By Richard Winer, M.D. for TonySoftli.com
The NFL has often been considered a “copycat” league. Although it could be said that there is nothing new under the sun, the latest and greatest developments that catapult a team to victory will sure get everyone’s attention. When the West Coast offense, the “cover two” defense, and the Wildcat worked well, teams took notice and looked at ways to both utilize and defend against these schemes. Now that we are a couple of weeks past the Super Bowl, it seems quite understandable to look at what clicked for the Seahawks. Since the Rams play in the same division with Seattle, there already is a familiarity with what has been working for them. There has also been considerable discussion on 101ESPN about the relative importance of bolstering the offense versus the defense. So, let’s explore some of the Seahawks’ numbers that help to show the blueprint of success from their Super Bowl winning season.
At first glance, you can’t help but look at how a stifling defense carried the day in the “pass happy” NFL. A functional and efficient offense can do the job when the defense dominates. The Seahawks became the first Super Bowl champion to win each of its three postseason games without running 60 plays from scrimmage. When I first realized that the play numbers were this low, I fully expected to find that this had happened with one of the early Super Bowl winners. After all, a higher percentage of running plays keeps the clock running and tends to lower the number of plays in a game. Perhaps, we should not be that surprised with the Seattle play stats since they had only 40 plays from scrimmage in their 14-9 win over the Rams in St. Louis. For that matter, the Rams had only 41 plays from scrimmage in their convincing triumph over the Texans in Houston.
Win the turnover battle, score some points off of turnovers, and mix in an occasional big play by the offense or special teams, and then you don’t need to run so many plays. The Seahawks are now the third team to win the Super Bowl and have fewer first downs than their opponents in each playoff game. This also happened last year with the Ravens in four playoff games and also occurred during the postseason leading up to the Raiders’ Super Bowl XV victory. One of the distinguishing features of the Seahawks and the Broncos heading into Super Bowl XLVIII was the plus-20 regular season turnover ratio for Seattle while the Broncos were even. Additionally, the Seahawks had a 112-34 advantage in points off turnovers in the regular season and a 31-3 advantage in the playoffs that included a 21-0 tally in the Super Bowl.
To further amplify the point, the Seahawks turned over the ball themselves 19 times in the regular season. Yet, the defense only allowed four touchdowns and two field goals following those turnovers. Even though the offense scored on just over one-half of the turnovers generated by that defense (13 touchdowns and seven field goals off of 39 turnovers), the defense had the offense’s back by keeping the opponents scoreless against Seattle after more than two-thirds of their giveaways. By comparison, the Rams actually scored after nearly 60 percent of their opponents’ turnovers—about ten percent better than Seattle. However, the Rams allowed a high ratio of ten touchdowns and two field goals after their 19 turnovers and that was double the rate allowed by the Seattle defense.
During the postseason, the Seahawks allowed no points off of ten-play drives and only once did an opponent start a drive past midfield. You might recall that came following the opening play of the NFC Championship game when Russell Wilson fumbled and the Niners recovered. The defense held San Francisco to a field goal—the only points allowed off of their only postseason turnover. In regular season play, the Seahawks had 29 drives that started past midfield while their opponents had 13 such drives. That was most likely due to a combination of turnovers and returns. The Rams had nine fewer drives starting past the 50-yard line although they allowed the same number of drives past midfield as Seattle.
This leads to what might well be the most stunning statistic of the bunch. The average drive start for the Seahawks in their 31 postseason possessions was their own 37-yard line—an amazing number in an era of increased touchbacks on kickoffs and directional punting! That was 13 yards better than their opponents’ typical starting field position. Based on approximately 11 possessions per game, you now have over 140 “hidden yards” the other team has to gain just to get where the Seahawks started. Since Seattle allowed just less than 340 yards per playoff game, that in essence only left an opponent with 200 yards to work with over an entire game once they got to the 37-yard line. Seattle had the better average drive start in 15 of their 19 games this past season and their average was past the 30-yard line in 13 of those games. The Rams had four games with an average drive start at the 30-yard line or better and only in the Tampa Bay game did the team have an average drive start that was better than the Seattle average mark throughout the entire postseason.
This past postseason highlighted the notion that the running game is still alive and well in the NFL. The teams that won the 11 playoff games had the higher rushing output in nine of those games. In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks outrushed the Broncos by 108 yards; yet, it was not just a virtuoso performance by Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks were only the second team in Super Bowl history to have four players with at least 25 yards rushing. You would have to go back 44 years to find that other team as the Chiefs had three running backs and wide receiver Frank Pitts gaining at least 25 yards against the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. This year, it was indeed a wide receiver leading the way as Percy Harvin became the first wide receiver to take leading rusher honors in a Super Bowl with 45 yards on only two carries.
There are countless ways to look at why teams win football games. In the case of the Seahawks, their formula of winning the turnover and field position battle has been a fairly tried and true one. Elements of deception, possession, and territorial advantage all play a role in football success and there is not always a huge difference between teams in some of these areas. If the Rams are able to make improvements in those areas even in relatively small amounts, that can ultimately make the difference in tipping the balance toward more victories.