MythBusters: Swing To The Right!

With 1,114 yards rushing, a 5.4 yards per carry average and 17 rushing touchdowns, Seattle's Shaun Alexander is clearly the class of the NFL at his position...or so you would think. Many pundits have devalued Alexander's production based on the dominance of his offensive line. Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar sets out to prove that this notion is not only fallacious, but one-sided as well.

The idea is to use performance charts and relevant stats in an attempt to set certain misconceptions straight.

What started me down this particular road was an e-mail conversation I was enjoying with Football Outsiders Editor-in-Chief Aaron Schatz – a nationally syndicated writer who has a better handle on numbers and what they mean than 99% of the people who wig out all over him when he publishes his weekly team rankings. Aaron isn't an “observer”, “sportscaster” or “speculator” – he doesn't fit the current “They just pay me for my opinion” mold. He's far closer to Bill James than to Michael Irvin, and he has my unqualified respect as an analyst who is bringing a new level of perception to the game.

But! In discussing the Seahawks in general, and Shaun Alexander in particular, with him…perception trumped reality when Aaron said, “The only reason (I) don't think Shaun Alexander is the best RB in the NFL is that (I) think Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson are the best left tackle and guard in the NFL.”

Envious as I may be when I see the way my friend can tweak numbers seemingly to his will, I had to take issue with this observation. When columnist JimBob Bocephus over at FootballMoron.com takes issue with Shaun's value behind this left side, I really don't care. I consider the source, chastise myself for reading it, and move on. However, when the man who runs the premier football stat analysis site fell victim to the Myth of Protection, I knew it was time to try and break it down in a way that he himself might…or at least my version of said analysis.

Shaun Alexander's rushing numbers per “section of protection”, based on his splits through the first nine games of 2005:

ATT
YDS
AVG
LG
TD
Left Sideline
33
163
4.9
25
3
Left Side
57
254
4.5
37
8
Middle
54
233
4.3
45
1
Right Side
46
343
7.5
88
3
Right Sideline
18
121
6.7
34
2
           
Left Side Total
90
417
4.6
37
11
Right Side Total
64
464
7.3
88
5
Minus the 88-yarder
63
376
6.0
34
4

(Source: Stats, Inc)

So...what the NUMBERS alone tell us is that Shaun is far more successful when he heads right. The only stat slanted left is touchdowns. I thought that the 88-yarder against Arizona two weeks ago would tilt things unfairly (which it does)...but as you can see, even without it, he's still far better going right, away from the studs, averaging almost a yard and a half more per carry to the right side even with the “disadvantage” of the exclusion of the season-long run.

Of course, what's odd about this is that he's so much better behind a second-year tackle (Sean Locklear) who is a real mover (possible future All-Pro, in my opinion) but is still putting it all together, and a guard (Chris Gray) who's a prototypical wily veteran who can get pushed around (dominated, actually) by bigger tackles. Pork Chop Womack, who would seemingly be a far better running guard than Gray by virtue of sheer size alone (330 pounds to 308), really hasn't factored in. He's currently the all-line backup. He got hurt in the preseason game against the Chiefs and Locklear stepped up and took the RT job.

Now...what these numbers do NOT tell me is what's actually going on during the play. It is virtually pointless to blitz against Jones and Hutchinson (especially Jones - what he's done to stars like Patrick Kerney and Bert Berry this year has been absolutely amazing). Given that, are defensive ends blitzing from the left side (Seattle's right) to a disproportionate extent and taking themselves out of running plays with their aggressiveness? Is Locklear even better than I think he is? Is C Robbie Tobeck double-teaming and helping Gray? Is Hutchinson pulling to the right?

Two more interesting stats – through nine games, Alexander's got 221 yards on 27 carries (8.2 average) and 7 TDs against blitzes. The 88-yarder was against a blitz. He's gained 136 yards on 12 carries (11.3 avg.) with six men on the line. I'm not sure how many of these were blitzes (assuming most of them), although the 88-yarder came with six men on the line.

One thing I have seen before charting his performance is that I think Shaun is much, much better at creating something out of nothing this season. I finally decided to go back through an entire game (I chose Seattle's 31-16 win over the Rams last Sunday) and analyze each Alexander carry. Time to find out what's really going on...because if you look at the numbers alone, devaluing Shaun Alexander because of the dominance of Jones and Hutchinson just doesn't make sense.

(Disclaimer: My DVR stopped recording with about 3:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, which means that the final four running plays, including Shaun's third TD, are missing from this chart. My apologies for that, but I still think we can get “sufficient sample size”, as they say)

Down/Dis

Time/QTR

YD Line/Gain

Blitz?

