It's poetic justice that when the defense collapsed, so did the legend of Brian Russell. As if he were actually worse in 2008 than he was in 2007.
Russell allowed 15.8 yards per pass play in 2007. That's a better description of his role than his ability, but Russell's role is a sound indictment of his importance. Rather than a leader or cause, Russell is a symbol of a broken defensive scheme.
Seattle's defense crumbled right away in 2008. It allowed 1,466 yards in its first four weeks. The fantastic, elastic pass defense snapped, allowing seven touchdowns through the air, but forcing only one interception, that from the catatonic Rams. Those first four weeks are important to isolate. Matt Hasselbeck started all four and the offense was semi-intact. Patrick Kerney started all four and his four sacks were part of 11 for the team. Of course, eight of which were against the San Francisco 49ers. A contest San Francisco won and JT O'Sullivan threw for 321 yards and over 10 yards an attempt.
That's a microcosm of Seattle's season. Seattle blamed pressure for its secondary collapse though sacks are one stat it performed respectably. Opponents mercilessly targeted Seattle's secondary. It says something when a 4-12 team that lost by 10 or more seven times still faced over a hundred more pass attempts than rush attempts. It doesn't say the front seven was the problem. Seattle wasn't getting great pressure, but it also wasn't covering a thing.
Russell was the same, though his usage was...inexplicably batshit?
Of the many decisions that made no sense, employing Brian Russell in a cover 1 is among the least explicable. Unless Russell is Kenyan-fast in practice, the coaching staff should know very well that Russell lacks the range to cover sideline to sideline. Lee Evans is one of the better deep receivers in the NFL, and though Kelly Jennings is a precocious cover corner*, he shouldn't be matched in single coverage against Evans, especially given the dropoff in talent from Evans to Josh Reed. And I don't think Seattle was intending to single cover Evans on his 32 yard reception. If you squint, you can see Russell chugging up from somewhere afar, making his seasonal showing in coverage.
Brian Russell saunters on screen, playing about 10 yards back, in what looks like man coverage matched against [Vernon] Davis. At the snap, Davis runs directly at Russell. Russell immediately loses a step against the speedy tight end and is put into a mush-legged trail position. Davis is free on a deep skinny post over the middle. J.T. O'Sullivan delivers a strike, perfectly leading Davis, but Deon Grant comes from over top, scares Davis out of his route and delivers a shoulder bump for good measure.
Seventh play, first Saint Louis drive. Rams spread Seattle 4 WR, Rb. Seattle responds with a 4-2 nickel. Seattle employs a nickel instead of a dime, because running back Steven Jackson is in the right slot. In other words, Seattle matches Saint Louis' personnel rather than their formation. Linebackers Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu are playing up, behind the center of the line. At the snap, Tatupu blitzes in, Hill drops into a short zone offensive right, and right defensive end Lawrence Jackson drops into a short zone offensive left. Steven Jackson stops, receives and breaks towards the outside -- towards Torry Holt. Lawrence Jackson has a bead on him, looking capable of tackling Jackson or at least slowing him and allowing free safety Brian Russell to establish deep containment. Instead, Russell plays with the fire and discipline of a rookie and the abilities of an old man, shoots down the line, screens Lawrence Jackson away from Steven Jackson, forcing Lawrence Jackson to awkwardly bubble up and left, loses Steven Jackson on a simple spin off Holt's back, careens out of bounds and generally fucks up the whole damn play. Lawrence Jackson is forced to Steven Jackson's side, Lawrence grips Steven's jersey, is shed by another spin move and put into an irretrievable trail position. LoJack looks frustrated, likely with himself, but two players made this mess, one a rookie and one a seven year vet, and while the rookie did his job but failed, the vet shot his buddy attempting glory.
If I included plays after the bye, this article would stretch past 3,000 words, but there's a point where even I lose the fire to rip Russell. Instead, let's look at the above. Russell starts in cover 1. Russell lacks the speed to play cover 1. Russell is converted quarterback, as best I can tell, a pocket passer, that played strong safety and free safety at San Diego State University. He was undrafted. The NFL draft process is not horribly inefficient and when a player is undrafted, especially a can-do warrior like Russell, it usually means they lack minimum-needed athleticism. Russell matched one-on-one against Vernon Davis in week two. Davis is an exceptional athlete. Finally, Russell is matched against Steven Jackson. A matchup that needs no adjectival flourish. It's Brian Russell. It's Steven Jackson. This is stuff Brian Russell shouldn't do. These are situations you can expect him to fail.
The question then is there a situation you can expect Russell to succeed. Yes, Russell is not simply incapable of playing football. Russell is patient and disciplined. He doesn't bite on play action very often and does keep most plays ahead of him. He's a poor tackler, but not onerously poor, just poor enough to be funny. If a team wants a player that will stay in deep cover and keep pass plays from becoming touchdowns, expecting nothing else, that's Brian Russell. That's the very heart of the problem.
Football coaches are conservative. Even the most ruthless and statistically minded don't attempt fourth downs anywhere near the rate they should. They kick field goals ignoring the abstract value of field position. Many give versed veterans quasi tenure and shuffle depth charts only after injury. They "keep it close and win it in the fourth quarter" against favorites, when an aggressive approach that might result in getting blown out would also result in a better chance of winning. They call fullback draws on third and long.
Tim Ruskell is an especially conservative general manager. In fact, for all the adjectives Ruskell is ascribed, "conservative", in all its different meanings and all its different connotations, is probably the single best word to describe General Manager Tim Ruskell.
Keeping a safety back that prevents touchdowns, but does not prevent long gains or first downs is conservative. It allows gradual damage, but avoids death. It's the gin and tonic to Jim Johnson's smash-and-grab drug cocktail. Theoretically, it could work. If a team could consistently allow few yards per play, but allow first downs, it could conceivably create short drives of many plays and, by force of volume, force turnovers.
Seattle didn't do that in 2008. It not only allowed many total yards, the third most total yards and the most passing yards in the NFL, it also allowed quite a few yards per attempt. Especially passing: Seattle's 6.9 net yards per attempt was 26th in the league.
If that's its strategy, it will be a wonder if Seattle is successful. Brian Russell won't contribute. He's neither a sure enough tackler nor fast enough to break on the pass to limit long completions. He can at best limit very long completions. He won't contribute stopping the run the way a Tampa 2 safety must. I don't see why, even with the built-in cushion, teams would not challenge him deep. He's not fast, he's not a hard hitter and he hasn't shown an ability to get the jump ball. He's the right profile but the wrong talent for a scheme that probably won't work.
Brian Russell is the speedy leadoff hitter that doesn't walk and gets caught stealing. He's the catcher that frames pitches and calls a great game, but can't hit. He's the power forward that drops defense to position himself for the board. He's a losing strategy embodied, and Seattle's coaches aren't blind or stupid, they're just mistaken.
*HAHAHAHHahahahahahahaahahahahahahahahahahaha (pant.. pant) HAHAHhahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahah