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Seahawks Conversation: What will Seattle’s blitz package look like in 2018?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season, Oliver Connolly and Matty F. Brown will be chatting about interesting schematic ideas, trends and other X’s & O’s things of note. This is the first in the series.

Oliver Connolly: Matty, a few weeks back, I took a look at Seattle’s pass-rush. The truth is: the thing has dipped the last couple of years.

Back in 2015, the team finished 2nd in the league in pressure percentage, per Football Outsiders. That was Seattle’s defense at its best: creating organic pressure by rushing just four, with pattern-matching principles in-behind tying everything together – along with a nice stunt/twist package to keep folks on their toes. And speed. That unit had fabulous speed.

Then things declined. The defense fell to 9th in 2016, a good if unspectacular finish. In 2017 it slipped down to 14th in the NFL.

With Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, and Cliff Avril all leaving, things project to get worse. Fall into the bottom half of the league, and you’re in trouble.

In my earlier piece, I took a look at individual candidates, their styles, and how they already fit, could fit, or should fit in 2018. Finding a trio of players to replace that aforementioned bunch would be great. In that dream scenario, the defense could keep doing what it’s done throughout the Pete Carroll era.

But those guys don’t grow on trees. Banking on Dion Jordan, Marcus Smith, Rasheem Green, Shaquem Griffin or anyone else on the roster to be major contributors as soon as the season kicks-off –and, really, you’re going to need two of those guys to step-up – would seem unwise. Jaran Reed, Frank Clark, Nazair Jones, and Tom Johnson are good. They’re not quite enough.

We are almost definitely going to see an uptick in blitz looks. I mean, we have to, right?

Carroll and Ken Norton Jr, the team’s new defensive coordinator, can’t continually thump their collective heads against the wall and maintain the four-man charade if it doesn’t work. Carroll may have to, like, try stuff -- Dabble with some pressure packages. Or am I bonkers? Help me out.

Matty F. Brown: Ollie, you’re absolutely right. The Seahawks are in trouble, with the health of their best pass rushers in question, too. Most worrying is that Dion Jordan has a stress fracture similar to the injury Kevin White sustained; an injury that could keep him out for an entire year.

Seattle will potentially play a very inexperienced defensive backfield that I covered here, or they’ll opt Byron Maxwell -- who I studied in this piece – only a solid option. Therefore, not allowing a quarterback time to dissect the defense becomes even more critical.

So, don’t worry! You’re not bonkers—on this subject at least. Their blitz rate and package usage will have to increase, barring a miracle. Of course, the Seahawks won’t want to end up in a Cleveland Browns situation, where at one point they blitzed the most but had the least pressures. Seattle’s blitzing scheme must be smart.

Last year under Kris Richard the defense started to experiment with stuff which looked more like the Arizona Cardinals under James Betcher, particularly on third-and-longs. They came out in three-down linemen fronts, making use of what is still 3-4 personnel inside a 4-3 scheme.

They did fun things, lining up in a 3-2-6 with Dion Jordan at inside linebacker and sending him as a looper. Such a role would suit Shaquem Griffin wonderfully. The chess piece is one they have to utilize on passing downs—be it from the slot, as a stand-up edge or from inside linebacker.

When I was down in Mobile, Alabama for the 2018 Senior Bowl, the drills confirmed that Griffin is a relentless rusher with natural bend and speed. He is at his best being blitzed into pass-rushing situations, where he already has two refined moves: an inside swim and a nasty spin. Griffin’s a natural looper and twister.

He showed that in UCF’s National Championship, Peach Bowl victory over SEC Auburn:

Putting Griffin next to Bobby Wagner is an upgrade from the less natural rusher KJ Wright. Wagner showed himself to be a blitzing weapon last year in similar looping and twist assignments, picking up two safeties. Sugaring the duo would be frightening for offensive lines.

Blitzing from the slot cornerback position was a standout pressure from last season. Seattle could potentially line up with a cornerback trio who all have 40-yard dash times well under 4.5 seconds. Running a similar strategy would be intelligent, given the disguise and timing Justin Coleman frequently displayed on rushes from the slot.

