22-yard line on their fourth drive of the game. Seattle trailed 17-13 at halftime and lost 23-16.

After back-to-back losses which included multiple Wilson interceptions, Pete Carroll interfered and pulled the plug. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall early that next week. But the fun was over.

It didn’t matter that the first half splits looked like these in games vs the Bills and Rams:

First half passes: 0.02 EPA/att, 7.8 YPA, 50% success (42 dropbacks)
First half QB runs: 0.55 EPA/att, 6.3 YPC, 75% success (4 att)
First half RB runs: -0.17 EPA/att, 4.1 YPC, 47% success (15 att)

While running the ball more would have been the absolute worst thing the Seahawks could have done, Carroll wanted more runs.

The Seahawks’ heavy early down pass trend in the first half of games made a sharp and decided shift towards the run.

After seven consecutive weeks of 60% or more passes on first half early downs, the Seahawks shifted to consecutive weeks of no more than 50% pass on first half early downs in any game.

Over their final seven games of the year, Seattle had just three games with a pass rate of 55% or higher on first half early downs.

Contrast with their first nine games, when they were above 55% pass in eight of nine games.

On first half early downs:

Weeks 1-10: highest pass rate in the NFL (64% pass), averaging 9.6 YPA & 61% success
Weeks 11+: 13th highest pass rate (57% pass), averaging 6.0 YPA and 57% success

There still were three games down the stretch where the Seahawks went with a higher pass rate on these plays (61% pass vs the Giants, 63% pass vs both the Rams and 49ers), but the bigger thing than just a shift more towards the run has been a reduction of passing efficiency.

Seattle played Arizona once in Week 7 using a pass-heavy approach and once in Week 11 using a run-heavy approach. Look at the first half production in each game:

Week 7: 0.30 EPA/play, 10.8 yards/play, 71% success
Week 11: 0.18 EPA/play, 5.9 yds/play, 65% success

Seattle played San Francisco once in Week 8 using a pass-heavy approach and once in Week 17 using a run-heavy approach. Look at the first half production in each game:

Week 8: 0.12 EPA/play, 6.7 yards/play, 42% success
Week 17: -0.14 EPA/play, 4.0 yards/play, 47% success

Seattle played the Rams once in Week 10 using a pass heavy approach, once in Week 16 using a run-heavy approach and again in the Week 18 Wild Card with a run heavy approach. Look at the first half production in each game:

Week 10: -0.02 EPA/play, 6.7 yards/play, 50% success
Week 16: -0.23 EPA/play, 4.2 yards/play, 48% success
Week 18: -0.39 EPA/play, 7.0 yards/play, 40% success

Against every single division opponent, Seattle was consistently more efficient in the games they were pass-first rather than the games they were run-first.

On all first half plays:

Weeks 1-10: 0.07 EPA/play, 7.3 yards/play, 57% success
Weeks 11+: -0.03 EPA/play, 5.6 yards/play, 54% success

In terms of overall year-over-year rushing efficiency, on early downs, the 2020 Seahawks were more efficient. Should I say, Chris Carson was more efficient. Much more. Even though Seattle played a top-10 schedule of run defenses both seasons, look at Carson’s early down rushing efficiency:

Early downs quarters 1-3:

2019: -0.05 EPA/att, 4.6 YPC, 55% success, 179 att
2020: 0.14 EPA/att, 5.3 YPC, 65% success, 116 att

Early downs full game:

2019: -0.06 EPA/att, 4.3 YPC, 52% success, 244 att
2020: 0.09 EPA/att, 4.9 YPC, 61% success, 145 carries

Carson had nearly 100 fewer carries but was clearly and obviously more fresh, more explosive, and more efficient. Every metric was up considerably in 2020.

Did Pete Carroll ever comment on this? On how overworking Carson can wear him down and out? I didn’t hear it if he did.

Carson was more efficient with every box count he faced: 6 or fewer men, standard 7, or 8+. But because of the offense’s aggressive pass approach, Carson ran even more often into light boxes than he did in 2019. Nearly 49% of his early down runs in 2020 were into light boxes. That number was only 41% in 2019. Carson was still more efficient when he ran into standard boxes (0.08 EPA in 2020, 0.03 in 2019, and 5% better success rate in 2020) and heavy boxes (-0.01 EPA in 2020, -0.23 EPA in 2019, and 3% better success rate in 2020), so his improvement wasn’t strictly more lighter boxes faced.

