Fixing the Pass Rush, Part One: Reconfiguring the Front Four

Sunday was Alanya and I's two-year anniversary. I'm not spending it blogging. For the next few days, whatever you see will be a scheduled posts. After I return I am powering through to my deadline. So, you know, it might be a little slow around here. Even slower, even.

Every 4-3 wants to create pressure through its front four. It's a Platonic Ideal. Pressure, as we interpret it, is a combination of many factors. There's the basic: A front four can have four capable pass rushers, and pressure can come simply from their ability. That's the Tampa 2 model.

There's the more nuanced: Pressure can come from a dominant secondary, and a front four that motors itself into late arriving pressure. That's much harder to achieve. A secondary struggles to shut down a single receiver. Shutting down every receiver usually means the quarterback sucks. A professional secondary can rarely create pressure of its own, but it does contribute. It extends the clock.

And then there's the complete: Pressure is partially the front four, partially the remaining seven in coverage, and part game situation. Through winning, scoring, controlling field position and forcing long down and distance, a team puts pressure on a team to pass. It makes its opponent predictable. A team that wants to improve its pressure, and again all teams do, must configure their personnel to best achieve the above goals. It might trade off other goals like stopping the run, forcing turnovers, or being stout in short yardage, but it's a worthwhile trade. Because some goals reward less, and some goals are futile to pursue.

Jim Mora wanted to pressure through the front four. That didn't work too well. Seattle forfeited pressure from two of its four starting defensive line positions. Colin Cole is, has always been and will forever be a plugger of no ability to pass rush. One down. It moved a semi-accomplished and certainly good defensive tackle to defensive end. Cory Redding was high motor, disruptive, etc, but a productive pass rushing defensive end? No. Two down.

At that point, almost regardless of the remaining talent, Seattle had hamstrung its pass rush. Even the most blitz heavy defense typically rushes four, and forfeiting two positions in favor of stopping the run had predictable results. Cole alone was handicap enough, and Seattle doesn't have the transcendent talent to start anyone as pass rush inept as Cole, but putting a defensive tackle at end was the coup de grace.

The first step to fixing the pass rush is obvious. Seattle must stock it front four with players that can contribute pass rush on every attempt. It needs to change its profile. It endeavored to stop the run and did, and had little to show for it. It endeavored to become stout in the middle and did, and lost through the air. It endeavored to force interceptions and tried, and found itself clapping and slapping asses completion after completion.

The team has flirted with Darryl Tapp on and again, but never committed to him. He deserves a chance to start at right defensive end. He started throughout 2007, the team's best defense of the decade, and again in 2008 after overtaking Lawrence Jackson. He has speed off the edge, a deadly inside move and enough presence as a run stopper to avoid being a liability. He turns 26 in 2010. Even if he's not a great defensive end, he's a good pass-rushing end entering into his prime. The team should not fool themselves into thinking a rookie end will be better than Tapp. It's possible, but certainly not probable, and whatever gains they get, they get only above what Tapp could be expected to produce. That position should be just about locked down.

Brandon Mebane should move back to over- or one-tech tackle. Mebane was an average to good pass rusher at the three tech, but an elite pass rusher for a one-tech. Whatever he was in college, Brandon has proven his ability as a clotting presence within the interior that motors into slow developing rush, and consistently pushes the pocket towards the quarterback. As a three-tech, Mebane may be only average, and why settle for average from a player that's already proven greatness?

Tapp and Mebane formed the left side of the 2007 line. It was younger and less capable then, and still played a vital part in Patrick Kerney's rampage. That line also had a still somewhat able Rocky Bernard. Bernard in his time was a very good three tech. He could pass rush, he could hustle rush, he could engulf a runner and he was rarely blown back. Seattle never developed an heir apparent, chose instead to displace Mebane, and in a bit of a shocking twist, really missed Rocky in 2009.

The in-house candidate for three-tech is Cory Redding. Seattle would need to bowl over (dumb) or franchise (less dumb) Redding to retain him. According to cosmic market laws, Redding is not worth the $6+ million it would cost to franchise him, but given the uncapped nature of 2010 and Paul Allen's resilient billions, it's a low-commitment move that allows Seattle to retain otherwise lost talent.

Redding is another player that made his professional mark at one position after excelling in college at another. Perhaps because of necessity, but I doubt it, Mora opted for Redding's college position. The scuttlebutt was that Redding had suffered a serious knee injury and maybe couldn't play at a 300 anymore. That sounds fishy, to say the least. Redding looked almost identically built in Seattle as he did in Detroit, and was one of Seattle's most active, consistent and healthy players. If it's medically possible, Redding should return to tackle, where he can again be an above average pass rusher for his position instead of a forfeit. A shorter path to the quarterback could do wonders for a player that was often almost but not quite.

Lawrence Jackson fills out the four.

In a perfect world, this is where I devolve into rosterbatory fantasies about trades and the draft. One might not look at the above as an amazing collection of talent. It's not. It's simply the best configuration within the existing talent. Depth and talent should be added, especially at defensive tackle, but this team needs, must salvage its offense. Abandoning a mostly built defense midstream guarantees a rebuild, and sets the Seahawks at square one. In a wide open division, with a very young and talented defense, with an offense that has some parts but needs crucial pieces to function, that's forfeiting any chance of short term success. And, if this essay has a theme, it's that good teams never forfeit anything. Not one play, not one yard, not one position, and surely, not a group of skilled, young, scheme-appropriate talent that's all upside and that has hardly had a chance to prove itself.

Seattle could pour resources into its front four and improve one part of its pass rush, but doing so would sacrifice other indirect sources of pass rush. It doesn't have that luxury. In parts two and three, I'll explore how, by retaining its front four, but improving its secondary and especially its offense, it can make this bunch of nothing look like a pretty good hand.

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