Football Question: How Should a Team’s Offense Play If Their Defense is Weak?

I feel like I’ve asked this question before, but after a cursory search, I couldn’t find any thread. I apologize if this I’m repeating myself. This question often comes up when I’m interacting with Seahawk fans in the last two years–primarily because their defense hasn’t been good. A lot of people seem to think that, with a weak defense, a team should be more aggressive about scoring, which usually means passing the ball more in a way that maximizes scoring opportunities, rather than controlling the ball. Intuitively, this seems correct. A more conservative offense makes sense on a team with a great defense. That is, don’t take chances on offense, and don’t worry about scoring a lot because the defense can win the game.

However, I think one can make a conservative offensive approach when the team’s defense is weak. A conservative approach will minimize the defense’s snaps and time on the field, minimizing their exposure and also enabling them to play at their best by resting them. This second point is crucial if the defense the problem main problem with the defense is that they hit their breaking point relatively quickly.

Actually, I think a balanced offensive approach is the ideal. With a weak defense, scoring is critical–more critical than if the defense were dominant. So the offense should be good at ball control and scoring. Indeed, I think this is only viable path to a serious playoff run. An offense that’s too conservative is not going to cut it, and an offense that is aggressive will have to be fantastic at scoring TDs to make up for the defensive deficiency. That’s type of offense is difficult–you need the personnel, OC, and it puts tremendous pressure on the offense.

Where do you guys stand on this?

14 thoughts on “Football Question: How Should a Team’s Offense Play If Their Defense is Weak?

  1. I agree with what you wrote, but how does a team’s offensive personnel come in to play with that decision. Of course you build a team based on your style of play, but with Wilson, Seattle should be a lot more aggressive then they are. I’m not sure if Wilson can be Mahommes, but he can be very close.

  2. I agree with what you wrote, but how does a team’s offensive personnel come in to play with that decision.

    Winning by trying to outscore your opponent is extremely difficult, even if you have the right personnel. Think of the Greatest Show on Turf or even the Chiefs. Take away one weapon and their offense can dip enough where the formula is far less effective.

    If Metcalf takes steps and Dissly and/or Olsen can stay healthy, that might be enough weapons to play in a more aggressive style, but I’m not sure.

    Of course you build a team based on your style of play, but with Wilson, Seattle should be a lot more aggressive then they are.

    How much more, though? If the Seahawks were just a little more aggressive, the impact may be negligible. If they’re more aggressive than that, then it might be too aggressive.

    Going back to personnel, this offense is designed to run the ball, especially the OL. If being more aggressive means running less, using formations and plays that favor passing more, will this decrease the threat of the run game? And if that is significant enough, will the pass game still be effective? If Schottenheimer is not Andy Reid, Sean Payton or even Adam Gase. Those guys could employ a more aggressive approach with a running game that doesn’t pose a serious threat. I’m doubtful that Schottenheimer could do the same, even with Russ. (Now, if they played a lot more hurry-up, I think Russ could have success, but that’s quite a bit more aggressive.)

  3. Seattle is consistently in the top three in rushing yards every year. When Seattle had a dominate defense I would agree with doing that. Now with arguably the best QB in the game, to me it’s a mistake. We saw Russ take over the playoff game against Green Bay last year. If Seattle wasn’t so much in the hole to start the game, Seattle wins. I just think Seattle has to trust that Wilson will take care of the ball if they passed like 10% more than they did last year.

  4. Wait, I thought you said you agreed with what I wrote. It sounds like you don’t agree–and you’re making the common argument I hear–i.e., weak defense + great QB = more aggressive pass offense. But that’s not what the Cowboys did in 2014. Romo was a very good QB, and they were aggressive in 2013, but their defense stunk. They got more conservative in 2014, established the run game. I think you would agree 2014 was the better approach.

    Seattle is consistently in the top three in rushing yards every year.

    But will that continue if you get more aggressive? Again, if they’re a just a little more aggressive, would that even have a meaningful impact? Let’s say they averaged about 30 passes per game. 10% of that is 3. Also, I want to say they were slightly more aggressive in terms of passing than they normally are. I’m just basing that on a vague impression, though.

