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On the NFL 'Chess Match'

A look at the issues faced by D-Coordinators in the modern NFL.

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My colleague Thomas Beekers and I have written now, several times each, (HERE, HERE, & HERE, to start) about the Seahawks' use of the DB-heavy 3-1-7 Bandit package in 2010 and their subsequent decision to stay away from it mostly in 2011. As Thomas pointed out back in April, prior to the Draft, "due to roster changes, injuries of players and scheme, the Seahawks ran multi-DB packages less in 2011 ([and] were near the top of the NFL in using our base 4-3-4 D, at 56% of the time). That's not ideal, and more flexibility is needed, which would require a bigger investment in the big nickel spot than an Atari Bigby."

Bigby left in free agency, and the Seahawks have since made several investments to their defensive sub-package corps of players, drafting Jeremy Lane and Winston Guy, signing UDFAs Donny Lisowski and Desean Shead, and re-signing veterans Marcus Trufant and Roy Lewis. This bolsters a group that -- after the presumptive starters in Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, and Richard Sherman -- includes Walter Thurmond III, Byron Maxwell, Chris Maragos, Jeron Johnson, Ron Parker, Phillip Adams and Coye Francies. I've written about it already, but it's worth stressing that this doesn't appear to be just your Seahawks-patented roster churn overkill, but rather a methodical approach to building out one of the most important positional groups in the modern NFL - the cornerback/safety/linebacker hybrid athlete that can cover tight ends and running backs but still stop the run.

The inimitable Greg Cosell addressed this again last weekend in his article entitled The Evolving Chess Match, and while condensing the history of NFL offensive / defensive schematics -- the origins of the pass-heavy Air Coryell offenses and the Lebeau zone blitz defenses that sprung up in response -- he did a great job of crystallizing the issues that coordinators face in the present league.

"..Defenses were forced to react to the expanding principles of pass offense," writes Cosell. "Three-receiver personnel became the norm, often used in any down-and-distance situation. That increased the importance of the nickel corner - once a specialty player who was on the field 12-15 snaps a game, now another starter who normally logs 35-plus snaps each week. The defensive template had been set, and it remains in place to this day: three corners, two safeties and two linebackers to match up to three wide receivers, one tight end and one back."

This 'nickel' defense, used to counter teams using three wide receiver sets, assumes that one linebacker and one safety can manage to cover the tight end and running back if they were to release into coverage. That's no longer a given, with the advent of ridiculously athletic pass catching tight ends like Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski / Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Pettigrew, Jermichael Finley and Jimmy Graham. Add in Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Fred Davis, Dustin Keller, Marcedes Lewis, Brent Celek, Jermaine Grisham, and hopefully Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow, Jr. and you've got matchup headaches for defensive coordinators to worry about. When you multiply the threat that pass-catching running backs pose -- guys like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, Lesean McCoy, Matt Forte, and Arian Foster -- you've got to account for one more player in coverage.

Linebackers have trouble marking running backs with that amount of explosive speed, and safeties have trouble with the height and catch radius that many of these tight ends possess. Not to mention, when you motion either that running back or tight end to the wing, it takes that safety or linebacker out of their comfort zone and onto that cornerback 'island'.

"Matching up to wide receivers is much more comfortable schematically," Cosell continues. "Defensive coaches have been doing that for years. Now they have a new set of challenges: tight ends and backs who can stress the defense both to the outside and vertically. What will be the response in the continuing chess match between offense and defense? Traditional linebackers will find their roles - and snaps - significantly reduced. There will not be a place for them against offenses that feature five receivers with multi-dimensional abilities to attack all areas of the field."

The Seahawks have some very interesting matchups in 2012 with these so-called 'spread' offenses where Seattle will have to account for each tight end and running back as legitimate, dangerous route-running, pass-catching options. New England, has -- in addition to their strong corps of receivers -- Gronk/Hernandez at TE and Danny Woodhead at RB. Green Bay, with Aaron Rodgers, slings it to any number of their potent offensive weapons. Detroit will feature Pettigrew and Jahvid Best in the passing game, and Buffalo will feature spread looks with Scott Chandler at TE, Fred Jackson at RB, C.J. Spiller at god-knows-what (both receiver and running back), and David Nelson as a big slot WR/TE tweener.

Along the same lines, Seattle will have to assign a defender to spy Cam Newton when they face off against Carolina in Week 5. The reason the wildcat had/has its limited success is that most NFL defenses do not account for the quarterback as a possible runner in their front seven, and thus face a deficit in numbers when he becomes one (five offensive linemen, one tight end, one running back, plus one Cam Newton = 8 people to worry about). The Seahawks will have to do the same when they face the Jets in Week 10, if you believe Rex Ryan's claims that they'll run Tim Tebow in the wildcat as many as 20 times a game.

