Seattle’s defense gets the lion’s share of the press, as it should—it leads the league in many statistical categories, including yards from scrimmage, points allowed and interceptions, while being in the top ten in a number of others. The Seahawks wouldn’t be here without that defense.
That means, however, that their offense is somewhat overlooked. It was ranked seventh overall by Football Outsiders this season and boasts Pro Bowlers at both quarterback and running back.
Yes, they’ve struggled over the past few weeks, registering less than 300 yards in four of their last five games, and yes, one of the major storylines entering the game is whether or not their offense can do enough to get past the 49ers defense. However, overlook them at your own peril. The Seahawks may not boast a Broncos-level offense, but they’re still an above-average squad.
One thing that will feel familiar to 49er fans is Seattle’s play-calling tendencies. In this era of pass-happy teams, only San Francisco and Seattle run the ball more than half the time. Marshawn Lynch has made life very difficult for San Francisco in recent years; he has four of the top six rushing games against San Francisco since the start of the 2010 season—not too many backs have had success against their front seven, but Lynch is the exception to that rule.
Part of what makes him so good is his ability to shrug people off after contact. That’s true both anecdotally—his highlight-reel run against New Orleans in the 2011 playoffs is one of the most impressive plays in recent NFL history—and statistically.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) recorded Lynch as gaining 2.58 yards per attempt after contact and recording 99 missed tackles, enough to make him the most elusive back they’ve tracked in 2013. Lynch has been most effective this season running to his right. In runs marked as “right guard” or “right tackle” in the play-by-play, Lynch is averaging 5.45 yards per carry, with six of his 12 touchdowns. This puts Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks squarely in the line of fire, making it a bit of a strength-on-strength matchup for the two clubs.
Along with the rest of the offense, he did slow down a bit as the season dragged on. His last 100-yard rushing game in the regular season was back in Week 10. Some of that can be attributed to facing the stout rushing defenses of Arizona, New York and St. Louis, but games where he couldn’t get 50 yards against New Orleans were cause for some concern for Seahawks fans.
Those concerns are somewhat alleviated after last week’s game, where he rumbled for 140 yards on 28 carries and scored both of Seattle’s touchdowns. The bye week may have somewhat rejuvenated Lynch, giving him the rest he needs to help carry Seattle’s offense going forward.
As good as Lynch is, however, he may not be the most important player to stop on Seattle’s offense. If you were to redo the 2012 draft today, Russell Wilson may well be the top overall pick. No player in that draft class, including Andrew Luck, has generated more approximate value in his first two seasons in the league.
While his overall passing yardage is low, at only 3,357 yards this season, that’s a function of how often Seattle runs the ball. When Wilson does drop back to pass, he gets 8.2 yards per pass attempt, good for fourth-most in the league this season. Add that to his success as a rusher—Wilson gets 5.6 yards per carry, despite the overall decline of the read-option this season—and you have the top dual-threat quarterback this season.
Wilson’s had the most success in the 10- to 19-yard bracket down the field. There, he’s 47-for-84 for 912 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions—he’s been perfect at protecting the ball in that medium range.
He also completed 48.3 percent of his deep passes, which was the best in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Wilson throws deep 14.7 percent of the time, behind only Nick Foles and Jay Cutler this year—they don’t throw very often, but when they do, they look to heave it up the field, with notable success.
However, there are downsides to his game.
He took 44 sacks this season, and Football Outsiders records Seattle as having the worst offensive line in terms of adjusted sack rate. A lot of this is due to constant injuries and shuffling around on the offensive line—both tackles, Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, missed significant time this season—and more of it is due to the fact that, as a running quarterback, Wilson is more open to hits in the backfield than, say, Peyton Manning. Looking at season-long numbers in terms of sacks is not the most predictive statistic out there.
What is more predictive, however, is Wilson’s success on third downs. Wilson’s completion percentage of 58.7 percent on third down sounds solid. However, the Seahawks only pick up first downs 37.7 percent of the time when Wilson drops back on third or fourth down; Wilson completed 23 passes short of first-down yardage this season. In fact, on third or fourth down passing attempts, the Seahawks average 7.48 yards to go, and gain an average of 5.81 yards per play.
Add it all up, and you get this: The Seahawks are not a particularly good 3rd-and-long team, by playoff-team standards. They excel at 3rd-and-short, but when you stuff them on first and second down, they have trouble making up the yardage—they don’t like to get off schedule, hence the reliance on the more consistent run game, rather than the passing game.
This table shows the first-down conversion rate on third down and various distances for the Seahawks, 49ers and NFL in general—you can see that Seattle struggles a bit when the field gets longer.
The Seahawks' offense hasn’t had to put up great numbers recently, thanks to their stellar defense. They are, however, more than capable of doing so when pressured into it. If they get into a rhythm early, they’re capable of running a throwback offense—lots of runs, combined with the occasional successful bomb downfield as the defense creeps up to stop Lynch from gauging them.
While no one is going to mistake Seattle for an offensive juggernaut any time soon, the relatively poor finish to the regular season should not give San Francisco fans the false impression that it’s a subpar offense their facing on Sunday.