Throughout the 2018 regular season, the Seattle Seahawks made a conscious effort to establish the threat of the running game in the minds of their opponents. In the face of record offensive production across the NFL — driven in large part by prolific passing offenses — head coach Pete Carroll doggedly maintained that sticking with running the ball gave the Seahawks the best chance to win. Though they attempted the fewest passes in the NFL, the Seahawks went 10-6 and earned a playoff berth.
But that reliance on the run may have been Seattle’s undoing in its 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC wild-card game. In the first half the Seahawks’ running backs rushed nine times for an anemic 2.1 yards per carry. Most of those runs came in a particular sequence: rush-rush-pass. All but three of Seattle’s first-half rushing attempts originated from the rush-rush-pass play sequence. And despite the lack of success using that pattern of plays against the Dallas defensive front, Seattle opened its first possession of the second half by calling it again. The result was a punt.
The notion of establishing the run is deeply ingrained in NFL culture. Coaches and play-callers laud the approach for its ability to keep a team “on schedule” and “ahead of the chains,” both of which are football shorthand for picking up enough yards on first and second down that you stand a good chance to extend a drive. True believers think that if you abandon the run too early, you make your team one-dimensional and forfeit an important edge in toughness. You’re no longer imposing your will on a defense, and this will manifest itself in worse results overall. But is this true? Does running help a team convert more first downs and extend drives? And does the order in which you call pass and run plays matter?
To answer these questions, I looked at every play called in the NFL regular season from 2009 to 20181 and compared the result of each of the possible permutations of run and pass play sequencing2 using expected points added and success rate.3 I calculated EPA and success rate for every first-down play; then I looked at every sequence that did not absorb into a first down and extended to second down and then third down, calculating the EPA and success rate for each call. Only sequences of three plays are included in the final analysis.
Leaguewide, rushing is the preferred play call on first down, after which passing takes over as the dominant play type, especially on third down.
Over the course of the 2018 season, there was no three-play sequence that Seattle favored more than rush-rush-pass. The Seahawks called rush-rush-pass 26 percent of the time, a rate 10 percentage points higher than league average. Yet despite the high frequency with which Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer used the pattern, they were not successful with it. Just 41.2 percent of their rush-rush-pass sequences ended in success. Meanwhile, on three-play sequences where the Seahawks started with a pass and mixed in a run afterward, they were successful 88.9 percent of the time (pass-rush-rush), 71.4 percent of the time (pass-pass-rush) and 50 percent (pass-rush-pass) of the time.
Rush-rush-pass wasn’t effective for Seattle
The Seattle Seahawks’ three-play sequences in 2018 by frequency, expected points added and success rate
These results hold generally across the league as well. Pass-rush-rush is the most successful three-play sequence, followed by pass-pass-rush and rush-pass-rush.
On first down, passing will net you at least 5 yards (enough to make the play a success) 47 percent of the time, while running the ball will get you the same result just 32.8 percent of the time, 14.2 percentage points less often. On second down, the gap closes to about a 7 percentage-point advantage for passing.
Play-calling patterns that end in a pass on third down have a negative expected value across the board. If we look at each sequence in terms of EPA per play, we see that the only positive EPA values on third down are on running plays. This makes sense: If you are passing on third down, it strongly implies that the first two plays in the sequence did not end well, and you likely have a third-and-long situation.
Meanwhile, the opposite outcome is true on first and second down. There are no positive EPA rushing nodes, and all passing plays return positive expected value.
This result is the exact opposite of what we would expect to find if establishing the run via play sequences like rush-rush-pass were winning strategies. Instead of making a team less predictable, establishing the run on first and second down creates a game state that is often quite predictable for the defense. The opposing team is expecting a pass on third down because the first two plays were unsuccessful.
Surprisingly, two of the top three teams in net yards per passing attempt in 2018, the Rams and the Chiefs, actually do have success with the rush-rush-pass play sequence.
