As a personnel geek, I have a tendency to look at these games - both wins and losses - a bit differently than most fans. As a draft enthusiast, I'm constantly looking for holes that need to be filled, and then going to my cache of scouting reports on prospects projected to enter the next draft, and trying to find matches.
Despite winning five of their last six games - the last two of which were done in obliterating fashion (combined 108 points scored by Seattle) - I'm seeing a lot of the same holes and voids on this team that I saw and identified early in the season, and have continued to pay close attention to.
First, Seattle continues to lack a legitimate interior pass rush. Against Buffalo, Seattle managed to generate something even slightly resembling interior penetration only 4 times, and in only two of those cases was the opposing QB either sacked or hurried. And in one of those cases, Chris Clemons applied the inside pressure (sack) after stunting from the outside, so to be more specific, the interior linemen simply aren't getting the push or penetration needed to make the pass rush work effectively.
Going back to the Arizona and Chicago games, interior pressures were again in that 2-4 range. We've known for a while now, particularly going back to last season, Seattle's identity consistent largely of its ability to stop the run. Thus, sacrificing some interior quickness in order to generate more power (Branch and Mebane starting inside) made sense, and bypassing the opportunity to establish some pass-rush from the strong side in favor of more bulk and edge-setting (Bryant) was welcomed, with how effective Seattle had become at stuffing the run.
Well things have changed a bit. The identity of this defense has shifted more toward the back end of the unit, where the Secondary is probably the best, collectively, in the league. And in a pass-heavy league like the NFL has become, that's not a bad thing. Seattle's run defense has settled in at 22nd in the league in yards-per-carry (4.5) through 14 weeks in 2012, down from 4th in the league in all of 2011 (3.8), yet its pass defense sits at 3rd overall (197.6 passing ypg) in 2012, way up from 22nd overall in 2012 (219.9). And what is the result overall? How about a 3rd ranked defense in 2012 (303.9 total ypg), up from a 9th ranked defense in 2011 (322.2 total ypg)?
Conclusion? Well, nothing 100% definitive, but this would suggest that limiting opposing passing attacks has been more effective for Seattle's overall defensive success, than stopping the run.
If this is the case, the Seahawks need to do everything they can to rally around their strength, and upgrade those pieces that might be hindering them from advancing as a pass defense.
I believe Seattle's linebacking corps, as it gets bigger, faster and more instinctive, will continue to be effective against the run with sound, disciplined football. Looking at the tape, Seattle's drop off in run defense from last season has everything to do with inexperience and lack of execution. The talent is there.
When guys play disciplined football - particularly linebackers maintaining gap control - they still stop the run. Whether Red Bryant is at LDE, or Jason Jones is at LDE. Whether Alan Branch is at the 3-tech or Greg Scruggs is at the 3-tech. It's primarily the outside linebackers making the play against the run out on the edges, and Bobby Wagner coming up to plug the holes through the middle, along with Brandon Mebane or Alan Branch. Red Bryant was relied upon more last year to set the edge, particularly early on when Aaron Curry was the starting SAM. But with K.J. Wright there, the Seahawks are still containing the edge well and funneling the run back to the inside, even without Bryant lining up at the end.
I'm not saying that Seattle should neglect their run defense or even give up on it as being a significant part of their defense's identity. I do think, however, that they need to rely more on the abilities of their linebackers and additional safeties to be the run-stopping element that they're capable of being. Bobby Wagner was a big upgrade to David Hawthorne, and teams well with a Mebane or Branch to control the middle gaps. Thus, more speed on the edges, particularly on the strong side, really shouldn't equate to less run support. The edge can be set with speed, as much as it can with power, and the goal is to keep opposing running backs between the tackles where your interior guys (Mebane/Branch/Wagner) can swallow them up.
Here's what I'm saying...
Seattle's biggest need is a pass-rushing interior defensive tackle, plain and simple. Having a good one, will do two things - 1. Disallow opposing QBs to step up in the pocket, making it easier for your speed rushers in Irvin and Clemons, to reach him; 2. Force opposing QBs to have to let go of the ball earlier, thus supporting your press-corners in their abilities to tie up receivers at the line.
If you're a defense that presses the corners, the goal is to disrupt the receiver's timing and delay his ability to get a release. The longer the QB has to sit back and scan the field, the more time the receiver has to break press. Remember, cornerbacks only have 5 yards to press. That's not much.
This is how you build around your dynamic secondary - more rush up the middle.
Davis Hsu and myself, in a series of NFL Draft podcasts to be posted here and at ScoutTheSeahawks, will be discussing and breaking down 2013 draft prospects who could be great fits for Seattle for that interior pass-rush position. Right now, Greg Scruggs and Jaye Howard certainly factor into the future there, but with Scruggs at 283lbs, he's still built more to be an end than a tackle, and Seattle needs an every-down, pass-rushing tackle. Branch and Mebane are power tackles who are at their best taking up blockers and clogging holes. They should be rotating with one another on rushing downs to fill the middle.
Jason Jones is still a true end in the NFL. He just doesn't have the natural power to provide enough variety in terms of the ways he can disrupt the pocket from the inside. He's 100% quickness and flexibility, and eventually, double-teams can thwart that. If he's rushing from the inside, he's best doing so for a short time, or stunting from the outside, but he's not a long term solution at the 3-tech spot.
Jaye Howard could very well end up being that guy for Seattle. He has power, but he's also quick. He gets off the ball well at times, and can bull-rush effectively. He is inexperience and raw though, and wasn't consistent at Florida. Considering that he's been inactive all year, he's probably more of a project.
Another area of need is at linebacker, and we'll discuss that in a follow up post.
We'll be kicking off the 2013 draft podcasts this week, starting with Linebackers, and then go position by position each week thereafter. These will be extremely in-depth podcasts, specifically detailing guys who could fit the Seahawks personnel philosophy, so if you're a Seahawks fan, you won't want to miss them.
Derek has transitioned from mostly league-wide NFL Draft analysis at his blog to a more focused and specific Seahawks-centric draft, free agency, & pro player personnel site called "ScoutTheSeahawks." Head over and bookmark it - he also maintains a really great free agent tracker that is much more in-depth than most places because of his background doing deep scouting of NFL Draft prospects.