Seahawks have enjoyed success against 4-3 defenses

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The Philadelphia Eagles have one of the best front-sevens in the NFL. Running a 4-3 defense, the Eagles are lining up Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, and Vinny Curry on the defensive line. Graham has been one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL over the last five seasons. As of a month ago, Cox was generating more pressure than any defensive tackle in the NFL, including Aaron Donald. Jernigan was just rewarded with a $48 million contract. Curry has 21 pressures and nine tackles for a loss.

And even backing them are Chris Long, a quietly productive veteran role player, and Derek Barnett, the 14th overall pick in a loaded first round draft class who already has five sacks in limited snaps. Linebackers Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham (middle linebacker Jalen Mills is now on injured reserve) are less of a factor in the talent of the front seven than the defensive line is, but the defensive line is just so good that it basically guarantees that Philly has one of the most talented 4-3 defenses in the NFL.

But the Seattle Seahawks scored 24 points (as many as any team against the Eagles this season save for the 27 scored by Washington in Week 2) and won by two touchdowns last Sunday night. It was Seattle’s fourth win in five attempts against a team that runs a 4-3 defense. They are just 4-3 against teams who run a 3-4 base defense.

Adequately confused yet? As I’ve said many times before, I am not an Xs and Os expert, but here’s what I’m seeing as the Seahawks prepare to take on a major challenge against the 4-3 defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The 4-3 teams that Seattle has faced this year are:

Week 2 – Seahawks 12, 49ers 9

Week 7 – Seahawks 24, Giants 7

Week 11 – Seahawks 31, Falcons 34

Week 12 – Seahawks 24, 49ers 13

Week 13 – Seahawks 24, Eagles 10

As you can see, this will be the fourth straight week that Seattle has faced a 4-3 defense after having only seen two of them over their first nine games. In these five games, the Seahawks have scored 13 touchdowns, all of them offensive, all by Russell Wilson.

But the offensive stats haven’t actually been that much different when facing a 4-3 or a 3-4:

Wilson vs a 4-3:

117-of-186, 62.9%, 1,163 yards, 11 TD, 2 INT, nine sacks, 97.5 rating

Wilson vs a 3-4:

160-of-257, 62%, 1,908 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT, 19 sacks, 94.6 rating

(One interception by Tanner McEvoy against the Rams’ 3-4 defense, not included)

Seahawks total rushing vs a 4-3:

146 attempts, 562 yards, 3.85 Y/A, 2 TD

Seahawks total rushing vs a 3-4:

170 attempts, 671 yards, 3.95 Y/A, 2 TD

Both of Seattle’s rushing touchdowns against a 4-3 came by Wilson, while one of the ground scores against a 3-4 were by Wilson, the other from J.D. McKissic.

So why a .800 winning percentage against the 4-3 scheme and only a .571 winning percentage against a 3-4? The answers are more likely random, coincidental, and inconsequential than you may initially expect.

Last season, the Seahawks went 6-3 vs the 4-3 defenses compared to 4-2-1 against the 3-4. The results on the scoreboard are practically negligible even though the results in the box scores were much more pronounced:

Seattle averaged 4.27 YPC with eight touchdowns against a 4-3 compared to 3.49 and five against a 3-4. Wilson had a passer rating of 90 against a 4-3, but upped that to 97.7 in the other seven games. So against a 4-3 they got more help from the run game, and against a 3-4, leaned on the passing game. But that was last year and in this season, there is not a clear disparity in either aspect of offense.

The dig for answers continues.

Well, one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is time of possession. It’s an aspect of the game that most people are aware of and will likely get posted as a graphic midgame at point every week.

Against the 49ers in Week 2:

Against the Giants in Week 7:

And getting dominated these three games against 3-4 defenses:

Perhaps for the Seahawks it’s even more important than usual. Especially at a time like this when their defense is depleted by the loss of three Pro Bowl starters midseason, the run game is atrocious, and Pete Carroll knows that he just needs to give his team a chance to win; to give Wilson one last drive within one measly possession.