    If Seattle wasn’t so much in the hole to start the game, Seattle wins. I just think Seattle has to trust that Wilson will take care of the ball if they passed like 10% more than they did last year.

    Again, this is the same argument some Seahawk fans are using. What you seem to be saying is that if the Seahawks were more aggressive–letting Russ throw more and more aggressive–they would not find themselves in a big hole. But there are other ways a team gets in a hole. I’d argue the Seahawk defense was a big reason for that. Intuitively, one could respond by saying that the offense needs to score more, if the defense is leaky. That’s a not unsound thinking, but it’s not a slam dunk idea, either.

    An equally sound approach is to limit the weak defense’s snaps, limiting exposure and mitigating any collapse at the end of the game. Suppose the Seahawks get more aggressive early on, and build an early lead, but in the second half their defense collapses because they played too many snaps early in the game? The early lead was useless. In a way, I think this is what happened to Atlanta in the Super Bowl–and they, too, did not have a great defense. (Like Seattle, they had some good players, but overall their coach elevated their play–but they still weren’t great.)

    To me, if the Seahawks defense continues to be average at best, their best shot at going far is for their offense to be very good at both scoring and ball control. That was basically the 2014 Cowboy approach, and I think that is and has been Pete Carroll’s approach. He wants the run game to be the foundation, but the ultimate objective is a balanced attack–basically the old school NFL offensive philosophy.

    My sense is that you basically agree with this philosophy and approach. So are you saying keep everything the same, but just let Russ throw a bit more? If so, my response is: if he’s throwing only a little more, would that make such a big difference? Would it significantly decrease instances where they get into a hole? Would it meaningfully increase the ability to keep the game really close or even get a lead? It’s hard for me to see how throwing a little more will do that. A part of me thinks that improving the run game might actually be more effective at achieving those objectives. Not only would this improve ball control, but it would likely lead to better scoring as well.

  5. So I agreed with your original post, however I had a caveat and the caveat is personnel. No Wilson, I would be even more in agreement with the conservative offense, but Wilson is sort of the wild card in the argument.

    I am basically saying, Seattle can still be a heavy run team, but still be a little less conservative. I don’t think Seattle should be a top three rushing team, with the way they run the ball (They are not the 2014 Cowboys.) and with Wilson at the helm. They can still be a top ten rushing team or maybe a top five rushing team. What if every third series, they just let Wilson go hog wild, just as a crude example. Then yes I think Seattle could score more. Dan Patrick loves to rave about Wilson. But he always says Seattle just plays super conservative till the fourth quarter and then says, “Okay Russ go win the game for us.”. That may be an exaggeration, but there is some truth to that as well. Why not allow Russ, to do some of that fourth quarter magic in the first quarter?

    Again personnel has to matter, I would definitely not be saying this if Winston was the QB. In fact I would be saying the opposite. Let Winston be more of a game-manager.

  6. Dan Patrick loves to rave about Wilson. But he always says Seattle just plays super conservative till the fourth quarter and then says, “Okay Russ go win the game for us.”. That may be an exaggeration, but there is some truth to that as well.

    My sense is many Seahawk fans feel the same way. There was expression going around Seahawks twitter–“Let Russ Cook”–although my sense is that most of those guys want the Hawks to play like the Chiefs.

    By the way, where would you put Carroll on the conservative-aggressive continuum? To me, he pulls on the conservative side, but I think he actually advocates a more balanced approach. For example, if you watched games expecting a conservative offense, I think you might be surprised, especially last season.

    Why not allow Russ, to do some of that fourth quarter magic in the first quarter?

    This approach could work, and might be better. To me, the drawbacks would be that you’d increase the chances of turnovers and exposing the defense, increasing their snaps and decreasing rest between possessions. If the offense only slightly gets more aggressive, then the negative effects may not be so significant, but if the offense only slightly increases their aggressiveness, would that even make a meaningful difference? And how do you judge whether Carroll is being appropriately aggressive or going too far?

