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The Drive: On the Seahawks building a better run defense

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Seattle Seahawks struggled at defending runs to the outside. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards stat, Seattle ranked 24th at defending runs off left end and 31st at defending runs off right end. This corresponded with an overall decline in the effectiveness of Seattle’s run defense. Here’s a crummy looking chart which nevertheless effectively charts the effectiveness of Seattle’s run defense during Pete Carroll’s time as head coach.

That valley? Good! Those rolling hills? Bad!

Even at its worst, Seattle was—at least by this measure—gaining value through its run defense. This isn’t at all uncommon. 25 teams in the NFL gained value through their run defense in 2018. But, relatively speaking, relative to the whole NFL and especially relative to Seattle’s own standards, the Seahawks were unacceptably bad at defending the run in 2018.

No one player deserves blame for this overall failure, of course. But I would guess fixing the run defense is of primary concern to Carroll. That got me thinking about Seattle’s first season under Carroll, and the possibility that Seattle will revive its two-gap approach against base formations. A couple choice quotes from a very old AP story posted to ESPN.com.

“The switch involved moving 323-pound tackle Red Bryant to defensive end and switching from a “one-gap” philosophy where the defensive linemen try to penetrate through the offensive line and get up field, to a “two-gap” philosophy where the linemen hold the point of attack , read the play and then react to the ball carrier. ...

“‘When we go into the game, our first objective is to stop the run,” [Chris] Clemons said. “Once we get them in that position to be in a passing situation, it’s not just about blitzes, we have a lot of four-man rushes too. It’s just a matter of everybody up front being on the same page and being able to get to the quarterback.’”

This alignment, in which Chris Clemons was the lone quality pass rusher against most base formations, seemed like madness to me in 2010. Seattle depended on opposing offensive coordinators to call run plays against a defense designed to stifle run plays. Yet it worked. We may find out if it’ll work again.

Here’s another cruddy chart.

The starters of the 2010-2012 Seahawks defensive lines were in aggregate slow, big, long of limb and anything but sudden. That’s a reasonably accurate description of Seattle’s likely starting defensive line in 2019.

Only two have ever had much success as pass rushers. And Jarran Reed had all of five career sacks in 58 games for Seattle and Alabama before 2018. Some kind of regression is highly possible. Ziggy Ansah certainly was a very good pass rusher, but Ziggy Ansah was also, it should be noted, a decent or below average pass rusher. His performance has varied markedly from season to season. It’s not a group which inspires visions of its upside, and, should injury or decline sap Ansah and/or Reed, its downside is worrying.

Which may force Seattle into alternative means of stopping the pass. Those 2010-2012 base defensive lines did two things very well: smother rushing lanes and harass throwing lanes. If we subtract a foot to account for head and neck, and measure from a player’s shoulder to the tip of their fingers, we can compare the 2011 Seahawks and the prospective 2019 Seahawks ability to harass throwing lanes. I picked 2011 because, the run defense had improved and was resembling the dominant unit it would become, and the starters now included Red Bryant and Alan Branch. Both of whom better fit the idea Seattle pioneered in 2010. I am going to assume a starting lineup for 2019 of Ansah, Al Woods, Reed and L.J. Collier.

2011

Chris Clemons: 95.25” maximum reach

Alan Branch: 99.25”

Brandon Mebane: 94.01”

Bryant: 99.51”

2019

Ansah: 100.13”

Woods: 100”

Reed: 96.38”

Collier: 96”

Just for comparison, here’s Seattle’s smallish line of 2018.

Clark: 97.26”

Stephen: 98.13”

Reed: 96.38”

Quinton Jefferson: 97.26”

Reach does not tell us exactly how good a player is at defending passing lanes, of course. But no one stat does, and I’ve never seen the ability charted or even deeply analyzed. Tips are too infrequent, and tend to emphasize a pass which was thrown into a perceived throwing lane. A perceived throwing lane which closed. For lack of better measure, it is sufficient to say the Seahawks will be naturally gifted at confronting opposing quarterbacks with a tall thicket of arms. They should also do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage and, especially, the edges.

Will it matter? Of course it will matter! How much? I haven’t a clue. But it’s a worthy experiment, and if nothing else, Seattle will finally field the kind of personnel which should excel at stopping the run. Historically that’s Pete Carroll’s first step in building a dominant defense. And the Seahawks are building, all good and bad connotations implied. Many of last year’s starters may not start or even be with the team in 2020. The secondary, in particular, could be completely replaced. The Seahawks are building a defense because in many ways they simply do not have one. It’ll be painful at times, we know this, but after years of slow crumbling, I’m all for building.