It's tough to describe the Seahawks' 'brand' of defense. It's a descendant of the Monte Kiffin Tampa-2 defense, sort of - Kiffin was one of Pete Carroll's mentors - and Pete Carroll and the staffs that he's worked with over the years have tinkered and adjusted it into the current iteration, which has eschewed the mainly one-gap, attacking principles and adopted more two-gap, wait-and-see, stop-the-run schemes. Some people refer to the Seahawks' defense as a 'hybrid 3-4/4-3' and that's fine, I guess, as a generic label, but the important thing to understand is that the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is not how many players have a hand on the ground and it's not based on how many players are at the line of scrimmage.
"You have to understand one thing - fronts are not determined by who's in a three-point stance and who is in a two-point stance. Fronts are determined by gap concepts." explains Greg Cosell. In other words, how are teams defending the gaps between and to the outside of each offensive lineman and tight end?
One team that runs variable looks and, interestingly enough, uses some 4-3 and 3-4 concepts at the same time, are the Patriots. Cosell points to them as an example. "And I guarantee if you look at a lot of the Patriots' ‘three-man fronts' in the past where there's actually two linebackers standing up on the outside, you'll see that they're actually in four-man front principles. With the Patriots, it's complicated. You'll see a three-technique. You'll see a nose shade, not a nose tackle. Sure, there were snaps where they played a true 3-4 with a true nose tackle or a zero technique and two ends who are five techniques. But just because you have three down linemen, it doesn't mean you are playing a 3-4."
Our own Thomas Beekers explored these schemes in his article The Seahawks, Mario Williams and the Modern Hybrid Fronts, during the free agency period when it was rumored the Seahawks were interested in the freak-of-nature, versatile defensive end. He explained the Seahawks' version of the modern 'hybrid' very well.
Said Beekers, "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," Beekers explains. "Usually, when you hear "one-gap" 4-3, you should think of Kiffin/Tampa 2 or Wade 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."
The most basic 4-3 Over scheme for the 2011 season (though it was extremely variable), as Thomas drew up, looked like this:
There were the 4-3 Under looks as well, which saw Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane switch places with each other and have SAM LB K.J. Wright come up on the line, outside the TE on the strong side (the Under also has K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill trade sides based on the strength of the offense (WILL/SAM - in the "Over", they just play Right OLB and Left OLB, respectively).
So, do the Seahawks prefer the 4-3 Under or the 4-3 Over? Do they, as Thomas postulated in that article, prefer something that we haven't yet really seen? Have the Seahawks just been using their personnel in ways that suited them best? I'd agree with Thomas that, perhaps, we're in store for a better look at the 'real' defense that Pete Carroll wants to run here in Seattle. The defense that he's had in mind during his first two seasons, but really hasn't been able to pull off, due to personnel deficiencies. Jerry Brewer shares some thoughts from Pete Carroll in a recent column that make me believe some interesting things, schematically, are on the way.
"We mixed the concepts of one-gap football and two-gap football in a very unique way in San Francisco," Carroll said, harkening back to 1995-1996. "And we played great defense."
The defense he refers to was the one Carroll was running with the 49ers in the mid-90's. Carroll tucked many of those concepts away while he was at USC, but with Dan Quinn, the Seahawks' defensive line coach in 2010, he revived them once he returned to the NFL. "We made some scheme adjustments to the style that was here in years past, and really the style that I've been playing in college, and I flipped it all the way back to when I was at San Francisco," Carroll explained, back in 2010. "[That] was the last time we've played this formula of defense."
"Danny Quinn has had a big role in that because of his crossover to the days when he was at San Francisco. We were both affected by a guy there - Bill McPherson, a coach that was there for us. And Mac taught us some stuff. Now we brought the expertise to at least be able to explore it."
Explore is a good word. Year one exploration -- not so great, as the Seahawks finished near the back of the pack in the NFL in defense. Year two -- better. Much better.... Year three?
"To me, that was the ultimate package," Carroll told Brewer this week, of the 49ers defense back in 1995-1996, "and we've been able to get back to it now. It's taken us three years, really, to get to the point where we can incorporate the ideas. So, we're doing all of the things that we liked there.
"I thought [that San Francisco defense] was the most comprehensive package of defense that I've been around. I was not able to do that at SC. I was the defensive coordinator and putting the whole thing together at SC, but our guys just couldn't handle it. It was just too much stuff, and it was too much for the coaches. So we did variations of stuff. It worked out great, but in college, we weren't capable of doing all of that. Guys couldn't learn and couldn't teach it the way we needed to."
This is why the USC defense - the 4-3 Under that we've talked about a ton here - isn't really the most applicable thing to study when it comes to what Pete Carroll wants to run here in Seattle. He decided to go back to the San Francisco style he learned under Bill McPherson, things that were too complex at USC, both for players and coaches.
"But it made sense to Gus and all of our coaches," though, Carroll notes, "the background and the principles of things, and then we've melded it together and ended up with a pretty diverse package of defense."