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How Bradley McDougald fares replacing Kam Chancellor will require improving play recognition

McDougald relied on pure athleticism often to fill his coverage responsibilities in 2016, which the Buccaneers saw as a liability. To fill in for the injured Seahawks star, McDougald will have to up his game at the line of scrimmage

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

In what was likely Kam Chancellor’s last game, and best game, of the 2017 season—a four-quarter slog-fest which saw the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Arizona Cardinals 22-16—the Seahawks’ strong safety showed off every aspect of his versatile skill set. On the Cardinals’ first play from scrimmage, Chancellor forced an Adrian Peterson fumble that was recovered by Seattle. Three possessions later, Chancellor stonewalled Peterson in the end zone for a safety. Defending the run, Chancellor used his unique size and physicality to hold up at the point of attack when setting the edge, or would fill gaps and stuff Peterson when lined up inside. On Arizona’s penultimate drive, he broke up a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone.

By the end of the game, Chancellor had totaled 10 tackles, three run stops, a safety, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Influencing the game—all of the gamehas become the norm for Chancellor in the last six and a half seasons, and it’s what makes him such a difficult player to replace.

Chancellor’s replacement, Bradley McDougald, has already found himself starting the last two weeks while free safety Earl Thomas was injured. Now, with Chancellor out, he’ll slide over to the other safety spot. Field Gulls’ own Lars Russell has already detailed McDougald’s performances as the deep safety, but now tasked with replacing one of the most unique defenders in the NFL, McDougald faces another test all together.

During his final season in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers, McDougald started all 16 games at strong safety, with Chris Conte and Keith Tandy getting starts alongside him. Despite his history playing the position, his role in the Seahawks’ defense—effectively replacing Chancellor—will be much different, so I asked Trevor Sikkema, a Buccaneers beat writer for the Pewter Report, for some insight.

“McDougald's role in Tampa Bay's defense last season was interesting because where he was listed as the team's strong safety, defensive coordinator Mike Smith really emphasized keeping his safeties multiple and versatile on any down,” Sikkema told me. “So, McDougald would come up and play the run (post-snap), but he'd also almost evenly drop back into zone and defend the pass in a 2-deep safety look. Because of this, he didn't do a lot of setting the edge and he didn't play as a ‘walk down’ safety as much as you might think he would have.”

Seattle doesn’t often line up with both safeties in cover-2, but even as recently as last week, they occasionally moved Thomas around and had Chancellor line up as the deep safety. It’s not something that’s been nearly as effective this season—Chancellor’s lost a step in terms of foot speed and change of direction, and his play in coverage has suffered as a result. With McDougald coming in, the Seahawks will have two safeties who can cover deep as a lone safety, or cover a tight end inside. McDougald’s ability to impact the running game, however, might be an issue for the defense.

Against Arizona, and for a good portion of 2017, Chancellor has been dominant at the line of scrimmage. Lining up on the strong side of the formation essentially as a third linebacker, he’s been outstanding setting the edge and holding up at the point of attack on outside runs, as well as coming inside and filling lanes violently. Chancellor’s absence won’t change what Seattle does as far as personnel grouping goes, so McDougald will presumably be asked to do similar things when the Seahawks line up in nickel. This is where McDougald’s capability as a replacement will be tested. Officially, Chancellor has three inches and 17 pounds on McDougald. Unofficially, McDougald looks like a safety, whereas Chancellor looks like a linebacker, or how I imagine a football player might look if it inhabited a Demogorgon from a young age.

“The Bucs didn't really ask either of their safeties to walk up and help close to the line of scrimmage,” Sikkema said. “I'm sure McDougald is being used much differently in the scheme in Seattle, but in Tampa he wasn't asked to do much of what a Cover 1/Cover 3 strong safety usually does in terms of being more aggressive towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap.”

Barring a major change, McDougald will absolutely be playing around the line of scrimmage as the starting strong safety for Seattle. Using one of their safeties as a pseudo-linebacker in nickel is a big part of what the Seahawks do defensively, and it’s something McDougald will be asked to do. Whether or not he has the body type to hold up, and the functional strength to be effective is something we’ll find out quickly—the Atlanta Falcons will use outside zone runs frequently on Monday night against Seattle. So McDougald, a player Sikkema thinks the Buccaneers saw as “more athlete than safety”, will provide Seattle a different type of player in the box. But against the Falcons he may be more effective.

When he wasn’t being used as the deep safety in the Seahawks’ pass defense, Chancellor was tasked with covering the hook/curl zone underneath, where linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are generally dropping into. This zone responsibility requires good anticipation and recognition, with passes either coming to a receiver who has sat down in space in the zone, or into a receiver’s body in front of the defender. Chancellor’s play recognition is superb and another reason why he’s been used as a third linebacker so often. Against the Seahawks, the Cardinals used a tight end screen that resulted in a touchdown, as McDougald was slow to react and eventually over pursued, allowing Jermaine Gresham to get into the end zone untouched. Any Earl Thomas replacement had a low bar to clear after 2016’s debacle, but McDougald was legitimately a plus-player in his absence. Play recognition, however, seemed to be a problem and ties back to Sikkema’s “more athlete than safety” observation.

“I have to believe that anticipation and recognition of plays is why the Buccaneers let McDougald walk this offseason,” Sikkema said. “We (Bucs beat writers) all generally thought McDougald played fine and was one of the more athletic safeties on the team last season, but when the offseason rolled around and the Bucs had to choose between re-signing Chris Conte or McDougald, they chose Conte. They must have liked what Conte brought from a recognition and anticipation standpoint more than McDougald.”

The lack of a market for McDougald was confounding for those outside Tampa Bay, and there’s been a lot comparisons made to Michael Bennett’s signing prior to the 2013 season, when he inexplicably found himself without a market. But, if after 38 starts McDougald was still relying on athleticism, that’s a problem in any defense. He will undoubtedly be an upgrade over Chancellor covering tight ends and running backs in man coverage—Vernon Davis’s six catches for 72 yards against Seattle comes to mind—and he’s already been deployed in such a role, playing meaningful snaps against Evan Engram and the New York Giants earlier this season. However, relying on athleticism and being even a second late when playing in zone coverage will result in catches underneath for opposing offenses, and it’s another spot where Chancellor will be missed.

McDougald gives the Seahawks the kind of depth at safety they’ve lacked at the position for several seasons. A capable starting free safety isn’t something Seattle had last season when Thomas went down, and the team suffered as a result. Chancellor’s injury won’t be felt to the degree that Thomas’s was last season, but his skill set is even wider than Thomas’s. Now likely without their starting strong safety for the remainder of 2017, opponents will gameplan to test the Seattle’s depth once more.