The 2013 Seattle Seahawks have had one of the best pass defenses in NFL history. Chase Stuart broke it down by adjusting for what the rest of the teams in the league were allowing, and Seattle is behind only the 2002 Buccaneers since 1990, and in the top five since 1950.
When you are the best at something, people wonder why. Just before the playoffs, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “The Seahawks’ Grabby Talons“, which alleged that their defenders “mug, obstruct and foul opposing receivers on practically every play.” The piece is long on anecdote, short on actual data. It includes quotes from recently retired Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and FOX’s Mike Pereira, ever-present with a quote about the officials. The piece gives the impression that Seattle’s defense is basically built upon the use of physical contact of a questionable variety on every play. (It also spawned this guest article at Advanced NFL Stats, which makes some pretty wild assumptions about the use of the tactic).
It’s Receiver Madness, our 2013 version of Reefer Madness with its scare tactics about those big, bad Seahawks.
So, I decided to review the two playoff games to see if the Seahawks really were mugging, obstructing, and fouling opposing receivers on practically every play. Here, for example, is a play that would support such a charge, from the first quarter of the game against the Saints, on third down.
Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both being contacted well past five yards. Even within five yards, a defender can chuck, but not hold, the receiver, “nor may he maintain contact after the receiver has moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.” (Rule 8, Section 4, Article 2). Walter Thurmond has his hands on Colston the entire play, and hooks him as he tries to cut away. A flag should have been thrown on this play.
That play, though, is the only one where I observed multiple infractions. On 80 plays where the opposition passed, was sacked, or scrambled in the two postseason games, I noted 17 times where there was questionable contact. That doesn’t mean a rules infraction was committed on each one, only that we might differ in our interpretation.
To put it another way, on 79% of all passing plays in the postseason, there was clearly no potential infraction.
That’s a far cry from “practically every play.”
Of those 17 occurrences, two were ones I noted as possible pass interference, all on “bang bang” type plays where there was no illegal contact before the pass was thrown. You probably recall these, involving Earl Thomas and Jimmy Graham.
Three of them–including the play above with Walter Thurmond–were noted as contact more than 5 yards downfield, on the receiver who was eventually targeted. Another one was actually completed to Michael Crabtree down the seam on a play where he was held prior to the pass. The third, we will get to below.
After that, six of the plays involved contact past five yards on a receiver other than the target. The last six were all plays within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, where there was persistent contact (i.e., more than just a single chuck), and because of the view, I could not rule out that a hold occurred. According to the rulebook, “the defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone, so long as the receiver has not moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.” In most of these cases, the action was probably legal.
Some of the contact downfield benefited the offense. For example, here is Jimmy Graham locked with the defensive back as they run downfield, which clears space for Colston’s crossing route underneath. If they are locked in contact, it’s not as if Graham doesn’t want that as he plays the role of decoy and blocker downfield.
It happened again on this play, at the goal line where Richard Sherman locked up on Graham.
Then, there is the question of what is allowed as contact, based on who initiates it. We’ve seen the pick plays or “rub” plays receive much attention, particular when it comes to the opponent in this Super Bowl. Here’s a play where there was definitely contact on the targeted receiver.
However, I happen to think this was a good non-call. If the pass had actually been thrown to Kenny Stills on this “rub”, they could have (though based on the lack of flags this year would not have) actually called offensive pass interference. Rule 8, Section 4, Article 3 says “Beyond the five-yard zone . . . a defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.” It looks like Colston initiates the contact to me, and the linebacker is just trying to continue to chase Stills. Brees also probably wants this throw back. You can bet Manning has this one in his memory bank.
Overall, a few more infractions could have been called, most notably that Thurmond hold early in the Divisional Round. However, the Seahawks are not the best because they mug on every play. That is a vast overstatement. The Wall Street Journal did a follow up today where a college referee viewed five games from the regular season and estimated that the Seahawks could have been called for 26 more flags, including 16 for illegal contact. The piece still throws out phrases like “rampant rule bending”. Seattle has faced 563 passes and sacks, plus an undetermined number of scrambles that takes the amount in the range of 600 plays.
26 of 600 (about 4% of plays, with one defender on each) is “rampant?”
That’s a far cry from virtually every play. It also means that with 23 called pass interference and defensive holding plays in the regular season, officials are catching and calling about half of them. I doubt we would see different ratios if we examined other teams, or if we looked at other aspects of the game like the prevalence of offensive holding versus what is called.
The Seahawks defense is aggressive and cohesive. They are not where they are because they are cheating on every play. They do commit infractions at times; some of them are called. Danny Kelly at Field Gulls has an excellent breakdown of the pass defense schemes. It really does stand out how good, and important to the defense, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman are. Thomas’ instincts and range have to always be in the quarterback’s mind. The other thing that stands out is there are no weak links and they are cohesive. They move as a group, not leaving holes. Expect this to be a fascinating game where Peyton Manning works the short and intermediate zones around the linebackers, waiting to strike downfield on occasion if they can set up a rub. I don’t look for him to test Thomas deep middle. It should be fun, but while there will be plenty of big calls, keep in mind: these teams are not “rampantly” cheating.