(In this series, Touchdown Wire’s Mark Schofield takes a look at one important metric per NFL team to uncover a crucial problem to solve for the 2020 season. In this installment, we throw a bit of a curveball. Sure, Russell Wilson is one of the most pressured quarterbacks each season. But is that necessarily a bad thing for the Seattle Seahawks?)
“Metrics that Matter,” a summer series here at Touchdown Wire, is course of stories that follow a similar script. In each piece to date, we highlighted a concerning statistic for a team from their 2019 campaign and outlined how the organization looks to change their fortunes in the 2020 season.
For the Seattle Seahawks, we are doing something a bit different.
We are flipping the switch, as it were.
Every season, and into the offseason, a common theme emerges out of the Pacific Northwest. Death, taxes and protecting Russell Wilson. Conventional wisdom tells us that every season, Wilson plays under siege in the pocket, often running for his life shortly after the snap.
2019 was no different. Wilson was sacked 48 times last year, which tied him for the most sacks taken by a quarterback with Matt Ryan, and just ahead of Kyler Murray. Followers of this series might remember that when we addressed the Arizona Cardinals, Murray’s performance under pressure was a focus.
But there is a difference between Murray and Wilson.
While Murray struggled under pressure, with a completion percentage of just 43.1% when pressured and an NFL passer rating of 62.1%, Wilson thrives in pressure. Last year he was pressured on 243 snaps – second most in the league – and put up great-to-elite numbers in those situations. On those 243 pressured dropbacks, Wilson completed 85 of 168 passes for 1,217 yards and ten touchdowns, against just two interceptions. Those ten passing touchdowns tied him with Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz and Gardner Minshew for the most in the league. Wilson’s 1,217 passing yards while pressured were fourth-best in the league. His completion percentage while pressured was ninth-best in the league, and his NFL passer rating was fifth-best in the league.
This is not a new phenomenon. Last season Wilson was sacked 51 times – third-most in the league – but again put up great-to-elite numbers when pressured. On his 202 pressured dropbacks Wilson completed 64 of 134 passes for 926 yards and ten touchdowns, against just three interceptions. His NFL passer rating when pressured of 86.2% was fifth-best in the league, and those ten touchdown passes when pressured placed him in the top spot.
Some quarterbacks thrive in chaos. This can be a balancing act to be sure, and Baker Mayfield is perhaps an example of how thriving in chaos can actually hamper a quarterback’s development. With Mayfield it is more a “conundrum of comfort in chaos,” a topic I addressed in various pieces at Inside the Pylon while he was in college and then NFL. I’ve written about this and Mayfield for both Inside the Pylon (here and here) and the Matt Waldman RSP. Mayfield’s Plan B on almost every single snap was to bail the pocket and try to create in chaos.
Take, for example, this incompletion against the Los Angeles Rams:
Mayfield has a quick curl route available to him, and with this play coming from before the two-minute warning, the game clock is not an issue. So he can make this throw and takes what the defense gives him. Instead, he flushes himself to the right – away from a clean pocket – and ends up throwing an incompletion.
This is conundrum in crystal-clear focus. Mayfield almost seeks out chaos, and it gets him into trouble.
By contrast, Wilson:
With Wilson, however, his ability to thrive in chaos does not work to his detriment, but rather puts him in a better position to be successful. This is not to say that Wilson struggles from a clean pocket. In fact, far from it. According to charting date from Pro Football Focus, Wilson had an NFL passer rating of 109.6 from clean pockets last season, fifth-best in the league among qualified passers. His 26 passing touchdowns from clean pockets led the league.
Wilson is that rare breed of quarterback that can beat you from the pocket, but can be just as dangerous when pressured, or outside of the pocket.
So these sack and pressure numbers, while concerning on their face, might not matter as much with a player of his caliber.
That leads us to a different debate. In the Pacific Northwest, and frankly around the larger football world, there are some that believe the Seahawks need to be more conservative of an offense, and rely on the ground game more. Last year, for example, the Seahawks threw the ball on just 54% of their offensive snaps, making them the sixth-lowest team in the league in passing play percentage. By contrast, their rushing play percentage of 46% was the sixth-most in the league.
Was that the right move for a team with such a talented quarterback, who thrives both inside and outside of the pocket?
Perhaps not, according to Expected Points Added.
In a meaty piece analyzing the candidates for Most Valuable Player published last December, Ben Baldwin of The Athletic – Seattle examined six quarterbacks in a number of different categories: Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Patrick Mahomes and the eventual winner, Lamar Jackson. He also examined their teams in a few different categories, to try and outline the level of support each candidate they had.
What he found with Wilson was stunning, in an sense. Wilson had and EPA per dropback of 0.18, which was eighth-most in the league. Of the candidates analyzed by Baldwin, only Rodgers and his 0.14 was lower.
But then Baldwin looked at the run game of each team, in terms of Non-QB EPA per rush. The Seattle ground game had an EPA of -0.07 per running play (again, non Wilson running play) last season, which ranked them 17th in the league, and making them the least effective running game of the six teams/candidates examined.
Again, even with those sack and pressure numbers, the Seahawks are more effective on an EPA basis when Wilson drops to pass as opposed to him turning to hand the ball off.
Now, some might argue that EPA can be a bit of a “noisy” metric, but Wilson’s passing numbers – both pressured and when kept clean – should still support an argument that even if the team is concerned they cannot protect him, letting him do what he does is still the better play for them.
Even if the sacks and pressures leave you worried.