Pete loves generating pressure with just four guys, and Seattle can still do that with intelligent zone blitzes. Both Frank Clark and Dion Jordan are comfortable dropping to take away the hot route off the edge. While talking zone blitzes, it’s important to note Seattle’s corners are far more comfortable playing bump-and-run man or off-zone, so factor this in accordingly.

There will be some different ideas brought in with Ken Norton’s arrival, but, in addition to running similarly-spaced pressure fronts:

He found ways to zone blitz Karl Joseph and play coverage. Joseph was a blitzing weapon in college.

Norton’s timing of the blitz was often off the mark in Oakland, and you hope Carroll will have more of a say. But he brings other exhilarating ideas, such as lining up two-stand up rushers and two-hands-in-the-dirt rushers in pressure packages—another way for Griffin to be employed.

You touched upon the interior depth, which is a strength of Seattle. Utilizing the tackle end stunts is something which Norton should continue to do from his Oakland days. There is plenty of lateral agility from Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephens, plus Rasheem Green lining up inside would love a stunt to get home.

I’m excited to hear your thoughts on my response.

OC: There’s a whole lot to unpack there. I think you hit the nail on the head. We’re going to see a whole host of different zone-blitz looks, and I suspect the slot corner blitz will remain a team staple.

My big question: Is Pete Carroll – and by extension Ken Norton – a conceptual blitzer or a formation blitzer? By that I mean: will Seattle opt when to blitz – and which blitz to use – based on the pre-snap alignment of the offense (something that hands a ton of responsibility to the players on the field); or is this staff one driven by philosophy: They call their calls depending on the down-and-distance, personnel grouping, and their play-calling intuition, formation be damned. And, if that’s not confusing enough, are we sure Carroll and Norton are on the same page in that regard? (Spoiler: I’m not).

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Most sides mix-and-match those things. Last year’s group did a lot of formation stuff. For instance, they routinely brought that weakside slot blitz, as you noted. And, like every team in the league, they checked to any number of pressures when facing off against empty.

What Norton brings is a whole different deal.

Three big things stood out from watching Norton’s blitz package in Oakland: A) that team was poorly coached; B) He blitzed guys from depth; C) As you mentioned, the safety blitz was a cornerstone of the team’s attack.

Let’s start with the first. It was jarring how often the Raiders’ defense looked lost in 2017. Sure, you could pin that on a lack of talent. But I’m not so sure. There were the basic things: Struggling to lineup; misplaced gap assignments; and coverage busts. But there were much larger problems: Like having multiple guys drop into the same zone in their fire-zone package.

Take a look:

Pretty egregious. This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Players seemingly didn’t know the play, or were busy trying to change it – without getting the word to everyone. It was a five-man pressure with no low-hole player. Clearly, that’s not a philosophical choice, because the team stuck with two-deep safeties. Players didn’t seem to know where they were supposed to be. They gifted an easy completion on third down; coaching heresy.

You have to wonder: Was this was an organizational defect – that some guys knew the calls, others didn’t? Was it a schematic failure? Or, was it simply a lack of talent and football intellect?

That’s the macro. The actual blitz calls Norton made were interesting. The Raiders were noticeably more aggressive with John Pagano on staff last year than they were the season prior. That could because of Pagano (he’s a super aggressive coach) or because the team’s pass rush stunk – they finished 28th in pressure rate, and 23rd in adjusted sack rate, per FootballOutsiders.

They blitzed from depth (further from the line of scrimmage) hoping to implant that anyone could come from anywhere thought into the minds of opposing QBs. I hate that as a blitz philosophy. I’d rather focus on the tactical: What designs work against the weaknesses of certain formations.

I understand some coaches feel blitzing from deeper out disguises things more. They don’t want to tip their hand. But it just takes too long to unfold. Quarterbacks at the pro-level are too good.

He almost got home. Almost isn’t good enough! He came from so deep that Josh McCown had just enough time to get the ball out hot (a great throw, by the way). It was a nice design; an excellent athlete, got an excellent jump, from an excellent look. He just came from too far back and was a bear too late.

