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How Are Russell Wilson And The Seahawks Doing This?

With Sunday night’s win against the Chiefs, the Seahawks improved to 9-6 and locked up a playoff spot for the seventh time in Pete Carroll’s nine seasons as head coach. This was not exactly an easy-to-predict development. Injuries and age had taken their toll, so the defensive core of the roster—Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman—was blown up, while Earl Thomas landed on IR soon after an extended holdout. Seattle even began the season 0-2 and looked like a dinosaur: Carroll had hired Brian Schottenheimer, a retread, as offensive coordinator, and Schottenheimer installed a run-heavy approach just as the rest of the league literally seemed to be passing Seattle by. But the Seahawks have won five of six, and they suddenly look like one of those teams with the potential to make a deep playoff run. So how did this rebuild accelerate so quickly? Thanks for asking.

How is the defense holding up after all those personnel losses?

Seattle’s defense, ironically, hasn’t been that great. “Adequate” is probably a better word. The Seahawks rank 16th in defensive DVOA, including 15th against the pass and 18th against the run. They’re also just 20th over the last six weeks, when the team has salvaged its season.

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Okay. So is the defense doing anything well?

They do have eight takeaways against just two giveaways in their last six games, which has helped. Tedric Thompson, who missed the Chiefs game with a chest injury, is second among safeties with just seven receptions allowed and 59.3 snaps per coverage receptions, per Pro Football Focus. One holdover from the Legion of Boom years, inside linebacker Bobby Wagner, is having an exceptional season: He’s fifth in passer rating allowed among linebackers (83.6) and hasn’t missed a tackle all year in the passing game, per PFF. Wagner has five games this season with at least 12 tackles. In Week 13, he had a 98-yard pick-six against the 49ers. And in Week 14, he capped an all-over-the-field performance against the Vikings by blocking field goal when it was still a one-score game in the fourth quarter (though let’s put aside that the league later admitted Wagner should have been flagged on the play). PFF really likes him, in fact.

What about the offense? Have they stopped being so run-heavy? 

They haven’t, actually. According to Warren Sharp’s data, the Seahawks have run the ball on 53 percent of their plays—the only team in the league with a ratio that skews toward the run. And on first down, per the NFL’s GSIS database, the Seahawks run it 61.8 percent of the time. (The Chiefs, who are flirting with the best offensive DVOA of all time heading into their final game, run on just 42.6 percent of their first-down plays.) Seattle also ranks just 15th with a 48 percent success rate when running the ball on first down, according to Sharp. (The Saints lead the league with a 66 percent success rate when throwing on first down.) RBs Rashaad Penny (5.1 yards per carry) and Mike Davis (4.5) have been pretty good complements to Chris Carson, who has rushed for 1,029 yards and eight TDs. But Penny has missed the last two games with a knee injury, and Carson only ranks 14th in DYAR and 18th in DVOA.

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That’s not very efficient.

It’s not! But what the Seahawks are doing effectively is using the run to set up the pass.

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How so?

Play-action, for one. As The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin tweeted shortly after this blog was published, play-action works most effectively when offensive linemen show their intention to run-block, regardless of how good the run game actually is. Baldwin has written more about this over at Football Outsiders. If anything, his research demonstrates that Schottenheimer’s run-heavy approach actually holds quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense back. Per PFF, Wilson has used play-action on 28.1 percent of his dropbacks this year, fifth-most in the league. This after he had used play-action just 22.6 percent of the time last year. And since the Seahawks lost their first two games, Wilson has used play-action on 31.3 percent of his dropbacks—second only to the Rams’ Jared Goff’s 33.8 percent during the same span. This season, Wilson has completed 8.1 percent more of his passes with play-action than without (third-most). He has 11 passing TDs (second only to Patrick Mahomes with 12) to one interception when play-faking, and a league-best passer rating of 129.7 on play-action throws. Also, from Sunday night’s win against the Chiefs, the Seahawks’ propensity for running on first down—and using run-like personnel groupings—allowed them to be effective by throwing it. To wit:

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How good has Wilson been?

Honestly, he’s played himself into the MVP conversation, even though his conventional numbers look pretty pedestrian—he’s 19th in passing yards (3,296), 31st in yards per game (219.7), and 35th in attempts per game (27.1)—in such a pass-heavy league. But he’s throwing with accuracy, playing with aggressiveness, and making some damn tough throws when he needs to.

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Wait. Didn’t the Seahawks have a shitty offensive line?

They did in recent years, yes. But they dumped O-line coach Tom Cable and his zone-blocking scheme for Mike Solari and a blocking approach that emphasizes both zone concepts and attacking gaps. Honestly, it’s all pretty intricate and I can’t explain it better (or more concisely) than USA Today’s Doug Farrar does here, so go read that if you really want to drill down on what Seattle’s done to improve its line play. Wilson, however, has really been exceptional.

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Go on.

He’s still getting sacked a lot—45 times total, which is fifth-most in the league. But he’s excelling at tough throws. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats track something called expected completion percentage, which factors in completion probability, which includes a receiver’s separation and position on the field, in addition to a passer’s separation from the nearest pass rusher. Wilson’s xComp% is 59.7, which is the third-lowest mark in the league. But the 6.3 percent difference between Wilson’s xComp% and his actual completion percentage of 66 is second only to Drew Brees.

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Who’s also an MVP candidate.

He is, and he probably deserves to get it, given all the Saints have accomplished and may yet achieve, now that they have home-field advantage in the NFC (though Mahomes should certainly be in the running, too). But Brees doesn’t throw downfield nearly as much as Wilson does. Brees’s expected completion percentage of 67.0 (7.4 percent lower than his actual completion percentage of 74.4, which is an insane number) is aided by the fact that Brees only throws deep (20 air yards or more) on 11.2 percent of his passes, per PFF. Now, Brees does lead the league with a passer rating of 128.6 on deep balls and in deep-ball accuracy (52.7 percent), but Wilson is a close second with a deep-ball rating of 128.4, and his accuracy on deep balls is 49.2 percent, which ranks fifth. Wilson also has 15 deep-ball TDs (versus just one interception), which ranks first. And he throws it deep on 16.0 percent of his passes, which ranks third.

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That’s pretty damn good. Anything else?

The Ringer’s Danny Kelly did an excellent breakdown of Wilson’s game a few weeks ago, but allow me to expand on that a little. Wilson’s still seeing a lot of pressure, as that high sack total indicates: 39.3 percent of his dropbacks, or fourth-most in the league. (Brees, by contrast, sees pressure just 25.7 percent of the time, the second-lowest among qualified QBs.) But Wilson’s passer rating when under pressure, according to PFF, is a league-best 91.4.

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Huh.

PFF also tracks something called big-time throws, which it defines as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” Wilson has made 37 big-time throws this season, third only to Mahomes’s 43 and Ben Roethlisberger’s 40. But Wilson’s BTT percentage of 9.11 (based on 406 pass attempts) leads the league, with Mahomes coming in third at 7.73 percent.

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Geez. You have any highlights?

Sure do. There are a lot of tight-window throws in here. I’m especially partial to the last two from Sunday night’s win against the Chiefs. Enjoy.

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Great stuff. Doug Baldwin’s return to health seems like it’s helped, too.

For sure. Baldwin’s still kind of banged up, but he’s got five TDs in the last five games he’s played, and his do-everything ability has been the perfect complement to Tyler Lockett’s strengths as a deep threat. The likeliest playoff scenario has the Seahawks earning the No. 5 seed and traveling to meet the Cowboys on wild-card weekend. Which should make for one hell of an offense vs. defense matchup.

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About the author

Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.