The Vikings, who come to Seattle in Week 9, feature Percy Harvin as a movable chess piece, and will have interesting capabilities on offense with Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson at TE. Even Miami has the potential to present some interesting matchup issues, with H-back Charles Clay (Marcel Reece clone that flashed the ability to run routes and catch passes in 2011), Reggie Bush and Lamar Miller, two running backs that can align as wide receivers when asked to, plus Anthony Fasano and now Joker TE Michael Egnew at former Packers OC Joe Philbin's disposal. Very interesting.

So, what do the Seahawks do?

"Defenses have to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback with only four pass-rushers," an NFC executive told ESPN's Kevin Seifert. "If you're sending linebackers or defensive backs as blitzers, you're going to get torn apart."

Seifert also talked to Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel, who noted that "a competitive defense in this era must employ above-average coverage skills at most, if not all, of the seven of the linebacker/defensive back positions. They must work in tandem with a pass rush that doesn't need more than five players to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks."

Seahawks linebacker corps. K.J. Wright. Bobby Wagner. Leroy Hill. Wildcards - Korey Toomer? Malcolm Smith? Barrett Ruud? Matt McCoy?

"You have to be able to cover," Crennel said. "You've got to have guys that can cover. So you're looking at corners that can cover, linebackers that can cover and even safeties that can cover. And not only zone safeties but safeties that can go man-to-man. Because you have to be able to mix man in there. So I think that's the biggest thing, particularly the linebackers, because in the formations the linebackers are going to have to walk out and cover a tight end or a back that's out of the backfield, and if they can't move and they can't cover, offensively they find that matchup they like right now and they go right at it. ..."

Seattle likes what they have in K.J. Wright and boasted about the coverage skills that Bobby Wagner brings to the table. But, when facing the teams I talked about above, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see the Seahawks frequently take Leroy Hill and Wagner out and replace them with a package that includes six defensive backs. Swap a down lineman out and you're looking at the Bandit package in certain situations.

Thumpers like Jeron Johnson or Desean Shead can, in theory, play in-the-box or in coverage. Former cornerbacks-turned-safeties in Kam Chancellor and Winston Guy present a versatile skillset for the defense to utilize in the box or in coverage, in zone or man. Byron Maxwell was drafted, in a large part, due to his strong run-stopping skills and willing, hard-hitting nature. Marcus Trufant is a known quantity at cornerback when he's healthy, but his zone skills and strong run-support ability could make him a player in the nickel corner role. Roy Lewis is a vet of the Seahawks' 2010 Bandit campaign and is now seeing reps at safety in mini-camps and OTAs.

Cosell, in his piece on the chess match that the modern NFL presents for opposing coordinators, predicts. "We will likely see more teams employ the Houston Texans' model. They played dime (six defensive backs), not nickel. That allowed them to field better athletes with more scheme versatility and greater body flexibility and agility to play in space, i.e., coverage. It was not an accident Houston had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season. Here's the reality of the NFL with the 2012 season right around the corner: It's much more of a spread game than it's ever been.

"There are always exceptions, but defensively, if you expect to beat the top passing games, you must be able to stop shotgun offenses with five receivers that can align at any position. That's the next frontier. As the NFL continues to evolve, it is increasingly evident that the game is played far more in open space than it is in the trenches."

The Seahawks - Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley, though steadfast in their 'run-stopping' rhetoric, appear to fully recognize this fact and appreciate that getting athletes to cover in space is an important ability, as evidenced by their investments at the defensive back position and history with the Bandit personnel groupings, and it seems likely they mostly abandoned the Bandit and Dime in 2011 due to injuries (and perhaps a bit due to their schedule).

Further, they also seem to realize (though you might not have guessed it based on last year's starting roster and Red Bryant's place on the line) that getting to the quarterback with four rushers is an important ability as well. In theory, with the combination of Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Jason Jones, and a fourth variable, whether it's on the line, or in the form of pressure from linebacker, corner or safety, the Seahawks have added some weapons to make that possible. Brandon Mebane, Jaye Howard, Dexter Davis, Clint McDonald, Alan Branch, a linebacker/DE tweener like Jameson Konz or Cordarro Law, or hell, even Red Bryant can be used to create mismatches or to confuse the offense with only four coming forward. With five, six, or even seven defensive backs playing in space, in coverage, they should be able to give themselves a chance against teams so incredibly stacked with offensive weapons.