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The Seahawks, Mario Williams and the Modern Hybrid Fronts

A look at modern hybrid schemes.

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I'm not what you would call a book-smart NFL person. I don't read a ton of books in the off-season to further my understanding, though I probably should. I didn't play this game in high school or college because, well, why would your high school or college have an NFL team here in the Netherlands? I started watching the Superbowl and then the NFL regular season years back, and kind of...learned as I went along. Look at what you see on the field, then read analysis of what you see, go back and watch it again. Study. Learn. It's not the best method, but slowly you learn enough to recognize what you see, and when you don't, you research until you understand.

There are different paths into learning to analyse NFL footage, and different methods of study. I wouldn't say one is definitely the best. Former players and coaches are the best-positioned to have the most insight, but come with their own biases, and often do not have the best ability to communicate their observations. One advantage of studying it the other way around - as I do - is that you don't really come in to a game with a lot of expectations, forced to slot what you see into those expectations.

Why is this important? Well, it's becoming more noticeable for me, of late. Observers tend to think and talk rather strictly about defensive front sevens as "3-4" or "4-3", which is easy enough to spot (how many guys have their hand down) and from there on out you expect a certain style of defense. But it's becoming increasingly meaningless in the modern NFL. It's not just the Packers - who ran a base 2-5 for a long time - or the Patriots - who vary between 3-4 and a very interesting form of 4-3 depending on the opponent and situation, a front seven that uses Vince Wilfork as a central anchor and then shuffles chairs around him. But I'm also thinking of teams like the Houston Texans. the Dallas Cowboys, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Miami Dolphins.

Nominally, all these teams ran 3-4 defenses. Hearing that, people assume they run a 3-4 "just like" the traditional 3-4s (like the 49ers and others run). But if you watch footage of them play, and pay close attention to what they do, you soon find they all execute their defenses a lot closer to 4-3s than to 3-4s, to varying degrees. This past season, Ravens DE Terrell Suggs played something a lot closer to a traditional 4-3 DE than to a 3-4 OLB, though he can play either one fine. The Dolphins are transitioning to 4-3 for the 2012 season, and shouldn't have many problems because that's basically what they were playing already.

The most interesting of the lot is the Phillips 3-4 (named after Bum), which Wade ran in both Dallas and Houston (and other places he's coached). It is by far my favorite front seven style in the NFL, because it is an attacking, one-gap-penetration style (including the down linemen) that is all about enforcing your will on the opposing offense, rather than responding to the opposing offense. If you watch it closely, you'll find it runs a lot like the one-gap-attack-style of the Kiffin 4-3, and really nothing like the traditional 3-4 at all.

That's where a bit of personal frustration comes in. I see people suggest Mario Williams is a "3-4 OLB", when he really isn't. Worse, the fact that he "can play" 3-4 OLB led some people to conclude he could play a 4-3 OLB too. This tells me a lot of people who do these off-season free agent lists really don't spend enough time watching football. If anything, Mario's physical make-up and toolset is closer to a 3-4 DE than a 3-4 OLB, but he's never really played either, and there's no real reason to think he would excel at either, certainly not to the level he plays 4-3 DE.

Before Phillips came along, Mario Williams played DE. RDE? Not really, he would switch between left and right pretty freely and frequently did, as the physical freak DEs often do (compare to Julius Peppers). What changed when Phillips came in? To double-check my thoughts, I went back and watched/charted the Week 2 game against the Miami Dolphins. Williams would stand up on base downs, and he would often line up in more of a wide-nine spot (well outside the tackle/tight end), usually depending more on speed rush than his excellent bull rush move, but he utilized both.

Charting his plays, he played 55 of 60 defensive snaps, and played about half each from left and right (28 from the left, to be precise). On those 55 snaps, he exploded off the snap as a standup defensive end 35 times. Standing up, he played "contain" (taking one step back into more of a linebacker contain spot) three times, and dropped back into coverage twice. He played the remaining 15 snaps as a three-point defensive end, often but not always on passing downs (the above named 3-4 teams often move their OLBs into three-point stances on passing downs). That's 50 of 55 snaps playing either DE or a standup DE, and 5 snaps that you could identify as strictly "LB snaps". He never lined up off the line, unlike his OLB partner (Connor Barwin, usually). This was a relatively quiet game for Williams, but he did cause one pick by hitting Chad Henne as he threw, and that was playing out of the three-point stance. His one pass defended as a "3-4 OLB" came on this game, and it was him jumping up and stretching up his arms after running around the O-line and getting in Henne's face.