Every week now I’m checking the time of possession going into the fourth quarter (because every game is close) and hoping that Seattle, in those 45 minutes, has held a time of possession of at least 25 of those minutes. To me, that slight difference, especially if the Seahawks have possession going into the fourth quarter, is huge.

I think that fatigue does factor in for the defense and that Seattle is always at an advantage when the score is close and they’re winning time of possession in the fourth quarter; to me, that plays a significant factor in Wilson’s 4th quarter performances — the best 4th quarter quarterback in the NFL today and one of the best that’s ever been measured.

Consider that the Seahawks have scored as many points in the fourth quarter this season (101) as they have in the entire first half (101).

Now, I don’t believe there is data that supports the theory that defenses get “more fatigued” than offenses as the game goes on. Whether you are Justin Britt or Aaron Donald, if Seattle’s had the ball for 30 minutes, you’ve both been on the field for 30 minutes. However, I think the advantage could go to the offense mentally and make their fatigue more manageable:

The Seahawks might be just as tired, but they also get to decide what the next play will be. The Seahawks might just as badly want to go sit on the bench, but they only have to dictate a play, not react to it. Britt’s been told what to do, so muscle memory might kick in. Donald doesn’t know what play is coming, he must react to it mentally.

Well, in their five games against a 4-3 defense, the Seahawks are averaging about 32 minutes of possession per game. Against the 3-4 teams, that number dips to 29 minutes.

A potential criticism of my theory is that Seattle is winning time of possession in those games because they won those games, not that the time of possession has anything to do with them winning those games. That may very well be true, but I’d also say it’s fair to point out that this is not the Seattle team that we’re used to. They aren’t blowing teams away, nearly every game is close, and even if the Seahawks had a 14-point lead they don’t have the ability to run the football anyway.

They can’t “run down the clock” because they can’t run anything.

In Week 2 against the Niners, Seattle won the time of possession 36:58 to 23:02, but they had to win the game in the fourth quarter and through the air. On the go-ahead drive, Russell Wilson was 3-of-4 for 23 yards, plus a 20-yard defensive pass interference penalty. The Seahawks ran it six times on the drive, but four of those runs were by Wilson, picking up 27 yards on those plays.

The San Francisco defense, which held Seattle to six points for 3.5 quarters, was blown down. When the Seahawks got the ball back with 4:47 left, they were able to successfully win with five straight runs by Chris Carson, three of which went for 9+ yards.

Skip way ahead to the Seahawks best win of the season, 24-10 over the Eagles. Philly actually won the time of possession battle 31:54 to 28:06. This does not aid a theory about how important it is for Seattle to win time of possession … however it was a ~5-minute drive in the fourth quarter that keyed the Seahawks win, with McKissic’s touchdown catch from Wilson giving them a 14-point lead with only 7:25 remaining. Perhaps enough rest for the defense to force a 3-and-out by the Eagles in under 2 minutes, followed by an interception of Carson Wentz on the next drive.

Also, Seattle dominated time of possession in the first quarter when they came out to a 10-0 lead and controlled the football for about 2/3rds of the opening 15 minutes:

Another thing: The Seattle DEFENSE plays much better when the Seattle OFFENSE is facing a 4-3 defense. The Seahawks are holding opponents to 5.2 yards per play when other team runs a 3-4, compared to 4.63 Y/P when they run a 4-3. Is this entirely coincidence? I don’t think so. Seattle’s offensive Y/P also goes down in these situations (5.76 to 5.05), but the flow of the game is clearly dictated differently when Carroll can move the ball at his preferred pace — which may or may not correlate to the scheme that the Seahawks are facing.

The Jacksonville Jaguars run a 4-3 defense. They Jaguars run an elite 4-3 defense.

Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue is an even better defensive line than what the Eagles have. I mean, the Eagles have an incredible defensive line and I’m not sure you could even closely compare the two units as they’ve been constructed in 2017.

On football abilities alone, if I had to pick four of the eight defensive line starters from both teams, I might choose all four Jaguars. I might take Graham over Ngakoue but you’re also talking about a second-year player who has 10 sacks and six forced fumbles, plus seven tackles for a loss. Fletcher Cox is great too, but how much am I missing out on with Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus on the interior?

