There's been a lot of concern expressed about this Seattle defense in recent weeks, and for good reason. Blowing leads the way they have, particularly in crunch time (Detroit, Miami and Chicago), has rendered many of us hesitant to call them "elite", and there's justification for such hesitation.
There are a couple of things that immediately jump out at me, after reviewing every defensive snap this season - 1. The pass-rush has not been fixed; and 2. The defense, as a whole, has lacked consistent execution.
For this post, we'll focus on the pass rush.
While the Seahawks have gotten much faster up front on defense, a majority of that speed is rotational, and purely situational. Jason Jones and Bruce Irvin, for example have primarily been in on 3rd downs, spelling Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant, respectively. While this speed boost has certainly improved Seattle's chances of getting to opposing QBs, the lack of routine play from these guys has resulted, I think, in the stifling of that unit's ability to generate a rhythm.
Not all offensive linemen are the same in terms of their blocking technique. Like any matchup in any sport, opponents spend a great deal of time "figuring out" each other, and in so doing, adjust their own technique to capitalize on their opponents' vulnerabilities. When you're being rotated in on every 3rd or 4th play, it makes it tough to make the technical adjustments necessary to become a problem as a game wears on.
There's certainly something to be said for a defense switching up its looks, in terms of throwing off a blocker's timing, but with this Seattle unit, there's currently a lot more raw speed than there is technique, and speed in and of itself is far too one-dimensional to be consistently effective in intermittent spurts. If Jason Jones and Bruce Irvin were more technically savvy at this stage in their careers, the spot duty would probably be much more valuable to this defense. Greg Scruggs is another guy to consider as "raw" and undeveloped technically. All three guys can really get off the ball, but knowing what to do once you get there is a different story. They all need more reps.
So what is the solution? This is a tough question. How do you get these guys more reps, when you have a unit that can stop the run so effectively when featuring Bryant, Mebane and Alan Branch together?
I have an opinion on this, and I have a feeling it won't be a popular one. I think Seattle has to strongly consider starting Bruce Irvin or Jason Jones and making Red Bryant or Alan Branch purely rotational. Red Bryant gives you nearly nothing in the way of pass rush, and while he has made quite a name for himself as a run-stopper on the edge, his vulnerability as a pass rusher makes him an absolute liability on passing downs.
A batted ball here and there is nice, but it does nothing to disrupt a QBs rhythm or psyche. What does? Pressure. Disallowing him to step up in the pocket or flush to his right. Those disrupt and wear on QBs. Bryant isn't doing either. And he's not built to, so this should come as no surprise. Opposing offenses are scheming to this weakness now, and throwing on early downs with consistency.
Branch is a bit of a different story. He's not a liability on passing downs like Bryant is, but Jones would still be an upgrade from a pass-rush perspective.
If Red Bryant is a must-have at the edge, then the Seahawks instead need to consider starting Jason Jones in place of either Alan Branch or Brandon Mebane, and rotating the other in situationally. Interior penetration is even more disruptive, in my opinion, than edge pressure, in that it disallows a QB to step into throws, and forces him, often times, to revert to bad technique. Edge pressure forces a QB forward and at times even assists him in stepping into his throw. How about both? Pressure up the middle, and pressure from the edge? That's a huge problem for offenses.
If opposing offensive lines know that they've got to account for interior quickness and Chris Clemons, on a regular basis, then they're forced to retain a tight end to help chip (something that we in Seattle have known to drastically effect a team's passing attack by limiting one if its would-be targets to blocking duty), or forced to double the inside rusher and leave a running back to take on a Brandon Mebane or Alan Branch - both of whom have proven to be effective power rushers when their size and power present such a drastic mismatch to a blocker. As of now, Chris Clemons is getting the brunt of double-teams, and Bruce Irvin's rawness limits him at this stage in his career, so even edge pressure is currently lacking. Mebane and Branch have also been doubled quite a bit.
Seattle has to put more "consistent quickness" inside to force QBs backward, thus making the edge rushers more effective. Or, they need to fully commit, much like Indianapolis did with Mathis and Freeney, to building around their outside speed by making Irvin a mainstay as the strong-side end, hopefully drawing double teams and attention to those edges, and opening up the interior more for Branch/Mebane who again, are both capable of disrupting the pocket in one-on-one situations. Even in the latter of these two scenarios though, I think more of Jason Jones inside, is the way to go.
One of the big fellas is going to have to make a sacrifice. I lean heavier toward the first scenario of improving the interior quickness, because of my belief that consistent interior pressure is the most disruptive, and creates opportunity for your speed rushers outside. Seattle has invested so heavily in speed, yet they have one of the slowest starting front-4 groups in all of football, and the speed they do possess, isn't able to establish rhythm due to inconsistent repetition.
The run defense might be weakened initially by such an adjustment, but this will only force Seattle to rely more on its more-than-capable linebackers, safeties and corners for support. With the way Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright can shed and close at the line of scrimmage, I think the replacement of Branch or Bryant with more quickness, though less run-stopping ability, wouldn't be as damaging as some might think. Let's also not forget about how effective Kam Chancellor is against the run when he's up in the box.
The pass-rush is the biggest problem. If the front 4 can get consistent pressure, then playing zone won't make this team so vulnerable. Receivers won't have so much time to sit down in windows and capitalize on open space. Seattle DBs will have more opportunities to hawk the ball, as QBs are forced to rush their throws. And while many have been critical of this Seattle secondary for giving up big plays in critical situations, I have to compliment them for playing as well as they have despite an ineffective pass rush. The Chicago game is a great example of the Seahawks Defense somehow being able to limit the passing attack of Jay Cutler despite him having virtually all day to throw.
In addition to contributing here & doing podcasts with our own Davis Hsu, Derek's transitioned from maintaining league-wide NFL Draft analysis at his blog to a more focused and in-depth Seahawks-centric draft, free agency, & pro player personnel site called Scout the Seahawks.
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