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Major Minor Moves of the Off-Season: Less Futile Coverage Schemes?

The fall of Derek Anderson neatly coincided with the fall of Jim Mora's bend but don't break defense.
The fall of Derek Anderson neatly coincided with the fall of Jim Mora's bend but don't break defense.

There are few things on a football field more difficult for a fan to grasp than the play of the coverage. I say "coverage" instead of secondary because on most snaps, it is not the two corners and two safeties that cover receivers, but all seven players not rushing the passer. By numbers alone, coverage is the single most important task of a defense. It consumes most of the defensive personnel, and defends the offense's most dangerous weapon, the passing game. Yet, this essential function, this foundation of the pass defense, is easily the hardest to analyze, hardest to understand and most easily misinterpreted.

We see the coverage briefly and out of context. We see a defensive back chasing a receiver. Or a defensive back attempting to tip a pass. Or a defensive back intercepting a pass, but we do not see the spacing between the middle linebacker and the strong safety, or the how the corner controls the receiver's route, or why Marcus Trfuant is in single coverage on a go route without a free safety within twenty yards. We see outcomes and almost no part of the process.

It's been a fascination of mine to try and piece out just what the coverage is doing. It's hard, of course, and slippery because as soon as you think you know something, watch again, and you throw all that understanding out the window. It takes a lot of time, a lot of notes, a lot guess work, and it's only possible on a handful of plays when the broadcasters deign to let us see what is happening on the other 70% of the field. Over enough time though, and with enough theories tested and a very few that survive, I think it's possible to have some understanding of a team's coverage.

I can't say this with confidence, but I believe it nevertheless, Jim Mora made Seattle's coverage worse. Much worse. As I have argued over the seasons, Mora believed in a bend-but-don't-break, play-the-ball defense to the ruin of his coverage.

It started in 2007, when Seattle decided to gut their safeties and start over. Seattle ran symmetrical safeties and so "free" and "strong" were nominal classifications. One safety played near the line or in the box and the other played so far you couldn't spot him with a telescope. Corners played the ball. Distilled, the philosophy was: allow receptions, allow yards, but attempt the pick and get stingy in the red zone. It worked amazingly well against Jeff Garcia, Matt Leinart, Gus Frerotte, A.J. Feeley, Matt Moore, Rex Grossman, Todd Collins, Troy Smith, Derek Anderson and Chris Redman. Actually, it didn't work particularly well against Anderson and Redman, and maybe that should have told us something.

We learned soon enough. Seattle's pass defense collapsed in 2008. The interceptions, as interceptions do, disappeared. No longer facing jobbers and career backups, Seattle's secondary tumbled from sixth best in completion percentage allowed to sixth worst. Seattle was bending and breaking.

Was it all Mora's fault? I wish I knew. I am sure it wasn't all his fault, but I also think he owned some responsibility.

Mora became the Chargers secondary coach in 1989 after working three seasons as a defensive quality control coach. In his 21 seasons as either a secondary coach, defensive coordinator or head coach, his defenses have finished above average at stopping completions eight times, and below average 13. His best work was with the Niners, but he inherited a very good defense. San Francisco had finished 10th, 6th, and 1st in completion percentage allowed in 1994, 1995 and 1996 before finishing 1st, 3rd and 28th in 1997, 1998 and 1999. 1999 was his first season as defensive coordinator. Most of his good seasons were early in his career. Since his promotion to defensive coordinator in 1999, three of his defenses finished above average at stopping completions, 2000, 2001 and the aforementioned 2007 Seahawks, and eight finished below average. The average ranking of those 11 is 22nd. His overall average is 18th.

That doesn't tell us a ton, necessarily, and doesn't answer the question I am asking, and that is: Did Mora believe in allowing receptions to gain some perceived advantage at picking passes and preventing touchdowns? I think he did, and I think if Pete Carroll and Jerry Gray can change that strategy, the Seahawks will benefit.

Coaching a secondary is tough. One must constantly adjust their scheme to both the routes that are most efficient based on that season's rule changes and changes of emphasis, and on what routes an opponent runs and is best at. Seattle must do a much better job at preventing completions and not simply preventing yards after catch. It can not depend on interceptions and timely goal line stands. It must stop drives, hold the line on third down, improve that fundamental part of the defense, that part that is consistent like interceptions can not be, preventing yards gained.

Will it? I guess we shall see. Against the four starting quarterbacks Seattle faced in the pre-season, it seemed like business as usual. Vince Young, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre combined to complete 67.4% of their pass attempts. That won't do. At best, Seattle will luck into another run of bad quarterbacks and turn an aberrant run of goal line stands and interceptions into an exciting if porous defense. At worst, it will crumble when it faces the best, the teams and quarterbacks it must beat to be the best. The best and worst are two products of the same bad process. Ask Jim Mora.