Reloaded: The Seahawks front seven cannot be stopped

DK Note: From the archives -- I wrote and published this article about the Seahawks' defense back on December 6th, right after Seattle's big Monday Night Football win over the Saints. A few things here and there may now be outdated, but I hope you enjoy regardless:

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The Saints came into Seattle on Monday averaging 27.7 points per game, 6.17 yards per play, and 43 consecutive games in which quarterback Drew Brees had passed for more than 200 yards. This incredible streak by Brees was just two shy of the all-time NFL record, but ended against a stifling Seahawks' defense that held the high-octane Saints' offense to seven points, 3.4 yards per play and just 147 yards passing. How did Seattle manage this against such an excellent and consistent offense?

It was a combination of things. The Seahawks' well-known secondary certainly did their part to limit Brees and the Saints' explosive passing game, but with a well-rounded and resourceful offense like that of New Orleans, you really need a solid effort from every positional group on the defense to throw a wrench in the Saints' gears. Seattle's versatile front seven played a huge role in this. Basically, with Brees unable to pass deep against Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and the rest of secondary with much effectiveness, Sean Payton and the Saints turned to their trusty intermediate and short passing game. Seattle's linebacking corps and defensive line completely shut that down as well.

They were able to do this by varying pressure schemes and fronts, which confused the offensive line, allowed pressure, and forced Brees to hurry many of this throws. They varied their usage of personnel, particularly in coverage of Jimmy Graham, which suppressed a normally surgical signal-caller and frustrated a pass catcher and matchup nightmare.

The Seahawks executed the schemes they had devised with adroit efficiency. Let's take a look at the tape to see how Seattle was able to do all this.

Athletic, versatile linebackers and defensive ends

The backbone of Seattle's defensive scheme is versatility within their personnel. Their safeties can play up at the line or deep in coverage. Their corners can play off, press, zone, man, can blitz, can tackle, and are functional inside and out. Defensive linemen Red Bryant (6'5, 323 pounds) and Michael Bennett (6'4, 273) can both play either inside or on the edge. Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons can rush the passer and cover in the flats and do so from multiple angles and platforms (i.e., two- or three-point stances). Bruce Irvin can be a pass rusher one play and a run-in-coverage linebacker on the next. Their linebackers too can blitz, stop the run, cover and tackle.

With this kind of versatility, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can change looks, confuse the offense, and he can rely on a multitude of his players to execute whatever jobs he needs done, whether it's in rushing the passer or running in coverage, or both.

As Greg Cosell of NFL Films put it over the offseason:

"With Irvin, a returning Chris Clemons, and newly signed Cliff Avril, the Seahawks have three players who can align anywhere in their nickel sub-package. They all have what we call "Joker" ability, the talent to line up in either three-point or two-point stances and rush from different positions and angles. What you have is an ideal mix of physical athleticism, and multiple schemes. It's the new age pressure concepts in the NFL. It's very difficult to line up with four defensive linemen in conventional positions, and create consistent pressure on the quarterback. Not only is it difficult to find four players who can do that, it's tactically easier for the offense to protect against those more basic fronts.

"What defenses are trying to accomplish is pass protection indecision based on front alignments, coupled with athletic mismatches. The Seahawks are well positioned to do that with their personnel."

More generally, as Pete Carroll put it:

"Our defense is a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel. It's just utilizing the special talents of our guys."

This was apparent this week as the Seahawks used their athleticism at linebacker and defensive end (and even defensive tackle) to counter New Orleans' normal advantage in mismatches.

2-9-NO 21 (5:48 1st Quarter) No. 79 eligible D. Brees pass incomplete short left to J. Graham (B. Irvin).

Bruce Irvin played free safety in junior college, transferred to West Virginia where he played in the the trenches of a 3-3-5 stack, then played as a rush defensive end for Seattle's 4-3 in his rookie season. In 2013, the Seahawks have moved Irvin to the starting strongside linebacker position, and he's thrived. To say he's versatile is an understatement. Irvin's fluid and explosive athleticism (he ran a 4.4 at the Combine) shows up on the field, and while he has little experience in linebacker zone drops, he looks like a natural at it.

Take this play below, early on in the game. The Saints go to one of their bread and butter zone killers with Jimmy Graham running a deep out to the hole in the zone at the sideline, underneath the corner and past the linebacker. Marques Colston pulls the corner to the left side of the field deep, and the running back runs a short route outside underneath that pulls Irvin forward. Brees lets it go to Graham, and Irvin is out of position, but his excellent recovery speed allows him to make a play.

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It helps that Irvin can recover so quickly with 4.4 speed, but it's an added bonus that he can deliver the hit of a 255 pound linebacker:

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Seattle's defense is somewhat unique in that Irvin is not their only linebacker with 4.4 speed. Starting middle linebacker Bobby Wagner ran a 4.45 40 at his pro day and registered a 39.5" vert at 241 pounds, which is the kind of athleticism that allows him to make a play like this below, and the type of "special talents" that Pete Carroll is talking about above.

