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Four keys for the Washington Football Team against the Seahawks

Can’t let Russ cook...

New York Giants v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Washington Football Team returns to FedEx Field for the first time since the November 22nd win against the Bengals. In the meantime, the team did something very hard to accomplish in the NFL — they won three consecutive road games, and they did it playing as underdogs in all three games starting with the Cowboys on Thanksgiving day. In the past two weeks, the team added wins against the Steelers and 49ers. Now, as we approach Christmas, Ron Rivera is preparing his team to face another tough matchup against the 9-4 Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks are in a battle with the Rams for the NFC West division title, but are still alive for both a wild card spot and the #1 seed and first-round bye, so they will come to DC aiming to get an important win.

The Washington Football Team, too, is engaged in a tough battle to get to the playoffs, and can’t afford to take a loss with the Giants just a game back and the Eagles a game-and-a-half behind.


The 5 O’Clock Club: Just a reminder...Washington isn’t actually in the playoffs yet

If Washington is to maintain its thin division lead, what will be required against the Seahawks on Sunday?

Key No. 1 - Get at least 5 sacks against Russell Wilson

The key to Seahawks’ success is their quarterback, Russell Wilson. When he plays well, they almost always win. Conversely, they tend to lose when Russell has a bad game.

When does Wilson have a bad game? When he’s getting hit a lot. Specifically, when he’s getting sacked a lot.

Per PFF, WIson completes 77% of his passes when not under pressure, with a grade of 93.8. That drops to a less superhuman rate of 55.9% and a grade of 71.2 when Wilson is under pressure.

In three of the four losses this year, Wilson was sacked five, six, and five times respectively. In all games with fewer than five sacks (the rest of them) the Seahawks are 9-1.

Of course, Washington has struggled with mobile quarterbacks this season, losing to the Ravens, Cardinals and Giants. Ron Rivera said that, with Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray in particular, this was due to a lack of discipline. He has said that the defense will need to learn from those earlier games because Wilson is, in Rivera’s words, “the ultimate escape artist.”

An assignment that would have been challenging in any case is probably made more difficult by the fact that two of the Football Team’s best-performing and best-tackling linebackers — Cole Holcomb and Kevin Pierre-Louis — are out this week. On the plus-side, Washington’s interior defensive players, Jon Allen, Daron Payne and Tim Settle in particular, should be able to provide disciplined pressure up the middle, while Montez Sweat and Chase Young provide the kind of speed and athleticism needed to run down Wilson if he tries to escape on the edges.

There doesn’t seem to be a big payoff for blitzing the Seattle quarterback, though there is some. Per PFF, he completes 72.1% of his passes when not blitzed versus 67.5% when blitzed, and his PFF grade drops from 91.0 to 83.3. All in all, this looks like another matchup where the Washington defense needs to win mostly by rushing four, and utilizing the blitz sparingly.

In fact, rushing 3 seems like a useful change-up to use against Wilson from time to time.

Watch this film breakdown on Russell Wilson done by Samuel Gold of SB Nation’s Field Gulls site. This indicates that if Jack Del Rio can effectively run multiple coverages and disguise what the DBs are doing, then the pressure on Wilson will pay off big.

The need to get to Wilson to create sacks and mistakes is driven in large measure by the near impossibility of effectively stopping DK Metcalf, who has been a monster this season, already catching 69 passes for 1,180 yards and 10 touchdowns with 3 games left to play. Metcalf has been held under 4 catches and 60 yards only three times this season. If Wilson is able to throw the ball effectively, Metcalf is almost certain to catch it, and is very likely to score a TD, as he has in 8 games already this season.

Seattle’s right tackle Brandon Shell is listed as doubtful for the game, and there are indications that he may not be ready to go. If Shell is out, Cedric Ogbuehi, who has missed the last two games with a calf injury, would take his place. It’s not like Montez Sweat needs to play against the backup to win, but this may offer a welcome advantage for the Washington defensive line players, and may force Seattle to face a bit of a “Sophie’s choice” about where to utilize double team blocking.

Key No. 2 - Force at least 2 turnovers

I think I’ve included turnovers in every Keys to the Game article I’ve written this season. While the Seahawks are not the turnover-prone squad that the 49ers were heading into last week’s game, they have been inconsistent this season.

The Seahawks are 6-1 at home in 2020, but just 3-3 on the road.

Interestingly, they have a turnover margin of +0.6 per game at home, but -0.5 per game on the road. That 1.1 turnover per game difference seems pretty significant.

Those three road losses came against the Cardinals, Bills and Rams in Weeks 7, 9, and 10. Their only loss at home was against the Giants in Week 13.

When the Seahawks beat the Cardinals in Seattle, turnovers weren’t a factor because neither team gave the ball away in the game. In the rematch in Arizona, however, Russell threw 3 interceptions in a game where he attempted 50 passes and completed 66%. This is the one loss where Wilson was sacked fewer than 5 times (the Cards got to him twice).

Against the Bills, the Seahawks offense gave the ball away 4 times — two fumbles and two interceptions. The Bills had no turnovers. The Bills sacked Wilson 5 times in a game where he attempted 41 passes.

When the Rams lost to the Seahawks earlier this season, Seattle won the turnover battle 2;1 and Wilson wasn’t sacked at all in the game. In the Rams more recent win, Los Angeles forced 3 turnovers (2 interceptions and a fumble) and sacked Wilson 6 times in a game where he attempted 37 passes.

In their only home loss of the season (to the NY Giants), the Seahawks gave up two turnovers (one fumble, one interception) while forcing only one in return. The Giants sacked Wilson 5 times in a game where he attempted 43 passes.

