How Big of a Problem is Seattle's Pass Rush?

Part of my fan ritual is to take a gander every couple days at Rob Staton's inestimable Seahawks Draft Blog. That site is an absolute treasure. (They were on top of Russell Wilson potentially starting over Matt Flynn in week 1 back in the spring, LONG before most anyone else.) In Rob's most recent "Instant Reactions" piece following the Rams game he notes:

First and foremost the pass rush simply wasn't good enough today and it's becoming a worrying trend. Seattle had zero sacks against a team that had given up 34 going into the final week of the season. Even putting Bruce Irvin on the field for early downs had little impact. When the Seahawks attack with four rushers, they struggle to create pressure. Considering rushing with four is at the heart of the teams defensive philosophy, it's a problem. Maybe things change in the playoffs? We can but hope. As things stand the pass rush has to be the teams greatest concern going into 2013.

I kind of agree with this assessment--on its face. Specifically interior pass rush may be the team's greatest need heading into the off-season, regardless of the outcome in the playoffs. But, I'm far less convinced that this is actually a BIG problem; the kind that requires a boatload of new resources.

I fear that the narrative about Seattle's pass rush problems throughout the Seahawks blogosphere--I'm hardly singling out Rob--may be entering the overreaction zone. I get it. Bradford had lots of time to throw yesterday, and that's been an issue to some degree all year. But, if the Rams game was a microcosm of the major problem (if not fatal flaw) with Pete Carroll's defense (i.e., not enough QB pressure) then it is certainly worth noting that the Rams did very little with all that time. They passed for a whopping 6 (unadjusted) yards per pass attempt. And that's not just about Sam Bradford channeling Captain Checkdown. Cold Hard Football facts ranks Seattle's defense 4th overall in Defensive "Real" Yards per Attempt at 5.4 for the season. And note, Seattle has done this playing one of the NFL's most difficult schedules. This defense has held the following teams under 24 points: DAL (7 points), GB (12), NE (23), SF (13, 13), and CAR (12). These are all top 12 offenses in DVOA and top 15 in "Real" Yards per Attempt. So, either Seattle is doing something right without racking up a ton of sacks or doing something fluky/unsustainable. It's getting tougher and tougher to argue the latter.

To be perfectly clear, NOBODY would like to see Sheldon Richardson on this team more than me. (I'm a Mizzou fan through and through, and followed his recruitment from his junior year forward. My head might actually explode if Richardson winds up in Seattle.) Still, I see two problems with the way the "Seattle needs a 3-technique" narrative is unfolding among us 12s:

1. We may be underappreciating how Pete Carroll & Gus Bradley are scheming to limit opposing QBs.

Sacks and pressures are crude measures of pass defense. Yards per Attempt (with various adjustments) is so much more informative. On that basis (where 7 unadjusted ypa is generally considered good for a QB), this defense has been quite good all season except vs. Miami (9.7 unadjusted ypa), Chicago (8.7), and Detroit (7.2). I don't know film the way some others do, but I have seen enough of this scheme and read enough about it to know that it's unorthodox. Carroll and Bradley think about pass defense differently than most people. Seattle has a shutdown corner but unlike Rex Ryan doesn't use him to take gambles in the front seven. Quite the contrary, Carroll and Bradley are extremely conservative in how they seek to pressure the QB. Not only do they typically rush just four. They don't even run many stunts (compared to Chicago, a defense that shares much of the same underlying philosophy).

Instead, it appears to my untrained eye that the Seahawks pay the most attention to discouraging long passes by keeping QBs stationed between the tackles (or saving that, rolling back away from the line of scrimmage). Carroll and Bradley seem to place a high premium on staying out of the kinds of scramble drills that Russell Wilson and RGIII specialize in creating where they break contain and find receivers running free in the secondary. My understanding is that Carroll and Bradley's defense tasks the front four with creating a baseline amount of discomfort for the QB, but just as importantly it tasks them with imposing a consistent launch point on the QB. They expect the back seven to know route combinations and to anticipate and disrupt them. To do that effectively, when DBs have their backs to the line of scrimmage so often, the QB's launch point can't be all over the place. We see Richard Sheman leading the NFL in passes defensed but he needs the front four to keep the QB in jail and make his life there as miserable as possible. But if forced to choose between the two, Carroll and Bradley's defense places much more emphasis on keeping the QB in jail.

2. We may be setting ourselves up for bitter disappointment when PC/JS refuse to overpay/overdraft for a 3-technique.

Nothing I am saying should preclude Seattle from looking to upgrade the 3-technique, but if I'm right it may mean that PC/JS may not value the position the way many of us do. Thinking back to last off-season, Pete Carroll was crystal clear that upgrading the pass rush was priority #1. He did that primarily with the surprising selection of Bruce Irvin 15th overall. Then signing Jason Jones to a 1-year deal to provide interior pass rush was complementary; the classic "low expectation/high upside" signing.

I can see a similarly low key off-season at the 3-technique. I would be surprised to see Seattle trade up to select Sheldon Richardson or Star Lutulelei. (Though former Rivals 5-star Florida DT, Shariff Floyd could be a target in the 2nd round.) But the answer to the 3-technique issues--or at least the answer the staff is looking for--may yet be on the roster. Even if Alan Branch is not re-signed to start at the 3-tech, I anticipate the staff is more likely to add rotational depth rather than pay for Henry Melton or Randy Starks. The team likes Clint McDonald, another guy Schneider acquired in a low key deal. He could play the "Craig Terrill" role as a nominal starter who rotates with a number of guys including 7th rounder Greg Scruggs. Additionally, I remain excited about 4th round pick Jaye Howard. We may be getting spoiled by the likes of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright stepping on the field right away. Howard may have needed a "redshirt" year but I believe the coaching staff likes him a lot.