2012 Seahawks Poised To Have Special Turnover Season
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Two takeaways through four games. That was how the 2011 Seahawks started the season. Three of their first four games resulted in a goose egg in the takeaway column. Their turnover differential through those four games was a dismal -4. My handy dandy calculator tells me that would have ended up at -16 if the trend had continued through the last three-quarters of the season. Instead, the Seahawks finished 2011 with a +8 differential, good for 5th in the NFL, the third-highest ranking in that category in the history of the franchise. There is reason to expect an even better performance this year.
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Pete Carroll stresses both protecting the ball and taking it from opponents. Seattle did a reasonable job of protecting the ball in the first quarter of last season. They had one or fewer turnovers in two of those four games. The bigger issue was forcing turnovers. That changed in the Giants game, where the team forced five turnovers, and began a streak 10 games with at least one takeaway. No team in the NFL was forcing more turnovers than the Seahawks defense in weeks 10-15. There were a couple of factors that clearly contributed to this uprising.
Seattle was not generating any sort of pass rush early on. Their eventual rank of 19th in the NFL in sacks would seem to indicate they never really did. The truth is that the defense saw an almost linear increase in sacks as the season wore on. They were averaging 1.25 sacks in the first four games, 2.0 in the next four, 2.25 in the third quarter of the season, and ended by averaging 2.75 over the last four. The Eagles and Vikings led the NFL in sacks with an average of 3.1 sacks per game. Seattle’s average of 2.75 over the last four games would have ranked 7th in the NFL if they had kept up that pace over a whole season. The correlation between Seahawks sacks and opponent turnovers was quite high (.47). In other words, the more the Seahawks sack the opposing quarterback, the more opponents turn the ball over.
Sacks don’t happen in isolation. Richard Sherman joined the pass defense in that fifth game against the Giants. He was a starter two games later. Opposing quarterbacks struggled mightily after that point, helping the Seahawks finish fifth in the NFL in opponent passer rating (74.8) after being 22nd (91.7) through the first four games. Fans can decide which was the chicken and which was the egg in this scenario, but it is no mystery that good coverage leads to more sacks and more pass pressure leads to better coverage due to less time for quarterbacks to find a receiver. The combination of the two led directly to more takeaways.
The 2011 Seahawks finished 5th in the NFL in turnover differential, 3rd-highest ranking in team history.
Various studies have proven there is a strong correlation between turnover differential and winning. Last season was no different. Seven of the top ten teams in turnover differential made the playoffs, with the top three being the winningest teams in the NFL last year. Of course, a good differential is about protecting the ball, not just taking it away. Seattle has one turnover or less in seven of their final eight games.
Seahawks fans should all remember what happened over those final eight games. The team started running effectively. Interestingly, the strongest correlation to reduced turnovers was not rushing yards (-0.06) or even rush attempts (-.23). Note, that negative correlations mean the more of one thing (e.g., rushing yards or rush attempts), the less of something else (e.g., turnovers). The strongest correlation was to pass attempts (.56). The more Seattle put the ball in the air, the more they turned it over. That is going to be somewhat true across football, but a correlation that high indicates some real weakness in the passing game. Fans can decide how much of that was the quarterback versus offensive line protection versus receivers.
John Schneider and Carroll has spent a lot of effort this off-season improving areas that should lead directly to fewer giveaways and more takeaways. Seattle’s first round pick, Bruce Irvin, and free agent Jason Jones should do nothing but improve the pass rush. Improved quarterback competition with Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson can only help the passing game. Robert Turbin and an improved offensive line should keep the running game strong. The vaunted Seattle secondary should only get stronger, both with more experience and with what should be an improved pass rush.
Fewer giveaways and more takeaways points to a spike in wins. Yet another reason to be bullish about 2012 for Seattle fans.