How each team uses rush-rush-pass
The frequency — and effectiveness — with which every NFL team called rush-rush-pass in a three-play sequence
Kansas City, the most dominant passing team in the league, was successful 53.3 percent of the time with rush-rush-pass. But the Chiefs ran the sequence just 15 times all season for a total share of 9 percent of all plays — 7 percentage points below league average — and they were mostly unsuccessful with the first two plays in the chain. When the Chiefs called back-to-back runs on first and second down, the second run was successful just 47.7 percent of the time. This suggests that the success of their third-down passes owes itself more to the strength of the Chiefs passing game and quarterback Patrick Mahomes than to the running plays that led up to them.
The story is similar in Los Angeles. Sixty percent of rush-rush-pass play sequences ended in success, and the Rams used the pattern at exactly the league-average frequency. Again, however, when the Rams called back-to-back runs to begin a sequence, the second run was successful just 46.1 percent of the time, leaving them 5.8 yards left to gain for a first-down conversion on average. The success the Rams enjoyed on third-down passing attempts appears to be independent of the rushing plays that preceded them.
While the precise order in which passes and runs are called may not matter so much — several combinations are roughly equivalent to one another according to success rate — some trends are clear. Passes are more effective when called on early downs, and runs are more effective on third down. Running on first down, while often a mistake, can be salvaged with a pass on second down. And if you’re going to rush on back-to-back plays to open a series, you should do so sparingly because it will leave your team in an obvious passing situation more often than not. Your passing attack — and QB especially — will need to be well above average to consistently convert in those high-leverage spots where all deception is gone and defenders can be confident that they know what’s coming.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NFL’s 2018 regular season is finally in the books. Before the playoffs get rolling, let’s look back on an interesting Week 17 and preview next weekend’s wild-card round. We’ll end with giving our Super Bowl predictions again, just to keep us honest.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I will have to revise my Saints-Steelers Super Bowl pick.
The AFC had all the drama yesterday, so let’s start with the Ravens/Steelers/Colts/Titans business.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was very much hoping for that Colts-Titans tie. But alas.
sara.ziegler: If the NFL were scripted, we would have ended the regular season on a tie.
Salfino: What’s interesting to me about the Ravens is that teams are not punishing Lamar Jackson for running.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m unclear on why teams don’t force Jackson to beat them with his arm as well. It’s worked in the past against other highly mobile QBs, and there seems to be no great reason why it won’t work again.
neil: That’s part of what makes the Ravens so interesting, that their second-half playoff push basically coincided with the QB change and this rush-heavy identity that seems so different in a league that set new recordsfor passing in 2018.
Salfino: Yes, the Ravens and the Chiefs are the offenses you really can’t prepare for in a week, IMO. I have no idea how a team can prepare for Jackson in one week. But LAC at least just faced him. Is that advantage Chargers? To me this is the most interesting game of the wild-card round.
Salfino: The problem is that it’s so hard to stay disciplined and not chase him. Defenses are taught to be aggressive.
Jackson allows the offense to play 11 on 11, and all of defense is predicated on the defense playing 11 on 10.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also strange is that we can make legit comps between Jackson and Josh Allen. Bill Belichick kept Allen in the pocket during Week 16 knowing the main danger he poses is from his legs. And New England won.
Salfino: Yes, the Patriots are just taught to be super disciplined so they can counter that probably better than most teams.
sara.ziegler: Did the Browns figure that out a little bit too against Jackson? The Ravens rushed for 8.5 yards per carry in the first half and just 4.5 in the second.
Salfino: Maybe as the game wore on, but by then the damage was done. The Browns were just getting gashed. The Ravens were running on 3rd-and-long and converting. It was like a college game — old-school college before the passing explosion.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Credit as well to the play-calling, I think. It’s a very creative scheme the Ravens are rolling out.
Salfino: Is the Ravens defense overrated? Where are the blue chip players? They are just coached so well. Wink Martindale should get interviews.
neil: And Jackson’s own speed is really something to behold. On that first TD Jackson scored, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.
