You Got Served: The Seahawks’ tempo problem

Happy Monday, friends. Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about Sunday's game, and over the weekend, I promised a few commenters that I'd dig deep into some Seahawks film.

I did so, and as the result of that work, there will be several articles this week. I had an interesting thought as part of the exercise.

Which game could I watch to see how well the Seahawks defended against a no-huddle offense? It seemed to be a really important question, but when I looked at their schedule, I was left scratching my head. None of the teams they played struck me as a very up-tempo team off the top of my head. Hmmm.

Let me start by saying why I think this is important. Last year's Seahawks team was pretty good, and it fell two points shy of advancing to the NFC championship game. The big improvement this year, though, came in the form of a couple of relatvely cheap free agent acquisitions.

For whatever reason, the pass rusher market was unexpectedly soft last offseason. That allowed the Seahawks, who had some short-term cap flexibility - as well as a reputation for being a player-friendly place to play - to buy low on short-term contracts for DEs Cliff Avril (two years) and Michael Bennett (one year). (The Broncos also benefited from that same market softness with their own acquisiton of Shaun Phillips, who came a lot cheaper than either Avril or Bennett did.)

Those signings left Seattle with an embarrassment of riches in their defensive line group, adding Avril and Bennett in with Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, and Clinton McDonald. This season, each of those seven players played between 45% and 58% of the Seahawks' defensive snaps.

I've said this a bunch of times before, but for the n00bs (LOL), the most athletically difficult thing to do in all of sports is to play on the defensive line in the NFL. You're asking very large men to get low, with their hand on the ground, and be explosive and quick, play after play. It takes a really rare athlete to be able to play a lot of snaps on the defensive line, and be continually effective.

This is why defensive line coaches are invariably loud drill sergeant types, and it's why one of the most talked-about evaluation points for defensive linemen is "motor." The coach is trying to get every ounce of effort out of guys who are required to expend more effort than anybody on any given snap. At some point, most defensive linemen get tired, and need to take a play or two off. It's best to make sure that those breaks come on the sideline,rather than on the field, and to facilitate that, teams like to use defensive line rotations.

The Seahawks, as you can infer easily enough from the participation information I gave above, substitute their defensive linemen quite liberally. That keeps them fresh, and helps them to be able to expend maximum effort, and to have maximum effectiveness on each snap.

People seem to think that the secondary is what causes Seattle's pass defense to be as good as it's been, but they're selling the front-four short. Even though they don't sack the QB all that much (they're about one-half of a standard deviation above the mean), they do generate a lot of pressure, and it usually comes at key times, like third and long.

So this is where tempo enters the story, because when the offense doesn't huddle or substitute, it prevents the defense from doing so either. That's especially true on the defensive line, which takes the longest of any position to run guys on and off the field.

Follow me here - the Seahawks' biggest advantage over most teams is the depth, and resulting effectiveness, of its defensive line. My belief is that the Broncos can mostly negate that advantage by playing the same way they always play.

So, yeah, you bet your ass I wanted to see how they did against no-huddle teams, and I was stuck for a few days on how to figure out which game to watch. I often hear Pat Kirwan talk about no-huddle stats that he has access to on the radio, but I've never found a good source of that information online.

Sunday, I was treadmilling it up, and thinking about how to solve my problem, and I decided on an approach. I took time of possession, converted it to seconds, and divided each team's number of seconds of possession by the number of plays that it ran this season. This doesn't tell me huddle vs. no huddle, per se, but it gives me a good estimate of typical tempo.

Here are the rankings that I came up with:

