clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Drive: On the Seahawks rebuilding a Super Bowl caliber defense

New, comments
NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Having a model helps. I did not use most of the research I conducted prior to last week’s column. I did not know what the column would be, I had an idea but no clear way of executing it, and when the time came, I had to find my way as I went. Stuff got left out. Other stuff was included hastily. Which is why I tried to create a model for this column. It not only shortens the process of determining and vetting an idea, greatly, but creates a framework for determining how well I did. I did not create a model for how to write this column during the offseason, and the resulting mix of sloppy and batty speaks for itself.

The Seattle Seahawks, unlike me, have chosen not to reinvent the wheel each week. Good for them.

“They make you work for everything and it’s something that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every week. It’s something that if you do over and over and over again, it’s hard not to get better at it.” —Kyle Shanahan

Pete Carroll has created a defensive model unique to the Seattle Seahawks. It owes something to Monte Kiffin and George Seifert. But given its uniqueness the best model for a future Seahawks championship-caliber defense is the Seahawks previous championship-caliber defense. A unit which I think really took shape prior to the 2011 season. So though the Seahawks would not make the Super Bowl until the 2013 season, let us see how they first assembled a championship-caliber defense, and thus determine how the 2019 Seahawks can do likewise.

2011 Starters

Big DE: Red Bryant

LEO: Chris Clemons

DT: Alan Branch

DT: Brandon Mebane

OLB: LeRoy Hill

MLB: David Hawthorne

OLB: K.J. Wright

CB: Richard Sherman

CB: Brandon Browner

SS: Kam Chancellor

FS: Earl Thomas

Other notable contributors: Atari Bigby, Clinton McDonald, Malcolm Smith, Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant

Scoring defense: 19.7 a game (7th)

DVOA: -7.9% (10th)

2018 Starters

Big DE: Quinton Jefferson

LEO: Frank Clark

DT: Jarran Reed

DT: Shamar Stephen

OLB: Barkevious Mingo

MLB: Bobby Wagner

NB: Justin Coleman

CB: Shaquill Griffin

CB: Tre Flowers

S: Bradley McDougald

S: Tedric Thompson

Other notable contributors: Austin Calitro, Poona Ford, Rasheem Green, Delano Hill, Branden Jackson, Dion Jordan, Mychal Kendricks, Jacob Martin and Earl Thomas

Scoring defense: 21.7 (11th)

DVOA: -0.2% (14th)

Now let’s compare the two position by position.

(Big) DE

Red Bryant was a failing defensive tackle prior to being moved to defensive end. He was rare big and rare strong, even for a defensive tackle, but his high center of gravity mismatched him for the interior. Moving Bryant to defensive end was one of Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn’s first smart moves. Not because Bryant was an exceptional end, but because he was a good end and the switch took a bust and made him into a championship caliber starter. Most likely Seattle isn’t trying to find the next Red Bryant but preferably the next Michael Bennett.

Quinton Jefferson, who is good, is neither and may be an unsatisfactory compromise of the two. Bennett was and indeed is a very good pass rusher. Jefferson is just okay, and specifically, does not look poised to turn his numerous quarterback hits into quarterback sacks. Bryant was large even by 3-4 end standards and also disrupted the passing game. Between 2011 and 2012, he had six passes defended including two interceptions.

While Seattle has sought a big DT who can play end in certain alignments, after cutting Bryant in 2014 the Seahawks have tried to fill its big end position with, well, big defensive ends. Specifically: Michael Bennett; if Rasheem Green can develop into a Bennett like player, that would fill a vital need and push Jefferson into a reserve role—filling two needs. Green didn’t do a whole lot in 2018 but he was just 21. Bennett had all of six career regular season sacks entering his age 27 season. Which is a hopeful reminder that there is no one aging curve which matches the careers of all players. But one would hope Green develops just a bit faster.

LEO

Re-sign Clark and Seattle is not just set at LEO, but a step ahead of where they were in 2011.

DT

Reed is Seattle’s first great pass-rushing defensive tackle since Rocky Bernard.

(Big, tall, long-limbed) DT

Stephen wasn’t it. The most successful of Seattle’s BTLL defensive tackles were Alan Branch and Tony McDaniel. This is a misunderstood position and easily undervalued. Its two main jobs are preventing and/or disrupting horizontal seems against the run and getting into passing lanes. While he was mostly playing end previous to his career-ending injury, I thought Malik McDowell could fill this role. Whatever the case, this remains a strong need for Seattle. Seattle’s run defense finished 17 and 14 as measured by DVOA the past two seasons, and neither Stephen nor Sheldon Richardson provided the same kind of gap-controlling presence as Branch or McDaniel.

(Strongside) OLB

Mingo seemed like an okay fit for Seattle’s oddball third linebacker position but by season’s end he was rarely seeing the field. LeRoy functioned as a stopgap in 2012 but it was Bruce Irvin who really defined the position. Irvin could play end, could blitz from linebacker and could run with the fastest of tight ends. In 2012, Seattle ranked 18th in defending tight ends. In 2013, Irvin’s first year starting, Seattle ranked third. Mingo has the athletic profile to do likewise. Only, he never has. The Seahawks are left either hoping for much better out of Mingo, probably much better than can be realistically expected, or turning to free agency or the draft.

MLB

We were so excited for the potential of David Hawthorne and Heater really did reach it. Wagner is orders of magnitude better.

(Weakside) OLB

Wright played the best in limited snaps. He’s the perfect embodiment of the position and hopefully Seattle can retain him on a value-building pillow contract. Mychal Kendricks played significantly better than Austin Calitro. Calitro has the head just not the talent. Either Wright or Kendricks would work fine as a stop gap, should either be available, and maybe someday the presumed feel-good story of Shaquem Griffin will turn into the actual feel-good story of Shaquem Griffin. Luckily Quem seemed slow to read and react. Those are typical rookie problems. Griffin has real sleeper potential heading into 2019. But the position remains unfilled for now.

NB

Coleman ranked seventh among Seahawks defenders in total snaps. He played so well that he’s likely priced himself out of Seattle. Which is probably okay. Coleman’s impressive snap counts reflect his ability and the increasing importance of the nickelback. But this is still a position probably best filled by a developmental defensive back. Seattle has quite a few and should add quite a few more this off-season.

(Big) CB

Tre Flowers has done enough to command this position for now. It has traditionally been the lesser of Seattle’s two starting corner positions, manned best by Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell. Both of those guys were late bloomers and both seemed scheme dependent, finding little success elsewhere. Browner of course won a Super Bowl with New England, but that was his last season with the Patriots, and after a short stint in New Orleans, he was out of the league. Flowers has the requisite size and knack for the ball. But it should be noted that the Seahawks were very bad at defending both no. 1 and no. 2 wide receivers in 2018, finishing 25 and 20 in those rankings. From 2011-2015, the Seahawks never finished outside the top ten at defending opposing no. 1 and no. 2 receivers.

(Shutdown) CB

Oh boy. It’s tough following Richard Sherman. It’s that much harder without Earl Thomas. In 2015, the last season Sherman and Thomas played 16 games together, the Seahawks ranked first in the NFL at defending no. 1 receivers. Seattle allowed the fewest yards per game to those receivers, 46.8 or 27 yards fewer than league average. A pass targeting a no. 1 receiver against Seattle in 2015 was less efficient than the average efficiency of the best overall pass defense, the Denver Broncos: -33.3% to -28.0%. That defense carried Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl victory. Sherman’s is an awful legacy for Shaquill to inherit and only further underscores his struggles. In their first two seasons and in 26 and 27 starts respectively, Sherman had 12 interceptions and 41 passes defended to Griffin’s 3 and 23. Griffin doesn’t seem to see the ball very well, and he certainly lacks Sherman’s hands.

(Free and strong) Safety

The Seahawks told us exactly how highly they rated Earl Thomas’s backups when they didn’t trade Thomas, despite knowing he would not re-sign with Seattle. And the motley bunch headed by Tedric Thompson pretty much matched those expectations. In the absence of Thomas, this position became much less clearly defined. Far from the kind of golden ratio the Seahawks created with Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Thompson, Bradley McDougald, and Delano Hill all played as more generalist or symmetrical safeties. Hill is probably a box safety only and McDougald could perhaps fill the Thomas role, but this is another position where outside help is needed.

Much in the way Kevin Durant called Steph Curry the Warriors’ system, I think Thomas was the Seahawks’ system. If Seattle cannot find a true replacement for Thomas, a distinct possibility, it may need to scrap its preferred coverage schemes. Thomas was a standout prospect in an excellent draft for safeties, and the Seahawks were able to draft him because of a free first round pick acquired from Josh McDaniels. That won’t happen again.

If Seattle can find a safety who can approximate Thomas’s value, perhaps that will make things easier for Quill and Flowers. It is notable that in the final five weeks of 2016, those following Thomas’s season ending injury, Sherman recorded no interceptions and only four pass break ups. Notable because it might suggest that losing Thomas forced the Seahawks to play their corners differently, in a mode to plaster receivers, be sticky and not allow them to get loose rather than being loose, watching the quarterback and playing the ball. I suspect Seattle will plan around their young corners hoping for improvement, which is good insomuch that both are young and cheap, but bad insomuch that Quill has shown nothing like the talent of Sherman. We’ll see.

As for the rest of the defense, it’s surprisingly close to what it needs to be. While I by no stretch think 2018 was Wagner’s best season, I also do not doubt 2019 could be. He’s maintained a very high level of play for a long time and is not yet 29. The defensive line needs depth but already has two high-end pass rushers who individually have surpassed anything accomplished by Bennett, Cliff Avril or Chris Clemons. It also needs heft and length. Filling those needs will require adding talent, but linebacker could be fixed through development or by re-signing Wright or Kendricks.

Carroll runs an oddball scheme which seemed especially well-fit for the NFL when it arrived in 2010, but as so often happens, his ideas have been incorporated by other teams and his ideas have been countered by offenses throughout the NFL. The Seahawks do not have the draft capital to select a safety of Thomas’s ability, and it’s very unlikely a corner of Sherman’s ability would be allowed to fall into the mid-rounds again. Which means the Seahawks must either adjust or compensate. Must either create a new coverage scheme which fits the talent they have and can acquire, or further bolster the pass rush in hopes that it enables better play from that secondary. It’s not far fetched. Even at their absolute best, when they were a historically great defense, the Seahawks were only a good or at best very good pass rushing defense. Football’s a battle of time. If the coverage can’t buy the pass rush time, then maybe the pass rush can shorten the quarterback’s clock.