Salfino: Jackson also looked like he was playing at video game speed even on the shorter second TD run. He just darted into the end zone like everyone was standing still.
I think the Ravens offense is underrated and their defense is overrated.
sara.ziegler: In the other afternoon AFC game of note, the Steelers came out incredibly flat before rallying for the win, which wasn’t quite enough.
neil: Pittsburgh’s season will go down as one of the all-time collapses, I think?
Salfino: The Steelers have to be the most disappointing team in recent memory. They were top 10 in all the key defensive stats except interception percentage — which is fluky, but man that killed them. They have Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 5,000 yards, two All-Pro WRs, and the running game was fine. Yet they just blew one game after the other.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Antonio Brown has been inefficient this year, but he was missed.
Salfino: The Steelers were sixth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play and didn’t make the playoffs. This is almost impossible. I thought it was impossible.
This will be the defining image of the season for me.
Salfino: Cousins showing Thielen how to run routes was both hilarious and sad.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One silver lining for the Vikings is that the situational football we typically use to judge Cousins as a disappointment is among the least predictive of future performance in all of football: throws under pressure, third-down conversions. Kirk deserves his share of the blame, but the entire offense looked out of sync yesterday and for a lot of the second half of the season.
sara.ziegler: Cousins has his redemption narrative all set for next season, LOL.
Salfino: The Eagles benefit from the Vikings’ struggles. I can’t believe that the Bears are only 6-point favorites.
neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.
neil: Carson Wentz? Nick Foles? Nate Sudfeld? No problem.
sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.
Everyone else? Fine.
neil: Philly was always a backup QB’s dream city during the McNabb era. Some of that has carried over, I guess.
Salfino: Foles has got to be the most volatile QB in NFL history. We should quantify that. He’s below average for his career and is treated like a franchise QB based on about 16 games, if we include all of 2013.
neil: Yeah, the gap between his best 16 and worst 16 starts has to be one of the biggest ever.
Salfino: I can’t even imagine the Bears losing to the Eagles. They are just going to chew Philly up. The Eagles’ best playmaker is still 100-year-old Darren Sproles, who is amazing, but come on.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t think of Foles without wincing that he lost $1 million because of four snaps.
This is just brutal.
Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.
Salfino: Luck should be in the MVP conversation. I understand it’s Patrick Mahomes. But Luck has done a lot with a lot less than Mahomes. Luck does seemingly have great coaching now though. Frank Reich, who the Colts backed into, was the hire of the offseason. I think better than Matt Nagy even.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Luck truly played himself back into game shape. Early on, his throws were routinely Derek Carr short, and by the end of the season he was mostly back to the old Luck.
Salfino: Colts-Texans is the game of the week to me in terms of having no idea who will win. The Texans are a strange team with great strengths (QB, pass rush) and crippling weaknesses (offensive line, pass coverage).
On paper, the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Texans because Luck led the league in lowest sack rate as he completely transformed his game to protect his health. So smart.
Salfino: If you have Russell Wilson, anything is possible. I will stipulate.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Seattle for my part. Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and that drove their defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for much of the season, but they are built to win close games like this one where both teams appear to want to “establish the run.”
Salfino: The football story of the week when it comes to the chess aspect of the game and coaching is whether the Chargers having experienced the Ravens offense can now shut it down. But they don’t really do much on defense except play that Seattle, straight-up style. So do they even have a bag of tricks?
sara.ziegler: Seems strange to me that the Ravens are favorites over the Chargers.
Baltimore is hot right now, but L.A. has been solid all season.
Salfino: Well, Baltimore has had the best home-field advantage in football when you factor in road vs. home record. So LAC are up against it.
I still like the Chargers. I’m being obstinate, LOL.
neil: Well, this is a little bit of a counter to the QB Winz debate from above. L.A. clearly has the better QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Philip Rivers and the Chargers as well. Particularly if the Chargers keep Jackson in the pocket.
