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Seahawks on tape: 46 Front defense reflects the final 53’s strength

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks’ decision to put six defensive tackles on their final 53-man roster demonstrates one big strength of their roster. Yet, they still have only nine defensive linemen, revealing their weakest position depth-wise: defensive end. While the total of three defensive ends is the least they’ve ever carried, the Seahawks have only once had as many as six defensive tackles on the squad—in 2015.

On the back-end, Seattle—without Kam Chancellor—has a new breed of safety. Tedric Thompson and Bradley McDougald are a near-interchangeable duo. They could each play free and strong. Not fitting the traditional prototypes, instead both feel more like hybrids.

The off-season installation of a 46 front is therefore intelligent.

(Football is full of different jargon for similar plays. The Seahawks did move Clark right onto the line of scrimmage into a three-point stance from this look, yet based on the personnel, referring to the front as a 3-4 eagle is tempting.)

This preseason, Ken Norton’s arrival as defensive coordinator has undoubtedly brought with it more 3-4 ideas, principles and concepts—influenced by his time with the Oakland Raiders. Don’t be mistaken; this is still Pete Carroll’s defense. But remember; we’ve seen elements of three down linemen in the past. For instance: Kris Richard’s 3rd and long 3-2-6 pressure packages. It’s long been said by Pete Carroll himself, that Seattle is running a 4-3 with 3-4 personnel.

In the ‘nickel is base’ world of the NFL, the 3-4 and 4-3 monikers have become more and more blurry. The important thing to focus on is this: The best scheme accentuates the strengths of player personnel while hiding the weaknesses. This is something, for all the talk of the Seahawks’ supposedly rigid 4-3 under, that Seattle has done well on defense. They adapt more than many would think.

“The best scheme accentuates the strengths of player personnel while hiding the weaknesses.”

That’s what this 46 defense attempts to achieve, stemming from the 1940s and Alfred Earle “Greasy” Neale’s Double Eagle front in Philadelphia. Carroll’s tweak appears to be letting his EDGEs pick the width they line up at, which sometimes results in the more natural defensive end playing tighter as a 4i.

The Seahawks’ third preseason game, widely regarded as the regular season dress rehearsal, featured the front regularly.

(This article keeps the clips to the first string defense, but it was run throughout the game.)

Bootleg Pressuring

The wide alignment of the EDGEs proved to be an effective bootleg killer against the Minnesota Vikings. The positioning means the defense can’t get outflanked. On the backside, this led to horrid blitzes or pressure for the Vikings’ rollout to deal with.

In the following clip, Barkevious Mingo attacks on a backside blitz. He does well to get his arm to deflect the pass incomplete.

Relying on safety rotation to pick up the spare man in the slot, Frank Clark blitzes with an excellent angle of attack at the backside hip of the quarterback. Once more, the bootleg pass falls incomplete after the near-instant pressure.

The Tight 3

The advantages of the formation tie in so sweetly with Seattle’s 2018 makeup: It enables them to play an extra defensive tackle, getting their best players on the field.

The front also frees up the inside linebackers, often playing them as 50-techs. The weak inside linebacker can attack just one C-gap downhill, and the big trio in the middle (3-t, 0-t, 3-t) should keep him clean. Take it from Rex Ryan, son of the inventor of the 46: Buddy Ryan.

“No other base defensive alignment in the game guarantees isolation of the nose tackle technique on a center. The two impossible-to-hook 3 techniques playing with outside leverage on the guards force the guards to work hard at reversing the natural defensive leverage angles. The tight alignment of a defensive lineman to the ball gives the offensive blocking schemes little latitude in attempting to combo inside or double-team the nose tackle. The end result is one-on-one trench warfare from guard-to-guard.”

Coaching Football’s 46 Defense Jeff Walker and Rex Ryan

This will be of even greater benefit to the speed of rookie Shaquem Griffin, who will be slotted alongside Bobby Wagner at WILL against Denver. Griffin has looked raw in his zone coverage drops/landmarks. Plus his pursuit angles have been over-aggressive. Providing him with less to focus on will be beneficial.

With three-to-four of the four interior gaps occupied by the defensive line, the blitzing opportunities are plentiful for the inside linebackers. On this clear passing down, K.J. Wright moves out of the box to the EDGE and Wagner blitzes through the strongside B-gap. The tight three creates the room for him to get home on 3rd and goal.

Clark drops off the edge in a zone to pick off any hot route to the number three receiver, covered in off-man by Tedric Thompson.

Rasheem Green slants right, occupying both the left guard and left tackle. Wagner can then surge through untouched to bring down the quarterback.

(This is a nice way to involve Green in the pressure package. Quinton Jefferson’s quickness would also suit such a role.)

The Edges

As the bootleg section touched upon, the front creates a more favorable alignment for players like Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin to play both the run and pass from. The eventual return of Wright will mean that Griffin’s filthy spin move off the edge can get into action via the front too. This again means one less defensive end is required.

Mingo’s coverage below is near-perfect. He takes his read-steps, sees the running back releasing to his side and therefore drops to the flat. The missed tackle afterwards needs work, but this shows the rush-to-coverage situation the scheme generates.

The more regular pass rushers of Clark, Green and Dion Jordan will be more raw at dropping. They do have the athleticism to do it into the flats, though.

Here, Green correctly identifies that he has to drop with the fullback releasing into the flat. But his landmark and ball tracking is wayward, resulting in a completion for the first down.

We’ll see it called against heavier personnel groupings, particularly on clear running downs. An extreme example would be a 3rd and 2 with the offense in 22 personnel.

In addition to the positives already touched upon regarding that tight three, plus the way it stops the bootleg, it also allows Mingo to thrive through his versatility.

Maximizing the Safeties

The safety rotation in the scheme sees the position rotate down into robber positions. It also results in matching assignments that has the safeties picking up the free receiver in man coverage, or running with the deep crosser.

This suits Thompson perfectly. As a robber attacking downhill, he has shown blistering closing pace attacking players this pre-season.

Before Thomas’s return, the two-high nature of the defense would have been a way to negate the importance of range in what would still be largely cover 1 and cover 3. Now Thomas is returning, be it against Denver or later, but he would still succeed in the assignment.

This video shows Thompson match the tight end’s route into the flat on the slant-flat concept after the Seahawks send Mingo off the edge. Thompson bullets downfield and stops the play for minimal gain. Delano Hill, the other two-high safety, rotates deep.

Slant Negator?

Slants are a route that Seattle will often give up, with their “Don’t get beat deep” philosophy holding far more importance.

However, the angle of the dropping EDGE player from this 46 gives them an opportunity to get underneath slant routes to swat passes incomplete, or even intercept.

The Vikings game showcased that, and—but for Mingo’s slip—he had a chance. As it was, Shaquill Griffin made a fantastic play to break up the pass.

Prescient Scheme

There are other ways the Seahawks can be stout against the run while using one more defensive tackle, such as lining up a DT as a big two-gapping defensive end, à la Red Bryant. However, the 46 keeps them symmetrically balanced if they so desire.

It also enables them to put their players in the best position to succeed, such as Mingo and Martin, or Thompson and McDougald.

Like any scheme, this 46 can be exploited. But Seattle is attempting to make the best out of a bad situation in smart fashion. That’s mightily encouraging. This way they will lean on their strong defensive line interior.

Teams won’t want to run on this formation, be it a 7- or 8-man box. Furthermore, the natural counter to most runs—the bootleg—is often taken away too. That makes this a prescient move from the Seattle Seahawks