We’re rolling full-stop into December with another edition of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly series where I use a few selected statistics to analyze the Eagles’ upcoming matchup. For an explanation of why I picked the metrics I used, along with an archive of past installments, check out this hub.
I’m not going to dive too much into what I said last week about the Bears, because there wasn’t much to say. Despite having an alarming case of fumblitis, Philly rolled over the hapless Bears for their fourth straight victory by 23 or more points. Even though the final score was 31-3, this was somewhat of an “ugly” win for the Eagles, as there were several reminders in the game that they aren’t perfect. I checked to see if the Bears force more fumbles than the average team, and they don’t, so this was just the Eagles getting lazy with ball security. Laziness makes them beatable, which is why I think “ugly” wins are a good thing every now and then (and preferable to a “quality” loss). They serve to keep the team in check and focused on the ultimate goal, which is perfection. Being “good enough” isn’t good enough. They know that fumbling four times won’t be so easy to cover up against a better team.
Speaking of which, the Seahawks are a much better team. This will most likely be the biggest test and most hostile environment the Eagles have faced since they traveled to Carolina on a short week. And even though they’ve been struggling somewhat lately, I think Seattle might have something of a “kryptonite” for the Eagles. We as fans might be licking our chops at the Seahawks’ poor pass protection and awful running game as playing right into our strengths on defense, but that’s exactly why they are terrifying. The Seahawks have struggled to stifle the pass rush and run the ball all season - meaning they’ve had to learn how to win while having those problems. In other words, it doesn’t matter that we can get after the passer or stuff the run, because they can’t block against that anyway. What makes the Eagles’ defense “scary” for most teams is simply what they’ve been dealing with all season en route to a 7-4 record.
And they’ve dealt with that by asking Russell Wilson to give his best Aaron Rodgers impression, and he’s mostly delivered. Wilson has kept the Seahawks relevant almost single-handedly as the defense has succumbed to injuries with both his legs and his arms. The last time the Eagles faced a seasoned dual-threat quarterback in Cam Newton, they gave up 71 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but picked him off three times. Wilson is a much more polished passer and expecting the defense to force turnovers like that in Seattle is simply not realistic.
So then, how do the Eagles beat the Seahawks? Let’s see what the statistics have to offer us...
Like last week, the Eagles have the edge in every category. Unlike last week, the Eagles’ opponent isn’t terrible in every category. They aren’t particularly good - I was mildly surprised that Seattle isn’t top ten in any area - but they are, by definition, above average.
There is one place where they are decidedly mediocre, and that’s PTS/1HLF. Seattle is barely averaging more than three field goals (or a touchdown, extra point, and safety, whichever you fancy) in the opening half. The Eagles’ modus operandi is to jump out to a lead early, and the Seahawks’ sluggish starts don’t exactly threaten that strategy. It is important to note that Russell Wilson is captaining the league’s tenth-highest scoring offense in spite of this, so their ability to make second-half adjustments should be respected.
The other statistic to pay attention to is the Eagles’ OY/CMP, which ranks fourth. This might look exciting considering how poor the secondary was projected to be, but in their last four games the Eagles have faced two rookie quarterbacks, a Zeke-less Dak Prescott, and Brock Lobster. There is a chance this high ranking is fools’ gold, especially since the last quality quarterback the Eagles played, Kirk Cousins, completed 75% of his passes at a clip of 10.1 yards per completion. It is entirely possible Wilson has a similar outing on Sunday night.
Okay, this is all well and good, but how does this factor into the game? What should the Eagles be doing to win?
When the Eagles have the ball
While I said it would behoove the Eagles to score early (although that statement applies to every team in every situation), points are not going to come as easily as they have over the past four games. This is because Seattle is actually decent at making teams “work” for their scores, as their 16.2 OY/PT ranks thirteenth. All season long I’ve been saying that the Eagles need to be aggressive - well this game might be a good time to exercise caution. Facing a 4th and 4 with a 53-yard field goal? Trot Elliott out there and take the points. It might be a while before they have another opportunity to score.
Outside of PTS/1HLF, the Seahawks “worst” stat is OY/CMP, where they are fourteenth. This is certainly not a bad ranking, it’s just not really all that great either. Even with Sherman and Chancellor out, the Eagles are probably better off utilizing rhythm passes and anticipation throws to pick up medium chunks of yards. Take what the defense gives you. Try to go deep to keep them honest, but don’t force anything! Wentz had a few almost-interceptions against an inept Bears team. At least one of those would have been picked by Seattle’s veteran secondary.
When the Seahawks have the ball
Strangely enough, this represents the more intense chess match for me. As I mentioned before, the Seahawks make good halftime adjustments and have dealt with a poor running game and no pass protection all season. What the Eagles bring to the table isn’t new to them. And there’s no sure-fire way to shut down Russell Wilson, whose ability to extend plays turns professional games into sandlot football.
If there’s one weakness to Wilson’s game, it’s that he hasn’t been much of a downfield threat this season (6.9 YPA - 12th). Combined with the rather average clock control (30:32 TOP - 12th), the best strategy might be to simply ask Wilson to beat them as a pocket passer. Don’t abandon the pass rush, obviously, but don’t attack so ferociously that he initiates a scramble drill. The Eagles are best off dropping seven in coverage and bringing an exotic variety of rushes and stunts from Wilson’s blind side, while running more pedestrian fronts on the other - even possibly drop a lineman into coverage and bring a delayed blitz from a safety or linebacker. By using longer-developing rushes on Wilson’s right side, the Eagles can create the illusion that he has more time in the pocket than he actually does. When the rush hits home, Wilson won’t have the time or real estate to make magic happen, and if he tries to step up in the pocket he’ll be charging right into the teeth of the defense.
I won’t talk much about the run, since the Seahawks can’t really do it and the Eagles are so good at stopping it. I think they should spread out the back seven of the defense, however, since they’ve been susceptible to stretch and sweep plays to the outside. This would also double as insurance against Wilson scrambles. With the receivers, the Seahawks’ biggest threats are players on the inside - tight end Jimmy Graham and slot receiver Doug Baldwin. As such, I expect Schwartz to run his two-deep look he’s been relying on all season and force the Seahawks to play underneath. The Eagles have been more than happy to give up sixty yards and a field goal all season, and unless the offense really struggles to find its footing all game, I don’t see that tendency going away.
Even though it feels like the dominant Seahawks of 2012-2016 are finally starting to fade away, the fact remains that Seattle is an incredibly difficult opponent to beat at home. The Eagles opening as road favorites for the first time in five years should only serve to galvanize their team and boisterous fans.
Given all that, this Seahawks team is still beatable at home, and as long as the Eagles play smart, clean football they will be in this game until the very end. Granted, they weren’t exactly “clean” against the Bears, but that’s all the more reason to practice harder during the week. I have no doubt that the Eagles will rise to the occasion.
GO [NATIONAL] BIRDS.
(I was going to say “real birds” but it turns out a seahawk is a thing that exists. TMYK.)