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Quarterly Report: Seahawks Linebacker Corps

Funny how something sticks in your memory. I will always remember Doug Farrar mentioning how much he dislikes the phrase "linebacking corps." It is awkward. What is "linebacking?" The adjectival form of "linebacker?"

Seattle's linebackers have been the team's pride and joy since 2005, and like a lot of notions that have stuck around since 2005, positive assumptions about Seattle's linebackers have survived more on reputation than production. Leroy Hill declined sharply in 2009. Lofa Tatupu declined sharply in 2008. Seattle cast Julian Peterson overboard and his replacement hasn't filled the gap as a pass rusher. I don't think Aaron Curry will ever be the pass rusher Peterson was.

That is a less than enthusiastic opening to this review, but not nonplussed, because nonplussed doesn't mean that. It isn't meant to define Seattle's linebacker corps though. It's only meant to provide context. If Seattle no longer has the best linebacker corps in football, well, it hasn't for some time. Recognizing that allows us to recognize something else: the Seahawks new Brutal Three is pretty good in its own right.


Strongside Linebacker

Aaron Curry

I must have went to bed without drinking last night, because my mind is wandering. I think "strongside," one word, is the adjectival form of strong side. But I wage my own private war on the English language, and that's not what you're here to read about.

Curry didn't take the league by storm in 2009. Many were disappointed. Mass suicides were recorded in Seattle but the uptick was not considered significant by statisticians. Seattle's first top ten draft pick in a decade wasn't wielding linemen like clubs and bludgeoning quarterbacks into red and white piles of bone meal and blood pudding. Draft classmates Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing were succeeding while Curry wasn't, and that twisted the knife. It was a big ol sloppy cluster and though it was premature to give up hope, hope was dreaming about its teeth falling out.

A couple weeks back, on a show I sometimes listen to, Philosophy Talk, the hosts were discussing the philosophy of Gandhi. You don't care about this. They later talked about Ben Kingsley's performance in Richard Attenborough's Biopic, Gandhi. Richard is David's brother, and doesn't that put your family into perspective. You probably don't care about any of that, either. But one thing did come up, and it's an important consideration. Mohandas Gandhi was not always Mahatma Gandhi, five time Noble Peace Prize nominee and revered human being of the 20th century. For a while, he was just one of many people that shared a similar cause, not sure to succeed, or be remembered, or even be a footnote in history.

Curry didn't take the league by storm in 2009, and that sucks. A little more than a season into his young career, he has improved enough to be considered an above average linebacker in the National Football League. That's like the opposite of sucks. The game seems to be slowing down for Curry, to proffer a common but elegant turn of phrase. Where he once was a bull in a china shop, Curry is now more like a bull with helpful flags waving to indicate which direction to charge.

Moving him to the strong side in Carroll's interpretation of the 4-3 has helped. He is back to doing the two things he does best: shadow tight ends in man coverage and smashing the living crap out of tight ends and fullbacks in run support. Seattle's strong side has become just about impossible to rush against, and though Red deserves a lot of the credit, Curry deserves credit too. Offenses attack off right end and find no edge. Red Bryant controls the trenches and Curry strings plays wide, and Curry, Milloy, Tatupu or someone else, Trufant maybe, finish off the attack. It's become a dead zone, somewhere rushers wander and drown and sink to the bottom of the ocean, to be picked apart by crabs and eels.

I don't know that Curry will turn it around as a pass rusher. He's young and a lot of what's being thrown at him is new to him, but great pass rushers turn the corner in a way that Curry has never shown he is capable of. That said, his physique and athleticism is almost ideal for an end, and you never know. As is, I suspect Curry will always be a component blitzer that does nuts and bolts stuff like string out the right tackle and concuss the backfield blocker, but does not amass a ton of sacks himself.

