Seattle Seahawks 2014 Season Review: Feeling Optimistic

The Seattle Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl this year, but not without obstacles.

Like any Super Bowl winner, the 2014 Seattle Seahawks came into the season with a giant bullseye on them. Since 2000, only the 2004 New England Patriots have returned to the big game.

Let's take a look at the Seahawks season in review, what the big turning points in their season were, and what the team does well and still needs to improve on heading into the offseason.

First Quarter: Winning With a Square Peg in a Round Hole

The Seahawks started off the season somewhat strong, going 3-1 and beating the Green Bay Packers handily at home in the NFL season opener. With that win, the formula seemed mostly the same: run behind the strong Marshawn Lynch, let Russell Wilson be an efficiency machine, and watch the defense play lights out.

However, in Week 2, the Seahawks got torn apart by the San Diego Chargers behind the combination of Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who had a Target Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) total of 15.95 (good for the second-best tight end performance of the season) in a 30-21 Chargers win.

This game revealed a formula that many offenses exploited against the Seahawks defense -- tight ends ended up accounting for 11 of the 17 passing touchdowns the Seahawks gave up in 2014.

A Monday Night game against Washington in Week 5 saw quarterback Russell Wilson use his legs to rush for 122 yards and a touchdown, which became a precursor for him leading the league in Rushing NEP among quarterbacks this season, with a 60.50 total. All in all, at 3-1, everything seemed to be fine for the defending champions.

Second Quarter: Getting Injured and Sending a Distraction Packing

The first pivotal moment of the Seahawks season was a home loss in Week 6 to the Dallas Cowboys, which was the only home loss of the season, The Seahawks showed vulnerability against the pass and the run. More importantly, two big things happened in that game that initiated a downward spiral for the Seahawks. First, they lost middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to a significant turf toe injury which kept him sidelined until Week 12. Second, abysmal offensive play calling led to misuse of Percy Harvin, who ended the game with 3 receptions for 0 yards. Later in the week, the team decided it had enough with the mercurial receiver (who had an awful Reception NEP per target of 0.21 -- last among receivers with 25 targets or more through five games), sending him off to the New York Jets for a 2015 late-round draft pick.

Just after the trade, the Seahawks lost to the Rams to go 3-3, and they sat with a 45.6% probability of making the playoffs.

Everything was fine. The Seahawks won three in a row after this, two in uninspiring fashion against Oakland and Carolina. Then, in a win over the Giants, Lynch had the second-best rushing game of the season to get the Seahawks to 6-3. Around this time, everyone including yours truly were asking whether the Seahawks were in trouble of missing the playoffs. The possibility seemed real at the time with a loaded NFC and an approximate 60% chance of making the playoffs.

Third Quarter: Low Odds

After losing 24-20 in Kansas City in a game where Jamaal Charles ran for 159 yards and a pair of touchdowns, it was painfully obvious that this Seahawks team was missing Bobby Wagner and a fully healthy Kam Chancellor on defense.

As a result of the loss to the Chiefs, our algorithms had the Seahawks at their lowest probability of making the playoffs all season at 43.9% with six weeks to go.

Through Week 11, our Net Expected Points numbers and ranks painted a fairly mediocre picture for the Seahawks:

Adj. Def Pass NEPAdj. Def Rush NEPAdj. Pass NEPAdj. Rush NEP
51.64 (23rd)-26.71 (4th)9.60 (25th)63.25 (1st)

The above table shows how the Seahawks' pass defense wasn't even average through 11 weeks when adjusted for strength of opponent. Additionally, the pass defense ranked just 25th in the NFL.

Fourth Quarter: Swagger Like Us

From Week 12 on, the Seahawks defense went into overdrive, behind getting renewed pressure on the quarterback (albeit against some pretty sorry quarterbacks) and lockdown cornerback play from Richard Sherman.

Further, in the final five games of the season, the Seahawks defense allowed only 36 points, The offense was efficient too, and on a Sunday night in Arizona, that offense became explosive. Lynch's "Beast Quake 2.0" 79-yard touchdown run and Wilson's second 300-yard passing and 100-yard rushing effort of the season resulted in a dominant 35-6 win over the Cardinals. This gave the Seahawks the pole position towards winning the NFC West and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The 2014 Season's Advanced Analytics

The Seahawks finished the regular season with a league-leading nERD of 8.95, which represents the number of points you'd expect a team to win by on a neutral field versus an average opponent. This was roughly a point and a half worse than their 2013 score.

While the season followed somewhat of a roller coaster, the Seahawks' 12-4 record was predominantly a result of having a dominant running offense and strong all-around defense. Using our advanced metrics for Adjusted NEP, let's look into how the Seahawks finished the regular season:

Adj. Def Pass NEPAdj. Def Rush NEPAdj. Pass NEPAdj. Rush NEP
-3.65 (3rd)-38.53 (5th)46.79 (15th)93.50 (1st)

Behind Lynch (27.34 Rushing NEP) and Wilson (60.50 Rushing NEP), the top ranked rushing players at their respective positions, it's no surprise that the Seahawks were able to be so efficient on offense. However, from Week 12 through the end of the season, the passing game was also successful, as the team moved from the 25th ranked unit to the 15th ranked unit.

Their pass defense showed a marked improvement from Week 11 too, jumping up 20 spots in our rankings.

There's no doubt that the final five games of the season were the reason the Seahawks secured home-field advantage in the NFC.

Playoffs: Going Overtime

With home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Seahawks surprisingly used the passing game to beat the NFC South Champions 31-17, setting them up for a matchup last weekend against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship.

Like in Week 1, the Seattle's defense was able to limit the big plays the Packers were able to make, but Wilson's throwing mistakes were a huge reason the team found itself down 16-0 at halftime. With just a 1.6% chance to win the game with five minutes to go, though, the Seahawks pulled off the improbable NFC Championship victory in overtime.

A Look at 2015

While nobody questions the Seahawks running game, pass or rush defense, they still are a team that only had 37 sacks (a little more than 2 per game) on the season, and just 13 interceptions. However, the defensive side of the ball is the least of the Seahawks concerns going forward.

Entering next season, Seattle will need to address getting stronger wide receiver play. The best wideout on Seattle this year, Doug Baldwin, finished 39th in Reception NEP. Though this can be a volume-driven statistic, he still ranked just 29th of the 56 wide receivers with 50 or more catches this year in Reception NEP per target. They need wide receiver help.

Upgrades on the offensive line in the draft would also help, as injuries to Max Unger and Russell Okung caused significant issues at points in the season. On the defensive side of the ball, most of the core is locked up for the medium term, but the team will have to decide what to do with free agent cornerback Byron Maxwell, which may end up being a difficult decision.

The Seahawks are in great shape, despite losing Super Bowl XLIX the way they did.