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Danny O'Neil covers the Seahawks for The Seattle Times.

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September 3, 2008 9:43 AM

Inside the numbers with Doug Farrar

Posted by Danny O'Neil

This season we're going to get inside the numbers with a member of The Football Outsiders. They're the folks who put together the annual Football Prospectus, which I consider must-read material and an essential reference work that I turn to both before, during and after the season.

They're the folks that predicted a precipitous drop in Shaun Alexander's production after the Super Bowl season, the ones who pointed out that all the numbers pointed against a bounce-back season in 2007 and the guys who found that it would be a minor miracle if Marcus Pollard could contribute given his age.

So broaden your minds as Doug Farrar gives a look inside Sunday's season-opener for Seattle. You can click here for a biography and a nifty little drawing of Doug on the staff page at Football Outsiders. I can't thank him enough for contributing this, which is going to be a truly unique look at each week's game. You don't have to sharpen your pencils, though. He crunches the numbers. Click on the extended link for an explanation of the tools he's going to be using in his weekly assessments ...

Introductory explainer: The analysis is going to take a glossary so before we get going, there's one term you absolutely have to understand and that's DVOA. It stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, and it's easier to explain than to pronounce. It is a percentage that evaluates a team's success on a given play compared to the league average. It does not evaluate total yards or average production, but rather if the play was successful (i.e. did it put the team in position for a first down). Gaining 7 yards on third-and-8 is not successful. Remember, DVOA is a percentage. Zero percent is average, 10 percent is 10 percent larger than average and -10 percent is 10 percent less than average. A positive DVOA percentage is good on offense, bad on defense. That's a simplified explanation. For the more thorough one, click here to read the Football Outsiders' explanation of the methods to their madness


Now, we turn it over to Doug Farrar for this week's analysis.

The stats used in this analysis are all available at Football Outsiders - the DVOA and DYAR stats referenced here are theirs, and are explained here. In addition, if you want to drill down and get really forensic, you will find some amazing numbers in the "Head-to-Head" section of the FO Premium Database. We'll be featuring some of those numbers in future installments of DVOA Matchup, but you can see a sample here.

As the Seahawks go into their final season under Mike Holmgren, it's worth taking a quick look at how the winds have shifted in Seattle since the Big Show took over.

YearTotal DVOARankPass DVOARankRush DVOARank
YearTotal DVOARankPass DVOARankRush DVOARank
1 999-9.1%1316.1%6-1.3%23


As Holmgren put his offense together through the early years of the millennium, defense was obviously given a lower priority, especially during Holmgren's tenure as General Manager. Holmgren was unquestionably caught short by Fritz Shurmur's passing, but it wasn't until Tim Ruskell was named president in 2005 that the defense matched up with a revolutionary overhaul of the front seven. For one year -- 2005 -- the fruits of Holmgren's offensive personnel expertise and Ruskell's ability to grab unheralded defensive talent meshed to the tune of a Super Bowl berth.

Since then, the defense has taken the lion's share of the focus and payroll.

In Buffalo, the story's somewhat the same. Though the Bills have some young talent on offense, the key to redemption, after a huge talent list left in a salary cap purge under Marv Levy, was in rebuilding a defense that once looked like an All-Pro roster (at least on the surface) and appeared more bargain basement until a series of excellent defensive drafts restocked the team.

2006 was the big haul, with safety Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson, defensive tackles Kyle Williams and John McCargo, and cornerback Ashton Youbouty in the fold. Many of those defenders have logged serious starting time; Whitner especially has elite potential. In 2007, the Bills added middle linebacker Paul Posluszny -- who, before his season ended with a broken forearm in Week 3, looked like the NFL's next great man in the middle. 2008 added Troy cornerback/return man Leodis McKelvin, Virginia Tech defensive end Chris Ellis and Akron cornerback Reggie Corner (go figure). This is a team that will scrap and fight, a team that finished 7-9 despite putting a league-high 17 players on injured reserve in 2007 and a financial situation that has the franchise straddling two countries. This year, they believe that more is possible. Question is, how will they do it?

Seattle offense vs. Buffalo defense

TeamTotal DVOARankRun DVOARankPass DVOARank
Buffalo defense0.1%18-6.0%135.4%16
Seattle offense5.6%14-10.0%2117.3%9

The Bills gave up 125 rushing yards per game last season. In the offseason, they acquired former Jaguars tackle Marcus Stroud to help hold that line. Stroud has struggled with injuries, but he's among the league's best when healthy. Last year, he posted a Stop Rate of 44 percent against the run, the worst among defensive tackles involved in at least 25 plays, which tells you that he wasn't. End Aaron Schobel was affected by the interior line's ineffectiveness, logging only 6.5 sacks and an overall Stop Rate of 81 percent, good for 27th among starting defensive tackles. This is a unit that Seattle's drastically overhauled running game could exploit, it the drastically depleted passing attack doesn't have the Bills successfully stacking the box on every play.

