Dan Quinn & the Seahawks' 'aggressive, blitzing' defense

J. Meric

"Those who are familiar with new Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are expecting a change in the Seattle defense - specifically, more blitzing. Last year under Gus Bradley, the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks became an issue. Bradley's game plans leaned toward the conservative side. Quinn is seen as more of a risk taker, and that could be just what the Seahawks need. Given the Seahawks have cornerbacks who can press and run in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, the Seahawks have the capability to be an effective pressure team."

That quote is via Dan Pompei of the National Football Post, from back on February 3rd. It was a paragraph that caught my eye and I filed it away for future reference because over the past couple of seasons, the Seahawks have been one of the most 'conservative' defenses in the NFL -- keep everything in front of you, not super aggressive with blitzing, just play disciplined and smart football. Bend-but-don't-break.

Then, this last week, Brock Huard wrapped up his show on ESPN with with a blog/video entitled "Expect Seahawks to be more aggressive under Quinn."

Huard notes:

"It's been my observation over the years... that when you have a defensive line centric defensive coordinator - Dan Quinn, the Seahawks' D-coordinator, remember his background coaching D-Line - and when you have a coordinator who's cut his teeth in this position group - the defensive line, typically, those guys are a little more willing to be aggressive. [Conversely], when you take a Pete Carroll, a Nick Saban, some of these guys that have coached in the secondary, from the back forward, and what do they like to do? They typically like to protect against the big play. When you bring in Monte Kiffin [into the conversation], he and Pete Carroll go way back, and Kiffin played such an integral role in Gus Bradley's career, bringing him down from the Dakotas down to Tampa Bay so he could learn his scheme, and that is a system that's, by nature, a little more conservative. Cover-2, keep everything in front of you.

I think by bringing Dan Quinn in - Pete's alluded to it - we'll see it play out a little more in mini-camps, I expect him to be a little more aggressive."

So, we have two different analysts from totally different outlets both espousing the same idea that the Seahawks will be more aggressive this season with Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator. Judging by Quinn's tenure in Florida and the schemes they played, I just don't really see a logical reason to assume this is simply a guess on the part of Huard and Pompei - as Andy Hutchens, a writer for Alligator Army, the SBN Florida blog, noted recently when I asked him to describe Quinn's style at Florida, the Gators' defense was fairly conservative and didn't blitz a whole lot as compared to prior regimes:

"Dan Quinn came to Florida as a guy with NFL experience and Xs and Os knowledge that Will Muschamp liked, and he's leaving Florida as a guy who was ready to be an NFL defensive coordinator. Quinn was responsible for working with Muschamp on the design of the defense, and also worked with the defensive line, especially the defensive ends.

"Florida runs a hybrid 3-4 with a BUCK linebacker, but has played patient, disciplined football under Muschamp & Quinn more often than it has attacked like some teams do from the 3-4. The Gators very rarely blitzed, and notched 58 sacks in 26 games under Muschamp/Quinn, 11 coming in their two bowl games. That number was significantly up from Florida's dismal 2010 (21 sacks), but down from the defense's 2006-09 heyday."

So, despite coaching a defense that "played patient, disciplined football more often than it attacked" and "very rarely blitzed," we have two separate but well connected analysts claiming the Dan Quinn Hawks' defense will blitz more in 2013. I tend to brush off most rumors as educated guesses, but considering this particular angle more or less goes against logic, it's piqued my interest.

Now, with the Seahawks making big waves in free agency by bringing in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, Quinn certainly has, at his disposal, the makings of a 'more aggressive' defense simply because the personnel they're collecting thrive on explosive pass rushing speed.

Now - as Andy pointed out above, the Gators ran a hybrid-style 3-4 defense under Quinn, and one of the hallmarks of their scheme was the use of the 'buck' linebacker.

As you'll see below in a couple of vids, the "Buck" linebacker, played mostly by #34 Larentee McCray and #6 Ronald Powell, more or less has a very similar look to Seattle's LEO. Rush with your hand on the ground at times, rush from a three point stance, drop back into zone coverage occasionally. I don't know the specific gap responsibilities that the Buck is asked to maintain in Muscamp/Quinn's Florida defense, but just by the eye test, Quinn would require the same type of athlete to play the position as the Seahawks do with the LEO.

So, what does this mean for the Seahawks' 2013 season? Well, I don't think the Hawks will be changing things up drastically, and I don't think they'll stray too far from Carroll's vision of the 4-3 Under with Elephant he's modeled after the 1994-95 San Francisco 49ers defense he coordinated. That said, it wouldn't surprise me to see Dan Quinn play off of the Hawks' propensity to dabble in the 3-4 style looks that we saw in 2012 and possibly bring some more 'exotic' looking packages into the fold, particularly on 3rd downs.

The Seahawks now have three explosive pass rushing options at defensive end in Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Bruce Irvin, and when Chris Clemons returns from his ACL injury, they'll have four. Add Greg Scruggs into the equation as an interior nickel pass rusher, and you've got a pretty formidable group there. Jaye Howard is another wild card, and Clinton McDonald saw snaps in nickel last year as well.

