The Fabulous Peltoncast Super Bowl Recap

In the euphoria of the Seahawks winning their first NFL championship, special guests Michael Carosino and Nick Walker join The Fabulous Peltoncast to celebrate and break down the action in Super Bowl XLVIII.

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Contents

Intro – Opening Super Bowl thoughts
6:00 – MVP voting and Malcolm Smith
11:30 – Shutting down the Denver defense
18:00 – How the Seahawks offense got going
22:30 – Reviewing NostraTristan‘s two dead-on predictions
26:30 – Some of the guys we’re most happy for tonight
39:00 – Final thoughts on the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl

Welcoming Back the Seahawks’ Third-Down Weapon

On a day where the Seattle Seahawks could never get their run going in Carolina — at least not until the final clock-killing drive — third downs loomed larger than usual. And nobody was better at converting with possession on the line than slot receiver Doug Baldwin. Quarterback Russell Wilson looked Baldwin’s direction four times on Sunday and came up with completions and first downs all four, including a tiptoe catch along the sideline on a ball Wilson appeared to be throwing away.

Not only was Baldwin the Seahawks’ best option on third down — Wilson completed just two other third-down throws for first downs, one apiece to starting wideouts Sidney Rice and Golden Tate — his four catches good for first downs were tied for fourth in the NFL this weekend.

Such third-down heroics are nothing new for Baldwin. As a rookie in 2011, playing primarily with Tarvaris Jackson, the undrafted Baldwin was one of the league’s most productive players on third down, catching 25 passes (tied for seventh in the NFL) for 23 first downs (fourth). Here’s how Baldwin compared to the NFL’s other third down leaders:

Player             T    C   FD    C%     FD%   FD/C   Y/T
---------------------------------------------------------
Roddy White       52   35   29   .673   .558   .829   8.4
Nate Washington   45   29   20   .644   .444   .690   8.0
Antonio Brown     44   28   25   .636   .568   .893   9.9
Victor Cruz       39   27   22   .692   .564   .815  17.9
Wes Welker        44   26   24   .591   .545   .923   7.3
Davone Bess       42   26   13   .619   .310   .500   5.9
Doug Baldwin      42   25   23   .595   .548   .920   9.7
Darren Sproles    32   25   12   .781   .375   .480   7.0
Austin Collie     45   23   22   .511   .489   .957   6.2
Steve Johnson     40   23   15   .575   .375   .652   8.1

Baldwin’s performance on third downs was nearly identical to fellow undersized, undrafted Wes Welker. As compared to the other most frequent third-down targets, Welker and Baldwin (and Austin Collie) were most efficient at turning their completions into first downs more than 90 percent of the time. The only difference? Baldwin also mixed in enough yards after catch to rank third in yards per target. (Related: Victor Cruz, whoa!)

Such play convinced Football Outsiders to rank Baldwin No. 1 on their list of top 25 “prospects” (young players without starting experience or elite draft pedigree) entering last season. But while the rest of the Seahawks’ receiving core improved with Wilson replacing Jackson under center, Baldwin wasn’t nearly as effective during a sophomore campaign that was plagued by injury. He came up with just eight first downs on 13 completions among the 23 passes Wilson threw him on third down.

Over such a small sample, Baldwin’s decline on third down could have been nothing but noise; he came up a yard short of the sticks three times, and turning those plays into first downs would have been enough to make him a much more effective player. However, Baldwin got worse across every down; his DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of per-play effectiveness) dropped from 14.2 percent better than average and tops among the team’s receives to right at league average and far worse than Rice and Tate.

On the “Fifth Quarter” postgame show, Baldwin provided an alternative explanation, pointing out that the hamstring injury that sidelined him during training camp prevented him from getting needed work with Wilson. Indeed, this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac notes that Baldwin got better as the 2012 season went on.

Now healthy and with the benefit of a full camp with Wilson, Baldwin appears to have the timing he needs to be a factor on third downs. That’s a big addition to what was already a potent Seahawks passing attack.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Play Index was invaluable in calculating these stats.

Protect Rusell Wilson by Turning Him Loose

The biggest debate in Seattle this fall hasn’t been Obama or Romney, or even Inslee or McKenna. Instead, partisan camps have formed behind Seahawks quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson. After his starring role in leading the Seahawks past New England, Wilson seems to have won over most skeptics, but another performance like Thursday’s second half at San Francisco, when Wilson completed just three passes, could reignite the discussion about the rookie and his more expensive backup.

In defending Wilson’s starting role after a loss at St. Louis last month, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put the blame for Wilson’s poor numbers on his own conservative handling of the offense.

“I really think this is me holding the lid on it right now,” Carroll told reporters. “And I’m overseeing all of that, and making sure that what’s more important to us is that we take care of the football – more than anything. I don’t care about the yards.”

Given the team’s strong defense and special teams, Carroll’s approach makes sense from the Seahawks. Surely, Carroll also feels like he’s protecting Wilson by relying on powerful running back Marshawn Lynch to carry the load offensively. I don’t think a detailed analysis of the team’s play calling bears that out.