Even when Joseph did get home, it still took too long. Not through any fault of the player, just because he was backed up further from the LOS. Let’s go back to your earlier Joseph example:

Joseph exploded out of his stance. He got the sack. If we’re honest, however, as fun a call as that is, the ball should have been out. The coverage on the backend was excellent; McCown held the ball too long. I know that’s kind of the point – they trust the coverage to be good when drawing this stuff up. But why take that risk? Move the blitzer closer to the line.

Coaches who blitz from depth usually respond thusly: We don’t want to give the game away. Poppycock! You can still be creative while formation-ing (the coaching world needs a better word) your blitzes, without giving the game away. Turn “tips” into “bluffs.” Job done.

(For the uninitiated: that would mean having a steady dose of designs where the safety was close to the line of scrimmage but backed out, as well as those where he blitzed. Think of those double A-Gap “mug” looks teams run with a pair of linebackers standing either side of the center. Neither linebacker blitzes on every play, therefore they’re bluffing, and there’s nothing to “tip”.)

Interestingly, the Seahawks didn’t have a single safety sack in 2017, despite having two of the most athletically gifted safeties in the league at the peak of their powers. Those guys could have been hell-hounds bursting towards the backfield. But the Seahawks decided that inching Thomas or Chancellor right up to the line of scrimmage would have tipped their hand.

The ‘Hawks didn’t have a true bluff package to speak of. I think that would have been different if neither was on the team for 2018. With Earl sticking around — for now — perhaps we will see him used in different ways. I’d be apt to just let him do what he does best, though.

What we saw from Seattle in 2017 was more expansive by their own standards. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary. And that’s fine! I think they should continue in that vein this season.

The key, for me, is choosing what kind of philosophy they want to use: conceptual or formation; and what style of zone-pressure/fire-zone package they choose to unleash.

Carroll and co. dabbled with different types last year. I loved the three-deep, three-under look from a mug front they ran against Philly:

That’s fire-zone football at its finest: A formation call (bringing the slot corner from the short side of the field); an overload call; a safety checking and carrying anything vertically (he got a nice shot in – I’m just rotating, maaaan); and a safety blanket in-behind.

You could argue, and many coaches in the college game have come around to this way of thinking, that if you’re going to blitz… just blitz. Forget safe pressures. Send as much as possible, they say.

They prefer the three-deep, three-under fire-zone style. It gets extra bodies in the box, creates more potent overloads, and forces the quarterback into making a quick decision, not only to figure out who is dropping and who is coming.

The Justin Coleman sack you highlighted against Houston is a good example of Seattle running three-deep, three-under vs. Empty:

It’s a nice design, particularly against a Houston team sporting a rookie quarterback and an objectively terrible offensive line:

Again, as you noted, they relied on Justin Coleman out of the slot, a smart tactic against any kind of stacked receiver look – the corner gets that natural mosaic of bodies which makes it hard for the quarterback to dissect. (Coleman, by the way, is so superbly built for that role. I wonder if the high volume of slot pressures was by design, or because he’s such a stud north-south athlete?).

The real blitz radicals– Pat Narduzzi, Greg Schiano et al. – go all-out. They will run three-deep, two-under looks. I get that. If we’re bringing pressure; let’s bring all the pressure. I’d fear the level of quarterback play at the NFL level, but I think it’s something to consider depending on the opponent, if the team is really strapped for pressure.

To me, the question of what kind of zone-pressures we see is interesting to ponder. Any and all man-blitz stuff we saw in 2017 was fairly rudimentary: Crossdog, Mike-Dime, and different overloads. The most intriguing one was the Cowboys play you highlighted: An End-Will twist that acts as eye candy, while the slot corner goes marauding into the backfield.

Ostensibly, it’s the same kill-shot as the rest: That damned slot corner. How they set it up and how it’s covered in-behind is the difference. Without game-wreckers up front, they may need to get a little more creative than that.

But I’ll return to my central point about those zone looks. Do you prefer the three-deep, four-under looks? Or the three-deep, three-under? And can you offer any clarity on when they hell they’re going to call these things? And are we going to assume Norton does in fact align with Carroll? That there won’t be conflict; that Pagano influenced Norton’s style last year. After all, Pete kind of does Pete.

