Seattle Seahawks Run Defense and Linebacker Play

Rarely have I seen a single image sum up a football game so well.

If I say "that was not a good game for our run defense", will I get an award for understatement of the season? Prior to this game, the Seahawks run D was holding runners to 3.1 YPC and hadn't allowed a single 100-yard game, this game we allowed 5.6 YPC in total and 139 yards at 6.3 YPC to Demarco Murray. We have faced some good rushing offenses, like the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. But we have also faced a lot of teams playing their backups due to injuries or suspension. Cardinals had to roll with Alfonso Smith, Cleveland with Montario Hardesty, Cincinnati with Bernard Scott. Even the Cowboys were technically running with their backup RB, though I can one would assume he'll promoted to starter now. So, that helps. It also helps that we faced some slow plodding backs that depend on their push and power, which doesn't face up well to our huge defensive line, such as Michael Turner and Frank Gore. I'm not saying I suddenly think our run defense is bad, I'm saying the stats might have painted a rosy picture.

Demarco Murray is possibly the best runner we face this season. He's not better as an all-around back than Ray Rice, obviously, and I may be going overboard with my praise, but I was seriously impressed by his vision, patience and speed out of his cuts. I have little doubt this is a star in the making. But what worried me about him was his freedom once he got into the second level. A lot of that was some really well-designed pull blocking and an all-pro-type day by fullback Tony Fiammetta, who isn't a powerful bruiser but a very intelligent blocker that picks the right block in the right direction to spring Murray nine out of ten times. But that doesn't explain everything.

Corner play is a huge concern for this defense, probably the biggest. The lack of tight coverage allowed the Cowboys to run a lot of quick passes which negated any pass rush we created, and the pass rush wasn't great anyway. The use of the quick pass scared our DC away from calling too many blitzes, which is probably the right call because we were getting gashed on screens and passes into the flats all game long. Tony Romo averaged 9 yards per pass, joining Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in the "anyone who doesn't dink and dunk can eat up this defense" group.

But I'd like to highlight one concern that has been crying out for attention: our linebacker play. Linebackers aren't too important in this defensive system, but they gained importance compared to last year, and need to be able to cover the flats. I have been impressed by Leroy Hill, who is our most versatile linebacker, and is used to rush the passer, covers the flats well, can cover in man and tackles well. Hawthorne has impressed me less, and I think he's struggling to get off blocks, he's seriously regressed since his outstanding game against the Browns, but he's still doing well playing contain against the run. My most serious concern is K.J. Wright. He's not making me miss Aaron Curry yet, but neither is he a clearly better player than Curry. He bites on hard on fakes, engages blockers directly and is taken out of plays fast, and can look confused about his assignment.

This last part was on display on the Witten TD in the third quarter. Kam Chancellor signals he is in man on TE/FB John Phillips running a go route, and does well there. Witten runs right between Hawthorne and Wright, and Wright even has a hand on him, but for some mind-boggling reason neither one runs back with him. We don't know the assignment so blame either one there. Phillips gets enough of Chancellor and Thomas is too far out to make this catch at the 12 an easy touchdown. I have too many notes on this game already, so I'll stick to the first half and offer some play-by-play thoughts.

One thing that is less than ideal for us is the fact that the same linebackers stay in for multi-DB packages, where last year we'd tend to switch them out with a pass defending specialist in Will Herring, but we lost both Herring and Matt McCoy. Hawthorne stays in on pretty much all packages (though not every snap) right up to the 3-1-7 Bandit formation. He's occasionally replaced by Wright in nickel packages, with Hill the other linebacker in that formation. Our lack of depth and versatility is not helping this situation.

3-11-DAL 19 (13:42) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to D.Murray to DAL 28 for 9 yards (D.Hawthorne, R.Sherman). Screen pass.

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Seattle in Bandit (3-1-7) which has been fairly rare this season. Seahawks rush 4. Romo pumpfakes, which doesn't fool anyone. By design, a lot of Cowboys O-linemen release to block downfield as Romo alleviates pressure with a quick screen pass. Hawthorne correctly sniffed out the screen but is blocked out by Cowboys OG Kyle Kosier. Hawthorne does run Murray down from behind but the credit belongs mostly to Atari Bigby, who trips Murray up, and Richard Sherman who dives on him as he stumbles.

1-10-DAL 2 (10:27) T.Romo pass deep middle to M.Austin to DAL 18 for 16 yards (K.Chancellor). Pass complete on a sliding slant play.

Everyone drops back on an obvious pass play, except Earl Thomas who is kind of playing a spy on Romo. The pressure is pretty good, especially from Clemons. Hill and Hawthorne are both helping out on Witten, though Hill is also spying for a fullback pass. Wright drops back in the deep middle on Miles Austin, who has gained four yards of separation from Sherman on a slant. That should not happen. Wright is in good position but is late turning his shoulders. Romo throws it perfectly out of reach of Wright and in reach for Austin. Not perfectly defended, but this is a hard one to defend. Kam Chancellor touches Austin down.