Summary

2nd and 10

9:42/1st

SEA 21/4 yds

No

Run left side between G and T. Four-man line. No blitz. Jones and Hutchinson with perfect seals to the left and right of Shaun, respectively. Strong leading the way between G and T – chips Archuleta, but Archuleta recovers and tackles Alexander before he can escape Archuleta's area. Give that one to the left side line.

2nd and 10

8:20/1st

SEA 31/2 yds

No

Stretch play to the left side (strong side w/Jerramy Stevens). Hutch pulls out and engages Archuleta. Jones and Stevens take straight-ahead blocks (RDT/RDE). 3 defenders blocked well at the line, but it's a single-back set and LB Brandon Chillar comes free through the line and chases Shaun down from the back end. Shaun initially tries to move left inside, but the Rams have occupied it. Shaun busts a nice move outside to turn what would have been a 1-yard loss at the 30 into positive yardage. I'll give that one to #37.

1st and 10

7:08/1st

SEA 48/4 yds

No

I formation – play heads right inside. Tobeck takes out Chillar after engaging RDT. Chris Gray makes a really nice block on LDT Jimmy Kennedy here – takes him out of the play. RDE Brandon Green recovers well from initial contact with Stevens on the opposite side to tackle Alexander after a 4-yard gain. I'll give that one to Brandon Green and the St. Louis defense.

2nd and 6

6:38/1st

STL 48/3 yds

No

I formation – run between center and left guard. Strong takes out Archuleta and Tobeck takes out Chillar. Both very nice blocks there. Hutch has Kennedy sealed off as well. Hard to say what Sean Locklear was doing on this play – at first, it looks as if he's keying on Chillar, who Tobeck erases. Then, he sort of doubles back and keeps an eye on Pisa Tinoisamoa…but what Locklear misses is Little coming free away from the play from LDE and wrapping Shaun up. Second straight play where the Rams' speed at DE is the deciding factor. Give it to their defense again.

2nd and 15

4:34/1st

STL 15/-3 yds

No

The mother of all three-yard losses. Sweep left, and OLB Trev Faulk is sitting on it, two yards off the line. The Rams absolutely know what's coming. Jones engages Faulk. Strong takes MLB Chris Claiborne. Locklear whiffs a block on Kennedy which allows Kennedy to occupy Shaun's area, followed by Little. Shaun reverses his field from left to right, and Locklear – who picks himself up off the ground after the Kennedy whiff – comes back and absolutely pancakes Little. Just a devastating block. Tinoisamoa tackles Shaun for a 3-yard loss on the right side, but major props to Locklear for recovering here. Kudos also to Matt Hasselbeck for a nice little chip on Anthony Hargrove as Shaun races to the right. Locklear gets the goat horns on this play, followed immediately by a block people will be talking about for a long time.

1st and 10

11:09/2nd

SEA 12/4 yds

No

I-formation – Shaun heads right with a good scrum on the right side line, and Strong seals off the edge nicely against Claiborne. Alexander extends the line right for a couple before being pushed OB by OLB Dexter Coakley, who he had outrun at the edge. This is another example of Shaun's ability to find nothing through the line and expand the play outside. For those scoring at home, give half a point to the line and Strong and half a point to Shaun.

1st and 10

10:03/2nd

SEA 26/21 yds

No

Left side run, I-formation; this is absolutely textbook protection. Archuleta cheats up left side, but he's taken out by a pulling Steve Hutchinson. This is followed by Strong's fine block on Trev Faulk. The third wave of defense is negated by Robbie Tobeck, who shows quick pursuit to engage Claiborne five yards downfield after the snap. Bobby Engram's downfield block on LCB DeJuan Groce seals the deal on this 21-yarder before Shaun is pushed OB by FS Mike Furrey. Those who hypothesize that “anyone” could succeed behind Seattle 's line would have an open-and-shut case if this level of blocking happened every time. 100% to the line on this play – Shaun practically has a police escort here!

1st and 6

8:51/2nd

STL 6/6 yds

No

The first of three TDs for #37 on the day, and this is all about Shaun. Single back set, Stevens in motion left-to-right. Tobeck pulls left to engage Green off the snap, and Jones/Hutch get good push straight ahead. LDT Ryan Pickett sheds Chris Gray's block, and Furrey comes up to fill the edge. Shaun sees the roadblock and bounces outside as only he can, leaving Furrey and Travis Fisher with skidmarks as he rocks the baby once again. Tobeck gets a nod here, but this comes down to Chris Claiborne's overpursuit (he had Shaun at the 4, but he couldn't hit the parachute fast enough) and Shaun's ability (once again) to bounce outside.

1st and 10

4:22/2nd

SEA 9/9 yds

No

I-formation – sweep right. Hannam right tight end. Good blocks to start by Gray, Locklear and Strong, but the Rams come through the middle with Tobeck sealing off Claiborne. Shaun has to reverse his field again, from R-L this time. He then embarrasses DE Anthony Hargrove on the recovery and saunters for 9 yards before being taken down by DeJuan Groce. That one's all Shaun, and I'll bet Hargrove is still having nightmares about this play.

1st and 10

3:07/2nd

SEA 21/0 yds

Yes - #50

Tinoisamoa right edge blitz. Stevens left TE. Single back set. Alexander heads left over Hutch. Bounces off Hutch and heads to left tackle. Stevens engages Tinoisamoa but doesn't finish the block, and Tinoisamoa has Shaun for no gain.

2nd and 5

2:05/2nd

SEA 26/0 yds

No

Single back set. Draw play to left guard. Hutch has his guy sealed off, but Tobeck engages OLB Brandon Chillar off the snap to the right while Tinoisamoa (closer to the play) sniffs out the draw and gets to Shaun with no difficulty. Shaun appears to have a shot at breaking Tinoisamoa's tackle, but Green finishes the tackle. Jones is on Green, but Green gets a release before the play is over. Bad Walt! I'd call this play a “debit point” for the O-line.

2nd and 1

1:28/2nd

SEA 46/6 yds

No

I-formation. Shaun heads between left guard and tackle. Jones takes Hargrove out to the left, while Hutch and Tobeck double up on Ryan Pickett. Shaun zips through the swinging doors as Strong takes out Archuleta. Shaun tackled by Tinoisamoa and Groce. We'll give that one to the line and Strong. On this run, Shaun goes over 1,000 yards for the season.

2nd and 10

0:32/2nd

STL 15/2 yds

No

Single back set. Tinoisamoa gives a blitz look between LDE and LDT but backs off before the snap (Hasselbeck may have audibled him out of it). Jones engages DT Damione Lewis as Hargrove loops inside, bounces off Hutch, and brings Shaun down.

1st and 10

12:17/3rd

SEA 31/1 yd

???

Inconclusive here, as FOX cut to the play late (too busy with shots of rain-soaked Qwest patrons and guys cutting fish in Pioneer Square ). I-formation, Shaun over left guard. Strong engages Tinoisamoa off the left edge and Hutch picks up Claiborne, but Pickett and Coakley fill the gap for the quick tackle. Without knowing the pre-snap defensive formation, I'll give this one to the “D” for their pursuit of the play.

2nd and 1

10:48/3rd

SEA 49/37 yds

No

GRRR…AGAIN, FOX cuts in late (can't we see the Hasselbeck baby pics at freakin' halftime, guys?) This play is listed in NFL.com's Gamecenter as “off left tackle”, but it is really to the right. Jones and Hutch get off good blocks in their areas, but it's the blocking by Locklear (on Claiborne) and Gray (unidentified) that persuades Shaun to change direction at the line and go right instead. Their defenders are pushed left, leaving Shaun with open field. From there it's #37 off to the races as he eludes Furrey and gets some nice redirection help downfield from Bobby Engram on DeJuan Groce. I'll split the point between Shaun and the line on this one.

1st and 10

10:01/3rd

STL 12/8 yds

No

I formation – Shaun between center and left guard. Tobeck engages RDT Pickett while Hutch heads forward and takes Chillar out with a cut block about three yards off the LOS. Strong takes Trev Faulk out of the play between Jones and Hutch, while Jones just manhandles Green out of the play. I'll give this one to the line - Shaun could have driven a Rascal Scooter through the line for this gain. Again, beautiful protection.

2nd and 2

9:24/3rd

STL 4/4 yds

Yes - #31

TD #2. I-formation – Archuleta on a blitz, but the play goes away from him. Hasselbeck looks to audible at the line, which gives Archuleta pause, but he maintains his position (this might have been a fake audible). Shaun to the left between center and guard. Tobeck does some really nice work taking Chillar out of the play to the right, and Hutch not only decimates Pickett, but pushes him back into Trev Faulk. So far, this is the second-best Seahawks block I have charted for this game behind Locklear's pancake on Little. Shaun has a huge lane, and only Mike Furrey between him and an easy six. Personally, I wouldn't blitz a safety on the right edge when the Seahawks are in the red zone, but that's just me. Give that one to the line generally and Hutch specifically.

