Looking at K.J. Wright, Aaron Curry and Defensive Formations

I really miss Brian McIntyre's personnel reviews, where he would track offensive and defense formations and snap-counts for individual players. An invaluable tool, especially in certain cases. Like now, with 4th-round rookie K.J. Wright coming in to replace incumbent starter Aaron Curry. I won't have exact snap counts for you in his stead, but I did go back to take a closer look at the usage of our linebackers. Some key observations:

  • K.J. Wright and Aaron Curry do not play strongside linebacker (Sam), Leroy Hill does. Aaron Curry has played Sam throughout his career with us, which is presumably why the media keeps reporting that is their position, but if you look at the tape you will see (as Dukeshire pointed out in the preseason) that Curry/Wright generally line up on the weakside (Will) spot.

    I did note the defense shifting into over looks at times, which is a part of this as it changes the Sam's responsibilities, but I'll note our base look is still 4-3 Under (the shift can be most easily recognized by where Brandon Mebane lines up: normally the nose tackle lines up on the strongside A-Gap in Under and weakside A-Gap in Over). To make a historical comparison: the Bucs classified Derrick Brooks as the Will linebacker, but he would often play behind Warren Sapp to protect the gaps so the 3-tech could just shoot forward. When in under, that means Brooks is on the weakside, but when in over (and their Tampa-2 shifted to over a lot more than people believe), that makes Brooks the strongside linebacker. Similar confusion on designations is bound to follow shifting fronts with the Seahawks.
  • The nickel linebackers are now Matt McCoy in the middle (multiple times he was lined up at the 0-tech spot and would either rush or drop back, a very interesting look similar to one we've seen before in Phillips 3-4) and Leroy Hill as the outside linebacker (usually weakside), which was also Aaron Curry's job and which he apparently has also lost. K.J. Wright did not actually start, as we played the first snap (and many 1st & 10 snaps) in nickel formation. Matt McCoy also appears to be the linebacker in our 3-1-7 "Bandit" formation.
  • Aaron Curry was in for only one drive replacing Wright, the third drive by the Cardinals which ended in a Larry Fitzgerald touchdown. He did not play a snap otherwise.
  • The defense stayed in nickel formation for three drives, namely the last drive of the first half and the last two drives of the second half. In the second half Seattle switched to nickel formations quite a lot as we had little reason to respect the run, though Matt McCoy was no longer in, replaced by David Hawthorne (presumably due to injury). Walter Thurmond got the start and played a high number of snaps as the nickelback, and played well.
  • K.J. Wright played about 35 snaps, which is half the defensive snaps. Aaron Curry picked up 7 in that single drive. Other snaps were played in nickel and other multi-DB formations.

How did K.J. Wright do? Well, first I'd like to point out one play that a lot of people seemingly missed...

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K.J. Wright tipped the pass that Earl Thomas intercepted. This was primarily how K.J. Wright was used, he'd play a little contain or watching gaps, but often he'd drop back into under coverage, to use his tall frame and long arms to bat away passes when possible. Even when right on the line of scrimmage, Wright would usually drop back and cover the flats. The play above would have been quite memorable for the rookie had it not been called back, but it's hard to say otherwise how well he did in this role.

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The problem with Wright's play lay mostly in his other tasks. It was a fresh reminder of how outstanding Aaron Curry's athleticism is. When asked to seal a gap or when chasing for a tackle, Wright looked much slower and weaker than Curry usually does. In the still above he engaged his blocker headon and was prevented from even getting a hand on the runner. This was the story of the game in runs and short passes. Wright would arrive late to uselessly jump on top of the pile or would run straight at and engage a blocker to then be walked out of the play.

Aaron Curry tallied more plays in his one drive than Wright did all game, beating his blocker to get a good tackle on a run over the middle, and getting good pressure on Kevin Kolb on the touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. Of course, he mixed it up with a boneheaded mistake where he had under coverage on Fitzgerald and just completely lost him. The usual, for Curry. Curry's upside is still miles beyond that of Wright, but as a third-year player upside has become less relevant in evaluating him.

I'm not seeing an immediate upgrade in Wright but that's hardly surprising for a rookie fourth round pick. He reportedly has much better instincts, but they did not show up in this game. On the other hand, that kind of stuff can be hard to scout out in just one game, and we could see much more evidence of his instincts in future games. That said, I don't think he did anything to absolutely solidify his starting spot, and would hope Curry has a fair shot at regaining it this week, presuming he's not traded away. Of course, Curry has a lot of ground to make up following his bad performance against Pittsburgh.

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