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Fixing the Pass Rush, Part Two: Scheming the Secondary

After stymieing the front four, Jim Mora put some holes in the Seahawks secondary. I wasn't involved in the planning process for the West Coast Defense, but I would guess, through careful observation, that the secondary was designed to play in the passing lanes. All the talk about defenders playing the ball sounded heartening, but the execution was crippling. It was confusing watching players allow receptions but bound up and clap. Were they reassuring themselves after failure? It was too consistent; too steady and sincere.

The Seahawks secondary, the Seahawks linebackers and retreating ends, were not reassuring themselves after an obvious failure -- a completed pass -- no, they were celebrating an accomplishment. If Seattle could limit receptions, limit yards after catch, as Monte Kiffin once preached, it could eventually force interceptions. Um, no. That doesn't play in the modern NFL.

In 2009, an interception was thrown on just 3% of all pass attempts. An interception occurred about once per team per game. The value of an interception is 45 yards. That's about the net value of seven pass attempts or four completions. Seattle, attempting to force interceptions -it never did- allowed a 65.8% completion percentage. That would rank just behind the New England Patriots for seventh in the league.

In 2006, when it was less talented and wracked with injuries, but before the arrival of Mora, it allowed a completed pass on just 59.3% of attempts. That held in 2007, in no small part because of a terrible run of opposing quarterbacks, before ballooning in 2008 and 2009.

An average completion in 2009 was worth 10.78 yards. If a team attempts 33 passes, the average amount in 2009, and completes 65.8% of them, it will average 234 passing yards a game. If it completes 59.3%, it will average 211 passing yards per game. 234 yards on 33 attempts is 7.1 yards per attempt. That ranks 12-14 in the league, Arizona, Washington and Baltimore. 211 equals 6.4 yards an attempt, better than the Bills (23) and below the Titans (22). For Seattle to sacrifice that kind of completion percentage and the resulting yards per attempt, it would need to force half an interception more a game just to break even. And half an interception more a game, eight, is the difference between the Packers and the Redskins; the Colts and the Bears; the Jets and the Buccaneers. It's huge, a pie in the sky goal, that was never realistic, and that cost Seattle dearly.

And, as I stated, it just never happened. In fact, it probably couldn't happen, at least not to any appreciable effect. Building a defense around interceptions is building a defense destined to fail. Interceptions are extremely inconsistent, and no team has shown an ability to consistently force them. It's not that intercepting a pass is luck, it's that on a macro level, it's impossible to measure how much of it is skill. Instead, Seattle must concentrate on what it can control, completion and their length.

Fixing the secondary will take some talent. Maybe. It will take a scheme overhaul. Definitely. A simple solution is to run more man. Instead of limiting yards after catch, Seattle should attempt to limit catches. Limit receivers flashing open, become stingier over the middle and stop running easily negotiable zones. If not a straight man cover scheme, a zone system that plays the man would work. Flashing off the receiver and attempting to undercut the route, or force the fumble after the reception, is self-defeating. It overvalues the turnover, and assumes the team itself can greatly impact its ability to force that turnover. It can not and therefore should not make that a goal.

Kelly Jennings can not play the ball. Put him back in man cover, where he has some usefulness. Jennings used to show great stickiness playing the receiver, and though his limitations as a ball hawk will forever make him a target, the longer he can stay close to his man, the less likely he is to be targeted and the longer the pass rush has to develop. Or, if it's just hopeless, trade him and stop attempting to turn him into something he can't be. Jennings is pretty close to a finished product. Love him for what he is or move on.

Marcus Trufant can play the ball, not superbly but well, and his cover skills are recognized and revered. Put him in man cover, allow him to run with the receiver rather than reading and reacting and grabbing and tackling and drawing the flag.

Continue to refine Josh Wilson's coverage skills. He can flash as a zone corner, and is probably still destined to super-nickel status, but extend him to his ends. Lead him towards greatness even if he never reaches it. Don't settle.

Get the damn eighth man out of the box. It's perhaps the most stupidly self-defeating strategy in football. An occasional tackle for a loss is never, ever worth a lost body in coverage. Further, an eight-in-the-box approach thins a run defense, enabling it to attack at the point, but making it more susceptible to long runs. How about that? A defense that sacrifices the pass to defend the run that actually sacrifices the run, too. That's like pulling your goalie to play another goon.

And, finally, find another cover corner or two. If Seattle has a defensive need, especially following the disappearance of Ken Lucas, it's starting cornerback. A player that can overtake Jennings could have a domino effect, pushing Wilson to nickel and Jennings to dime, and that player wouldn't have to be a world beater. He would just have to average.

Seattle sucked stopping third down. It didn't have a great front four, but moreover, it attempted too often to cash in. It wagered what it thought was a better chance of forcing a turnover against a higher chance of allowing a completion and conversion. It's a losing bet in the modern NFL. The Seahawks were playing against percentages and lost. If it wants to improve the pass rush, it must lower opponent completion percentage, thereby forcing more third and long, and cashing in those third and longs the traditional way, by forcing a punt. Get those guys on their men, tighten coverage, buy an extra beat or two before the pass, and the Seahawks might just force a turnover anyway.

A strip-sack. Or, even better, a desperation interception. It would be nice to be on the other end of a few of those. I have become increasingly convinced that turnovers, the majority of turnovers, are a product of losing rather than a cause of losing, and should no more be sought out than time of possession or rushing attempts.