It becomes quickly apparent that the Seahawks are more vulnerable on the road than at home, and that the key to beating them is to make Wilson very uncomfortable by sacking him at least 5 times. Under pressure like this, he makes mistakes, leading to turnovers, which can be gotten in bunches. In the 4 losses this season, the Seahawks offensive turnovers were 3, 4, 2, and 2. In the one rematch among those four teams, against the Cardinals, Seattle won at home, giving up only one turnover.

Washington’s defense needs to put the pressure on up front and grab a couple of interceptions on the back end — which means good games will be needed from Fuller, Darby, Curl and Reaves. Based on their recent play, the DB group should be up to the task.

Key No. 3 - Offensively, Haskins must play well and Washington must sustain drives

For the full season, Seattle ranks 27th in the league in yards per game surrendered on defense, but this may be a deceiving statistic. The fact is, they spent the first half of the season ranked last in the NFL, so the rise to 27th indicates a marked improvement more recently.

In fact, when you look at the last three games (Weeks 12-14), the Seahawks are #1 in the NFL in yards allowed. That, too, may be misleading, as the team’s three opponents were the Eagles with Wentz, the Giants, and the hapless Jets, who rank 26th, 31st, and 32nd, respectively, in offensive yards per game.

A more representative recent sample is probably the three game stretch from Week 8 to Week 10 against the 49ers, Bills and Rams, who are all in the top half of the league in yards per game, ranking 16th, 10th and 5th. Against this group, Seattle’s defense ranked 21st in the league for those three weeks, allowing 386 yards per game.

My message here is that the Seahawks defense has compiled impressive statistics in the past three weeks against three of the worst offenses in the league, but that they are not invulnerable. The bad news is that Washington is ranked in the bottom-3 for the season and bottom 6 over the past three weeks in yards per game.

Of course, games aren’t won by counting yards, but by counting points, and Washington has been much more successful in that metric. After starting out the season with one of the worst scoring offenses in the league (20.7 ppg at the end of Sept), the Football Team has improved its scoring since mid-season. Here are the points per game scored by month this season:

  • Sept 20.7
  • Oct 17.8
  • Nov 27.0
  • Dec 23.0

Partly because NFL weekly aggregate scoring has been dropping all season long, Washington’s ranking as a scoring team has been rising; over the past three weeks, the Football Team’s 29 points per game ranks 7th in the NFL.

A large part of the disconnect between Washington’s ranking in yards per game (where they are among the worst in the league in both recent games and full season) and points per game (where they have ranked in the top-8 since early November) can be explained by a few specific factors:

  • the Football Team has relied on field position (top 10 for season as a whole),
  • low turnover rates (3rd lowest in NFL for past three weeks; tied for 7th from 15 November onward), and
  • limited penalty yards (8th fewest penalty yards in the NFL).

In other words, the team is starting with good field position and generally doing a better job than other teams of not shooting itself in the foot with penalties (thereby having to gain the yards again to sustain drives). The team is also protecting the ball better than all but two other teams; not giving easy points or short fields to opposing offenses through turnovers. This has allowed Washington to be pretty efficient at scoring, without having to put up huge yardage numbers.

These three trends need to continue under Dwayne Haskins. The recent scoring success has taken place under the guidance of Alex Smith; Dwayne Haskins hasn’t shown the same ability to sustain drives and that result in touchdowns and wins. His time on the bench behind Allen and Smith needs to result in understanding the field position game, the value of limiting turnovers, and the ability to lead the team coolly in order to avoid costly penalties. This should all add up to the ability to sustain drives and put up enough points to make the game winnable if the defense does its job.

Key No. 4 - Washington’s offensive line needs to control the line of scrimmage

We’ve already seen that the Seattle defense has had a wildly inconsistent season in terms of yards surrendered. Even when they were the worst in the league in defensive yards given up, however, they were winning games. More recently, when the defense has been more effective at limiting the yards gained by opposing offenses, they have lost more games. That may simply be a reflection of game script — giving up a lot of garbage time stats when they had a lead, but playing tougher defense when the game was tight.

What interests me, therefore, is identifying the common features for opposing offenses in the four games that the Seahawks lost. It turns out that there are none, really, beyond limiting turnovers, which we’ve already discussed above.

As you can see, the Giants ran the ball well; the Bills didn’t. The Bills and Cardinals passed for over 300 yards; the Giants passed for 100. The Total Yards gained ranged from under 300 to over 500.

To me, this means that the Washington offense needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to win in the ground game, the passing game, or both, depending on the flow of the game. Fortunately, the Football Team has shown much more in-game adaptability in 2020 than it had in recent years under Jay Gruden.

Without Antonio Gibson (doubtful for the game) and with Dwayne Haskins making his first start since 11 October, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Washington offense. With questions at the skill positions, the fourth key to this game becomes the offensive line, which is relatively healthy and playing pretty well together.

In this game, the OL needs to get on top of the Seattle defense so that it doesn’t matter whether Dwayne is passing the ball or McKissic & Barber are running it — the offense needs to have the advantage at the line of scrimmage.

Carlos Dunlap, the Seahawks talented DE, hasn’t practiced this week after missing the Week 14 game against the Jets; however, reports indicate that he is likely to play on Sunday in Washington. It would have been a nice bonus not to have to face Dunlap, but we need to count on Morgan Moses, Brandon Scherff, Chase Roullier, Wes Schweitzer and Cornelius Lucas to step up and play their best game of the 2020 season. There are indications that they can do it.


Enjoy this film breakdown on Chase Young created by Samuel Gold of the Field Gulls SB Nation website: