Defining the Seahawks' Defense: The Defensive Line, Part 1 - The Interior Duo

Al Messerschmidt

Meat and Potatoes.

I am a firm believer in the notion that the trenches are the most vital part of any successful football team, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The different things you want to do in your scheme starts on the line, and having good play up front limits a lot of what an offense wants to do without much of a need to gameplan. Big bodies on the interior help flush out the run game that, in turn, stops an opponent's ability for careful ball/clock control. Speed and smart football IQ on the defensive ends help neutralize pitches, outside runs or options that slash out big gains in the open field. I believe that if you win the line of scrimmage, you usually win the game, and that's why this unit is so important.

Conventionally, pressure from a defensive line's pass rush - particularly the interior - is the strongest pass coverage you'll ever find and, combined even with a subpar secondary (as we saw for ourselves in 2005 and 2007), will lead to turnovers if the attack is consistent and relentless.

This ideology is perhaps the reason that Pete Carroll and John Schneider have invested so much of their cap into the defensive line over the past four years. As Leroy Hill described, two years ago with John Clayton: "With Pete's scheme, it's a lot more beef up front. The D-line is set to make a lot of plays; a lot of the rushing scheme is for the LEO to come off the edge. With the first round pick (Bruce Irvin), I think he'll go opposite of Clem and create a lot of pressure. The front four is a lot more important in Pete's scheme than it was in the previous regime."

Among the first re-signings from this new organization included giving out hefty contracts to Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons. Likewise, the free agency pursuits have centered on even more beef, the Alan Branch signing of two years ago as one example, then the Jason Jones signing last year and the Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett acquisitions this year.

Seattle has even drafted a defensive lineman every year under PC/JS, with the Jesse Williams and Jordan Hill selections the latest among the rotating core of tryouts that varied from first round talents like Irvin and late round projects such as Greg Scruggs.

As our own Davis Hsu was quick to point out, the defensive line itself accounts for about $34M ($34,249,765) of this year's salary cap alone. That's roughly 67% of the entire defense and 26% of the overall team. However, the jury's still out on whether or not this investment is paying off. And while the Seahawks have marginally improved over the last three seasons in terms of sacks and tackles for losses, they were still only 21st in terms of DVOA rankings in terms of defensive line play..

We've already talked about briefly the necessity of versatility within the defense's ranks, and how easily you can manipulate linebackers and defensive backs in order to disguise different fronts and tendencies (such as moving Kam down from his safety position into the box to act as a linebacker). With the front-four however, things are a lot tricker.

Because Carroll wants his players to interchange between two gap and one gap principles, he must find players who can play in either system. However, he must also balance the gap-mentality with 4-3 and 3-4 concepts, such as deciding whether or not to go with speed or size. At times, he might need the rare combination athleticism and size all together among all four players in order for his scheme to work.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But with the amount of depth this current Seahawks team has, this is certainly the best opportunity Carroll has to make his vision achievable. They have the right players to run a 4-3, and they arguably also have the right players to run a 3-4. The can mix-and-match to whatever situation the game calls for, and more importantly, to what Carroll wants as his "base".

Mix and Match: The Dinner Plate Scenario

Because the Seahawks consistently showcased three different four-man fronts in the past three seasons, I'd like to compare who plays on the line vs who rotates in to a dinner plate scenario. Imagine that you are having dinner and you are given your own separate plate at the table. You have four sections divided up all ready for you to fill, and you have four different categories of food choices to fill your plate with, namely meat, vegetables, starch component and dessert. Comparably, there are four defensive line spots for you to utilize, and a variety of categories of players for you to put them in - namely, you have the run-stuffers, the pass rushers, etc.

Traditionally, a 4-3 defense would fill their plate with two quicker, interior linemen that usually one-gap and branch them out with two speedier ends on the outside, while a 3-4 defense would have three athletic but strong DT's that can hold up against double teams with a fourth athletic player on the outside that can play on the line.

Naturally, in an effort to combine the philosophies Carroll wants in his hybrid scheme, the Seahawks' defensive line includes all eight different types of players in various rotations.

The Men in the Middle

As such, the base Carroll interior D-Linemen usually consists a mix of a quicker 4-3 player and a bigger 3-4 player, which is why an Alan Branch might be paired up with Brandon Mebane. Sometimes, however, these "identities" of the players might not necessarily dictate what Carroll wants from his front four, even if it's as unconventional as it seems. To quote on his "ideal" qualities of a 3-technique from his scheme at USC, per Carroll:
"The prime spot on the defense to the weak side is the B gap player. He is an inside-foot to outside-foot alignment on the offensive guard to his side. He is a 3 technique player. He has B gap control but he can't get reached or hooked by the defense due to the way we align him. The whole scheme of this defense is predicated upon not getting hooked."

"The 3 technique player should be your premier interior pass rusher. He is going to get a lot of one on one blocks as it is hard to double team him because of where he lines up."

If that is really true, then why would the the Seahawks play Alan Branch, usually considered as one of their run stuffers on the team, so frequently at the 3-technique spot? Note the last line of what Carroll says and how the player at that position will get a lot of "one-on-one" blocks. Between the 325 lb. Branch and one offensive guard, it's a mismatch. Do you also foresee Branch getting hooked easily on run blocks at his size? This is what Carroll means by "excelling" on one-on-one matchups:

N1 N2
N3

Likewise, it's important to note that the Seahawks also frequently played Jason Jones at 3-tech as well and rotated him and Branch consistently depending on down-and-distances/formations. Until he got hurt, Jones was really generating a lot of the Seahawks' interior pressure, as well as freeing up his 1-tech partner in terms of pass rush, which is why Carroll list it as the "prime spot" of the line.

Now, on the other side of the coin is Brandon Mebane, who has returned to his usual 1-technique/Nose Tackle position after playing at 3-tech in 2010. Mebane's qualities definitely again fit more in line with Carroll's description of a 3-tech rather than his of a 1-tech/Nose Tackle:

"The nose tackle plays in the A gap to the tight end side of the field in our defense. We have done a number of things with this position based upon the opposition at times. We have put him right in the A gap, we have cocked him on the center at times, and as needed we have even played him in a direct shade technique right over the center at times. The way we play him on base defense is as an inside-foot to outside-foot alignment or a 1 technique on the center to the strong side of the alignment."

"At Nose Tackle you have to find a player who likes to mix it up. We want a big guy in there who likes to get down and dirty. He is going to get doubled a lot on the run and pass and is going to get down blocked a lot. He has to be a tough player. This guy can be a short and stubby type of player."

At 6'1 and 311 pounds, "short and stubby" maybe an accurate description for Mebane, but what about the versatility that Carroll describes in the first paragraph, as well as the "doubled a lot on the run" part? Certainly some of Mebane's skills include being quick off the ball makes him a good candidate for the 1-tech, but is it enough for him to play there at all times, especially if he's really going to move into a nose tackle position when Carroll calls for it?

The team certainly believes so. Comparatively, Mebane is a better as a run container and pocket collapser than he is a quick gap-shooting pass rusher (which is more suited for the 3-tech anyways). Mebane's get-off from the snap is some of the best in the league for a DT, and I believe this natural ability is what makes him so appealing. It certainly compensates for his lack of size; He's not a true NT in terms of physique compared to a Paul Soliai or Casey Hampton, but this "tweener" weight makes it perfect for him to play this mixed 1-technique.

Now what about the double team portion? We must remind ourselves that the 4-3 defense prides itself in the linebackers, not the defensive line, to make the plays. Likewise, Mebane and whoever is playing the 1-tech may be in a position to be doubled team, but will not be necessarily do so every play. These mentalities leads to another theory that takes advantage of Mebane's abilities, namely the tilted 1-technique/nose tackle.

As Sander from Bucs Nation explains: "Teams will usually scheme ways to double team who they want to double team. Oftentimes, the nose tackle is simply the most logical player to double team because of his alignment.

This is where the tilted nose tackle does change things, though. Because the right player playing nose tackle can force a double team. As I noted before, to block a tilted nose squared up you have to get across his face or, like above, you have to run away from him. A quick nose tackle with a good first step who can beat a center one-on-one can wreak havoc on plays that don't double team him purely because of his alignment. It forces the center to move laterally before getting into a block, and if the nose tackle beats the center to that spot, he's going to be in the backfield."

What is explained above surely coincides with Carroll's word choice of "We have put him right in the A gap, we have cocked him on the center at times, and as needed we have even played him in a direct shade technique right over the center at times". Indeed, you will see a lot of the time that Mebane (and whoever is at 1-tech) lines up at angle pointing directly towards the center:

T1
T2

The "tilt" can also work on one-on-one advantages. For example, in a zone blocking scheme where the offensive lineman has to "reach" a player to get the block, a tilted 1-tech can easily win and tackle the running back for a loss:

Iephwzwhdvmeg_medium

Amazingly, the titling one-technique also subjectively involves "two-gapping" with the player, because he partially crashes down on both his strong-side gap at the same time he is free and in charge with his weak-side gap. This is why Carroll loves to have his 1-tech play closer towards the center akin to what you usually have with a nose tackle. As you can see here:

T3
T4
T5

See it again:

Iba8sojavmblb3_medium

Finally, the 1-tech's quickness and mobility can lead to a lot of stunt work on pass rushes, where Mebane's and Clemon's speed combine to create a fluid exchange of rush responsibilities. Preaching Gap control is one thing, but deciding who gets which gap is a more interesting story. And perhaps the most important outlier in Carroll's scheme, especially within the defensive line, is that the players in the rotation must play to their strengths. Could Mebane and Branch theoretically have played the 3-tech and 1-tech respectively and excelled? Probably. But because this isn't a cookie cutter mold as much as it is a dinner plate selection, Carroll doesn't have to necessarily enforce or play by those rules.

The 1-tech'ers and 3-tech'ers of the Seahawks

Now that we've finally outlined the majority of possibilities, I want to re-focus our attention on the team's roster and my overall thoughts on which interior defensive linemen can play at the different positions. With so many additions that can play so many spots, it's hard to narrow down who plays where with the exception of Mebane himself and the backups Jaye Howard and Clint McDonald. The following are some of my thoughts on who can (and should) play where, and why.

The big splash of free agency, Michael Bennett, is a natural 3-tech/1-tech that has flourished under Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme. Bennett is a pure mismatch on the pass against interior offensive linemen and, like his predecessor Jason Jones, commands the versatility to move between defensive end and defensive tackle. He has a large variety of pass rushing moves (such as hook and swim, bull rush), and probably will run some stunts to take advantage of his versatility.

I doubt that Bennett will be placed much within the run downs, and instead will be rotated in between third downs and other passing situations. That's not to say that he can play against the run; but at a "light" 274 pounds, there are better options out there to fill that need.

Tony McDaniel has been compared to a Calais Campbell type of player ever since he was linked (and signed) by the Seahawks in March. Last season, McDaniel was slotted at a 5-technique in Miami's 3-4 defense as an end, but also has experience in the 4-3 as well in Jacksonville. At 6'7, 305 pounds, McDaniel is also considerably "slimmer" than what Carroll might want at a 3-tech, but he has the tough guy mentality that PC wants as well. I believe that McDaniel is better at two gapping then Branch is, so perhaps this might be another evolution or shift with the 3-4 concepts Dan Quinn brings with him from Florida.

Originally, I thought he was a replacement for Branch, and being described as a good run stuffer does help that transition. I doubt that he will play the 1-tech, but because his size is so prototypical and different from the previous players the Seahawks brought in I'm sure Carroll has to have somewhere for him to play. McDaniel is an interesting player to keep an eye on.

My favorite pick of the draft, Jordan Hill, is definitely going to have a big role in this year's defensive line rotation, mainly because he is a clone of Mebane. Size wise, they are similar: Hill is also 6'1 and close to 305 pounds. Hill excels at beating people with the first step, and this is why my colleagues Jared Stanger and Aaron Sims believe he will contribute. Because of this, Hill is extremely versatile against both the run and pass but can be quickly shut down when double-teamed. Still, when you see a DT with 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks against one of the better offensive lines in Wisconsin, you know he's a potential game-breaker.

Hill will likley compete at both spots but and he has the skills and qualities needed to fill in for both Mebane and the 3-tech (whoever that may be), and might even move his way up to the starter's spot in a few seasons.

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect left on the board is Jesse Williams. Now in Alabama, Jesse played mainly as the NT/5-tech at the traditional 3-4, but kicked inside to the 3-tech in 4-3 rotations. Like Hill, he is a versatile player that really should contribute by this season, but it is a more curious dilemma as to where he should play. For instance, on paper he really should be a back-up for the original Branch's 3-tech and Red Bryant's 5-Tech, but Carroll and the Seahawks have also rotated him at 1-tech too. My guess is that with his excellent size and brutal strength will place him on the interior for now.

One idea that I agree with Ben Harbaugh about is the fact that Williams is a more multi-faceted player on the defensive line than Branch or Jones was last year at the 3-tech. Namely, I think Williams can and will push the pocket during passing downs as he does stuffing the run. Now the trade-off is that both of these abilities won't be as domineering as it was with Jones or Branch, but this balance will be important against more complete teams.

So there you have it. Thoughts and comments are always welcome. The series will continue with an analysis of the LEO and 5-tech, followed by the LB corps and the secondary.

(Big thanks to Danny for creating the gifs!)

MORE:

Defining the Seahawks' Defense: An Introduction - Field Gulls

Defining the Seahawks' Defense: Pete Carroll's Journey - Field Gulls

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