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The NFL may have finally embraced the up-tempo revolution

Did things feel faster to you during the first week of NFL action?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"Everson Griffen told me during the game that (our first drive) was one of the hardest series he ever had, because of the tempo," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley told reporters after San Francisco beat Minnesota on Monday Night Football.

"That's what the tempo could do to you. We get the defense running and we can take advantage of that."

The up-tempo offense is already the catchphrase du jour this season in the NFL, but speeding things up on offense has been coming back into style over the last several years. The most high-scoring offenses in recent history featured heavy doses of no-huddle and up-tempo strategies -- Peyton Manning's Broncos, Drew Brees' Saints and of course, Chip Kelly's Eagles -- and they've been the vanguard for this style of play.

This strategy has been around for decades, but it's not a philosophy that has been universally adopted quite yet, despite evidence its practitioners score more often and with more efficiency.

It's early -- one week is a small sample size -- but even teams that have been traditionally slow-it-down, grind-it-out types may be buying into the benefits. Both the 49ers and Seahawks employed the up-tempo offense in their Week 1 matchups, and both had strong results.

Under Geep Chryst's new program, the Niners averaged 28.72 seconds per play, an average clip compared to the rest of the NFL in Week 1 (per Football Outsiders excellent pace tracking). In "neutral situations" where score and game-situation (like, the end of the half or game) had no effect, San Francisco held the NFL's ninth-fastest tempo this week (for instance, their first drive of the night, which the Vikings' Griffen complained about above).

That's a big change coming from the team that finished 23rd in that same category and 30th in overall tempo in 2014. The up-tempo is in for the Niners.

Seattle, who finished 31st in overall tempo and 28th in neutral situation tempo last year, also adopted some no-huddle, up-tempo stuff as they battled St. Louis last week. Seattle ran the up-tempo on six drives in the second, third and fourth quarters (plus OT). Russell Wilson's stats during those drives were solid: 19-of-22 passing for 146 yards and 1 TD. Seattle drove and scored field goals on three other up-tempo drives. Wilson even lobbied after the game -- perhaps directed to his old-school head coach in Pete Carroll -- for an expanded use of this strategy.

"The up-tempo, the no-huddle, just putting pressure on their defense and making plays, that was huge for us," Wilson said. "It's something we may have to consider trying to hop into that if we're having a little bit of a lull.

"(It) helps just because it puts pressure on the defense," he said. "It tires them down, especially when you (the Rams) have got a defensive line that can run that well, make plays. It wears 'em down a little bit. Offense is such a rhythm game. Once you get in that rhythm, you continue to make plays."

We've often heard quarterbacks talk of rhythm, or the lack thereof. Just like it's difficult to come off the bench cold in basketball and hit a three-pointer, it's probably pretty tough to dial in accuracy and touch when you're only throwing the ball about 18-28 times a game, like Wilson. Seattle threw it 41 times this last week, a career high for Wilson.

In addition to helping quarterbacks get into a rhythm of throwing the ball, going up-tempo can wear out or confuse opponents, help to dictate or exploit matchups and ultimately keep an opponent on their heels. Or better yet, on the ropes.

Last year, the Eagles and Patriots were by far the fastest tempo teams, finishing first and second, respectively, in both overall tempo and in-tempo in neutral situations (per Football Outsiders). The Browns, Colts, Ravens, Falcons and Packers all ran at a quickened tempo in neutral situations, as well.

And, it works. According to a study done by the Wall Street Journal and Stats LLC, "after you take out all the drives in the last four minutes of the half and when the score is separated be more than a touchdown, teams that used the no-huddle averaged 25 percent more points per drive and six percent more yards per drive in 2014." That's pretty powerful.

Football Outsiders' data seems to corroborate this idea, as well. Per their "neutral situation" standard, which discards plays when the score differential is greater than 10 points in the first half, plays when the score differential is greater than eight points in the third quarter, plays in the fourth quarter or overtime, and plays in the last five minutes of the first half, the top-four scoring teams in the NFL (the Packers, Broncos, Eagles, and Patriots) last year were also among the fastest-paced teams. The Colts and Ravens weren't far behind.