Those are just the starters upfront.

Dante Fowler, Jr., the third overall pick in 2015, has 6.5 sacks, 16.5 QB pressures, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries in a limited role. Telvin Smith has become their K.J. Wright as one of the league’s best weakside linebackers, totaling 83 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, one sack, and 11 tackles for a loss — keep note of that last number because it’s as many as Khalil Mack, and more than Calais Campbell, Joey Bosa, or Cameron Wake.

Myles Jack may have been a top-five pick in 2016 if not for concerns about the long-term health of his knee, but for now he gets to just be the pro many expected him to be.

Overall, the Jaguars might have seven Pro Bowl caliber players in their front-seven. Maybe not all playing at the same time and not all getting Pro Bowl nods in 2017, but many of them will and all of them are talented enough to be honored as such.

The Seahawks will have their hands full with this front-seven, but if their game against the Eagles is any indication, they can handle it.

Look back to Seattle’s best game against a 3-4 defense and you’ll see the 41-38 win over the Houston Texans. The Texans were without J.J. Watt and Benardrick McKinney, but Jadeveown Clowney is an elite talent and Duane Brown was still playing for the bad guys. Days later, Brown was on the Seahawks and things have not been the same.

The result is a jump from 30th in QB pressure allowed without Brown to eighth since he arrived:

The change-over from Rees Odhiambo (a bottom-three left tackle) to Brown is obviously a move towards a massive improvement for the offensive line. But it’s not the only one. Remember that the left guard situation has also had trouble, mostly when Luke Joeckel missed five games from October 22-November 20. He returned to face the 49ers but was finally off of the injury report going into the game against Philadelphia.

Joeckel has historically been a bad left tackle, but he seems to be a pretty good guard, and might be a very good guard when sandwiched between Brown and Britt, the latter of whom has been on an absolute tear this season and may have officially surpassed Max Unger as a better center right now.

With those three players now finally starting together, and Ethan Pocic potentially representing a significant upgrade over Mark Glowinski or Oday Aboushi, Seattle allowed a pressure rate of 44% against the Eagles — but only nine of 16 pressures were attributed to the offensive line, the rest going to tight ends, running backs, and Wilson himself. Considering that Philadelphia is a top-3 pass rushing unit, it represents maybe the offensive line’s best game of the season.

Is it advantageous then for an offensive line with strong pass protection up the middle to be facing two defensive tackles instead of one? I don’t know if it’s that simple, but maybe it’s kind of that simple. Also, we haven’t seen a statistical advantage — not on the surface at least — towards the Seahawks facing a 4-3 vs a 3-4, only a results-based advantage. The results of which are highly fungible.

Seattle easily beat the 49ers, Giants, and Eagles, but needed a fourth quarter drive to beat San Francisco the first time and lost to the Falcons. They lost to Washington, but could have easily won that game, and could have easily lost to the Rams or Texans.

Overall, I think the win-loss records against certain defensive schemes is not that predictive. The Seahawks personnel may do better against 4-3 personnel, but the Jaguars have arguably the best 4-3 personnel in the league. On the positive side, Seattle’s pass protection is top-10 in the NFL right now and they signed Joeckel, traded for Brown, precisely because of upcoming matchups against players like Brandon Graham and Calais Campbell.

Their objective this weekend is to sustain drives, move the sticks, hold the ball, and give Wilson a chance to win it in the fourth quarter against a hopefully-tired defense because regardless of how talented you are, there’s always a limit to your energy.

(furiously writes down song lyrics.)

No matter who wins on Sunday, I believe that the loser will have had a chance to win the game in the final minutes. Or the winner had to win it in the final seconds. Ultimately, the final score may have less to do with how good Wilson is and more to do with how bad Blake Bortles is.

And that’s a topic for another day, which will never come because I’m publishing this less than 24 hours before the game and the Seahawks may not face the Jaguars again for another four years.

Unless they see them again in two months.

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