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Seattle Seahawks 2011 Season: A Look Back at the Defense

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Pretty much any way you cut the cake, the Seahawks had a top-10 defense in the NFL this season. As far as traditional stats go, they were 9th in the NFL (which is saying something, considering how bad their offense was to start), surrendering 332 yards per game to opposing offenses. They were 7th in the NFL with 16.7 points given up per game. 11th in passing yards per game at 219 yards per game, 4th in yards per attempt on the ground at 3.8.

In terms of advanced statistics - the Seahawks finished 10th in the league in both the normal and weighted DVOA and surprisingly their pass defense ranked above their run D - 9th and 11th, respectively. They were fairly consistent throughout the year as well - 11th in total variance by DVOA in the NFL. This is encouraging, as this performance carried over against good teams and bad.

For comparison, one year ago, the Seahawks gave up 4.2 yards per carry (21st in NFL), 249 yards per game through the air (27th), they surrendered 368 yards per game to opposing offenses (27th) and they were generally considered in the group of 'worst defenses in the NFL' for most of the year. DVOA backed this up as they were ranked 29th in the NFL overall, 32nd in weighted DVOA - meaning their efficiency declined as the year went on and towards the end were the worst defense in the whole league. Their pass defense was ranked 29th on the year and their run defense 17th.

What a difference a year can make, seriously. The Hawks got some help with upgrades at a few spots - most notably on the defensive line ... actually, nevermind, pretty much every position on the defense got upgraded.

The defensive line saw the return of Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane to full and consistent health. Alan Branch was a key pickup and replaced Colin Cole and Craig Terrill, and as far as I can tell, played well. Chris Clemons proved that his '10 season wasn't a total fluke and racked up 11 sacks again, and key backups Clinton McDonald and Anthony Hargrove got some quality minutes.

The linebacker corps changed significantly - David Hawthorne replaced a departed Lofa Tatupu in the middle, K.J. Wright filled in for a departed Aaron Curry, and LeRoy Hill took back his old spot on the outside. This trio played well enough - though not perfect by any stretch were an improvement over last year's corps. Depth was provided infrequently by Malcolm Smith and in nickel situations Roy Lewis spelled Wright.

Cornerback saw probably the most significant upgrade as Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant were supplanted by Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond briefly, then Richard Sherman for the rest of the season. Browner and Sherman excelled in their roles, relative to their predecessors anyway, and the stats showed this.

Earl Thomas reprised his role as the best player on the defense and quietly had himself an All-Pro caliber season. Next to him, Kam Chancellor emerged as not only a viable starter, but a possible future star.

People would say that the Seahawks biggest weakness was at pressuring the quarterback as they finished 19th in the league in sacks - the most readily accessible measure for that. I haven't seen the number for 'pressures' yet but it's probably safe to say the Hawks weren't near the top in this category. The eye test would tell you though that opposing quarterbacks consistently had too much time.

The run defense held up well as the year went on and though they gave up chunks of yardage to some smaller backs towards the end of the year, their YPC average remained pretty respectable along the way. The pass defense was the real surprise and when you consider that the main tenets of the defense that is being installed are to limit the big play and stop the run, they succeeded more often than not.

The Seahawks tied for 2nd in the league with only 43 plays of 20+ yards through the air and 6th in the NFL in run plays of 20 or more yards, surrendering 8 of those. There were a few key slip-ups, but that will happen on any NFL team.

Overall, my personal confidence level in the Seahawks defense is vastly superior to that of last year, obviously. Last year, the Seahawks were very consistently slower, less athletic, and overmatched at pretty much every position, and a slow feeling of dread would creep into my stomach every time they took the field. Not so this season.

For the most part, I felt very confident in what the defense could do this season and in a number of games, they imposed their will on teams. They were more physical, more athletic, and more nasty than their opponents at times. The produced turnovers - the Seahawks had 22 interceptions (12 last year), 13 forced fumbles and 9 recoveries. They scored 4 touchdowns. The scary (and exciting) part of this defensive roster that has been put together is that if the offense can stay on the field more consistently and put some points up on the board going forward, the defense will only get better.

The other scary (and exciting) part of this defense is that it's been built, mostly, from mid-round draft picks, free agent acquisitions, and other teams' castaways. Earl Thomas is the lone first round pick and Alan Branch is the close second as an early 2nd rounder. Apart from that you've got mid-rounders in Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Walter Thurmond, and Kam Chancellor. You've got veteran leadership in LeRoy Hill, Chris Clemons and David Hawthorne, a former 3rd round pick, and two former UDFAs, respectively. Finally, you have a Pro-Bowl alternate in Brandon Browner, that you signed off the street last year.

The upside here is that an infusion of so-called 'elite' talent at a few key spots could mean good things for the continued improvement and I wouldn't be surprised to see a defense-heavy draft in April. But we're not talking about the future here, just the past. So, for now, I'll be satisfied with a season that saw marked improvement of the defense and the emergence of several players that look to be mainstays with the club for years to come. The identity of toughness was forged and an ability to lean on depth was established. In short, 'the plan' started to emerge and show some promise.

The questions of the viability of the 4-3 and a run-stopping focus remain and the lack of pass rush is still a concern. Age is creeping up on the linebacker corps and it still remains to be seen if Browner and Sherman can repeat their solid performances going forward. Can the Hawks get to the quarterback? Can they improve in their coverage of tight ends and running backs? Can they clean up the penalties? There are still a lot of questions. As you probably realize, the Seahawks did luck out in facing a few backup quarterbacks along the way so there is still a great, great deal of room for improvement. In terms of a one-year upgrade and upside though, I'm not complaining.

Though we'll look back at individual players as the off-season goes on, I'm excited to turn my focus down the road. In my next few posts, I'll start looking to next year and we can begin talking about what this roster will look like going forward.