Highest scoring teams Seconds per Play (total) Seconds per Play (situation neutral) Points
GB 28.32 (24) 29.15 (7) 486
DEN 26.95 (10) 29.28 (9) 482
PHI 21.95 (1) 22.22 (1) 474
NE 25.54 (2) 26.61 (2) 468
DAL 30.12 (32) 32.83 (31) 467
IND 26.91 (9) 27.94 (4) 458
PIT 28.29 (22) 31.59 (24) 436
BAL 26.97 (13) 28.63 (5) 409
NO 26.32 (5) 29.54 (12) 401
SEA 29.38 (31) 32.38 (28) 394
Why is the up-tempo or no-huddle offense so effective?
First of all, faster tempo means more plays, which equals more drives and more chances to put points on the board. Additionally -- and this is important -- going without a huddle limits what the opposing defense can do substituting players in and out of the game.

This allows coordinators to take advantage of the personnel that the opposing defense has on the field. They can better exploit mismatches, and as a result, when defensive coordinators know a team they're playing likes these no-huddle looks, they avoid throwing exotic sub-packages out there (something with a few extra pass rush specialists, for instance). Opponents blitz less because it requires more communication and coordination to employ, and there are fewer chances to adjust pre-snap or get set on defense.

The offense becomes the dictator. The defense is forced to react.

These reasons are part of why a guy like Pete Carroll, who has nearly constantly made it a point to go as slowly as humanly possible in his five years as the Seahawks' head coach, may be considering an evolution.

"Russell Wilson was very active in the game, after we sped up the tempo he came to life, I think that's very obvious," he said after Seattle's overtime loss to the Rams. "We've always been good in the up-tempo stuff and, so we're just going to continue to use it. We never don't want to use it, it's just -- we gotta see how much, and how it makes us."

When Carroll says "how it makes us," I believe he's referring to avoiding the mistake of altering Seattle's smashmouth, physical identity. If you're throwing at a much higher rate than you're running, Carroll's said in the past, you don't get the same feel or identity as a team, and you're not beating up on an opponent as much as you like. But, and this may be a little misunderstood, going up-tempo doesn't mean you're just throwing all the time.

Sticking with the run

The league's fastest team last year (per Football Outsiders), the Eagles, finished seventh in rush attempts. The Browns, the third-fastest team in neutral situations last year, finished sixth in rushes. You can see where other "fast-tempo" teams like Baltimore, Denver, New England and Green Bay come in on this list of most rush attempts.

Teams with most rush attempts Rush attempts Seconds per Play (situation neutral)
HOU 551 29.24 (8)
SEA 525 32.38 (28)
DAL 508 32.83 (31)
NYJ 507 30.92 (21)
CIN 492 29.42 (11)
CLE 477 27.85 (3)
PHI 474 22.22 (1)
CAR 473 30.70 (20)
SF 470 31.35 (23)
BAL 448 28.63 (5)
DEN 443 29.28 (9)
NE 438 26.61 (2)
GB 435 29.15 (7)

The 49ers, in their new up-tempo style, ran it 39 times in Week 1, the league high.

You can still beat the hell out of opponents when running the up-tempo offense.

Also important to this strategy is that if done right, you can still do well enough with time of possession where you're keeping your defense off the field long enough to rest. The Eagles (32nd in time of possession last year) are a bad example here, but the Colts (fourth in neutral situation tempo) finished fifth in overall time of possession in 2014. The Broncos finished 12th, the Packers 15th and Ravens 22nd.

* * *

At the end of the day, most teams are still going to huddle up in between plays and won't change drastically in 2015. That said, the up-tempo, no-huddle offense isn't just for the Chip Kellys and Bill Belichicks of the NFL anymore. Old-school minded teams are joining the fun, and the rate and usage of this style may increase as we get further along.

Keep an eye on that catchy word -- tempo -- this week.