It appears passing more and running less not only kept Carson fresh and able to get more efficient gains at all times, but it also allowed him to face lighter boxes as defenses feared the pass would be called.

The front office signing Carlos Hyde was a disaster. Hyde delivered -0.07 EPA/att, 4.3 YPC, and 42% success on all early down runs. He was completely unproductive, yet was forced to be worked into the offense.

So where does this position us for 2021? Brian Schottenheimer was fired and replaced by Shane Waldon, the former Rams passing game coordinator. The Seahawks had the least draft capital in 2021 of any team since at least 1999. Their first pick of the draft (56th overall) was wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge. In free agency, in addition to right guard Gabe Jackson, the team added Waldron’s former tight end Gerald Everett.

Down the stretch, Carroll will say the team turned to the run starting in Week 11 based on his directive and won six of the last seven games. As I said at the top, the bottom line is winning. That’s what he’ll remember.

What he won’t remember is that the Seahawks, when they were pass-heavy, won the EDSR battle in six of their first seven games as well. The reason they went on a run to close the season was not because of their offense. In fact, they lost the EDSR battle in six of their last 10 games. They won because their defense looked way better… because opposing offenses were terrible. Look at the quarterbacks they faced down the stretch:

Week 11: Kyler Murray with an injured hamstring
Week 12: Carson Wentz
Week 13: Colt McCoy
Week 14: Sam Darnold
Week 15: Dwayne Haskins
Week 16: Jared Goff, then John Wolford after Goff broke his thumb
Week 17: CJ Beathard

Not a single passing offense Seattle faced ranked even 17th or better. All were below average. Five of their last six games were against bottom-10 pass offenses. Four straight were bottom-six.

That’s why Seattle won those games. The offense was less efficient (-0.03 EPA/play, 5.8 yards/play, 49% success) than it was earlier in the season (0.07 EPA/play, 6.6 yards/play). They just played terrible quarterbacks and terrible offenses in general, so their defensive efficiency looked insanely good and it helped them win.

Early reports on the new Waldron playbook have included the terms “intricate” (via DK Metcalf), “super complex” (via Russell Wilson) and “smart” (via Will Dissly). Tyler Lockett said the new offense gives us “more freedom to be the receivers that we can be.” It’s been rumored to be faster tempo, which is something Wilson would absolutely love. The tempo “mitigates what the defenses can do,” per Dissly and puts them in a tough spot.

Lockett explained an issue the Seahawks’ 2020 passing attack ran into down the stretch: “A lot of teams were trying to force us to go short and we didn’t and we wanted explosives and things like that. Truth be told, the explosive part of it is not going to change. It’s just the fact that we’re going to learn how to be a lot more balanced. Whatever teams decide to give us, that’s what we’re going to take. Teams decide to play us deep, then we’re going to take everything short and we’re going to be able to run our offense all the way down the field and control the clock. Teams try to take the short stuff away, we’re going to go deep.”

One thing I’m curious if Seattle will do more is Russell Wilson under center play-action. This is a staple of the Rams’ passing offense. Of the Rams' nearly 650 play-action attempts over the last three years, only 47 were in shotgun while 93% (599) were from under center. Seattle has been far more balanced, despite Wilson being much better in under center play-action. Look at 2020 only:

Under center play-action: 0.16 EPA/att, 9.2 YPA, 57% success (95 att or 61% of total)
Shotgun play-action: -0.18 EPA/att, 6.2 YPA, 56% success (62 att or 39% of total)

Switching to more under center play-action absolutely will be a move Waldron is likely to employ. I’m fascinated to see how this offense looks against what I project to be the NFL’s toughest schedule of defenses. Defensively, the Seahawks’ schedule gets considerably more difficult as well. With the Cardinals stocking up on free agents, the 49ers getting better with a new quarterback, and the Rams doing the same, this NFC West will be the most interesting and competitive division in football in 2021 and beyond.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub. For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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