Buffalo defensive DVOA against receivers (2007)

Teamvs. #1 receiver vs. #2 receiver vs. TE vs. RB
Buffalo-8.7%9 23.3%29 -14.2%10 2.1%22

These numbers should encourage the Seahawks, fresh out of No. 1 receivers as they are. If Nate Burleson and Courtney Taylor man the 1-2 slots until Deion Branch and Bobby Engram are ready to go, the odds would seem to favor Taylor having a big day. The addition of McKelvin to a talented but very young secondary is intriguing, to be sure -- pinpoint passes would be the order of the day. These defensive backs will outrun some of their mistakes, and this would have been a great opportunity for Engram (or Branch, or Ben Obomanu) to exploit the seams underneath. Still, there is an opportunity for Julius Jones to show off his pass-catching abilities out of the backfield -- his DYAR of 75 was 14th best among running backs with 25 or more passes thrown to them.

Buffalo offense vs. Seattle defense

TeamTotal DVOARankRun DVOARankPass DVOARank
Buffalo offense-7.5%22-8.2%19-6.7%21
Seattle defense-5.5%11-12.9%50.2%14

Trent Edwards has taken the quarterback job from J.P. Losman, Buffalo's former franchise signal-caller. Last year, Edwards finished 31st in DYAR among quarterbacks; Losman finished 32nd. Still, the two players shouldn't be more different. The knock on Losman was that, besides the two or three inevitable 60-yard fly patters to Lee Evans per game, you never knew what you were getting. Edwards is the more consistent, albeit unexciting, choice -- more a West Coast-style quarterback in Turk Schonert's new offense. This year, he'll have the tools to get things going. Evans could be an upper-tier receiver with stability at the quarterback position, and Josh Reed is the possession receiver. Roscoe Parrish and rookie James Hardy are the unknowns. Parrish is a speedster and return man more dangerous in the deep routes the Bills don't throw so much anymore, and Hardy could prove to be a matchup nightmare in the red zone for Seattle's undersized cornerbacks at 6-6.

Seattle defensive DVOA against receivers (2007)

Teamvs. #1 receiver vs. #2 receiver vs. WR vs. TE vs. RB
Seattle-13.8%6 5.3%18 10.2%24 13.9%23 -23.6%3

How will the game go?

The biggest challenge for the Bills against the Seahawks will be in controlling what could be a lethal pass rush without left tackle Jason Peters, one of the NFL's best. Peters is holding out for a better deal, and if the Kerney/Jackson/Tapp combo has anything to say about it, he could get his wish after this game. Buffalo will have to move right tackle Langston Walker to Peters' spot. Walker isn't a bad player -- the dropoff from Peters is more Walter Jones to Sean Locklear than Orlando Pace to Alex Barron -- but he's more a mauler and less a ballet dancer, He could get upended by Tapp and Jackson. On the right side, the Bills look to have Kirk Chambers going up against Patrick Kerney, who should be licking his chops like the Big Bad Wolf.

Seattle's primary concern should be Marshawn Lynch and the Buffalo running game. Despite the loss of Peters, a left side line of Walker and guard Derrick Dockery can open holes in any defense, and Seattle's run defense looked troublesome in the preseason. Rocky Bernard's one-game suspension could affect this more than people think; Bernard is thought of as a prototypical pass-rushing tackle, which means that people don't pay attention to how good he is against the run. Brandon Mebane, who finished fourth in Stop Rate against the run among defensive tackles in his rookie season, will be the pointman here.

Buffalo has long had one of the best total special teams units in the NFL, and it's no different this year. With a bevy of return men and the punter/kicker combo of Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell, the Bills will win games doing the little things right, and special teams is their secret weapon. This could be the difference for the Seahawks, playing as they are 3,000 miles from home, without half their receivers, and with a new offensive backfield in place.

The Seahawks have had success with the new power running game; the idea with Owen Schmitt and T.J. Duckett, not to mention the re-implementation of Leonard Weaver, is to eliminate the negative rushing plays that bedviled this team from the time Shaun Alexander turned into a pumpkin. Seattle's best bet is to "beat the box" -- if they can run for production despite defenses focusing away from their receivers until the full group is back, they'll overcome the short-term roster deficits.

The challenge starts now, and if the Seahawks win this game, that's how they'll have to do it.

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