That's the defense: three guys with their hand(s) down, one guy lined up on the line left or right, sometimes with his hand down, the other OLB wandering, and the two ILBs behind, spying on anyone escaping through empty gaps. Does that really sound like a 3-4 to you? Just because Williams is usually standing up? It's at best as much of the one as it is of the other.

To continue talking hybrid defenses...what about the Seahawks...

The Seahawks defense is certainly unusual in its front seven, no doubt about that one. Is it "a 4-3 defense with 3-4 elements" ... well ... What does that even mean? Descriptions like that tend to cause more confusion than they clarify anything. Does that mean our front seven is schematically close to a traditional 3-4? It really isn't. That we have the personnel to run a 3-4? For the most part, we really don't. The basic thinking here stems from the fact that we have three unusually big bodies on the front line, especially Red Bryant, a prototypical 3-4 end. But we play a fairly straight-up, although not very traditional, 4-3.

Right now, the Seahawks run a primarily one-gap-and-hold 4-3. Usually, when you hear "one-gap" 4-3, you should think of Kiffin/Tampa 2 or Phillips 3-4 style, attacking relentlessly through single gaps to overwhelm the opposing offensive line. But that's not the case for us. One-gap-and-hold sees linemen take on single gaps (and often two gaps), but not to penetrate, rather to outmuscle the offensive line and choke out any running attempts. Our defensive linemen play primarily one-gap, with only Red Bryant two-gapping every down, while Mebane and Branch play one-gap in "base" but frequently switch up so either one (but mostly Mebane) plays two gaps, depending on down and distance. This gap variation is just the start of it. The Seahawks very frequently switch personnel, lineups and gap assignments, even if they do primarily stay in a 4-3.

What about the unbalanced line we used to discuss so much? It is an interesting concept, but rarely executed on an NFL level. Read this excellent story on Grantland on the New England Patriots 2011 defense. Wilfork anchors the middle, with two one-gappers on one side and one two-gapper on the other. That's your prototype unbalanced line, and it's very close to what we ran last year. A quick sketch of last year's defense:


The disadvantage of the unbalanced line is that by having the "weight" on one side (including Aaron Curry), you are exposing the other. This haunted the Patriots defense all year long, and you could frequently see the Giants backs run through and over one side of the Patriots front seven. The Seahawks fixed this by having the surest and quickest tackler, David Hawthorne, spy on the gaps on that side. He racked up tackles and did his job, in that role.

This year, most everything changed as we switched to a 4-3 over. I had a hard time sketching this year's defense because I feel it's more fluid snap-to-snap than last year's was, but here's a try:


Don't take K.J. Wright or Leroy Hill's positioning too literally, they were often on opposite ends and/or closer to Hawthorne, but the point is they were frequently asked to rush or cover the flats, while David Hawthorne would still do his job of spying on loose gaps. Compared to last year, Chris Clemons was asked to maintain his gap much more, and often line up further inside, but was occasionally unleashed as an outside rusher well. This sketch has Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch one-gapping, where they'd frequently "push" from to strong to the weak side, but realize that just as often Mebane would two-gap, pushing Branch's responsibility from the A to the B gap, and freeing up Bryant. Red Bryant's job is mostly unchanged.

There's a few things I want you to take away from this: the Seahawks 4-3 changed significantly from last year to this, Hawthorne and Bryant being the only pieces you could argue had very similar roles. And, on a related topic, I don't think this is the defense Carroll wants to run. This one-gap-and-hold, man cover D is like the polar opposite of the Kiffin zone 4-3. The man cover concepts stay, but I get a pretty strong sense (and Scott Enyeart has stated the same) PC wants to run much more of a penetrating, one-gap 4-3 style, compared to this one-gap-and-hold. This doesn't necessarily mean get rid of Red Bryant, but it would necessitate significant talent upgrades.

There we come to the next topic. 4-3 talent. I don't think we have a lot of it, at least if you're looking for outstanding, elite talent. My fellow writer Derek Stephens has argued extensively that K.J. Wright is a long-term starter, and I believe he is right. Brandon Mebane is probably our most outstanding front seven talent, or at least proven talent. Red Bryant is good but would be better in a 3-4. Chris Clemons is good but old. Alan Branch is a severe mis-fit as a 3-tech.