    Here’s another thing to consider. Sometimes the Seahawk offense does well in the second half because the opponent has a sizable lead and they shifts its strategy to give up yards (and maybe even points) in exchange for eating time off the clock. In other words, in at least some instances, and maybe to some degree, the offense comes alive because of the way opponents have a good lead. That’ll rarely be the case in first half of most games. So turning Russ loose in the first half, like they do in the second, might not lead to similar productivity.

    To be clear, I’m not adamant in my position. It’s possible that playing a little more aggressively might actually be the smarter move.

    1. I was going to say (and forgot) that I thought Seattle wasn’t as run-first or heavy last year as they were in the past. So maybe they already moved to a strategy I talked about.

    2. So are you still saying they should be more aggressive?

      To me, they should focus on being better at ball control–improve their run game. For example, I wish they’d invest in a better OL. (They have made a ton of OL moves, but nothing that would make one confident that they’ve made a significant upgrade.) Also, they can’t rely on Carson, because he’s coming off an injury, and he’s not very durable. Penny will likely be on the PUP at the start of the season. I would have loved if they could have snagged Fournette. Without a very good RB, I think that will be a bigger problem than their supposed lack of aggressiveness on offense.

      1. Yeah that’s a good question. I think Seattle could still be a little bit more aggressive, but I agree at some tipping point it could become a negative.

        Investing in the OL would help the entire offense so that’s sort of a no-brainer. But would you rather them develop a great defense or a great offense?

  7. Yeah that’s a good question. I think Seattle could still be a little bit more aggressive, but I agree at some tipping point it could become a negative.

    The answer involves more than just the run-pass ratio, but when you look at the rankings, it does seem to fairly closely align with the degree to which the offenses were more aggressive/conservative or pass/run-based.

    Here are teams, #25-32 (based on passing percentage):

    25. Oakland
    26. Buffalo
    27. Seattle
    28. Indy
    29. Minn
    30. Tenn
    31. SF
    32. Bal

    The range was OAK at 55.81% and BAL 45.93%. SEA was at 55.34%.

    DEN was 24th at 57.13%. Teams after that passed essentially 58% of time or higher.

    I get the sense that if SEA gets to the 57% range, they’ll probably be closer to pass-first team–and they may be better at scoring, but worse at ball control.

    Investing in the OL would help the entire offense so that’s sort of a no-brainer.

    The thing is, they’ve treated the OL as such a low priority. Before the start of every season since 2015, if you could look at the starters, and you could tell they would be average at best, and sometimes likely below that. A few would have to perform above expectations for this to not be true, and that almost never happened.

    But would you rather them develop a great defense or a great offense?

    My preference is to be balanced–balanced in that sense that neither is bad. If I had a choice between a great defense-OK offense or great offense-OK defense, I’d probably choose the former. But if by great offense we mean very good at both scoring and ball control, that makes the choice a lot harder.

    The problem is that the Seahawks lost a lot talent on defense in a relatively short period of time, and they’ve been picking near the end o the rounds. They gotta pay Russ, so that limits their cap space. Unless some rookies and/or cheap FAs really pop, they’re not in a good place with their OL/DL. Their hope rests of Russ and a talented RB, and/or better secondary and ST play.

    1. Are most Super Bowl teams more balance or dominate in one area? I thought Brady’s first few Super Bowls, that New England was very close to having a great defense, and then in the Randy Moss years they had a great offense. I would say the later Brady years though they were more balanced. Would you say the Steeler teams were balanced? I think in most cases teams are closer to great on one side of the ball though. Eli’s Giants were very close to being great on defense, and they didn’t have great talent on offense. Foles’ Eagles had a great defense, even though it was Foles and the offense that won that Super Bowl.

    2. I think in most cases teams are closer to great on one side of the ball though.

      I agree. Generally, most Super Bowl winners tend to be better on one side of the ball. But that doesn’t mean they’re not balanced. Initially, I spoke of balance as not being bad in any phase of the game (which is one form of balance). I used this definition in reference to the Seahawks because this is a type of balance the current team can achieve.

