.NET Q&A - Aaron Schatz, Part Two

On January 19, Seahawks.NET was honored to participate in a phone interview with Aaron Schatz, the Editor-in-Chief of Football Outsiders, the cutting-edge website that endeavors to bring new statistical and analytical factors to the diehard fan's enjoyment of the game.

.NET: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here. Based on what you’ve analyzed over the season, we can turn our attention to the NFC Championship game with the Carolina Panthers and our very own Seattle Seahawks. I’d like to get your impressions of the following matchups: Shaun Alexander – assuming he’s 100 percent healthy and right now it sounds like he is, against Carolina’s front seven. Do you think that the front seven is susceptible to Shaun’s cutback-to-acceleration style or will he be fighting for yards all day?

Aaron Schatz: Well, the first thing I can tell you is that Will Carroll, who is (Football Outsiders’) injury guy, looked into Alexander’s concussion and says that there doesn’t seem to be much damage compared to a usual concussion, and that he’s “full-go”.

The one thing you want to watch for is if he’s tentative at running, perhaps more straight up to prevent helmet-on-helmet hits, that that could create a problem. Maybe he’s scared of having another one happen, but I don’t see that happening. I think he’ll be fine.

The thing about style is that the numbers can’t tell you much about style. That’s really what scouting is for, and that’s why scouting and stats go so well together. They sort of tell you tendencies of what teams do, but they don’t tell you why teams are good at certain things. What plays they run – Do they run off tackle? Do they run a sweep? – so I can’t tell you whether Shaun’s style in particular matches Carolina’s based on the numbers. Carolina, I can tell you, has a very good run defense - in particular, they were the best at stopping runs to convert on third and fourth-and-short, which is interesting because Seattle was the best offense at converting those runs. Seattle was number two in the category of long runs of ten or more yards, but Carolina was number six in preventing long runs of ten or more yards, so they match up with each other really well there.

The thing that always sticks in my mind – and now you’re not really talking about stats, but you’re talking about scouting – is that people who read our site got to read an article about Mike Tanier and me going to NFL Films to watch Ron Jaworski prepare NFL Matchup four weeks ago when Carolina played Dallas. Jordan Carstens, the right defensive tackle for Carolina, was totally abused by Larry Allen. It was embarrassing. He got pushed five yards back on every play, and that’s how Julius Jones managed to rush for 190 yards on them. Since then, Carolina has been shutting down the run and I can’t figure it out - was Carstens just bad in that game or was Larry Allen that good?

I can’t get it out of my mind because if there’s any left guard in the league who’s better than Larry Allen, it’s Steve Hutchinson If Hutchinson can do to Carstens what Allen did, Alexander will have a field day.

.NET: Well, given what we’ve seen from Mr. Hutchinson this year, I’d almost bank on that.

Aaron Schatz: It could just be that Carstens was having a bad day. It could be that as good as Allen is and Hutchinson is, that Carstens isn’t really that bad, but he was bad that day.

.NET: Let’s talk about Seattle’s offensive line and your thoughts on it. We all know about the left side, but when you do adjusted line yards for the offense, how do you see the balance overall?

Aaron Schatz: That’s the interesting thing about Seattle and I think you pointed that out with an article you wrote and sent me, which was that Seattle, according to adjusted line yards, runs much better to the right than they do to the left and up the middle as well. In fact, that’s the one place where Seattle is good and Carolina is only average, is in the middle or at guard. I would imagine you would probably get a lot of Alexander up the middle, but I don’t know how much of that is cutting back and how much of that is pulling. Because the one problem with the way that runs are listed in the play-by-play is that it doesn’t really tell you much about the run other than one of seven directions. It doesn’t tell you what each player is doing and eventually if we can chart games to that amount of intricacy we can learn that, but that’s impossible from television film. You can not see what offensive lineman are doing on a lot of plays. It’s very, very difficult.

Seattle’s offensive line, I don’t think anybody doubts that it is one of the four or five best in the league, possibly the best in the league, but Denver would argue with you about that.

.NET: Denver would have a good argument. As far as the left side goes, I think Seattle’s number one there.

Aaron Schatz: Oh yeah, the left side of the line is absolutely the best in the league, that’s not even a question. Greg Easterbrook of NFL.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback named Walter Jones his non-quarterback/non-running back MVP and I think we’d definitely agree with that.

.NET: Another matchup that will prove interesting is Seattle’s receivers with Darrell Jackson number one, Bobby Engram number two and Joe Jurevicius number three, versus Carolina’s secondary which features former Seahawk Ken Lucas. What are your thoughts about this?

Aaron Schatz: I’m sort of intrigued by this story I read that Seattle has to change its audibles because of Lucas. I don’t know how big of a deal that really is.