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1-19-DAL 9 (9:24) T.Romo pass short left to D.Murray to DAL 26 for 17 yards (E.Thomas). Pass complete in the flat.

Seahawks in nickel, rush four. Most Seahawks drop deep with Hill covering the shallow middle in a spy role. Wright is in man on Murray who is running to the left and tracks him well.

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Wright has perfect positioning when the pass is made, and Murray runs between him and the sideline, which offers a perfect opportunity to shove him out of bounds. Instead Wright nearly runs past Murray and the running back easily breaks his arm tackle. No one else is close, this almost results in a first down until Thomas stops and properly forces out Murray.

1-10-SEA 31 (7:44) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to J.Witten to SEA 25 for 6 yards (D.Hawthorne). Pass complete on a crossing pattern.

This play could've been really bad as the Seahawks defense is having problems setting up properly, particularly the line. Luckily the Cowboys playcall is a short pass. Witten, Martellus Bennett and Miles Austin all run short cross/out routes, and each is covered by a linebacker: Hill on Bennett, Wright on Austin and Hawthorne on Witten. Hawthorne is over Witten so it's an easy completion but this is a fairly well-defended play in context.

2-4-SEA 25 (7:08) D.Murray right end pushed ob at SEA 22 for 3 yards (R.Sherman). Quick pitch.

This one is sniffed out very quickly after the snap, but Clemons releases too late from his blocker (no holding or anything, but the play develops too fast for Clemons to move in time). FB Tony Fiammetta hrows a great block on Hill and Murray side-steps him well, and Hawthorne is a heartbeat late. No really big mistakes here, just small mistakes adding up to just short of a first.

3-1-SEA 22 (6:34) D.Murray left end to SEA 8 for 14 yards (E.Thomas). Quick pitch.

But then this happens. I think I noted before the game that Murray is one of those backs (Felix Jones as well) that makes you pay hard for losing containment on even one gap, which happens more often than you'd think in the NFL. This is a good example of it. Fiametta takes care of Chris Clemons. OG Montrea Holland walks out Leroy Hill. Clinton McDonald has excellent penetration up the middle but he's coming from the offensive right while Romo pitches left. Hard to adjust fast enough from that spot, and he doesn't. Kyle Kosier throws a silly-looking cutblock in front of Hawthorne, which doesn't do anything, but Hawthorne doesn't have the speed or angle to catch Murray. Murray seriously impressed with his vision and the speed out of his cut, and this could have gone all the way if not for Earl Thomas making a great open-field tackle.

1-8-SEA 8 (5:49) P.Tanner left tackle to SEA 5 for 3 yards (E.Thomas).

Wright is in perfect position here, but he runs straight at and engages Fiammetta. He knows that you're not supposed to engage your blockers right? He doesn't even attempt an arm tackle. Great play by Earl Thomas who sniffs out the run and sneaks up before the snap. Earl Thomas had a good game, as far as that goes in such a stinker.

3-5-SEA 5 (5:10) (Shotgun) T.Romo scrambles up the middle to SEA 2 for 3 yards (L.Hill).

The Seahawks respected Romo's scrambling threat throughout the game, putting in spies quite a few times before. Seahawks are in nickel, with Hawthorne covering Martellus Bennet. Hill is spying but Murray releases into the flats close to Hill. Earl Thomas is close to Murray but neither defender closes the gap to cover him. This is probably because Romo doesn't see him or doesn't like the option, instead scrambling himself. Hill reacts a tad late but soon enough for him, Earl Thomas and Roy Lewis to all close in and make Romo decide trying for the TD is futile, sliding for his own safety. He gets bood, but I think it's the right decision at that point, even if scrambling was not.

2-10-DAL 12 (14:55) D.Murray left tackle to DAL 16 for 4 yards (D.Hawthorne).

All three linebackers read run correctly. Wright engages his blocker, Hill slightly overruns it and is engaged by Fiammetta which creates a hole, Murray waiting a perfect half-second before hitting it. Hawthorne has a blocker on him but makes a nice ankle-tackle. It's "funny" that on our best defensive plays Murray still gained 3-4 yards.

(14:19) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to D.Bryant to DAL 26 for 10 yards (R.Lewis). Pass complete on a slant.

Five-man blitz, with Raheem Brock as defensive LDE and Chris Clemons as RDE stunting inside, and Leroy Hill from right 9-tech. He comes in completely unblocked, and Brock has good speed as well, but this is another quick outlet pass which is allowing them the freedom to let rushers come in free. The Cowboys thrived on the quick passing game, it's hard to sack someone when they can get rid of it that fast and for that many yards.

