Week 11 brings us a matchup that sees two of the best Defenses in the NFL square off, as the Seattle Seahawks and the 6th ranked Defense face the Philadelphia Eagles and the 1st ranked Defense (ratings are according to Football Outsiders). Philadelphia also boasts the best Special Teams in the NFL according to the same efficiency ratings, but the way that Seattle chooses to play Special Teams ought to limit that much more. Carson Wentz is a rookie Quarterback who has struggled on the road and the other skill position players on the Eagles Offense do not exactly strike fear into opposing Defenses.
That means the great battle to watch is how Russell Wilson will guide the Seahawks Offense against this highly regarded Philadelphia D. Seattle is the more likely team to be able to bust out and break the game open. If it is an ugly Defensive battle it could really go either way in a close game, but if Russ and the Seahawks get loose it could make for a different brand of game. That being said, can they?
As I already said, Football Outsiders ranks the Philadelphia Eagles 1st in the NFL in Team Defensive Efficiency as well as both Pass Defense and Run Defense. That paints a very complete picture, and it begs the question of how the team is managing such an impressive feat. Looking at the personnel you can see some quality players like DBs Nolan Carroll and Rodney McLeod, LB Mychal Hendricks, and DLs Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Connor Barwin. The other thing you will notice is that there is talent in every position. The Eagles have done a wonderful job of building a Defense that doesn’t have any big holes and does many things well.
Of the things they do well, many of them involve the Defensive Line. Philly has 25 sacks so far in 2016, with pressure on 8.5% of plays. That is one of the top pressure rates in the NFL, and Brandon Graham (5 sacks), Fletcher Cox (4 sacks), and Connor Barwin (4 sacks) show that the pressure is coming from all across the line as opposed to just having one dominant pass rusher. They also are one of the better Defenses at stuffing the run. The line only gives up 3.17 yards per carry and they frequently stop run plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. They do this consistently across the line as well, ranking in the Top 10 in yards per run through every gap except for stretch runs off the right end.
As you move away from the Defensive Line, you see a lot of other really impressive numbers. Philly is one of the best teams in the NFL at defending No. 1 Receivers, Slot Receivers, and Tight Ends. They also rank as one of the top teams at defending short passes to either side of the field. Clearly this is a very complete Defense in terms of both players and level of play.
However, every Defense has soft spots that can be exploited. The difficulties of the Eagles’ Defense are fairly clear with a big of digging. Philly has an aggressive Defense with athletic players, but when those players are overly aggressive things can break down. Through the first 9 games of the season, despite overall being a great Defense they were one of the teams most vulnerable to giving up the big play. They ranked 29th in the NFL, giving up long runs on 4.3% of plays. They also ranked 15th in the NFL for explosive pass plays, giving up a big play in the pass game once every 10.5% of attempts. Diving slightly deeper, this is reflected with ranks in the bottom 10 in the NFL covering No. 2 Receivers and Runningbacks. They also rank 12th in the NFL against passes over 15 yards, which while respectable is still a glaring place of potential exploitation when compared to what otherwise appears to be a unit with few weaknesses. Additionally, they are in the bottom 5 against runs off the Right side of the line. To make matters worse, once a Runningback breaks through the line the Eagles have some trouble taking them down. They rank in the bottom 5 in stopping the run at the 2nd Level and on the Open Field.
The Philadelphia Eagles are somewhat vulnerable to runs the break past the Defensive Line, Deep Passes, and big plays in general. Philly also is very good at stopping dink and dunk quick passing short gains Offenses. While it is good to know what your opponent is capable of and where their weaknesses are, that only comes into play if you are capable of taking advantage of those weaknesses. For the Seattle Seahawks the answer is that they can…..kind of….sometimes.
Through the early part of the season the Seahawks had a middling run game and a very hurt Russell Wilson that was being asked to help prop up an Offensive Line with more holes than Levi’s Stadium has empty seats. At this time the name of the game became getting the ball out of Russ’s hands as quickly as possible in order to prevent him from getting killed. This culminated in a stretch of games that saw a 6-6 tie against the Arizona Cardinals and a 20-25 loss to the Saints in weeks 7 and 8. This was a major low point for the team and they were forced to make an adjustment. The Seahawks only gave up 2 sacks combined in these two games as the ball left Wilson’s hands in a little over 2 seconds on average, but the playbook was mostly closed off and the team just could not move the ball.
All that changed starting in Week 9 against the Buffalo Bills. In that game the Seahawks scored 31 points as Russell Wilson was sacked 4 times but averaged 10.8 yards per attempt. This was a massive increase over the 6.73 yards per attempt in the Cardinals and Saints games, and represented a shift to sacrificing a few negative plays in order to open up the routes. It is no coincidence that it saw then team score more points as well. This was only further reinforced and realized in Week 11 against the Patriots when Wilson took 3 sacks from a pretty bad pass rush, but torched the Defense for 348 yards and 9.41 yards per pass. Helping in making this work was the fact that despite limited production the team committed to the run through primarily CJ Prosise as all Runningbacks combined for 23 carries and despite only picking up 3.91 yards per carry it did force the Defense to address the run instead of simply selling out to stop the pass.
The increased production for the passing game and Russell Wilson isn’t just about Wide Receivers making plays either, it is about throwing the ball down the field. In the last two games, Russell Wilson is 12/16 for 306 yards on passes that travel over 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the air. This is shown with an increase in play-action (much easier with an actual run game against the Patriots) and the improved blocking of Jimmy Graham. CJ Prosise is showing himself as a weapon as a pass catcher, though I do worry that if his pass blocking doesn’t improve he is going to get Russ killed.
What this means for the Eagles is that they should have to deal with a more open Seattle Seahawks playbook. With a more balance Offense, that means Seattle will likely have a good number of plays in which to take shots looking for those big plays that the Eagles are prone to giving up. Seattle is also best at running off the right side, which is the weakest part of the Philadelphia Run Defense. Add in the fact that the No. 2 Receiver is an increasingly healthy Tyler Lockett who averaged 24 yards per catch against the Patriots and you can really see the potential for a long Touchdown. This game will also mark the return of Thomas Rawls who will likely be limited but is a tough to tackle runner who often gets to the 2nd level and open field where he has a chance to break off a long run, as he will split time with CJ Prosise who picked up 87 yards receiving last week while the Eagles struggle to cover Runningbacks this year. Clearly there is a path to the Offense breaking out big time in this game, especially if Bradley Sowell can beat out Garry Gilliam and prove the podcast right in providing a solid presence at Right Tackle and giving the team at least one NFL average side of the line.
It is entirely possible that the Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush has a monster day against that struggling Seattle Seahawks Offensive Line. If that happens and the team doesn’t have time to throw deep, or if Bevell has one of those games where he just forgets that running the football exists, this could be a very ugly and brutal game. However, it doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to see a situation where the Seahawks Defense and the 12th Man combine to put a lot of pressure on Carson Wentz and give Seattle’s Offense some great field position to work with. In that situation, you can also see a few deep passes or big runs gashing the Defense and leading to a pair of quick Touchdowns. That is how a team that could be something like 14-10 one way or the other could perhaps turn out more like 28-14 or 30-17 Seattle. And let’s face it, for Seahawks fans everywhere it would be great for our blood pressure to have some breathing room one week. Maybe it is wishful thinking, but it is wishful thinking with a lot of numbers and a clear line of logic behind it.