The big improvement I would like to see from Curry, one I know he's capable of, and one that would dramatically increase his value, is better recognition and break in zone coverage. He is still someone that watches the receiver and recovers to tackle, or watches the quarterback and blows coverage, and doesn't do a little of each so that he can make a play on the ball when possible and time the tackle when necessary. Once he refines his skills in coverage, Curry has the chops to be a pick sick and forced fumble machine. That will not only pay dividends in spurts, it will scare the crap out of opposing quarterbacks and take away the outlet pass.

Middle Linebacker

Lofa Tatupu

Tatupu never did wrack up a crap ton of tackles. What is a crap ton? Well, in this context, it's the threshold a linebacker must reach before people start talking about how good he is. Tatupu reached something like a crap ton in his rookie season, but even then, Tatupu was not known as a sideline to sideline guy that produces Tyjuan Hagler Announcer Fixation Syndrome. In fact, because Tatupu is so good at what he does, and because what he does so often produces no stat whatsoever, and because what he does is almost entirely ignored by anyone but coaches and savvy fans, it's easy enough to notice Tatupu's presnap gesticulations and ignore his post-snap execution.

What is it that Tatupu does, that he has done all season in support of the NFL's best run defense? He anticipates plays, guides teammates, shoots gaps, neutralizes lead blockers, and cleans up busted zones. Tatupu and Lawyer Milloy are partners in crime in many of those endeavors, and the two are more or less irreplaceable.

Tatupu looks quicker than recent, better able to shoot gaps and turn that into disruption and pressure, but though he has never excelled at separating from blocks, he has retained his ability to neutralize and counteract lead blockers. Someone else gets the tackle stat, but when Tatupu can pound a fullback or guard back into the rushing lane, the tackle itself becomes almost academic.

His quickness has not yet translated into pass defense, but I suspect that against the right combination of quarterback and offense, Tatupu will show the quick reaction, ball skills, angles and awareness as a pass defender that orginally made him a truly great young middle linebacker. As for now, he's doing well enough, minus any flashy plays, plus a notable screw up against a screen pass.

Weakside Linebacker

David Hawthorne

Hawthorne is taking to pass defense. Awesome. He has the agility to become quite a pass defender and that's key to him becoming an effective weakside linebacker. The way Seattle loads up the strong side, it needs someone with good range on the weak side, and range and the ability to clean up broken assignments has always been Heater's strong points as a run defender. He doesn't attack runs like a great linebacker, like Tatupu or Leroy Hill, but there isn't a lot of opportunity to attack runs on the weak side, because there's likely blockers and space and not the kind of claustrophobic, in-traffic conditions that allow a linebacker to shoot in and wrestle down a rusher looking for a hole.

Heater is a good blitzer. That comes into play when Clemons is dropped into cover, and assuming Hawthorne is still around for the next starting Leo (he's an RFA in 2011), could become a weapon if Seattle finds an end with relatively good cover ability. Right now, it doesn't make much sense for Clemons to do anything but rush the passer, he's so disproportionately good at that compared to other skills, and so it doesn't make much sense to rush Hawthorne except when overloading the weak side.

Hawthorne has played well. After riding a wave of big plays and hype last season, he's a bona fide above average linebacker now. He has range and developing cover ability and can blitz better than any other Seahawk, excepting maybe Milloy. He made his name as a middle linebacker, but I like his fit on the weak side, and though he's not quite as young as his inexperience would suggest, he's young enough that his future should be brighter than his past.


Will Herring

I like Herring as a nickel linebacker, though Hawthorne's progress in cover has lessened that need. I do not like Herring as the jack of all trades universal depth he has become. As it is though, he's probably the best man for the job. He isn't good in traffic, though he's improved his ability to shoot a gap. He isn't much of a blitzer, overall leader in sacks among Seahawks linebackers notwithstanding. Herring hasn't shown to be as good in coverage as I'd hoped, but the sample is extremely small, and it's always possible I am not aware of his better work. Coaches tape, por favor. Herring isn't a great backup, he isn't a great run stuffing linebacker, but he is a good pass defender, useful in situations, and as a part time starter, part of a very good, if very thin linebacker corps.

Perfunctory Grade: B