To better understand the Seahawks offense, I downloaded play-by-play from each of the team’s seven games and coded it by down and distance, run or pass (counting scrambles as passes), result in terms of yards (including penalties, and penalizing turnovers as -56 yards +/- the change in yardage per this old Football Outsiders analysis), location on the field, situation (run, pass or neutral) and success (based on Football Outsiders’ baselines, which originally come from The Hidden Game of Football).

Overall, the Seahawks have been about equally effective passing and running the ball:

Play    #    YPA    SD     Suc
------------------------------
Rush   203   3.8    5.0    .41
Pass   199   4.1   16.5    .47

These numbers are very different than the official team totals, since they include turnovers, sacks and penalties. When you factor all that in, pass plays have averaged slightly more yards per attempt than run plays. They’re somewhat more likely to be successful (picking up enough yardage to make a conversion likely), but far more volatile because of big plays both positive and negative. That last factor is part of why most teams, who are more effective passing than running, tend not to just pass all the time. That the Seahawks are about equal in both areas means they are a good running team and a terrible passing one.

Overall, the Seahawks run and pass almost identical amounts, but that changes substantially depending on the situation. I called run situations first down and 10 (or fewer) or plays with one yard to go on any down, called pass situations third (or fourth down) with at least 4 to go and everything else neutral. Here’s how the Seahawks stack up by situation:

Situation   Rush   Pass   Rush%
-------------------------------
Neutral      70     82     .461
Pass         11     60     .155
Rush        122     77     .613

The percentages there make sense, especially since my definition of rushing situations is a tad more liberal than passing situations. The more important thing to note is how the Seahawks’ success in running and passing varies by situation.

NEUTRAL SITUATIONS

Play     YPA    Suc
-------------------
Rush     3.7    .41
Pass     2.2    .41

In neutral situations, the Seahawks are about equally successful. The reason for that low yards per attempt for passing plays is that four of Wilson’s seven interceptions have come on such plays, which is likely a coincidence.

PASS SITUATIONS

Play     YPA    Suc
-------------------
Rush     5.6    .18
Pass     3.5    .28

As you might expect of a team that struggles to pass, the Seahawks have had a rough time converting in passing situations. Note that the high yards per carry is a product of draws on third and long, which explains the discrepancy with the success rate.

RUSH SITUATIONS

Play     YPA    Suc
-------------------
Rush     3.6    .43
Pass     6.7    .57

Here is the most interesting layer of analysis. The Seahawks are decent when they run the ball in rushing situations, but tremendous when they play against type and pass the ball. Both yards per attempt and success rate show how effective these plays have been. Narrowing to first and 10 plays only strengthens this conclusion:

FIRST & 10

Play     YPA    Suc
-------------------
Rush     3.9    .36
Pass     7.2    .58

While yards per carry go up, the success rate of runs–which need five yards on first and 10 to be considered successful–goes down because we’re no longer factoring in picking up short-yardage situations. Meanwhile, passing plays become even more effective, netting better than seven yards per attempt. Of the Seahawks’ five best plays this season, four–including the game-winning touchdown to Sidney Rice against New England–have been passes on first and 10. Wilson excels at selling the play action, giving receivers an opportunity to get open deep downfield.

By running on first down, Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell believe they are protecting Wilson by trying to avoid third and long situations where opposing defenses can bring pressure against an offensive line that struggles to block edge rushers. However, by reducing the likelihood of picking up early first downs, they’re also making third down plays more likely. One other thing the numbers show is that the Seahawks have been ineffective when it comes to converting third and short or medium–aside from third and one, a likely running down.

Dist   #    Suc
---------------
1     12   .667
2      5   .200
3      8   .375
4     13   .462
5     12   .333
6      7   .286
7      5   .400
8      2   .500
9      5   .200
10     9   .000
10+   13   .077

Now, the obvious counterpoint to arguing the Seahawks should pass more on first and 10 relates to game theory. Part of the reason these pass plays are so successful is because opposing defenses expect to run. The more the Seahawks pass, the less successful each pass will be. Here’s where I think the research Aaron Schatz published on FO based on a conversation with me comes in. Going into the San Francisco game, the Seahawks offense had been at its best by far during the first quarter, ranking eighth in the NFL in DVOA. The Seahawks were also 17th in the fourth quarter, but near the bottom of the league (27th and 26th) during the middle two quarters.

The difference between the way the Seahawks play in the first quarter, when their plays are scripted, and the second and third periods can be traced in part to their run/pass balance. Here’s how that looks by quarter in run situations:

Qtr  Run  Pass   Run%
---------------------
1     26   20    .565
2     28   17    .622
3     33   16    .673
4     35   24    .593

The Seahawks come out aggressively, attacking down the field with play action, then settle into a more conservative style of calling plays, especially after halftime. During the fourth quarter, they’ve frequently had no choice but to pass when trailing, with generally positive results.

It makes no sense for the Seahawks to morph into the Saints and start winging the ball around the field 50 times a game. That would be a waste of Lynch’s talent, and too much to put on Wilson, the line and a group of receivers that have been plagued at times by dropped passes. By maintaining their more balanced play calling from the first quarter deeper into games, however, I think they can avoid some of the three and outs that have been all too common during the middle quarters. Letting Wilson pass may ironically be the best way to take the pressure off of him.