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3-4-DAL 32 (12:45) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep right to M.Austin pushed ob at SEA 31 for 37 yards (E.Thomas). Pass complete on a "go" route.

Seahawks in 4-1-6, coverage is good all over the field, except Sherman fails to jam Austin and completely loses him. The asinine commentators refer to this simple go route as a "great route", which just boggles the mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Austin had our number so far, and if he hadn't injured himself on this play I think the Seahawks defense would've been gashed even worse than it was. Dez Bryant was not nearly as big a matchup problem as Austin and Witten, or Murray.

1-10-SEA 31 (12:15) T.Romo pass short middle to L.Robinson to SEA 23 for 8 yards (L.Hill). Pass complete on a crossing pattern.

Have I mentioned I hate the Seahawks in zone? Because I do. From the lineup it looks like the Cowboys are in max protect and the Seahawks in man, but all the Cowboys receivers on the line release into routes. Sherman drops deep covering John Phillips, but Brandon Browner just lets Robinson release on his crossing pattern while backpedalling into his own zone.

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Wright doesn't pick him up as Robinson crosses right in front of him, he seems to be tracking Murray, while Hill is yards behind Robinson in the flats. Hill makes a patient, solid tackle short of the 1st.

2-2-SEA 23 (11:41) D.Murray left guard pushed ob at SEA 1 for 22 yards (E.Thomas).
PENALTY on SEA-E.Thomas, Face Mask (15 Yards), 0 yards, enforced at SEA 1.

Wright is lined up next to Red Bryant, and does a good job getting into the backfield. Fiammetta (again, nice vision) blocks him out. Murray hits a tiny hole created by Kosier pancaking Alan Branch while Phil Costa handles Mebane well enough. Hawthorne overpursued, while Kam Chancellor misses his tackle right on the first down marker, Sherman gets stiff-armed, and finally Thomas needs to grab Murray's facemask to stop him. The penalty is irrelevant since they're at the 1 anyway, and it's a touchdown-saving one. Good job, Thomas?

2-1-SEA 1 (11:11) D.Murray left end to SEA 2 for -1 yards (D.Hawthorne).

Intially Murray wants to run outside the left tackle, but Clemons is right on top of him and he has to cut inside to avoid him. At that point Wright and Hawthorne are running into his gap. Good play.

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1-10-DAL 30 (9:00) T.Romo pass short right to D.Murray pushed ob at DAL 38 for 8 yards (M.Smith). Pass complete in the flat.

Malcolm Smith is in for Leroy Hill. Two Cowboys receivers running go and comeback routes clears the corners out of the offensive right flat. Wright is near the line of scrimmage but on the other side of the field, while Hawthorne drops into the middle. Witten releases to Smith's area preventing him from selling out towards Murray, but he kept an eye on him and runs towards him the moment the pass is made. Murray has way too much room but Smith and Browner force him out well.

2-2-DAL 38 (8:28) D.Murray right guard to SEA 30 for 32 yards (B.Browner). Started right then cut back to the left side.

This one starts with blocking and ends with Murray. Montrea Holland pulls to block Hawthorne, Fiammetta has Hill's number again, while Tyron Smith released to block Wright. Murray makes a beaut of a cut right between Clemons and Chancellor, making Kam arrive a beat late as he redirects. Clemons impresses chasing down Murray here, and Browner has a nice form tackle, but that's all I can say here, the Seahawks were just all-around beat on this play.

1-10-SEA 30 (7:50) P.Tanner right end to SEA 24 for 6 yards (K.Wright).

Tyron Smith blocks out Hill, but Hawthorne is in great position to tackle Tanner after a yard or so. Instead, he just glides off Tanner's back. Bad form. Wright throws a nice shoulder-tackle as Phil Costa whiffed on blocking him.

2-1-DAL 29 P10 (:45) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to D.Murray to DAL 42 for 13 yards (D.Hawthorne; R.Lewis). Pass complete flat.

Seahawks in nickel again. Hill drops deep to cover the tight end, which isn't the problem, the problem is both Roy Lewis and David Hawthorne are dropping deep on Kevin Ogletree. Lewis passes on Ogletree to Hawthorne but way too late to make a difference. No one is covering Murray.

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That's a lot of space. Raheem Brock chases down Murray and teams up with Lewis for the tackle. Hawthorne gets credit for some reason, no idea why.

2-10-DAL 42 (:34) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to D.Bryant pushed ob at DAL 49 for 7 yards (L.Hill).

Dez Bryant is on the comeback route, and Sherman misses the tackle, though not by a huge amount, he slows down Bryant's turning motion enough for Leroy Hill to arrive and force him out of bounds. Decent play, and the next one is incomplete to pretty much seal the half at a surprising 6-6 score. But the Seahawks' luck did not last.
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