One of the things that we do is we compare how teams play defense against different receivers. Now, that doesn’t always indicate a certain cornerback is playing well or badly. Sometimes when you bring in a three-receiver set, you put your starting receiver in the slot and we still see that man as the “one”.

Carolina’s weakness is third and fourth receivers. They rank number 2 in the league against number ones, number 5 against number twos, number 20 against third and fourth and number 17 against tight ends.

Of course, Seattle has this amazing multi-faceted passing game where Joe Jurevicius is probably the most valuable receiver on the team this year – although part of that is because Jackson was out for so long – and he’s the third guy. (DJ) Hackett is I believe the number one ranked receiver among receivers with less than 50 passes this year, according to our ratings, and he’s their number four guy. Jerramy Stevens has gotten his act together this year and he’s the tight end.

I think that in the multiple receiver sets, or in passing to Stevens is where I think Carolina is vulnerable - not as much as passing to Jackson and Engram.

.NET: Add to that factor the way that Hasselbeck has been running the offense with audibles and his reads and that could hurt Carolina.

Aaron Schatz: I went and looked at the numbers, and they don’t seem to prefer throwing to any receiver on any down. For example, Carolina throws to Ricky Proehl on third down twice as much as they throw to him on first and second combined. But with Seattle, and part of this is because players were out for certain games with injuries, Seattle really spreads it around. They could throw to Jurevicius on first or third, Engram on first or third and even Hackett on first or third. They’re willing to throw to any of their receivers at any time wherever the open guy is.

.NET: I think Jackson’s injury had a lot to do with it. They had to reshuffle the deck and I think that may have, in the long run, helped the offensive versatility.

Aaron Schatz: But even before Jackson went out, Jurevicius was getting catches on first down every week. Clearly they’re not just bringing him in on third downs so they’re willing to go anywhere at any time and if the weakness for Carolina is nickel back, then they’ll be able to take advantage of that.

.NET: Let’s turn that on its head - Carolina’s receivers against Seattle’s secondary. We all know that Steve Smith is probably the best wide receiver in the league, I think you guys have him ranked number one overall.

Aaron Schatz: He’s so far ahead of everyone else this year, it’s just absurd.

How do you see Ricky Proehl, Keary Colbert and perhaps Drew Carter factoring in?

Aaron Schatz: This is the weakness for Seattle in this game. This is the place where they do not match up well with Carolina. The secondary for Seattle is just not that good. They’re not in the upper-half of the league against any specific receiver, according to our ratings. They rank 25th against the pass and part of the reason they ranked 25th against the pass is such a strong pass rush. Not because the secondary has played particularly well.

With Carolina, it literally is Steve Smith morning, noon and night to the point where they almost pitch him the ball at the line of scrimmage and just hope that he can avoid people. They hardly throw to the tight end at all, which means that I think Seattle should avoid blitzing. You do not want to get into the situation that Chicago was in where you didn’t have a deep safety to protect against Smith.

If they did want to blitz, they probably only want to send five because the guy that you don’t have to worry about as much is the tight end.

The one thing for Carolina is the question of Drew Carter, who came on at the end of the year and was average, which is better than Colbert, because Colbert was terrible. If Carter can be a reasonable weapon to take some of the attention away from Smith, that’s a very good thing for Carolina.

Otherwise, Seattle really can honestly stick two guys on (Smith) with a deep safety and say to Carolina, “If you want to throw to Ricky Proehl, have fun.”

.NET: In a nutshell, what is it about Steve Smith - we’ve seen him all year and we’re scared to death quite frankly - what is it that makes him what he has become?

Aaron Schatz: Speedy, shifty, runs perfect routes, takes the ball away from people, doesn’t slip – you know, Charles Tillman slips last week and Steve Smith keeps his footing – it really is remarkable.

The weirdest part of this is that (Mushin) Muhammad had a year that was almost as good last year as the only (elite) receiver in Carolina. And then Smith had the year this year, you wonder what would happen if they had had that year at the same time. Two years ago, Smith was clearly the better of the two guys when they were both healthy, so he’s just been phenomenal. The most amazing thing about it is that you know they’re throwing to him, and he still gets these yards.

The three best receiving days of the year, according to our numbers, were all by Steve Smith.

That’s the danger. If Seattle loses this game, that’s where they lose it.

Editor's Note - Many thanks to Associate Editor Scott Eklund for his help in transcribing this interview.

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

Aaron Schatz is the Editor-in-Chief of FootballOutsiders.com, Lead Writer and Statistician for the “Football Prospectus” annual volume, and an NFL analyst for FoxSports.com. He has also written for the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Globe, The New Republic Online and Slate, and has done custom research for NFL.com and a number of NFL teams. Before creating Football Outsiders, he spent three years tracking search trends online for the internet column, “The Lycos 50”. He has a B.A. in economics from Brown University and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter, Mirinae.

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