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Seahawks' gap discipline and an 8-man front in run defense


The Seahawks' run defense started the year right where they wanted to be - near the top in the NFL in both total yards surrendered and yards per carry. In Week 1, they gave up 43 yards to the Cardinals on 2.2 ypc; Week 2, 49 yards to the Cowboys on 3.1 ypc; Week 3, 84 yards to the Packers on 4.0 ypc; Week 4, 75 yards to the Rams on 2.8 ypc; Week 5, 82 yards to the Panthers on 4.3 ypc (42 of those, over half the total, to Cam Newton); Week 6, 87 yards to the Patriots on 3.3 ypc, and then blammo, they went to Candlestick Park and played the 49ers on a Thursday Night.

They surrendered 175 yards to the 49ers on 5.5 yards per carry, big chunks of this straight up the middle of the field with the help of San Francisco's trap plays and multiple and various formational and personnel looks. Two weeks later, Seattle gave up 243 yards on 9.0 ypc to Universal Soldier Adrian Peterson and the Vikings. Two weeks after that, 189 yards on 6.8 ypc to the Dolphins.

Last week, Seattle quietly surrendered 132 yards on 4.1 ypc to the Bears, and while I actually thought the run defense looked a little bit better against Chicago than it had in the previous couple of weeks, the question still remains: What has been going on with this? This is a defense that is schemed to stop the run and whose personnel is acquired and adept at to doing so.

I don't have a confident, conclusive answer for you, unfortunately, but rather some anecdotes and theories. Jacob Stevens did an excellent job of exploring the run defense issue HERE and posited five bullet point reasons for the 'slip' in effectiveness -

1) The notion that this was a top-notch run defense early might have been a bit of a mirage to begin with. Shocking, I know, and I'm not being facetious. I'll explore why. 2) Over-reliance on the starters. 3) The rotational linemen aren't so good at run defense. 4) The young LBs aren't quite as good as we thought. 5) Teams have adjusted, primarily by finding ways to add more bodies to the play side. 6) Seattle's philosophical approach to game strategy is conducive to running the ball remaining a viable tactic for a longer duration.

I can't necessarily disagree with his points with any vigor. I do think it's true that the rotational types on the interior defensive line tend to get gashed a little bit more in the run game than the team's starters, which is natural. I think the young corps of linebackers probably has a bit to do with it, though I do think that they have been pretty good - Wagner has been better than I thought, whereas K.J. Wright has been slightly less of a factor than I'd hoped; Leroy Hill is pretty much Hill, and Malcolm Smith has been a pleasant surprise, actually. Continuing a trend that bleeds into last season, teams have certainly adjusted to Seattle's scheme, and the scat back types of running backs have tended to have more success (and Adrian Peterson is an alien cheetah).

As for the #1 reason that Jacob notes above - I think this is the one that I can accept the most - I think possibly our perception of how much of a 'shutdown-unit' the Seahawks are against the run has shaped the perception that Seattle is regressing a lot in that area. Seattle finished 5th in yards per attempt in 2011 with 3.8 ypc and 14th in touchdowns surrendered (10). They finished 12th overall in run defense per Football Outsiders DVOA rankings in 2011 and if you remember, the pass defense actually eclipsed the run defense somewhere past mid-season (pass defense finished 9th overall in DVOA).

Maybe it's just me, but hoping the Seahawks will hold all their opponents to under 100 yards every week might be a bit greedy. Obviously, you want to throw out the Minnesota game and the San Francisco game as outliers, because those teams are doing that to everyone. More concerning to me was the Miami game, because that was a team that wasn't having much success at all running the football in the several weeks prior.

So, I don't know. Is there a major issue with this run defense? Right now, I certainly don't feel like it's a scheme issue or really even a big personnel issue (what team doesn't need some upgrades?), and overall I don't think 'it's broken.' As with anything, there are areas where Seattle can improve incrementally, but for the purpose of this article I just want to point out that sometimes football comes down to players on one side of the football getting beat.

Sometimes, that's what run defense comes down to. Winning individual match-ups. This is a young team and it's a long season. Guys get tired. Guys miss assignments. Guys are in the wrong spot sometimes.

