Is the best strategy to beat the Seattle Seahawks attacking their strength? Some data suggests that it might be.
The conventional wisdom is that it is folly to pass against Seattle’s Legion of Boom defensive backfield with cornerback Richard Sherman roaming one side of the field and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in the middle. And, during the 2013 season, teams went by the conventional wisdom.
Chase Stuart at Football Perspective crunched some numbers and came up with a formula to calculate how often a team’s opponents should be expected to pass given the score differential in their games and compared it to how often the opponents actually passed. In 2013 Seattle opponents would be expected to pass 63.1 percent of the time, given that they held a lead so much of the time. But they actually passed 57.4 percent of the time. The difference of almost six percent was easily the largest in the league.
So how'd that work out for ya, 2013 NFL? The Seahawks went 13-3 and were the top NFC seed, a position that helped them get to and win the Super Bowl (numbers are for regular season only). So what are Seattle’s opponents doing this year? They are not shying away from the pass.
The Packers (-0.7%) and Chargers (-2.0%) passed only a little less than the expectation. Green Bay was within seven points at halftime before losing by 20 while San Diego handed the Seahawks their first loss of the season, 30-21.
As you might expect, the Peyton-Manning led Broncos filled the air with footballs. They passed on 71.4 percent of the plays, 11.4 percentage points more than the expectation. Denver lost at Seattle in overtime.
If you roll up the numbers, through three games teams have thrown at the Seahawks 8.7 percentage points more than expected. They have one fairly easy win, one loss, and one overtime win.
Does this give the Redskins a road map for pulling off what would be a stunning upset over Seattle? Should they eschew the conventional wisdom that suggests they should run Alfred Morris 25-30 times, shorten the game, and try to grind out a win?
Given the track record this year, perhaps airing it out gives them the best chance. But there are some caveats. The three quarterbacks the Seahawks have played are on anybody’s short list of the best QBs in the game—Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Peyton Manning. Kirk Cousins has had his moments during his career but he is not anywhere close to being on that list.
Still, I would look for the Redskins to pass more than the expectation. They have exceeded the expected pass ratio against the Texans (by 2.4%), Jaguars (5.5%), and Eagles (6.4%). Only in the Giants game (-1.5%) did they pass less than expected and that may have been skewed by the exceptionally large final score margin.
Another advanced metric, Football Outsiders’ DVOA, also suggests that going through the air is the way to attack the Seahawks. They rank 12th in pass DOVA on the defensive side, a number that takes the quality of the opponent into account. Seattle is 4th against the run.
A couple of times this week, Redskins coach Jay Gruden has mentioned that Seattle leads the NFL by allowing just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt, another indicator that it might be better to go over them than to go through them.