1st and 10

7:41/3rd

STL 47/1 yd

No

I-formation. Shaun to the right getween Gray and Locklear - Gray on Damione Lewis and Locklear on Little. Tobeck gets to Chillar right off the snap, and Strong nails Archuleta to the right edge and out. However, Pickett bulls Hutch into the play from LDT. This causes Shaun to hesitate just long enough for Little to escape Locklear to his right and make the tackle.

2nd and 9

7:03/3rd

STL 46/3 yds

No

I-formation. Shaun heads right between Gray and Locklear. Locklear seals Little to the right on the play. Tobeck and Gray double-team Pickett. Gray subsequently disengages to take on MLB Chillar. Strong mans up on Trev Faulk to the right of the play. Adam Archuleta begins to cheat up to the left pre-snap (linebacker depth). At the snap, he takes a perfect angle between Tobeck and Hutch and brings Shaun down quickly. (Hutch is double-teaming Damione Lewis with Jones). I'll give that to the STL defense and Archuleta.

3rd and 2

6:23/3rd

STL 39/10 yds

No

Seattle goes four-wide on 3rd and 1. That's what I call faith in your line! Shaun runs left off center. Jones makes two great plays here – first, he stays home long enough to keep Shaun out of Green's reach, then he immediately heads upfield (5 yds.) to take on Archuleta. Tobeck engages Tinoisamoa and Hutch blows Kennedy off to the right, opening up the hole for Shaun. Jones inadvertently pushes Archuleta into the Alexander tackle. Still I'll give this one to the line and especially Jones.

1st and 10

5:44/3rd

STL 29/-2 yds

Yes - #50

I-formation. Before Shaun can take a step either way, and with Tobeck AND Hutch on the LDT and Jones on Hargrove, Tinoisamoa blows right through with a delayed blitz and caps Shaun for a two-yard loss. Great timing by Tinoisamoa, so I'll give that one to the Rams' D. Mack heads right to block, so we'll just have to assume that's where the play was supposed to go!

1st and 10

0:35/3rd

SEA 34/5 yds

No

I-formation – Shaun up the middle, then to the right at the line. Gray (Lewis), Locklear (Little) and Tobeck (Chillar) all have their guys picked up. However, Hargrove has a free shot around Jones (who appears to be scouting around for UFOs on this play) and picks up Shaun on the back side. Nice play by Hargrove, and the blocking to the right is effective, so I'll give that one to the Rams' D. Big Walt, that was ugly.

2nd and 5

15:00/4th

SEA 39/0 yds

No

I-formation. Archuleta cheating up on STL's left side. Gray pulls right at the snap and chips Archuleta, Strong takes Archuleta out of the play, Locklear engages LDT Lewis on the backside of the run, and Jerramy Stevens does a decent job with Little. But Walt's on the UFO patrol again (missing Tinoisamoa as well), and Hargrove slips by him and gets Shaun at the line. Hargrove is joined by Little, who finally sheds Stevens. That's two in a row on the best tackle in the bidness. Odd.

1st and 10

9:26/4th

SEA 11/2 yds

No

I-formation. Shaun heads left. Jones just erases Hargrove to the left, and Hutch corrals Kennedy to the inside. Strong heads between the two and manages Archuleta, and Joe Jurevicius even has DeJuan Groce sealed off downfield for good measure. All signs point to “Yes”. And Shaun runs…between Hutch and Gray, right into the arms of Kennedy and Pickett. Ugh, Mr. Alexander. Ugh.

1st and 10

6:53/4th

SEA 31/-1 yds

No.

Someone might have be in shock that the Seahawks manage a decent kickoff return on the previous play, because this is ugly. I-formation and Shaun heads left. The Rams really are aware of that, because all three of their linebackers head left at the snap. Jones has Pickett, Strong engages Tinoisamoa well in the hole between Jones and Hutch, but there are about 20 people on Shaun by then. Give that one to the Rams' D. They done sniffed it out! Engram went in motion from left to right before the play, which is probably a good thing. No sense in Bobby getting killed by half of those 20 Rams.

3rd and 1

5:32/4th

SEA 40/2 yds

Yes - #31

I-formation, and Archuleta lines up on Locklear's edge. Nice thought, Adam, but the play goes left! Jones pins Hargrove's ears back to the left. Hutch bounces off Pickett and engages Claiborne. This opens up a hole which Tinoisamoa comes through. Strong is waiting for him, and gives a good hit. This sends Tinoisamoa to the left, and Shaun bumps into him and falls forward. We'll give that one to the line, and Shaun gets the “Gurn Blanston Award”.

