Super Bowl XLIX: A Potential Blueprint for the Seattle Seahawks' Receivers
Super Bowl Media Day has come and gone, and now the players can focus on practice and winning their matchups, with the hope that winning those matchups helps their team hoist the Lombardi trophy on Sunday night.
While some team strategy is obvious based on what got each team to the game, some of each team's game plan may call on unheralded or underappreciated players winning their individual matchups during the game.
A prime example of this figures to be in the Seahawks passing game against the highly-touted pass defense of the New England Patriots. The big question that multiple members of the media seem to pose, including NFL Network's Deion Sanders, is whether the Seahawks wide receivers -- like Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse -- are going to be able to contribute positively on Sunday to a victory.
What Do the Analytics Say?
From a team perspective, these metrics highlight some key reasons that the Seahawks and Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl. The Patriots' defensive strength, according to our metrics, is in their pass defense, as they ranked fourth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, behind shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. Obviously, the Seahawks' offensive strength is in their rushing attack, which was the best unit our database has ever seen.
So, the default logic is that the Seahawks will want to continue to run the ball behind this year's running back Rushing NEP leader, Marshawn Lynch, and use Russell Wilson, the overall leader in Rushing NEP, on the zone read.
All of this intended rushing for Seattle is predicated on scheme and success on early downs, as well as New England's not stacking the box with eight defensive personnel with a "spy" on Wilson. If the Patriots stack the box and force the Seahawks to pass, though, which they'll try to do, can the Seahawks' receiving weapons make enough plays to extend drives?
The chart below shows each receiver along with their advanced analytics from 2014.
|Player||Targets||Rec. NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target|
From the table above (Paul Richardson is intentionally omitted due his being injured), the Seahawks are a middling group of pass-catchers that are neither high-volume nor super efficient. Baldwin, the main subject of the national media's criticism, ranked 39th in Reception NEP this season and 22nd in Target NEP among wide receivers who were targeted 75 times or more. While that puts him tops on the Seahawks by a wide margin, it also shows that he's below a league average receiver by a wide margin as a number-one wide receiver for his team.
On an efficiency basis, Baldwin's Reception NEP per target ranked a middle-of-the-pack 36th of the 81 wide receivers with 60 or more targets this season. Kearse's 0.62 average ranked 49th. For someone who has deep ball potential like Kearse, this is a little alarming. These metrics show that, over the course of the regular season, the Seahawks receiving options were inefficient and their higher volume options were not good in making the most of their targets compared to an average receiver.
Perhaps the Seahawks would be better served throwing to their tight ends more often as Luke Willson, who only had 40 targets this year, had a Reception NEP per target of 0.73, putting him eighth among tight ends with 40 or more targets. We'll explore this topic more in a bit, but overall, the Seahawks clearly lack a dependable high-volume, high-efficiency target in the passing game.
A Potential Game Plan Against the Patriots
So what do the Seahawks do with their wide receivers and tight ends on Sunday? While Baldwin mentions in the Sanders interview above that his goal is to win the game and have Lynch be the MVP, expect the Seahawks to be aggressive in what the defense is giving their wide receivers and exploit the matchup that works best for them, especially if the running game is successful.
To capitalize in the passing game, the Seahawks may want to follow the script that the Ravens used with success in the AFC Divisional Round. This means relying on players like Baldwin, taking an occasional shot with Kearse and capitalizing on Browner's aggressiveness (led the NFL in defensive penalties among defensive backs) by targeting Lockette, who's a low-volume player with only 11 receptions on the season and hasn't scored a touchdown since September.
Kearse figures to draw Revis primarily due to the play-making ability he's shown on a limited basis in the playoffs (four touchdowns in his last four playoff games) with Kyle Arrington on Baldwin and former Seahawk Brandon Browner on number-three receiver Ricardo Lockette.
If, in fact, Revis is covering Kearse, the big-play ability for the Seahawks passing game is significantly limited, and the Seahawks may have to throw shorter passes to complement their rushing attack. All of this is factored into our Super Bowl projections for Kearse, whom we peg for about 3 receptions for 34 yards.
Obviously not many quarterbacks target Revis, so the Seahawks will have to be smart about either targeting him and take their down-the-field chances with Kearse when another defensive back is covering him. As for Baldwin, he figures to draw some of Revis too, especially on third down where he made plays down the stretch in the NFC Championship, where he had 6 catches for 106 yards. (For an excellent film breakdown on Baldwin's 35-yard catch in overtime and what the Patriots secondary -- and in particular Revis on third down -- will look to do to limit Baldwin's success on third downs, check this out.)
From the above, the Seahawks would want to mix in the pass on early downs to Baldwin when Arrington is covering him and then go to Kearse on third downs when Revis may not be covering him. Either way, as the Seahawks number-one wide receiver, the Seahawks must find a way to get Baldwin the ball.
Paging Dr. Willson
Further, Baltimore, who had success on the ground (28 carries for 136 yards) and the air (292 passing yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions), utilized tight end Owen Daniels effectively to the tune of 4 catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. If the Seahawks can use tight end Luke Willson in the seam as effectively as they did their last time in Arizona -- which was the fourth-best tight end performance of the season -- it will certainly take pressure off the running game against a defense that allowed the third-most receiving yards to tight ends in 2014.
The hard part with Willson is expecting him to have a big game, as he's been a low-volume option all season. In fact, his monster performance resulted in a Target NEP of 13.37 for the day, which is higher than than the 12.70 Target NEP he finished with on the season, meaning he contributed negatively to the team's expected point total in the other regular season games this season.
While the Seahawks receiving options are a topic of discussion in the media and in prop bets, they can be serviceable at times -- especially for what the Seahawks need them for -- namely moving the chains and making an occasional play to complement the run and keep the Patriots defense honest. That play can take the form of a key third down catch to extend a drive, drawing a pass interference call on Browner, or whatever the team needs to win the game as I laid out in the Ravens blueprint above.
This Sunday, if the Seahawks can have success on early downs with the running game, thereby making the pass less obvious, Wilson and the Seahawks offense can capitalize in those scenarios before. This includes last year's Super Bowl when both Kearse and Baldwin were incredibly efficient with 9 total receptions on 10 targets for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns. Similar production this year for the Seahawks would likely result in a win. At the same time, if Baldwin catches 4 balls for 56 yards as we project, that could net the Seahawks a win if they fire on other aspects of their game plan.
What the Seahawks have to avoid is playing significantly from behind, which takes a run-oriented, defensive-minded team and forces its receivers to make plays nearly every down. That, realistically, is not their sweet spot. Nor is expecting these receivers to excel in the red zone with the game on the line, as they struggled in Kansas City (their last loss) to convert in the passing game on key goal-to-go scenarios.
In closing, Baldwin and the receiving corps do not lack confidence, which may come from going against the Seahawks vaunted secondary everyday in practice and recent playoff success. Or this confidence may just be false bravado based on the advanced metrics and projections we've highlighted, which shows the receiving options are below average. One thing is for sure though -- we'll all be glued to the television to see what happens on Sunday, most likely with low expectations for the Seahawks receiving corps.
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