Pete Carroll entered the off-season talking about improving the speed of our front seven and boy did he deliver; Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Jason Jones, and Jaye Howard being the most notable additions. All are exceptionally fast for their respective positions. Danny's recent post on Defensive Scheme Versatility/Diversity (must read) got me contemplating some of the effects our new additions might have.
Confusing opposing blocking schemes is a huge factor for consistently generating pressure on the QB. With the exception of the Bandit Package debut against Chicago in 2010, the Seahawks have been abysmal in this respect. Others might disagree with me but one or two clever blitzes per game and the occasional linemen dropping into coverage is not enough to create confusion. I attribute this weakness to our scheme.
Generally speaking, 3-4 teams create confusion through a myriad of LB blitzes while 4-3 teams create confusion through stunts and twists. As a 4-3 team with 3-4 personnel, we've been unable to capitalize on either approach.
Jason Jones was the most pivotal addition for turning this weakness into a strength. The most definite way Jones will help create confusion is by dropping into coverage, a tactic we've already seen Gus Bradley use frequently. In the conclusion section of Charlie's extremely in depth scouting report on Jones (another must read), Mr. Todaro had this to say, "We've seen him in coverage quite a bit, we've seen his versatility when doing so, and we've seen him be effective. He's dropped from a hand-in-the-dirt position when lined up on both sides of the line, with or without a false rush step, into multiple areas on the field and sometimes covering more than just a short zone."
Jones is joined by Jaye Howard as our new weapons on stunts and twists. Both men possess the lateral agility and closing speed to give these plays some venom. Indeed, adding these two to the mix should help us create confusion in the more traditional 4-3 sense. There are also other ways their lateral movement skills could test OLs. From the 3-tech position, both Jones and Howard display a knack for slanting inside the guard to penetrate the A-gap.
Dual 3-techs is a front we've seen Bradley use on occasion, but not that often. I'm hoping to see a lot more of it this season. Having Jones or Howard essentially play a phantom 1-tech could provide some pressure up the middle from a formation most threatening on the edges. Bad news for draws or QBs stepping up in the pocket. This strategy would become predictable, except if we use them in tandem, the center couldn't anticipate which side the 1-tech would appear. I realize that's pretty specific. Just something to watch for.
3-4 personnel or not, we won't be able to duplicate the blitzes of a traditional 3-4. Bobby Wagner replacing David Hawthorne could open up our blitz packages though. Hawthorne was a solid LB but a blitzer he was not. His pedestrian speed was aggravated by his tendency to pussy-foot through the hole. Wagner's top tier speed and talent shedding blocks should make him something of an upgrade as a blitzer.
Further, I would never expect Carroll or Bradley to say so, but I wonder if Hawthorne's lack of range made our coaches reluctant to fully unleash Wright and Hill. Wagner has range aplenty so that shouldn't be an issue. I'm eagerly awaiting what KJ Wright shows as a pass rusher this season. A few more sacks like last season and OCs will hesitate to run play action toward his side of the field. If he progresses as a rusher far enough then maybe Bradley will more frequently employ a traditional 3-4 and we could see that myriad of LB blitzes in action.
Thunder and Lightning
Concerning Pete Carroll, those two words conjure images of Reggie Bush and LenDale White smashing and dashing their way to the BCS Championship. Thunder softens them up. Then the lightning strikes for the kill. This football metaphor is most commonly used with running back committees but when I started writing this article about the front seven, my right leg started twitching. Ever since a young age, that has meant bad weather on the horizon.
I present exactly zero research to confirm or deny the effectiveness of 'thunder and lightning' RB duos. The concept is widely known if nothing else. Personally, I think it's effectiveness is more grounded in situational use than a tangible wear-down and strike effect. Defenses are trending toward deeper rotations so it's becoming increasingly difficult to wear them down - certainly not impossible though.
Thunder and lightning could also describe our young pro-bowl safeties. That's more of a balance than a progression though. For the DL, I see some upside for the thunder and lightning effect. Offensive lines are fixed (if they're lucky) which makes individuals more easily isolated. Most offensive linemen don't exert enough effort to really be worn down. But the technical challenge of trying to block a big, physical player on one snap and a fast, slippery player on the next seems like no simple task to me.
If there were ever a team to create this effect on opposing offensive linemen, it's the 2012 Seattle Seahawks. Pete and John have shamelessly pursued the polar extremes of defensive linemen. They say "phooey" to conventional 4-3 vs 3-4 personnel wisdom.
Let's start from the inside and work our way out. Finish with dessert right? Brandon Mebane is the clear starter at 1-tech/NT. Clinton McDonald is a capable back-up. I could see Jaye Howard earning snaps there in third and long though. Against Vanderbilt last year, Howard rushed a spread formation as a 1-tech/NT at 3:33, 5:12, and looking particularly dangerous at 4:41. In their bowl game against Ohio State, Howard rushes from this spot at 1:52, 4:38, 4:17, and 5:09.
A small sample size - yes - but one can definitely see his potential there. His consistency issues firing off the snap disappear as he's positioned directly over the ball. The center snaps the ball and Howard's hands whip out to club or swim past him. He can overextend if the center falls back a step but if not then 'game on.' To take this peek at Howard full circle, Kip Earlywine called him the "anti-Mebane" in his spotlight of Howard (yet another must read).
Just about the only similarity between Mebane and Howard - Jones too if you can buy into my phantom 1-tech idea - is their quick first step. If Howard proves capable of playing 1-tech/NT on passing downs then centers could face the squatty-strong, immovable Brandon Mebane on one snap, and the quick-handed, nimble Jaye Howard on the next. A center's brain should register if there's no longer a Mebeast in front of him, but will his body be ready for the head slap he's about to receive at the snap?
At 3-tech, I expect us to play Jason Jones as much as much as a 276 lb DT can, with a priority placed on passing situations. Pete even going so far as to say "We're hoping that we can really feature him in all of our nickel package stuff." That still leaves plenty of room for Alan Branch to continue earning snaps, especially on first and second down against power running teams.
I count ~60 lbs separating Branch and Jones. That's a big difference and it's well represented by Jones' relative quickness and Branch's relative strength. Will OGs have trouble switching back and forth between these two? My guess is most won't, but that Century Link noise can get inside heads and all of a sudden a change of pace between DTs becomes a bit more difficult to handle. We already know our crowd's decibel count contributed to Jones' decision to sign with Seattle.
Before we finish with dessert, allow me to reiterate that I have no idea if a 'thunder and lightning' effect on an offensive linemen has any merit what-so-ever. At the very least, it's plausible.
So. The offense steps onto the field. Mr. Right Tackle is lined up across from the biggest 4-3 defensive end he's ever seen. After getting smashed into and man handled a few times, Mr. RT now faces the skinniest 4-3 DE he's ever seen. He knows that this guy's game is pure speed and he tries to prepare for it. But his muscles are tense after trying to avoid becoming lunch and he's a split second slow out of his stance. Woosh! Sack for the Seahawks.
Truly, has there ever been a 4-3 DE bigger and meaner than Red Bryant? Has there ever been one faster than Bruce Irvin? In any case, we're talking about a serious change of pace here. I count ~85 lbs separating them and we know how each man plays. If 'thunder and lightning' were ever to exist on the DL, the Bryant-Irvin super cell seems about as stormy as it can get.
This post turned out a lot longer than I was expecting so I guess we'll postpone my other thoughts for a Part II.