      The other type of balance is being at least good in all phases, and maybe being great, or at least better in one. I would say that describes the vast majority of Super Bowl winning teams. The Steelers were balanced, but the defense was the stronger part of the team. Same with the ’86 Giants and ’85 Bears. The offenses of these teams were very good, though, maybe underrated, being overshadowed by their defenses. On the other hand, the great 49ers teams’ offenses overshadowed their defense. I suspect many don’t think of some of those defenses as all-time greats–and maybe that’s justified–but they were very good from what I recall. I consider all these teams balanced.

      Perfect balance, where no units really stand out more than the others, is extremely rare in my view–at least in terms of teams that won the Super Bowl. Who would fit this description? That is, which Super Bowl teams could you identify where one aspect of their team doesn’t stand out more than the others? Maybe the Giants teams that won come the closest? Or the Eagles? Maybe the ’83 Raiders? But again, most of them had really good defenses and offenses, at least.

      Re the following defenses NE early 2000s, Eli’s Giants, and Foles’s Eagles

      I don’t know why, but I’m resistant to calling them “very close to great”–especially if great refers to all-time great. The defense on Eli’s first win played great, but I don’t know if I’d call them close to great, especially if we look at them for the entire season.

      What are some Super Bowl defenses that were close to great and those that were merely good? How would the following defenses compare to the ones you mentioned–’99 Titans, the great Bills teams; the 49er defenses in 80s and 90s.

      What about the ’06 Bears, ’04 Eagles, ’03/’15Panthers, ’08 Steelers? I feel like these defenses in the same ball park a the ’07/’11 Giants, early 2000’s Patriots, and ’17 Eagles.

      All of them I’d call very good, but I resist using the word great, as for me, the word connotes “all time” great. For almost great defenses, I think of Harbaugh’s best Niner teams. One of the 49er defenses under Walsh or Seifert. Is the Steeler defense with Greene, Lloyd, Kirkland mentioned as an all-time great? If not, I’d say they’re another that would approach that.

      1. I think in the past (ie: maybe prior to 2000), teams could be “very good” (if not in the category of all time great) both offensively and defensively. I just think since then it’s pretty rare. The Steelers had talent on both sides of the ball on their Super Bowl teams. But outside of them, I cannot think of teams being very good on both sides of the ball. I would say to be considered balanced, one should be top five both offensively and defensively in that year.

        The Giants were not great in the regular season in both their Super Bowl years, but they seem pretty darn good down the stretch. I think the Foles’ Eagle team was really good. I wouldn’t doubt if their defense was top three that year. They didn’t seem great in the Super Bowl, though.

        I would say of course I would want my team to be top five both offensively and defensively. I just think it’s very hard to do.

  8. The Steelers had talent on both sides of the ball on their Super Bowl teams. But outside of them, I cannot think of teams being very good on both sides of the ball.

    Are you talking about the ’05, ’08, and ’10 teams?

    I would say to be considered balanced, one should be top five both offensively and defensively in that year.

    That seems like too high a bar for me. What if a team is top 10 in offense and defense–and the gap between the two wasn’t so great? For the sake of argument, say a team’s offense is ranked 5th, but defense is 7th. That wouldn’t be balanced? Or what if, when you see them play in the playoffs, they’re playing above those rankings? Would that team not be balanced in your mind?

    I think there have been Super Bowl teams post-2000 that were balanced–but, overall, they weren’t as good as pre-2000s Super Bowl winners. The 2012 Ravens and Niners were balanced teams in my view. But they would be notch below the Super Bowl winners in the 80s and maybe most of the 90s.

    The Giants were not great in the regular season in both their Super Bowl years, but they seem pretty darn good down the stretch.

    I agree, but you still wouldn’t consider them balanced? What about teams the Steel Curtain Steelers or ’85 Bears? Were they balanced or not? If you think they are, I would say the ’07/’10 Giants were similar mold. Same with the ’13 Seahawks.

    I think the Foles’ Eagle team was really good. I wouldn’t doubt if their defense was top three that year. They didn’t seem great in the Super Bowl, though.

    They were really different team with Wentz–including on defense–and I would call them a good, if not very good, team before Wentz got hurt. They were fairly balanced as well.

    I would say of course I would want my team to be top five both offensively and defensively. I just think it’s very hard to do.

    That seems high, but I just want a team to be good in phases–or at least not really weak in one. I think the latter is much more attainable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.