The question becomes - how do you get all these playmakers on the field at the same time? The Seahawks could break out their own version, theoretically, of the "NASCAR" package - a scheme that Perry Fewell developed in New York when he had, at his disposal, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka.

Let's assume Clemons is on the PUP for the first part of the year. That means, early on, we could see a nickel pass rush group that includes Avril, Scruggs, Bennett, and Irvin. You'd likely see Michael Bennett kick inside, along with Scruggs, with Avril and Irvin on the outside.

Here's one example from last season that we can use as a basis, taken from Week 17 against the Rams.

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Seattle lines up with Scruggs at the left 3-technique position and Clinton McDonald at the right 3-tech spot. For this exercise, swap McDonald out for Michael Bennett. Clemons and Irvin are on the edges in 2-point, stand-up stances and in the middle, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are sugaring the A-gaps, showing blitz. Earl Thomas will fire downfield through the A-gaps as well. This is aggressive.

This pre-snap look makes the Rams account for Wright/Wagner as blitzers, regardless of whether or not they will rush or drop back. As an offensive line, you have to account for them as rushers or you're just going to be guessing and will end up getting your quarterback killed. Above, you'll see Wright rush left in an attempt to clear a lane for Earl Thomas -- this doesn't work, as Steven Jackson picks up the extra blitzer. Even though this look seems uber-aggressive, it's really only a five-man blitz, and because of the sugared A-gaps, the Rams have left seven in for protection. That means it's three receivers against six Seahawk defenders.

As you see above, as Danny Amendola runs a shallow cross, Bruce Irvin sees him come into his area and drops into the passing lane. This forces Bradford to throw high.

This pre-snap look, too, will in theory help both Clemons and Irvin (swap Clemons with Avril, for our exercise here) get one-on-one matchups on the outside with the running backs bracketing Sam Bradford preoccupied with the potential blitz from the middle. Not only that, it forces the Rams to commit an extra player to the box for protection.

(What happens if they call your bluff and only commit six to the box?)

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Above, you'll see essentially the same play - with minor tweaks. Chris Clemons has his hand in the ground this time, and Wagner and Wright are flipped. Regardless, after the Rams have set their protections, Earl Thomas creeps in with excellent timing and nearly gets the sack.

The key player to watch here is St. Louis' left guard - he has to account for Jaye Howard as a pass rusher so he mirrors until Howard leaves his area. With Clem dropping back into zone coverage, the left tackle is essentially blocking no one to start with and then as the guard realizes what's happening he tries to pinch back down on the interior rush. This leaves Steven Jackson with the pickup on Wright, and for his own part, Wright does a great job of knifing through.

Of course, this is a bit of an outlier, because for the most part, we'll see the edge guys rushing from the edge, which will allow the interion guy in a three-man front or interior tandem in a four-man front to either rush or drop. The amount of different looks and personnel groupings you can run with the Seahawks' defensive line is pretty staggering. We haven't even seen if Seattle is done in free agency and whether or not they'll pick up a DT or two in the draft.

Nonetheless, it's fun to imagine what kind of pressure the Seahawks will be able to bring on opposing quarterbacks with Avril, Bennett, Irvin, Scruggs, and eventually Clemons back in the fold.

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To round out my point though -- here's the interesting part. With several separate analysts saying that they expect the Seahawks to get more aggressive when it comes to blitzing, coupled with the amount of talent the Seahawks have added to their pass rush over the past two days, it should be very interesting to see what types of tweaks and additions we'll see to the defense.

In 2012, Seattle almost always ran a 'wait-and-see' style of defense with Alan Branch, Red Bryant, and Brandon Mebane stuffing up the middle, and Chris Clemons playing conservatively on the end. I expect Seattle will still focus heavily on stopping the run and that's why it will be interesting to see who they use at 3-technique on early downs this year. That said, with the changing personnel, there are bound to be changes in scheme and usage of players.

Irvin & Avril are multi-position versatile and can rush from both a two-point or a three-point stance, and both can drop into coverage fairly naturally. Pete Carroll even talked about how Avril can even play a little bit of linebacker and had done so in college, so that has to pique your interest a little. Brandon Mebane can play nose or 3-tech. Red can play 5-tech or on the inside. Michael Bennett and Greg Scruggs can play either end or tackle. Jaye Howard is a mystery at this point, but if he can develop into a gap-penetrating 3-tech under his old college coach, that just adds another element to the defensive line rotation.

On the back-end, both Wagner and Wright are strong blitzers, and Earl Thomas is developing in his own right there. Kam Chancellor hasn't gotten home a whole lot on blitzes, but he's got the speed to do so if they see him fitting there. Winston Guy is a player that Seattle seems to really like as a nickel blitzer, as is Jeron Johnson. If Seattle wants to get more aggressive on defense, they've certainly started putting together the personnel for it.

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