Rank Team Plays Total Sec Sec/Play
1 Philadelphia Eagles 1,054 25,344 24.05
2 Buffalo Bills 1,116 27,248 24.42
3 Denver Broncos 1,156 28,896 25.00
3 New England Patriots 1,138 28,448 25.00
5 Cleveland Browns 1,078 27,536 25.54
6 Jacksonville Jaguars 1,020 26,272 25.76
7 Minnesota Vikings 1,013 26,544 26.20
8 Baltimore Ravens 1,090 28,656 26.29
9 Washington Redskins 1,107 29,472 26.62
10 Green Bay Packers 1,074 29,184 27.17
11 Miami Dolphins 1,001 27,312 27.28
12 Houston Texans 1,089 29,760 27.33
13 Indianapolis Colts 1,023 28,496 27.86
14 Tennessee Titans 1,032 28,800 27.91
15 Cincinnati Bengals 1,097 30,688 27.97
16 Detroit Lions 1,102 30,832 27.98
17 New York Jets 1,020 28,720 28.16
18 New York Giants 988 27,888 28.23
19 Atlanta Falcons 1,024 29,040 28.36
20 Arizona Cardinals 1,037 29,616 28.56
21 Kansas City Chiefs 1,029 29,488 28.66
22 Oakland Raiders 1,000 28,704 28.70
23 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 981 28,224 28.77
24 Chicago Bears 1,013 29,200 28.83
25 St. Louis Rams 968 27,920 28.84
26 Pittsburgh Steelers 1,023 29,648 28.98
27 New Orleans Saints 1,079 31,376 29.08
28 Dallas Cowboys 957 27,872 29.12
29 Seattle Seahawks 973 28,752 29.55
30 San Diego Chargers 1,060 31,664 29.87
31 San Francisco 49ers 961 29,360 30.55
32 Carolina Panthers 999 30,624 30.65

The Broncos tied with New England for third place in the NFL in seconds per play, after being 13th in 2012. I was not surprised to see the Eagles first, but I was pretty interested to see Buffalo second, particularly with the inexperienced QBs they used all year.

Seattle is 29th in the NFL in this measurement of tempo. They obviously like to play slow and shorten the game. What about their opponents, though? Well, disappointingly, this is what I found:

2013 Opponent 2013 Tempo Rank
Jacksonville Jaguars 6
Minnesota Vikings 7
Houston Texans 12
Indianapolis Colts 13
Tennessee Titans 14
New York Giants 18
Atlanta Falcons 19
Arizona Cardinals 20
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23
St. Louis Rams 25
New Orleans Saints 27
San Francisco 49ers 31
Carolina Panthers 32

You see that? The only top-12 tempo teams that the Seahawks played were weak sisters Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Houston. I know that none of those teams is a no-huddle team, and that each almost certainly has some inflation in this metric from the fact that they were playing from behind all the time.

I watched the Indianapolis game, and even there, there was little use of up-tempo tactics by the Colts. (There was a lot of other interesting stuff, though, which we'll touch on as the week progresses.)

The Seahawks saw very little no-huddle in 2013, and that's a big deal.  It's not so much that I think they won't know how to deal with it; more that it will limit their ability to substitute within a series, and that that will wear down the front four players who are on the field.

Let me tell you about the Seattle front four, briefly. Their base guys are very good run players, and their pass rush guys are very good pass rushers. If you flip them, though, you can have a lot of success throwing against the run guys and running against the pass guys. That's one thing that the Colts did that was very noticeable.

DE Red Bryant is like a bigger and more run-focused Derek Wolfe. DT Brandon Mebane is a big plugger who has less quickness to rush the passer. DT Tony McDaniel is more of a tall, lean guy, and is best as a penetrator against the run. Those three players (all over 300 pounds) and DE Chris Clemons (or one of the other smaller DEs) are the base group.

On passing downs, the four down linemen tend to be Clemons (254 lbs), DE Cliff Avril (260), DE/DT Michael Bennett (274), and DT Clinton McDonald (297), with SLB/DE Bruce Irvin (248) mixing in there too sometimes.  

That's a big difference, right? I watched Andrew Luck complete a slow-developing play-action deep ball for a TD against the big guys, because there was little pass rush. I also watched Donald Brown break off a big run up the middle on 2nd-and-20 against the pass rushers. You can really hurt the Seahawks by working against the specialty of whichever group is on the field at the moment.

The Broncos, of course, tend to come out for a series with a specific personnel grouping, and then stick with that group for the whole drive. That leaves Seattle to consider whether to change up their rotation. Personally, if I knew that I was likely to get a DL group stuck on the field for 8-10 plays at a time, I'd go away from having a run group and a pass group, and try to make the best two play-indifferent groups I could make. It bears watching what Seattle will do on that front.

Even if they do that, as long as the Broncos stick to their normal no-huddle procedures, it's likely that they'll be able to avoid a fresh four-man grouping of Bennett, Clemons, Avril, and McDonald on some key 3rd-and-8. That will give them a major advantage over any other team the Seahawks have faced this season.

Nobody is probably going to mention the tempo effect, and it will be subtle on gameday. Troy Aikman might say something like, the Seahawks usually get more pressure than they're getting today, and not mention why. Watch for tired and ineffective defensive linemen, though, and watch for Peyton Manning to press whatever matchup advantage he sees from the group that's stuck on the field.  

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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