MB: To partially answer your “big question,” I think the truth lies more with conceptual blitzes. Seattle will gameplan certain blitzes to run if they see a certain formation—conceptual blitzes. As you pointed out with the cornerback blitzes. We’ve seen this sort of conceptual stuff this pre-season, including from the 46 front I covered here. This may well be Ken Norton influenced too, given the 3-4 look of it and how little we saw it last season.

As you stated in your first email, Carroll’s very philosophy is to try to get pressure with just four guys. That clashes with the idea of him being a philosophy blitzer, even if you can achieve pressure with four via a zone blitz. Instead it is easy to imagine that certain blitzes are installed for certain formations in the gameplan. Sure, if it’s a 3rd and 2 with the defense needing a stop he’ll want to send pressure. But to brand that as his entire blitzing approach being philosophy-based seems a stretch.

I believe a lot of the issues of Norton’s Raiders defense will be solved by the fact this is still largely Pete’s concepts. His relative simplicity and consistent rules means that there are: few struggles to lineup; few misplaced gap assignments; and few coverage busts. In fact, I believe Kris Richard was mainly let go due to his over-complication of the defense last year. Carroll’s easy-to-understand, play-without-thinking defense will see these issues disappear.

The Raiders’ aggression is certainly interesting, an encouraging factor given we agree that Seattle will have to call more blitzes to address their pass rush problems. It’s telling we covered a lot of the same plays—both the good and the bad.

With Thomas returning the potential for three-safety packages is real. Thomas is a blistering missile of a downhill attacker, and Thompson has shown ferocious closing speed. Both would be guys to try that “bluff package” with.

But the weapon of Justin Coleman, who you rightly highlighted, is a far more appealing proposition for Seattle. The main advantage of Coleman is his disguise. Whereas a bluff safety package would at least tip the opposing defense off to a potential blitz, Coleman lines up over the slot as though he is in normal coverage. Then, suddenly—with brilliant disguise and timing—he is rushing the quarterback’s blindside. Teams don’t know what hit them. It’s nothing fancy. Nothing abnormal. Just violent shock.

A bluff safety package acquiring that level of astonishment from an offense would require a noticeable change to the scheme. Tendencies would have to be transformed, for instance. I would also have expected to have seen it this pre-season at least once, especially given that Seattle was surprisingly pressure-happy and creative in the exhibition games.

I believe the new blitzing aim of 2018 will be to utilize the versatile Barkevious Mingo, the high-motor of Jacob Martin and the speedy Shaquem Griffin off the edge in zone-blitzes or rush-to-drop assignments. Taking it back to the 46 front seems the best way to illustrate this point, given it’s what the Seahawks ran in the pre-season and dress-rehearsal game against the Minnesota Vikings.

The wide alignment of the players proved an effective bootleg pressure to the backside. Here Mingo is sent at the backside edge on the 3-deep, 4-under zone blitz--very similar coverage to the fire-zone you drew up versus the Eagles. On the flowside edge, Clark reads from run to pass. If the ball is handed off, he engages his blocker and sets the edge. Keying the bootleg, he drops and picks up the checking-and-releasing back.

We saw how the 46 can also be adapted for B-gap pressure too. In a regular season game, you would expect this to be nickel personnel, but that tight interior 3 on the d-line creates tantalizing, drool-inducing possibilities. You can slant a 3 tech to demand a combo block from the guard and tackle: creating a cavernous path for the blitzing middle linebacker. This time Clark drops to take away the hot to #3. Wagner thrived on this Mike-Dog, cover 1 blitz in the pre-season. But Shaquem Griffin would be nasty doing this as well. Griffin has a few issues blitzing into blocks; this way he would encounter none.

One thing is sure: They’ll be extra keen to stick to their principles and not get away from the core of their defense, as you say—keeping a three-deep and at least a three-under look (They can get four-under still with zone stuff like the above) I feel simplicity and sticking to ‘who they are’ is particularly important with the inexperience that now runs throughout this defense. It is also something Carroll felt they started to lose last year, hence the coaching changes.

This has been a great conversation, we should do this more often!