After the Minnesota game, Pete Carroll talked about that a little bit, noting, "I do think we're over-trying a little bit. I think in general guys are trying to live up to the expectations and we're trying really hard, and at times that takes you out of your game. That's something we're really concerned about. ... We just want to play the way that we're capable of playing. Sometimes guys try to go beyond their responsibility to make a play and they get in a bad situation. That's just because they want to do really well and they're trying really hard and all of that. It's a young bunch of guys getting together, so you can fluctuate a little bit there."

It kind of sounds like a cop-out, but in my mind, it's really not. Imagine Chicago's defense without the veteran leadership from Brian Urlacher. Imagine San Francisco or Baltimore or Pittsburgh's defenses without their core group of veterans putting guys in the right places from play to play or keeping a cool head or sniffing out misdirection or simply having the savvy to be in the right place at the right time. Seattle has a rookie 2nd rounder in the middle directing traffic; even though Bobby Wagner has had an astoundingly successful year and has wildly surpassed most of our expectations, this kind of youth thing matters. The exciting part is that he'll probably only get better. In the meantime though, it's tough to expect 100% consistency, and I think there were moments over the last month or two where guys got out of position.

I saw this play as a perfect example of what Carroll was explaining.

1-10-SEA 44 (7:52 2nd Quarter) A.Peterson up the middle to SEA 29 for 15 yards (E.Thomas).

Seahawks in base with their OLBs out on the edges. Bobby Wagner is in the middle, and Gus Bradley has Kam Chancellor as the 8th man up in the box, sort of a de facto 4th linebacker. The Vikings are in a heavy run package, strength to the right.


The ball is snapped, and it's a run to the right. Bobby Wagner reacts to the linemen, but as you can see, it's a counter play, with TE Allen Riesner pulling to the left. I'm not going to pretend I know exactly what's going on in this play, but judging by Kam Chancellor's reaction afterwords, I'd extrapolate that Wagner left his gap and his assignment to try and make a big play on Peterson. You'll see why.


Below, you see Wagner converge with Chancellor and they end up way too close together - both essentially manning the same A-gap between center and guard. Someone screwed up here -- there is poor spacing on defense and poor play recognition on Wagner's part. This leaves a nice, huge cutback lane for Peterson.


You can see Wagner dive through the gap but he's much too late to catch a non-human running back.


This leaves about 15-20 yards of open field in front of him, but luckily Earl closes quickly to tackle Peterson to limit it to a 15-yard gain.


You can see that Kam is upset and he and Wagner talk it out.


This play, I think, typifies the idea of 'gap discipline' and patience behind the line.

"We're trying to really keep the lid on that," Carroll said. "We really trust if our guys do what we're asking them to do and play really disciplined, strict ball, the good stuff will happen... We're seeing a lot of complexities in the last month, and some of the stuff has been harder for us, we haven't executed as well, and that calls for us to make sure we're really on our stuff. To play good run defense, you have to be extraordinarily disciplined and at times we're just getting a little bit out of whack, and we need to fix that. So that's what our efforts will be, to get that done."

Now, going back to what I said above, sometimes players just get beat. It's not always a youth issue, it's not always a scheme issue. Sometimes, the guy in front of you just gets the best of you. With the Seahawks overwhelmingly running 8-man fronts by dropping a safety down into the box and playing either Earl or Chancellor deep, Seattle also just simply needs to do a better job of winning the one-on-one battles.

"We are going to do everything we can to stop the run," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said following the loss at Miami. "We run an eight-man front to do that, and we haven't changed those things. So some of the runs that are happening against us are disappointing."

The following play is a case in point, and I'll try and keep this brief. Dolphins run a 'jet sweep' left against the Seahawks from the 21-yard line and score the game's first touchdown. Simply put, on this play, too many guys in blue just get beat.

1. Brandon Mebane gets cut, and taken out of the flow of the play.


2 & 3. Clint McDonald and Chris Clemons get cut, and taken out of the play. You now, in a matter of one or two seconds, have three Seahawks splayed out on the ground. Not good.


4. Earl Thomas comes up in run support and gets bumped out of the running lane.


5 & 6. Brandon Browner and K.J. Wright get sealed by pulling linemen. Those linemen do a great job, by the way.


Bush is in the open field.


