Big-play Seahawks Toxic When It Counts Most
Big-play Seahawks Toxic When It Counts Most
Photo: Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Steve Rudman

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick conjured up a stat called Toxic Differential, and no team had a higher number than the Seahawks, who take on New England Sunday.

Given that it's impossible to predict turnovers or big plays, most experts/analysts have settled on a Super Bowl storyline that suggests the Seahawks will only beat New England Sunday if they receive an A+ game from Marshawn Lynch. Why? Because Russell Wilson, not a big numbers quarterback anyway, is not going to be able to throw effectively against Patriots. Truth is, few QBs have.

In the AFC Championship game two weeks ago, the Patriots held Andrew Luck to 12 completions in 33 throws (36.3 percent), prevented him from throwing a touchdown, picked him off twice and sent him back to Indianapolis for the duration of winter with a 23.0 passer rating. So distraught was Luck that he nearly pulled out of the Pro Bowl due to, as one story reported, "frustration" and "embarrassment."

Throughout the 16-game regular season, the Patriots allowed opposing quarterbacks a 59.6 completion percentage and an 84.0 passer rating. That's terrific stuff. The Seahawks finished No. 1 overall in pass defense, giving up a slightly higher completion percentage (61.7) and a marginally lower passer rating (80.4).

Thus the thinking that Tom Brady, statistically the greatest playoff quarterback in history, is bound to enjoy more success throwing against Seattle than Wilson will have against New England, which features a former Legion of Boom member in Brandon Browner and cornerback Darrelle Revis, a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro.

Despite the pre-game storyline, it's impossible to say what will happen Sunday. But what has happened might provide a clue.

Brian Billick is an analyst on the NFL Network. After a long career as a college coach, he spent 15 years in the NFL, notably with the Baltimore Ravens as their head coach from 1999-07 (his 2000 Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV). Before that, Billick coached tight ends and served as offensive coordinator in Minnesota (1992-98), where he developed his signature stat, "Toxic Differential."

"It's not merely good enough to avoid turning the ball over," Billick explained. "You have to generate big offensive plays as well."

That's only the half of it. In addition to avoiding turnovers, teams need, in Billick's view, to create them. In addition to generating big offensive plays, teams need to prevent them.

"Toxic Differential" is calculated by adding a team's turnover differential (takeaways vs. giveaways) to its "Big-Play Rushing Differential" (10+-yard runs made vs. 10+-yard runs allowed) and its "Big-Play Passing Differential" (pass plays of 25+ yards vs. 25+-yard plays allowed).

The higher the Toxic Differential the better, and this was the difference between the Seahawks and Patriots during the 2014 season:

Turnover differential

Team Takeaway Giveaway Diff. Skinny
Source: NFL
Seahawks2414+10Seattle ranked fourth in NFL
Patriots2513+12New England ranked T2 in NFL

Big-play rush differential

Team Big Rush Opp. Diff. Skinny
Source: NFL
Seahawks8330+53Marshawn Lynch 79 run vs. Ariz. Week 16
Patriots4144-3LaGarrette Blount 73 TD vs. Colts


Big-play Pass differential

Team Big Pass Opp. Diff. Skinny
Source: NFL
Seahawks2714+13Wilson to Willson 80 yards vs. Ariz.
Patriots2736-9Tom Brady-Julian Edelman 69 TD vs. SD

Toxic differential

Team Turnover Big Play Total Skinny
Source: NFL
Seahawks+10+66+76Lynch 35 runs of 10 or more yards
Patriots+12-120Brady 26 completions of 25 yards


Need another storyline for Sunday? Circle Seattle's 76-0 edge in Toxic Play Differential.

Not much separated the Seahawks (+10) and Patriots (+12) in turnover differential. They both ranked among NFL leaders (Green Bay at +14 finished No. 1).

With Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson combining for 68 of Seattle's 83 big rushing plays (35 by Lynch, 33 by Wilson), the Seahawks demonstrated that they are more apt to pop an explosive gainer than the Patriots, who had 41 10+-yard runs. The Patriots are also more likely to cede a big run, having been burned 44 times.

Although Tom Brady threw 130 more passes and 14 more TDs than Wilson (582 to 422 and 34 to 20), he finished with fewer explosive plays (26) than Wilson (27). As the chart shows, New England, at a -9 vs. Seattle's +13, is more vulnerable to getting scorched with the deep ball.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson had 52 throws during the regular season that targeted a receiver at least 20 yards downfield. He completed 21 for 733 yards and five touchdowns. How that compared to Brady (completion percentage includes dropped passes):

Quaterback Att. Comp. Drops Yards TDs INTs Comp. % Rate
Source:Pro Football Focus
Russell Wilson522137335346.277.63
Tom Brady601735285233.377.63


Given how the Seahawks run their offense through Lynch, Wilson will usually lose a sheer- numbers battle with an opposing quarterback. He doesn't flay teams with a thousand cuts as Brady does, but is just as capable of making the explosive play when the opportunity presents.

If the Seahawks win, Wilson will improve to 11-0 (regular and postseason) against quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls.

Seahawks' Toxic Differential

With a differential of +76 to New England's 0, the Seahawks enter Sunday's game with the highest number since 1990, when figures were first kept. The only other team with a toxic differential higher than +70 was the 2012 San Francisco 49ers, who lost XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31. The 49ers had a +72. Last year's Seahawks had a toxic differential of +66. Seattle's 2005 Super Bowl team had a +47.


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