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The Drive: A brief look at Brent Urban

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

This is Brent Urban.

You may be a very invested fan of the Seahawks and the NFL but never heard of him. Urban led the Ravens in snaps among defensive linemen in 2018 with 522, appearing in just over half of his team’s plays on defense. Conducting research on Urban, this fact seems little know even among Ravens beat writers, and if Baltimore Beatdown represents a collection of well-informed and engaged Ravens fans, prevailing opinion is that Urban could probably be re-signed for about a mil annual. Maybe that shouldn’t be true.

The Seahawks need size to shore up their defensive line. Their? its? grammar is a pseudoscience. Naz Jones is now a five technique or big end. Much of Seattle’s preferred alignment of LEO, or rush linebacker-defensive end hybrid, 3-4 defensive end-4-3 defensive tackle hybrid, nosy threeish-tech, and big end or 5-tech is complete should Seattle retain Frank Clark and Quinton Jefferson, but that vital 3-4/4-3 guy—a position variably filled by Tony McDaniel, Alan Branch, and if you want to go back a decade or so, Jason Jones (situational), Kentwan Balmer and Junior Siavii—is not on the roster, and probably hasn’t been on the roster since the Malik McDowell debacle.

Thus: Brent Urban.

The lack is plain to see. Here’s the first play of the Seahawks-Cowboys Wild Card game.

Seams everywhere. More than Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright can rightly contain.

The Seahawks gapping linemen have run themselves into the backfield and out of the play. That’s okay because that’s what they’re supposed to do. If this were a pass play, boom. As such, they’re trivial in the outcome of this play. But their gap-control linemen, in this case both aligned defensive left, are in various states of failure. Shamar Stephen (98) is locked down and reeling. Jefferson is in the midst of an arm over, but La’el Collins has walled him out of the interior, and Collins’ former double-team mate, Dalton Schultz (86), is now free to impede Wagner. He won’t, much, but in part because Wagner will retreat. And thank goodness he does. The result is a tremendously easy gain of eight on first down.

Jeff’s too far left. Wagner’s in damage control mode. And Stephens is sufficiently beat, allowing Connor Williams (52) to peel off and get some licks on Wright.

From 2014, a very different look.

An apple to oranges comparison for sure, but all the same: Seahawks have contained the outside channeling DeMarco Murray inside; he has two big holes but each is filled by a linebacker, and behind either is Earl Thomas, playing relatively shallow. Thomas’s ability to play up and recover is missed, as is Brandon Mebane’s stoutness, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t point out that Ronald Leary (65) is out to sea looking for something to do, but this is a run defense working.

It’s not awesome. Murray gained four. No one shot the gap and made a highlight play. And if Mebane weren’t washed sideways by the double team, and Cliff Avril weren’t stood up and immobilized by a tight end, those holes would be smaller, but linebackers are in rushing lanes and the second level is protected by redundancy in the third level.

Dallas lost EPA in the above run, if only .01, but gained .53 in the first. And it was a relentless series of lost rather than won runs which doomed Seattle’s rush defense for a second straight year.

So our criteria for judging Urban are relatively simple. Can he hold up to a double team, prevent seams to his left and right, and sufficiently arrest blockers so that linebackers can play the ball carrier unmolested? Let’s see. I actually do not know!

Urban is lined between Connor McGovern (60) and Jared Veldheer (66).

I cannot tell you exactly how good either is, given my relative lack of exposure to McGovern and Veldheer’s extensive injury history, but on the whole run blocking was considered a strength for Denver. The Broncos finished fifth in rushing efficiency, sixth in Football Outsider’s adjusted line yards rankings, and were above average rushing to the right, including top five rushing off right end.

Broncos attempted to block Urban with one player, Veldheer. It did not work. 66’s retreat is proxy proof of Urban’s dominance.

Royce Freeman loses two and .82 EPA. I am tempted to write in Soviet Russia hole rushes you and I guess I just did.

Next, an attempted double team. Urban is similarly situated.

Veldheer is joined by Jeff Heuerman (82), who is said to be a pretty good run blocker.

Walled off but ...

steadily closing the gap until ...

the hole becomes a tiny restricted tangle. If you look closely you can see Urban more or less chucking Veldheer. He’s forced back more than I’d like, and that inability to hold ground might keep him in a 3-4, but the control of horizontal space is very impressive. This run went for one, which shaved another .55 off Denver’s EPA, and put the drive into the red. Heading into third down, the Broncos were expected to lose .43 points off field position from this drive.

Urban as pass-rushing nose tackle:

Good jump and ...

lateral movement to set up the stunt ...

but he doesn’t otherwise factor. Broncos convert third and 11. Urban takes a breather. A couple plays later, our last look at the big man, again playing nose.

jump; lateral quickness ...

and since he doesn’t show much in the way of pass rushing moves, Urban attempts a tip which is tantalizingly close to working. Case Keenum’s pass, if you will, nutmegs Urban’s arms.

34 1/4” reach on a 6’7” dude should be able to tip passes. Above he’s the quickest of beats slow.

Preventing or shrinking seams against the rush and tipping passes or closing throwing lanes is collectively not prestige work. Which is to say it won’t be recognized by Cris Collinsworth, but it’s pure football and a vital part of good defense. That’s part of why you’ve probably never heard of him before. A good day for Urban may involve zero sacks, tackles, tips or quarterback hits.

The other part is he’s been injured, a lot, and seriously. Search for “Brent Urban” and you might find this bit of molliprop from the Ravens official site. It is about his return from a lisfranc injury, following his return from a biceps tear, following his return from an ACL tear.

The bad news is injury often seems to beget injury. The good news is that’s gonna be baked into his cost in free agency. The bad news is lisfranc injuries effin suck. The good news is, he played all of last year without problem, and will be that much more removed from the injury in 2019. The bad news is people have become inclined to say stuff like “health is a skill.” The good news is that’s probably just another one of those pithy nothings we wield to ward off the terror of constant incipient chaos. And the extra good news is none of Urban’s injuries seem chronic. And, oh yeah, he’s young, and oh yeah, apparently he can be re-signed for a milli, which makes me think he’d probably sign a free agent contract for, say, two.