Salfino: No Super Bowl team has won a road game since the 2012 season. But I’ll say that the most likely road winners this week in order are the Colts (they win), Chargers (I can see it but don’t think they adjust defensively), Seattle (Wilson gives them a chance) and Eagles (no chance unless Mitch Trubisky craps the bed).
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore defense prevents completions, that’s their best skill. But Rivers has completed passes at 1.8 percent over expected this season.
Salfino: New England really gets tested if the Colts win. (They would have to play the winner of Baltimore-LAC.) If the Texans win, Houston is just made for an easy Patriots victory in the divisional round.
Little worried about how Rivers has looked of late. But probably just random variance. There’s not much data on QBs this old late in the season and into the postseason other than Brady.
sara.ziegler: I’m worried about how Rivers looks, too — at least in this Mina Kimes drawing:
I loved that segment on NFL Countdown Sunday, where they talked about Rivers’ trash talk. Which somehow never includes swearing.
sara.ziegler: I’ve always really liked him. A perfect fantasy football QB.
Salfino: Philip Rivers is great. A Hall-of-Famer IMO. But unbelievably he has as many career playoff wins as Mark Sanchez. He needs more pelts on the wall.
sara.ziegler: Very fair.
Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?
neil: I recuse myself.
sara.ziegler: Wait, we can’t make predictions about our favorite teams?
I’ve literally been picking the Vikings to lose all season.
neil: I gotta hand it to you, those were accurate predictions.
neil: As opposed to this one:
Salfino: I think the Bears just crush the Eagles. This spread is all Foles-narrative-driven, and I don’t believe in fairy tales.
sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.
neil: Anybody picking the Eagles probably does have visions of this being yet another Bears team that got into the playoffs on defense with a weak QB performance
And promptly lost. But that’s not really this team. Trubisky has been progressing.
(The defense is still amazing, of course)
joshua.hermsmeyer: You can dink and dunk on Chicago.
Salfino: Remember, Foles was LUCKY to beat the Falcons last year. He had a ball go off a Falcon’s knee, or they probably lose that game. Then he turned into Cinderella, and I have no idea how or why.
sara.ziegler: He did get to face the Vikings last year — that undoubtedly helped.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If Foles can be efficient and healthy, and the Eagles are patient, I can totally imagine a game where Biscuit implodes and the Eagles move on. I think the spread has some of that in it.
Salfino: I do not believe in the Eagles defense at all. But I also don’t like how Nagy hasn’t given Tarik Cohen consistently more touches than Jordan Howard. And the Bears are all banged up now at WR.
I agree with Josh on Trubisky, but the Bears and Nagy can’t put him in a position to lose that game. The Eagles have no playmakers. Dare them to score.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, it could be closer than it seems. Of course, if Foles can’t play, then the Eagles will REALLY need a fairy tale.
All right, let’s wrap this up with our Super Bowl predictions, so we can continue to look ridiculous when our picks all lose.
Salfino: I’m going Saints-Chiefs, but that’s predicated on the Colts beating the Texans and giving the Patriots a nightmare matchup in the divisional round. It’s so public to fade the Chiefs that I’m fading the public. Offense!
Mahomes wins MVP and Brees wins Super Bowl MVP. Seems fair.
neil: I’ve been saying New Orleans over K.C. for these past few chats, and that’s still possible, so I’m sticking with it. (Despite the defensive concerns!)
sara.ziegler: I took the Bears last time, and now having watched them flatten my own team, I probably need to keep them. Bears-Chiefs, Chiefs take it down.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Chiefs-Rams rematch, Chiefs win. Because that would be the best ending to the best offensive season in the NFL probably ever.
neil: What’s the score on that one, Josh? Is it the first Super Bowl whose score will be mistaken for an Arena Bowl?
joshua.hermsmeyer: 36-35 with the game decided on a 2-point conversion.