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Seahawks Season Preview: The Defense

The Seahawks defense goes into 2011 with pretty much no where to go but up. They were near the League worst in nearly every category last season: 27th in yards given up per game at 368.6 and 25th in points per game at 25.4.

In pass defense they were atrocious: 25th in the league with 12 interceptions. 31st in passes given up of more than 20 yards with 60 of those plays. 26th in the League in passes of 40+ yards given up. 6th worst in the NFL in passing yards yielded per game. 3rd worst in the NFL in passing touchdowns surrendered with 31. 

In rush defense they were middling, which I'll take, but they did give up 16 runs of 20 or more yards (6th worst) and 3 of more than 40 yards. 

If you look at the less traditional stats by Football Outsiders, the Seahawks overall team defense was ranked 26th in DVOA in 2010. They have a weighted rank for each defense that is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important, which better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season, and the Seahawks finished dead last in the NFL in this category. Meaning, they gradually got worse, not better, as the year went along. 

Worse still, Football Outsiders projects that the Seahawks will again have the worst overall defense in the NFL in 2011. Pretty much any way you look at it, statistically speaking, the Seahawks defense pretty much... sucks. Sorry. 

The Seahawks defense is built to stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. If you want a lot more detail on this I think you should go back and take a look at our 4-3 Under series on the Seahawks hybrid defense. In a nutshell though, you'll see them try and stop the run on first and second down, put the opponent in a 3rd and long situation, throw in their bandit package, and hope to bring good coverage and a blitz or two to stop the pass. The problem is, of course, that teams don't always run it on first and second down so you need your 'run-stuffers' to get to the quarterback too. Problem is, as Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders put it, "when you bring in that much beef (Alan Branch, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane) on the defensive line, you're basically sacrificing the acceleration that it takes to get to the quarterback."

This means, I'm guessing, that the Seahawks are going to use a heavy rotation of different packages meant to confuse the offense and maintain the health of the guys on the d-line. I would guess we'll get a variety of looks, from a more traditional, balanced, two-rush-ends type of 4-3 to a 'pass rush set' with Landon Cohen and Clinton McDonald replacing the bigger, slower dudes on the inside. This means that we may see more of Dexter Davis as well. That's just conjecture, but considering the reliance on passing a lot of teams use, it might be smart.

The problem though, is that much of the Seahawks' investments in draft capital and in free agency during the offseason went to the offensive side, so the defense doesn't figure to improve drastically, unless the scheme changes a lot. Here's what the roster looks like:

DE: Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Dexter Davis, Red Bryant, Al Woods
DT: Alan Branch, Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, Landon Cohen
LB: David Hawthorne, Leroy Hill, Aaron Curry, KJ Wright, Matt McCoy, Malcolm Smith
CB: Marcus Trufant, Walter Thurmond, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell
S: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Jeron Johnson, Atari Bigby

Roster Surprises: 

There are varying degrees of surprise and there are a few on the high end and a multitude on the low end. The biggest surprise was the release of Lofa Tatupu. The fact that he hasn't gotten a job yet speaks volumes but it was definitely sad to see him go. The trade of Kelly Jennings (after the surprising re-signing of him) was welcomed with open arms by just about everyone but was nonetheless pretty jaw-dropping (maybe just in a relieved dreamlike sense). 

Past that, it's a little surprising that Jeron Johnson made the team and 5th round pick Mark LeGree was released. Apparently a small school to the NFL jump was too much too quick, and I'm sure the shortened offseason hurt LeGree's chances. On the other hand, Johnson made the most of his short time here and should be a great player to develop over the next couple years. 

I was pretty surprised that Junior Siavii was cut - I figured that he'd be quality depth for the team but they apparently have decided to build toward the future with youth. There's a pretty good chance he'll be back though in the case of any injuries. 

Finally, the obvious surprise (but not shocking, based on his skillset) is cornerback Brandon Browner. The CFL product was quietly signed this offseason but then began to build up a fanbase on the foundation of his measurables and reputation in the CFL. A 6'4, 220 pound corner is unheard of in the NFL, but we all love an outlier. Well, he made the 53 and it looks like he's going to be starting opposite Marcus Trufant. So far so good. 

Key Additions (and my expectations for them):

I'd say that Red Bryant constitutes a de facto new addition in my mind because he switched positions after several years with the team, and missed so much of last year - in effect he's a newish player in a new system with limited experience. So, to me? Newish. Might be a stretch, but whatever, this is my article.

Byrant returns from an MCL injury and looks to pick up where he left off. He helped the Seahawks carry the 2nd best rush defense into Week 6, when he got injured, and that success is something that they'll try to get back to this season. There are many variables in place that helped the Seahawks have that kind of dominance early in the year (schedule, gameplan, etc), but I think Red Bryant played a big part in it so I expect that his return should be a boon to the line, in run defense at least.

Along those same lines, I'd say Leroy Hill is another de facto 'new addition'. He's been out of the game for over a year and has yet to play a down in Pete Carroll's system so you might as well consider him a newbie. He'll be playing some at the weakside but interestingly enough, in the preseason we've seen him taking a lot of snaps at the Sam linebacker position, with Aaron Curry moving to the Will. Whether Hill can rise to this challenge and stay healthy remains to be seen, but I have high hopes for him.

