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Bradley McDougald could be glue that holds the Seahawks defense together

Unlike 2016, Seattle’s numbers against the pass held steady or actually improved without Earl Thomas in weeks 9 and 10; now McDougald will step into cleaning up run fits and covering tight ends at the other safety slot

Houston Texans v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The late portion of 2016 revealed a troubling shortage of depth in the Seattle Seahawks secondary, with Seattle notably tumbling from fifth in pass defense DVOA in weeks 1 through 11 to 26th from week 12 to the finish of the year. That effect corresponded closely to the absence of Earl Thomas after his season ended with a broken tibia, and the downgrade in talent and experience from Thomas to then-reserve safety Steven Terrell.

To address the problem, Seattle signed Bradley McDougald to a one-year deal and drafted two more safeties expected to eventually compete as long-term replacements for both Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor, Tedric Thompson and Delano Hill. Although much of the excitement over adding McDougald came attached to a possibility he might play in an extra role as a third safety—a so-called “big nickel”—and McDougald demonstrated his versatility by playing various spots in the preseason, McDougald was mostly kept under wraps during the first half of 2017, playing just 41 defensive snaps in the first seven games compared to 172 snaps in special teams duty.

All that changed when Thomas went down again with a pulled hamstring late against the Houston Texans in week 8, making McDougald into an emergency starter at the very position that had hamstrung (yikes) the Seahawks toward the end of 2016.

In a quick two weeks (truly five days), McDougald suddenly amassed 148 plays on defense, his now dire value to the team reducing special teams reps to 11 in that span. But more important than just being able to fill in, McDougald helped Seattle’s defense remain stable at virtually the same performance it was producing with Thomas: As of week 8, the Seahawks were sixth in pass defense DVOA and after week 10 they budged only slightly to seventh, owing less to a decline in their own efficiency to improvements in the ratings by other teams.

Indeed, in the games McDougald started at free safety Seattle actually improved its overall coverage figures for the deep third, going from a 55 percent completion rate to 40 percent. It’s a very small sample, just five passes, but McDougald was also tried more frequently than Earl Thomas, who got tested deep middle only 11 times in seven games. And that Richard Sherman-like restricted zone is a huge statistically-invisible part of Thomas’s real value and influence on the scheme. But the point is McDougald didn’t let up when challenged. In fact, although opposing quarterbacks were more cautious on average around Thomas they hit him for more deep strikes, gaining an average of 17.6 yards per attempt on those throws and two touchdowns compared to 7.0 yards per attempt on two medium-range completions toward McDougald by Drew Stanton.

One of the most dramatic swings revealed by the Thomas injury in 2016 was how it shifted that deep third into a huge vulnerability:

This time it was Thomas giving up a rating of 139 during his action (which probably proves the sensitivity of these specific zonal splits to a handful of big or broken plays, more than anything else) while McDougald allowed Kirk Cousins and Stanton a mere 64.6 rating. Again these are slight denominators here, but at least McDougald isn’t getting burned.

Actually Cousins didn’t even try McDougald in the deep middle; pass defense against the Washington Redskins seemed sore after several long completions that helped the Seahawks final-minute lead slip away magnified their moment—but overall that was a superior coverage performance by Seattle. In the game, Cousins was quite inefficient with 5.2 net yards per attempt, and until the last drive had been 0-3 going deep. Despite the game-breaking 39-yard completion to Josh Docton along the left sideline that set Washington up at the one yard line, the Seahawks’ deep left completion percentage only slipped to 29 percent with McDougald as the safety over top compared to 22 percent under Thomas. Across all three deep areas, McDougald’s presence was statistically an improvement, reducing opponent completion rates by 12 percentage points and passer rating by 38 points.

Field conditions and matchups for sure contribute to some of these differences but McDougald also surely didn’t disgrace the functioning of Seattle’s coverage. The pass defense over the entirety of the field was pretty much identical: 58.4 percent completions to 56.5; passer rating of 83.3 compared to 75.2; the first down rate (35 percent to 31 percent) was slightly worse but the touchdown rate was better (1.3 percent to 3.7 percent). Good coverage also helped generate greater sack frequency and, finally, while we think of the free safety providing deep coverage Earl Thomas was typically a factor in cleaning up the run game as well. With McDougald in the lineup, the Seahawks continued their steady march back to run-defense dominance. After spending much of the season in the bottom half of the league in that category following bad early games against the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans, Seattle moved from 22nd in run defense DVOA after week 8 all the way up to 10th right now.

That movement makes the Seahawks’ combined defensive DVOA better heading into week 11 than when Earl Thomas briefly left it. And that capability of depth performing on demand was a huge reason McDougald was added in the offseason.

Now Thomas returns to his place in the lineup just in time for Kam Chancellor to duck out with a possibly season-ending nerve issue, meaning McDougald’s performance against the run becomes even more of a requirement as he moves up into the box.

How many other players get substituted for Hall of Famers, in back to back weeks, at two different positions? How many could credibly pull it off?

Although replacing Chancellor seems like a wholly different task than the coverage responsibilities he managed in Thomas’s absence, McDougald might actually be better suited for it. In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ scheme, McDougald most often lined up in coverage over tight ends—an area of vulnerability historically for Seattle’s defense, even with Chancellor involved—and he made tackles in his two years starting for the Bucs at about the same rate as big Kam has for the Seahawks since 2010.

The slot coverage and hybrid-linebacker duty of the third safety role McDougald was groomed for during camp are really much closer to the strong safety position than Thomas’s deep third coverage. So while 215-pound McDougald probably won’t be providing the same massive hits as the 230-pound Chancellor, or the same playoff-tested leadership, he might be a similarly equivalent patch with Chancellor unavailable for an indefinite period of time.

Considering the Seahawks will also be missing Richard Sherman’s otherworldly talents for the rest of 2017, there’s no guarantee McDougald will keep the Seattle defense from experiencing another performance decline down the stretch run against the talented offenses upcoming in the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys. You could even make the case that Sherman was a more significant piece of the unit than even Thomas. But with Justin Coleman, Jeremy Lane and now Byron Maxwell, and perhaps later DeShawn Shead, you can counter the Seahawks should be at least better equipped now to withstand that particular loss than they were when Terrell was the only resource at free safety last year.

Meanwhile, McDougald can do his part by continuing to hold the interior of the secondary up to standard. If he goes down now, or if Thomas suffers another injury, Seattle will be forced again to accelerate the developmental players Thompson, who doesn’t seem ready at all (having only played 29 special teams snaps), and Hill.

Or, if things get worse, perhaps seek still more creative changes.