Taking a look at how the Seahawks blitzed in 2017 under Kris Richard compared to past seasons under Pete Carroll.
Of all the coaching moves the Seahawks have made so far this offseason – and even of those that may still be to come — the one that on the surface has seemed the least explainable is the firing of defensive coordinator Kris Richard.
True, the Seahawks’ defense fell off in Richard’s third year as DC — to 13th in points allowed after ranking first every year from 2012-15 and then third in 2016.
But much of that appeared attributable to the injuries that hit the defense as well as the inconsistency of an offense that too often did little to keep the opposing offense off the field.
Holding the Rams and now Super Bowl-bound Eagles to 10 points seemed to show that the plan still worked when the Seahawks were healthy (or against the Eagles, good enough to get it done despite missing three key players).
But Pete Carroll made the decision to jettison one of his longest-serving assistants — Richard had been with Carroll since his days at USC in 2008 — and bring back Ken Norton Jr. in his place, a move that former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren last week called puzzling during an interview on KJR-AM 950.
Carroll has yet to talk publicly since the coaching changes, leaving the reasoning up to some guesswork (and when he does, he may not give a whole lot of specifics. anyway).
Among the reasons bandied about is that Richard might have been calling the game more aggressively than Carroll prefers. Carroll’s scheme is based on not getting beat deep, keeping passes in front of the secondary and forcing teams to have to go the long way to march for touchdowns with the idea being that the more plays it takes, the more likely the opposing offense is to mess things up (though it’s always been regarded that Carroll pretty much runs the defense anyway, no matter the coordinator.)
And given that Richard is the first defensive coordinator Carroll has fired at any time in his head coaching career that’s an assertion that deserves some examination.
The interesting thing is that in looking at what is maybe the simplest way to judge the aggressiveness of a defense — the number of times it blitzes — nothing was out of the ordinary this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks blitzed just 22 percent of the time (PFF judges a blitz as any time a defense rushes more players than it has on its line, so meaning five or more in a 4-3, which is Seattle’s most common alignment).
That was tied with the Eagles for the fifth-lowest blitz percentage in the NFL ahead of only the Chargers, Jacksonville, Bengals and Bills (and, yes, it’s interesting that two other defenses that are similar in philosophy to Seattle’s — the Chargers (where former Seattle DC Gus Bradley is the coordinator) and Jaguars (where former Seattle assistant Todd Wash runs the defense), were below the Seahawks, at 19 and 21 percent, respectively. Atlanta, where another former Seattle DC, Dan Quinn, is the head coach, was just above the Seahawks at 23 percent.
All were far below the teams at the top of the list — Cleveland had a blitz percentage of 42 and Carolina 40, to lead the way.
And the 22 percent blitz rate of this season is right in line with what the Seahawks did under Bradley and Quinn.
An ESPN story in the middle of the 2016 season stated: “Since 2012, the Seahawks have blitzed — a pass rush of five or more players — on only 25 percent of opposing dropbacks. That’s the sixth-lowest percentage in the league.’’
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013 they blitzed 23.3 percent of the time, according to PFF, which was 24th in the NFL.
Man-to-man coverage in the secondary, which often accompanies blitzing, is obviously another way to view a defense’s aggressiveness. But that’s also harder to quantify statistically since many times zone and man are incorporated in the same play.
But the blitz percentage numbers indicate that nothing was really hugely different in what Seattle did this year overall (obviously, some games always feature more or less based on the opponent and matchup and health of the defense).
What were maybe the two most debated defensive play calls of the season for the Seahawks were the two long pass plays by Washington that led to a touchdown in an eventual 17-14 defeat that ultimately was as big as anything in keeping Seattle out of the playoffs — passes of 31 and 38 yards by Kirk Cousins to Brian Quick and Josh Doctson on consecutive plays with 1:31 and 1:24 left in the game.
Seattle — playing without the injured Earl Thomas, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson — blitzed on the first play with K.J. Wright almost getting to Cousins. The Seahawks had just a four-man rush on the second play, but on each was in man coverage, which elicited no shortage of debate after the game.
Carroll, though, didn’t second guess the calls a day later.
“Well we could have played them differently, yeah,’’ Carroll said. “We had had a pretty good day rushing the passer and we wanted to see if we could get after it and continue to be aggressive in that mode and that’s what happened. There are always choices that you guys are – I don’t want to say famous for but you guys… Let me say this — often the outside observations are that you play too soft and you give up to much when you are playing prevent and stuff like that. Well we certainly weren’t doing that. There is a time to mix and that one they got us. It happened really fast. It was two plays and bang, bang, they were there.”
In fact, Seattle got its first points of the Washington game on a blitz that led to a Bobby Wagner safety in the first quarter.
The Quick pass that sparked Washington’s winning drive, though, highlights another telling stat from PFF — Seattle’s passer rating allowed when blitzing, which was a whopping 104.58, the fifth-worst in the NFL behind Washington, Pittsburgh, the Rams and Dallas. That’s in contrast to Seattle’s overall passer rating allowed for the season of 79.1, which ranked seventh best in the NFL.
That’s in stark contrast to previous years. According to that same 2016 ESPN article, from 2012-16 the Seahawks allowed the lowest average yards per dropback when blitzing and also the lowest TD percentage.
That dropoff, though, also seems like it can be attributable greatly to injuries in its famed secondary — Thomas, Sherman and Chancellor played only the first seven games together before Thomas missed two and then Sherman and Chancellor suffered season-ending injuries (all three started every game together in 2013 and Thomas never missed a game until late last season and Sherman this year).
Obviously, not just one thing plays into a decision like this — maybe, as sources have indicated, Carroll just wanted a different voice leading a defense that appears headed for major change, and specifically one that may no longer be as dependent on leadership from the Legion of Boom (which Richard helped groom) as in the past. Or more likely, it was some combination of a few different factors.
The numbers, at least, show that Richard didn’t blitz any differently than past Seattle DCs, and with Carroll hand-picking another coach to succeed him who grew up in his system, that’s not likely to change.