And the linebackers...Well, if someone wants to argue the Seahawks run a "4-3 with 3-4 elements", I would immediately bring up the linebackers. They're not 3-4 linebackers. At all. They are 4-3 linebackers, and not bad ones. Hill performed surprisingly well, versatile if not great at anything. Hawthorne is still a solid and quick tackler. Wright showed a ton of promise, especially in pass rushing and instincts.

But our front seven still had problems. One was the lack of pass rush from anyone else than Chris Clemons. Another was a lack of gap discipline/speed. It was on display early when one team studied our defense and challenged it early on with two end arounds. It came back with a vengeance later in the season as scatbacks were killing the defense with outside runs.

None of this was because our front seven players were bad, at least I don't think any of them were. It's because as a whole, the scheme and players were predicated too much on muscle, and the combination of these specific players didn't work that well. Too much focus on stopping, choking power. Not enough on speed, not enough on quickness. The trio Hill/Hawthorne/Wright would have performed much better if they weren't playing behind such an oversized line, and the same could be argued vice versa. It's not just about quality, it's about how the overall balance works.

This is because a front seven doesn't have any loose pieces, every piece depends on the others. Think Warren Sapp could have played like he did - with the relentless style he had - without Derrick Brooks behind him? A lot of people, like Seahawks Draft Blog's Rob Staton or our own Davis Hsu, have been arguing we'll see several picks put into the front seven, in both linebackers and pass rushers. And that makes perfect sense to me. If you're going to replace Branch at 3-tech with more of a gap-shooting, pass-rush focused 3-tech, you need to back him up with an OLB with superior run-stopping instincts and the right combo of power and speed. This isn't a front seven one significant piece away...

Unless we're talking Mario Williams. I'm not a draft expert at all so I don't know much about this class, but Staton and other people whose opinion I value argue this is not a class with much elite pass-rushing talent. Fair enough. Strictly speaking, a 3-tech upgrade would be more valuable, but you can't get what isn't available.

But Mario Williams is a freak. Actually sitting down to go over the Texans footage looking specifically at him, it's amazing how well he played, being asked to line up wider and standing up. Before, he already looked like an elite, versatile talent, manning left or right, speed and power-rushing both with excellence. His play this last season just confirmed quite how outstanding he is. He is in the discussion for the best defensive end playing right now. And hitting the market. At the start of what is the traditional DE peak age.

There's really not much to argue about here. Adding a talent like Williams frees up so much of what the rest can do, and alleviates the pressure on finding an elite talent for your front seven in the draft, as a few scheme fit and talent upgrades around him would vault up the entire front seven. Does it necessitate losing Clemons or Bryant? Not really, you could ping pong Williams from left to right, and play either Clemons or Bryant, shift from over to under, based on the game situation. Variable. Talented. Scary. Scheme fit? As illustrated above, we don't really have a solidified, permanent scheme, not one where we've invested in talent to run it, and I expect Pete Carroll to significantly change the exact details of the 4-3 the Seahawks run regardless of who we add. But even if he didn't "fit", Mario Williams is the kind of talent you scheme around.

Right now, in some ways our defense reminds me of the Jets defense, if at a lower level. They, too, depend very much on excellence in the secondary, do not get a ton of pass rush, and choke out the opposing run game. It has worked extremely well for them. But ideally, you don't want your scheme to be that one-sided. Right now, we lack the talent to make it work at the level the Jets play, but we're not that far off. Add a Mario Williams (and some supplementary pieces) and this defense immediately vaults into an elite category.

I kind of hopped between two topics here, so apologies if it was a difficult read, but this is one point I wanted to make: Mario Williams would be an awesome get by the Seahawks. It's not a full discussion of him as a free agent, I know there's some injury concerns (though I'm not seeing anything major), but there you have it. The other point I wanted to make is this: our defense is unusual but it's not that much of a "hybrid". Bryant is an effective experiment and something we could well keep in, but in basic principles this defense runs as a 4-3, and I think PC wants to add talent to it so he can run it as more of an attacking, Kiffin-style 4-3. And that's pretty cool.