I was watching a couple of 2010 Seahawks' games last night, and something really stuck out to me: Earl Thomas is really good. And really fast. He always seems to be around the ball and though he took his bumps in year one he really seems to have some special instincts on the defensive side of the ball. It got me thinking a bit about what kind of role the Hawks have in mind for him going forward.
The Hawks run a form of the Tampa 2 defense developed by Monte Kiffin in the 90's and is usually characterized by speed over size and can be described as a bend but don't break type of philosophy. It will give up the short play but defends against the back-breaking over-the-top strike. The Hawks are stockpiling young, hard hitting, versatile defensive backs with some length (5'11 and up) and my guess is they plan to utilize the 5, 6, and 7 DB packages even more in 2011.
In the Hawks' version of the Tampa-2 the traditional functions of strong safety and free safety aren't always followed. In some cases, typically a passing down, you really get two free safeties on the field and then you swap out one or two of the linebackers for safeties or corners that can cover more ground in pass coverage. If it's a run to the middle, the idea is to attack the ballcarrier like a swarm of bees rather than rely on one-on-one physical matchups. If it's a swing pass or run to the side, the corners are responsible for 15-20 yards on the sideline so they must get off their blocks and force it back inside, and as a result, you see more corners in Tampa-2 defenses that are physical and hard hitting but not necessarily excellent man-to-man cover players; instead you find CBs that tend to be a very physical but still relatively fleet afoot with excellent instincts and tackling ability. In pass situations, if they don't succeed in jamming or re-routing the receiver it makes the safeties' jobs that much more difficult.
If Earl Thomas' role is going to play to his strengths, he'll be bit of a rover - with a little more freedom to play all over the field and put his uncanny instincts to use. With that in mind, the other safety is responsible for deep cover up the middle as opposing teams try and exploit the most vulnerable spot in the field by running vertical seam routes against the middle linebacker. Since none of our linebackers really excel in pass coverage these 5, 6, and 7 DB packages come into play. Kam Chancellor can in effect become the weakside linebacker - which is really what he looks like anyway, and you might see Mark LeGree playing the deep middle. LeGree said in a recent interview when asked where the Hawks want him to play:
"I'm a competitor; instinctive player, I can play the single high safety. I'm a reliable safety, and I can pick off that deep ball. They said they wanted me to protect the deep ball. They were telling me that this was a great situation for me to come in and possibly start..."
I feel like we're starting to see the personnel of Pete Carroll's defensive vision coming to life. Speed and physicality over size; ball skills are important as is versatility. Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner, and Richard Sherman all offer physicality at the line, can defend against the run and will be used in DB heavy packages in passing situations. Malcolm Smith and David Hawthorne are versatile WILL linebackers that can be moved around to play multiple spots and Smith in particular offers rare speed at the linebacker position. KJ Wright and Aaron Curry offer versatility at SAM linebacker and can rush the passer as a LEO in some situations.
Earl Thomas has the ability to blitz the passer, drop back in coverage onto a receiver if it's a corner blitz, or roam in the middle looking to mix it up. Mark LeGree can come in and thump a crossing route or drop back into deep coverage. The Hawks want to bend and not break. The key of course with this idea is that at some point you need to produce some turnovers, and with the ballhawks roaming around in the secondary you give yourself a better chance at this. Whether these ideas translate into success on the field remains to be seen but this is kind of what I see John Schneider and Pete Carroll building with their personnel choices.