Alan Branch has the potential to be a key addition to the team and will be starting at the 3-tech. He's bigger than pretty much every 4-3 3-tech out there at 6'6, 338, but will hopefully cause some havoc for offensive lines and disrupt the passer. I wouldn't expect Branch to get a lot of sacks but hopefully he'll do his part to collapse the pocket and bat down some passes. I expect that he'll be good in run defense, with his experience two-gapping he should be able to get off of blocks and into the running lanes.

We already talked about Brandon Browner a bit, but I expect him to be what a lot of us are probably expecting -- good at the line, a good tackler, physical with the NFL's bigger receivers, but ultimately penalty-plauged and out of position from time to time. I am not expecting him to be a pro-bowler but I'm beginning to have some cautious optimism that he can play a key role for this defense. I'm not sure what the plan yet is for Walter Thurmond, but I would guess they'll platoon that spot opposite Trufant depending on the opponent. Either way, it will be very interesting to watch.

There's a lot of youth on this team and you can expect to see several rookies get into the action. Principal among them is MLB KJ Wright and WLB Malcolm Smith. In lesser roles, I'd expect to see rookies Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell see some playing time as well. 

Landon Cohen, Al Woods, and Clinton McDonald are recent pickups and are virtual unknowns so it will be fun to see where they end up playing and contributing.

The Defensive Line:

I'd say the defensive line did improve, and that's a definite positive. Chris Clemons (not an addition) returns to the LEO defensive end position, a role he played well in 2010. I think he'll continue to thrive there. Raheem Brock returns to back him up. Again, I think Brock is a capable backup and I'm glad to see him back. This doesn't represent an improvement at that end, but at least it's not a downgrade.

Brandon Mebane re-signed and returns to the nose tackle position - a spot that he has historically better statistics at. He slides over at Alan Branch takes over at 3-tech. I think Mebane is better than Colin Cole at the NT position. Branch will probably be about as good as Mebane at the 3-tech and could surprise some people there, especially in run defense.

On passing downs, Clinton McDonald and Landon Cohen should get some looks as interior pass rushing defensive tackles. They could conceivably use these guys at the same time as well. 

We've talked about Red Bryant and if he can stay healthy he'll help to improve the defensive line. If not, the Hawks have theoretically improved the depth behind him with the addition of Al Woods and Alan Branch's ability to move over to the end spot.

The Linebackers:

I'm not sure if the Seahawks improved at this spot or not. Will Herring'd departure hurts a little bit but rookie Malcolm Smith and veteran Matt McCoy will look to fill his shoes. Is that an improvement? Probably not. Lofa Tatupu walked and David Hawthorne will take over in the middle. Improvement? Probably. With Hawthorne in the middle, Leroy Hill or Aaron Curry will take over on the weakside. I HAVE to think that Aaron Curry will play well at the weakside and history tells us that Hill excels there. Improvement? Probably. 

KJ Wright will fill in at the MLB spot and has a lot of promise but he's a 22-year old rookie, the youngest player on the Seahawks team. Can we depend on him? Maybe. All in all, the linebacker position might be a wash from last year, which isn't a good thing, but with the shuffling of positions the potential for significant growth and improvement is there. 

The Secondary:

Earl Thomas will look to improve. He had a great first year but also had a penchant to give up big plays. He'll rein those in. Kam Chancellor will get his baptism by fire and it remains to be seen whether he's an every down kind of safety. He's got the tools to be the enforcer type of run stuffer but it's unclear whether he can play in pass defense effectively as well. Something to watch. 

If he struggles, veteran Atari Bigby will likely be the rotational player to come in on passing downs. Jeron Johnson seems like more of a nickelback at the moment  - sort of like a Jordan Babineaux type guy, but might lose snaps to Bigby, depending on his reliability. 

The cornerback position is a bit scary. Marcus Trufant, the only known quantity, hasn't exactly been stellar the last few seasons. If he's healthy, he'll be our number one guy, but that's a big if. On the other side, it looks like Brandon Browner will start, and Walter Thurmond will rotate in at nickel or on the outside, depending on matchups. How this will work out is anyone's guess. 

Like I said above, they don't have anywhere to go but up. 

Possible Breakout Players:

Kam Chancellor is the first guy that comes to mind. Can he become an every down, dependable player? I think he can, but you don't see many safeties his size these days because of the prevalence of passing. Hopefully he can buck that trend and be a complete player.

Brandon Browner has the potential to break out. How many people REALLY believed he'd be starting at corner in week one? That alone is an accomplishment but he hasn't done anything yet. Can he hang on an island? Can he limit his penalties? Can he break up some passes and come down with some interceptions? Should I stop asking rhetorical questions?

Based on everything we were hearing out of Cincy when the Seahawks picked up Clint McDonald, I believe he has a chance to bust onto the scene. If he plays 20-25 snaps a game and gets pressure in those snaps, he'll be doing exactly what we need him to. Now, does that count as a 'breakout' player? I dunno. But it sure would be helpful.

Finally, I think Walter Thurmond could really break out this year. He's finally healthy, hopefully. He's got the talent. He just needs the reps. I think he's got a chance to be a top contributor for this defense. We'll see.

Alright, so I realize this was probably pretty repetitive to most of the other Seahawks Season Previews out there but hopefully you learned something. Go Hawks!

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