1st and 10

4:50/4th

SEA 42/-1 yds

Yes - #50

Tinoisamoa on a delayed strong side blitz. I-formation. Shaun heads outside as Jones handles Tinoisamoa and TE Ryan Hannam does a good job with Hargrove. On the right side, Gray is held and DRAGGED DOWN by Kennedy (yet another miss by Jeff Triplette's crew of delusional zebras), which allows WLB Dexter Coakley to take a 45-degree angle to Shaun behind Pickett, who had bulled past Hutch. Props to the Rams' D with an assist from the $%^&*() officials.

2nd and 11

4:38/4th

SEA 41/10 yds

No

I-formation – Shaun heads right. Hutch bulls Pickett out of the play to the right from LG (an awesome display of strength) as Gray seals Kennedy to the right of the hole and Locklear guides Tyoka Jackson out of the play. Hargrove gets around Jones AGAIN (sigh) but Shaun eludes his tackle this time and rumbles for 10 past a Mike Furrey whiff. We'll split the point between Shaun and the line there, with one simple addendum: Steve Hutchinson is an ANIMAL.

1st and 10

3:14/4th

STL 47/3 yds

No

I-formation, max protect. 2-TE set. Shaun to the right behind Strong and Tobeck, who pulls right. Tobeck chips Little on the pull, and Locklear finishes him off with yet another decimating block. Gray does a good job here of keeping Kennedy out of the play with straight-ahead blocking. Hannam takes Coakley out, and Tobeck does the same to Claiborne as the end of his line. Shaun cuts inside of Tobeck/Claiborne to be met by Green, who has forced his way from the left side after pushing Stevens out of his block. Kennedy has slowed Shaun after shedding Gray. I'll give that one to Green for his pursuit.

2nd and 7

3:07/4th

STL 44/-1 yds

(missed play – DVR malfunction)

1st and 10

2:15/4th

STL 26/3 yds

(missed play – DVR malfunction)

2nd and 7

2:00/4th

STL 23/6 yds

(missed play – DVR malfunction)

3rd and 1

1:18/4th

STL 17/17 yds

(missed play – DVR malfunction)


In this game, the 29 plays I charted totaled 140 of Shaun's 165 yards on the day (he had 33 total carries). 18 of these plays went to the left for 66 yards, a 3.7 yards-per-carry average. 11 plays to the right totaled 74 yards, and a 6.72 YPC. Pretty consistent with the season's totals, which favor the right side when it comes to running plays. You could also look at incidents like the first play of the fourth quarter, in which Shaun ran right and the right side did their jobs, but Jones' opponent got by him and got all the way over to bring him down.

So…how good IS Shaun Alexander? How much does having perhaps the best O-line in the NFL REALLY help him? I mean – forget these matters of left and right side – you've got people out there convinced that were he running for any other team, he'd be just another Olandis Gary…whereas you could apparently take Bill Nye the Science Guy and have him gain 1,500 yards behind Seattle's Blocks of Granite.

Personally, I see Shaun as I saw Denver's Terrell Davis – a back in a system that virtually insures his success, who is nevertheless performing far beyond what that system would produce for the aggregate NFL running back.

While there are many interesting ratings systems for running backs, there aren't too many metrics for codifying the efficiency and sheer “value” of offensive lines. Football Outsiders has endeavored to change this with their own Offensive Line Rankings.

And as FO says in relation to the chart, “A team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in 10+ Yards is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work. A team with a low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a high ranking in 10+ Yards is heavily dependent on its running back breaking long runs to make the running game work.”

So, let's look at what that means in practical terms for Shaun Alexander, as well as the one man perceived as the NFL's best running back ahead of Shaun, LaDanian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers:

Through Week 10, Seattle ranks 8th in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, with 4.36. San Diego is 4th, with 4.58. San Diego is 15th in the NFL in 10+ yards (15%), while Seattle ranks 1st overall (29%).

Does this then conclusively “prove” that Shaun is “better” than LT? Absolutely not. FO goes on to say in their O-Line rating system that “these ratings only somewhat separate the offensive line from the running backs.  A team with a very good running back will appear higher no matter how bad their line, and a team with a great line with appear lower if the running back is terrible.”

And despite FO's efforts to nail down specific aspects of line play, combining said line play with the offensive production it helps to create and deciding how much is chicken and how much is egg…well, that's going to be difficult to deduce.

Perhaps such ratings systems will become available over time. Certainly, it's very encouraging to see more “sabermetric” analysis being turned loose in the NFL.

And for the record, FO's Running Back Rankings through Week 10 have Shaun and L.T. 1 and 2 in DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement – how they define total value), respectively. The truth isn't quite that simple (as FO says), but it's a nice thought to hold on to as the Seahawks continue their recent and impressive dominance, led by the best running back this franchise has ever seen.

On THAT much, I think we can all agree.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.


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