7. Chancellor goes for the strip, misses the tackle.


8. Somehow Earl catches back up with the play (he's fast) and misses on the tackle again.

Now, however, Thomas does cause Bush to lose control of the football as he's falling through the air and prior to crossing the goal-line (or so it seemed on the replays) so, really, this could/should have been a touchback and not a touchdown, but regardless, it's harder to get mad about this non-call when you see the domination by the Dolphins to get Bush into this position from 21 yards out. This is decidedly not Seahawks' run defense, or how they certainly envision themselves defending the run.


Naturally, Seahawks defenders are not going to enjoy watching this replay. Kam Chancellor confirmed this afterwords.

"I think everybody's angry," he said prior to the Chicago game. "A lot of people are angry. Some people might be frustrated, but overall, everybody's ready to work, do better for the games to come."

Has that anger helped? I do think that Seattle has improved their run defense, tenacity, and overall effectiveness over the last two games. Chicago had a few nice runs where Michael Bush got into the open field and picked up some yards so it's not all sunshine and lollipops, but overall things looked a lot cleaner to me.

I could go into more detail about many specific plays against the Bears and against the Cardinals on how Seattle has improved in their gap discipline and patience, their positioning and winning of the integral one-on-one matchups, but one particular play caught my eye on my re-view of the Bears win.

1-10-SEA 44 (10:44) M.Forte right end to SEA 44 for no gain (K.Chancellor).

Individual matchups. Being in the right postion and taking care of your gap. "Doing your job". The Seahawks liked Kam Chancellor coming out of college because of his rare size and speed for the safety position. There were rumors during Draft time this season that the Seahawks were interested in Mark Barron and that led to the assumption that maybe Seattle would play Chancellor as a sort of de facto linebacker (essentially, a big nickel situation).

I don't really think that's far-fetched, personally, because Seattle does like to bring Kam down into the box as an extra run defender and to be honest, it's really his strong suit. He's not a liability in pass coverage, per se, and he does play deep middle third of the field fairly often when the Seahawks move Earl Thomas around, but Kam's true strength, to me, lies in that 'enforcer' role on the strong side, where he can take fly downhill to blow up run plays and create issues for opposing offenses.

Take this play, for example, where Kam meets 6'3, 313 pound pulling guard Edwin Williams head on, stops him in his tracks, slips off the block, and makes the tackle. I know this is hyperbole, but this is the kind of stuff that Ray Lewis does, not some obscure 5th round tweener with no real NFL position.


Let's run through it a little slower.

The Seahawks show an interesting look with K.J. Wright and Mike Morgan tight up on the line of scrimmage, Wagner in the middle and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in the secondary. With six players on the line of scrimmage, it's a little surprising that Jay Cutler didn't audible into a quick slant to Brandon Marshall or something along those lines. Regardless, he has Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to worry about, and both are in tight press coverage.


At the snap, Chancellor will crash downhill to cover his gap assignment, and Earl Thomas will drop back into deep middle coverage. This is one of those plays where Bruce Irvin is in in relief of Chris Clemons, but in this case, on the strong side. You'll notice Brandon Mebane playing 0-tech, heads up on the center, with Red Bryant and Alan Branch both aligned in 3-technique looks, off the respective guards' shoulders.


At the snap, the Bears run lead-counter to the right - the line blocks left and FB Evan Rodriguez and pulling LG Edwin Williams lead the way to the right. Rodriquez will take and seal Malcolm Smith, and Williams' task is to seal either a LB or S that shows up in that gap off of Bruce Irvin's outside shoulder.


You can see the Seahawks' defensive line flow to the right with the Bears O-Line.


Bobby Wagner doesn't outrun the play, nor does he fall for the misdirection (like he did above against Minnesota), and fills in his gap perfectly. Chancellor comes down in his run fit, flowing with the real direction of the play. For his part, Malcolm Smith does a nice job setting the edge against Rodriquez.


This leaves Edwin Williams vs. Kam Chancellor, a matchup the Bears would take on paper any day of the week.


Chancellor doesn't try and shed the block. He just runs right through it.


Kam slides off and makes first contact with Forte. Wagner and Smith help too.


Obviously, this is just one anecdote. But I do think it illustrates the most basic tenet that in the pros, along with sound schemes and disciplined players executing those schemes, you sometimes just need your players to beat the guys across from them. I think the Seahawks just got beaten a few too many times against Miami, but they cleaned up some things against the Bears and were essentially air tight against the Cardinals. It's something to watch.


Big ups to BigTrain for the gifs!!

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