4-1-SEA 22 (9:37 4th Quarter) D. Brees pass incomplete short right to J. Graham (B. Wagner).

Zone coverage and zone drops have been an area that needed some improvement from Seattle's linebacking corps over the past year or so. (It's not all butterflies and lollipops in Seattle, guys). This play demonstrates some of the techniques that they've undoubtedly been working on.

After biting forward on the Brees play-action fake, Wagner recognizes it's a pass, then gets on his horse to recover and get to his zone. In short order, he sees the likely intended target (Graham again), gets to his spot, then turns to find the ball at the correct time, jumping to get into the flight path and disrupt the play.

This isn't luck. This is route recognition, spacial awareness, and in scoutspeak, ball skills. It comes from a lot of practice and tape study. Watch Richard Sherman too, in what looks like zone in this play, he recognizes that Graham is running an out-cutting route to his area and flips his hips to put himself into a position to make a play. When you have two guys converging on a receiving threat with their eyes on the football, good things happen:

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Former Seahawks' defensive coordinator and now-Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was asked about Seattle's philosophy in player acquisition at the linebacker spot last year, and this is what he had to say:

"Well, you need the speed for the times that we're playing 4-3, and then you need the stoutness to when you go to a 3-4. You're seeing a guy like K.J. Wright -- he's 6'3 and a half, 250 pounds, but can run real well. To us, that's ideal. He can play at the line of scrimmage, he can be a MIKE linebacker in third-down situations. So, it's the same with Bobby Wagner -- he's 242 pounds and ran a 4.4 ... so, we kind of evolved to those bigger, stouter guys, but they also have to have the ability to run. So, when we're getting ready for the draft, and looking at guys, that's the mindset that we have.

"I think it's a unique combination that we're looking for. In the 3-4, the linebackers are big, physical type guys; the guards are going to come right at them and they have got to be stout enough to take on the guard. Then, the 4-3, you want speed. The Lance Briggses, the Derrick Brookses, the guys that can really move well, lateral movement, and those guys are always protected. Well, we do both. Instead of maybe the 260-pound linebackers, or the 225-pound guys, we like that guy that's 240 and can run a high 4.4. So, we're getting that hybrid that can do both. That's what we're really trying to be looking for. But, we try not to put them in too many positions where they're taking on the guard, so we're probably leaning more toward the 4-3 principles."

In the Seahawks' defensive system, a self-described '4-3 with 3-4 personnel', there are three distinct "positions" that have very little actual physical distinction: the "LEO", or weakside defensive end (Chris Clemons), the SAM linebacker (Bruce Irvin), and even the strongside defensive rush end (Cliff Avril). All three of these guys can rush the passer or drop into coverage, they're all about 6'3 and 255/260 or so, and the cool part about Seattle's schemes this year is that Dan Quinn is allowing/asking them to do both with great frequency.

Examples from Monday:.

1-10-SEA 12 (9:33 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass incomplete short left to M. Colston.
PENALTY on SEA-R. Sherman, Unnecessary Roughness, 6 yards, enforced at SEA 12 - No Play.

This ended up being a non-play, but watch Clemons drop into the flats to take slot receiver Marques Colston. Yes, that's a defensive end matched up in zone with a receiver. The Hawks only rush three because of this, meaning they have eight in coverage against five Saints' receiving options:

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Brees has nowhere to go with the ball.

As you can see below, this "looks" like a 3-4 type of defense with two stand-up defensive ends (what would be linebackers in a real 3-4) and three down linemen. As Bradley shared last year:

"Back in the Tampa days we played Tampa-2, we played a little Over [front], a little Under [front] defense, but I think the idea [here] is that Pete (Carroll) wanted to try and incorporate both the 3-4 and the 4-3. The hard part of it is to try and make it simple enough that you can run both defenses, and we feel like we're on our way to doing that.

"We really developed this defense so you can play multiple positions. It's not as advanced as maybe some 3-4 teams and maybe not as advanced as some 4-3 teams, but, we can do both. And, that's where I think we create some issues for offenses. They look and say, 'Gah, we can't put in our 3-4 plan, or our 4-3 plan, because they do both, and it might limit some of the things they do.'"

1-18-NO 9 (12:28n 3rd Quarter) D. Brees pass incomplete short right to M. Colston.

Here's another look at the varied concepts they try to bring. Below, after starting out in a similar alignment as the play above, Seattle instead sends five, rushing Bruce Irvin from the strongside end from a two-point platform, then blitzing middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in behind him.

With Irvin and Wagner running through the same gap, there's a moment of confusion between the fullback and running back to that side in terms of protection, and Bruce is able to sneak through for the pressure:

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Chris Clemons, the defensive end/linebacker to the weak side, drops into coverage over the middle, taking weakside linebacker K.J. Wright's spot in the zone as Wright takes Wagner's spot in the zone. Brees, of course, is forced to rush his throw as the pass rush gets through, and it falls incomplete.

Again, the reason for collecting players like this is that you can use any number of them in any number of roles. The play below illustrates:

3-10-SEA 32 (14:00 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass incomplete deep left to K. Stills.

It's third-and-10 and Seattle is in their nickel pass rush package. Along the line from left to right you can see Chris Clemons aligned wide in a three-point stance, Cliff Avril in a stand-up stance hovering over the guard, Clinton McDonald at the nose, and Michael Bennett back on the outside at the other defensive end spot (Bennett plays a majority of his snaps inside). At the snap, Bennett pinches down, running what almost looks like a stunt with linebacker Bobby Wagner, who blitzes in behind him.

Cliff Avril drops into coverage over the middle, taking Bobby Wagner's spot, and on the weakside, K.J. Wright rushes the passer (Wright is a pretty good pass rusher as an outside linebacker, by the way):

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The play ends up being a win for the Hawks despite a great play by Drew Brees and a dropped pass by his receiver, but the scheme did work, in theory. The pressure came from the right side by two linebackers, and the de facto "defensive tackle" in Cliff Avril dropped into middle zone coverage (oh, by the way, Avril started 12 games at linebacker at Purdue).

As Field Gulls' contributor Greetings From Lord Humongous explained in the comments section:

There are many issues that zone blitzing creates for offensive lines: If you blitz Wagner or Wright or Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor on some of these plays and drop Avril or Irvin instead, then the offensive line needs to account for more than four rushers. You create some confusion and doubt that can help you later in the game. The "fire-zone," as it's called, creates more "gaps" for the line to protect in ways similar to how the read-option creates more gaps for the defense to protect.

In other words, when your "defensive tackles" or defensive ends can drop into coverage, as we saw Cliff Avril do above, you end up getting offensive linemen mirroring no one (because they thought that DT/DE was going to rush), which means you're going to get free rushers, as Wagner is able to do above.

Defensive dancing bears

Seattle is not afraid to do put the real defensive tackles in coverage, either.

3-1-SEA 22 (9:52 4th Quarter)(No Huddle, Shotgun) D. Brees pass incomplete short middle to J. Graham [M. Bennett].

Below, nose tackle Clinton McDonald rather drops into coverage in the short flats, mirroring Jimmy Graham and getting in the passing lane for Brees. Seattle only sends three here. Michael Bennett, back on the outside again and still doing awesome things, forces the throwaway and almost gets the sack:

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Similar scheme below from a little earlier in the game and in a much different down/distance (because you gotta mix up when you use it, man; can't be too predictable):

1-10-NO 25 (2:32 3rd Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass short right to L. Moore to NO 30 for 5 yards (J. Lane).

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The Screen Whisperer

I tweeted this out from my seats, in a state of barley-induced bliss, during the game:

One of the defining characteristics about K.J. Wright, is that he's extremely adept at sniffing out and blowing up screens. This is not luck or instincts; it's tape study, play recognition, perceptible tendencies ... and yeah, OK, some instinct.

Exhibit A:

3-9-NO 21 (5:41 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass short right to D. Sproles to NO 24 for 3 yards (K. Wright) [M. Bennett].

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Exhibit B:

3-10-NO 45 (5:16 3rd Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass short left to D. Sproles to NO 41 for -4 yards (K. Wright).

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Exhibit C:

1-10-NO 43 (11:45 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass incomplete short right to D. Sproles.

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That's three in one game! I could find probably fifty if I went back over the past few years.

Linebackers That Can Cover

K.J. Wright might've been the MVP of this game, in all honesty, and apart from the ability to tackle, blow up screens, and drop into his zones, K.J. has shown the ability to run in man-to-man coverage with some of the better tight ends in the league. This is pretty rare, and Wright is criminally underrated for his complete skill set. He's not Patrick Willis, but you don't find many guys that are solid in so many areas.

More examples from tape, just from Monday's game:

1-10-SEA 32 (14:17 4th Quarter) D. Brees pass incomplete deep middle to B. Watson (K. Wright).

Wright uses his speed to track Benjamin Watson and his wingspan to break up the pass:

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4-10-SEA 32 (13:53 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) D. Brees pass incomplete deep right to J. Graham [K. Wright].

Later in the game, on a fourth-and-10, Seattle had the audacity to match Wright up with Jimmy Graham on the outside, and it's worth noting that's Richard Sherman following a receiver across the formation. Many had wondered aloud if Sherman would do this to Graham in this game, but Seattle trusted their linebacker in Wright so much that they allowed him to cover the elite TE man-to-man:

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Not pretty, but gets the job done. As Jon Gruden exclaims in the broadcast, "How many linebackers go out there in man coverage with Jimmy Graham? Not many."

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The bottom line? Seattle has at its disposal, talented and versatile athletes on their defense who can be used in a variety of ways to maximize specific talents and create confusion for the offense. In Sunday's win over the Saints, Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn's linebacker corps and defensive line unit did exactly that.

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