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What moves the Seahawks made to fix their once-great run defense

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NFL: JUN 06 Seattle Seahawks OTA Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday, I posted part I of this piece looking at how the Seahawks run defense went from dominant to laying out a welcome mat to opposing running backs in 2018. Now a brief recap of what Pete Carroll has done this offseason to try and correct that.

If you wanna know how bad they were, read part one. Now a position-by-position look at the changes starting at the most usual suspect on any defense when talking about the run: defensive tackle.

When I asked Field Gulls writers to chime in about the run defense, one person wasn’t shy about calling Shamar Stephen one of the worst defensive starters of the PC/JS era and specifically awful against the run. Carroll probably agrees to some degree because there didn’t seem to be any attempt to retain Stephen as the team had often done with the one-year defensive linemen signings of yesteryear.

That’s 494 defensive tackle snaps that need to go somewhere else, plus another 132 from Nazair Jones, who has moved to defensive end. Consider that by the end of the season, Poona Ford and Stephen were roughly neck-and-neck for second-most snaps at defensive tackle behind Jarran Reed. Ford will be back but that still leaves about 30 snaps at the position to go somewhere else.

Demarcus Christmas was a sixth round pick and presumably selected by the Seahawks to compete as a run-stopper in the middle of the line. Here are a few things written about Christmas:

Christmas is a two-down run stuffer entering a league where stopping the pass is more important than ever. He’s not an elite run stuffer by any means, but he should be able to fight for a job as a rotational depth piece. He has the size and build required to play on clear running downs, and his college tape shows he’s capable of eating up double teams without losing his ground.

However, Christmas will need to work hard to even make it on an NFL roster. He’s a below-average athlete who doesn’t bring much of anything to the passing game. Players like Christmas need to have elite fundamentals to make up for the lack of athleticism, and Christmas’ technique still has a long way to go. Additionally, he doesn’t shed blocks well and often gets eaten up by faster linemen.

Even when he’s described as a “run-stuffer,” people note that Christmas isn’t even elite at the one thing he does. NFL.com said he lacked “consistency” in stopping the run at Florida State. He was playing 3-tech at mini-camp with Ken Norton praising Christmas for being “humble” but his lack of both athleticism and technique probably means that Christmas won’t be playing much in 2019. If he does though, it would be to stop the run.

The addition more likely to improve Seattle’s run defense in 2019 is defensive tackle Al Woods. The former Seahawk has played a lot of snaps over the last six years and primarily because of his run defense. PFF ranked him in the top-20 for run defense among DTs in 2017 but then his grade tumbled outside the top-100 in 2018, which is something you might expect a number that is arbitrary and made up to do. The reality though could be that Woods was a great run-stopper in 2017 and not-so-great last season, but all Seattle has to worry about is whether or not 2018 was the fluke or the red flag.

Jamie Meder, who last played for the Browns in 2017 and was signed to a futures contract in January, was called “a total run stuffer” by Brock Huard for whatever that’s worth. His former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said Meder is “one of the best run players in the NFL.” They might both have to beat out a guy who started 12 games for the Seahawks last year: Quinton Jefferson.

After playing 16 games with 12 starts at defensive end, Jefferson is competing on the interior this year, a position that #99 has been around and linked to since he was drafted. It seems it could suit him better than ever trying to rush the quarterback from the edge.

As of now those four players — Jefferson, Woods, Meder, Christmas — as well as undrafted free agents Bryan Mone and Jay-Tee Tiuli are competing to fill the vacancies left by Stephen and Jones. That is unless the team re-signs Ahytba Rubin, but he’ll also just be added to the competition and not guaranteed anything.

After all, this is the same team that cut Tom Johnson after one week last year.

At defensive end, the team traded Frank Clark to the Chiefs and drafted L.J. Collier in the first round. They also signed Ziggy Ansah and Cassius Marsh, moved Naz and Jacob Martin, and are hoping for a breakout year from Rasheem Green. Clark may have been fine against the run, but I don’t think he was Bennett. Collier is more like a defensive tackle playing defensive end — Red Bryant memories have been established — and Matty F Brown loves his potential as a run defender able to stack blocks.

Against the run, all the traits that make Collier such a vicious bull-rusher combine to make him a nasty run defender too. The strong base, forward lean, pad level and hand placement are superb. He gets in position so well and his hands are placed above his eyes.

The Seahawks have their 5-tech play with some two-gap principles. It requires reading of blocks and an ability to stack a block, then get the head into the playside gap. The linebackers behind frequently expect to be kept clean. This is a huge strength of Collier.

The Draft Network had this to say:

Run Defense - Asked to do a lot in TCU’s defense, including shoot interior gaps, 2-gap and drop into coverage and play in space. As a point-of-attack run defender he does well enough, but does get overwhelmed by doubles at times. Not much range or penetration ability to speak of. Needs to consistently maintain good depth to the line of scrimmage.

We spend so much time focusing on the pass rush for defensive ends (“How many sacks did he get?” “How’s the pressure affecting the quarterback’s time to throw?”) that we lose focus on their ability to stop the run. And the pass rush is of course no less important because of it, but Seattle didn’t have an answer for the loss of Bennett once they traded him. Not once Dion Jordan dion jordaned. Quinton Jefferson was underwhelming as a run-defender while never getting a sniff of whelm as a pass rusher.

Changes were necessary and they happened but it doesn’t stop at the defensive line.

Another issue was at weakside linebacker, where Wright only managed to play in five games and Mychal Kendricks could only get in four. That left 517 snaps for Barkevious Mingo, 282 for Austin Calitro, and 225 for rookie Jacob Martin. That’s a whole season of outside linebacker for three players who might not be qualified to start at outside linebacker for a defense that wants to be good against the run. Carroll’s answer for this?

  • Re-sign Wright to a two-year deal
  • Re-sign Kendricks to a one-year deal, and our own John Gilbert likes his chances for avoiding prison time in 2019
  • Draft Cody Barton in round three
  • Draft Ben Burr-Kirven in round five
  • Move Martin to defensive end
  • Move Shaquem Griffin to defensive end

They subtracted a couple of young players from the group and added two others in the draft who are more suited and experienced for the position. They’re also hoping that as long as Kendricks’ legal situation turns out positively and Wright returns to his usual healthy self, the Seahawks may have one of the three best linebacking corps in the NFL.

Finally, Carroll had to make some changes to the secondary after losing Earl Thomas and Justin Coleman to free agency. The Seahawks drafted safety Marquise Blair in round two, corner/safety Ugo Amadi in round four, and re-signed Akeem King. Blair has taken hits for his over-aggressive nature and poor tackling, but also noted for having potential to improve in those areas thanks to his length. Amadi’s strengths and weaknesses are quite similar: poor tackling, over-aggressive, but shows a willingness to try and may improve.

Seattle just may not have a tackler like Sherman at corner again, but Tre Flowers improved as the season went on and finished as one of the highest-graded corners against the run. I don’t care what the grade is or really even that it exists, but am I willing to believe that Flowers was not a part of the run defense problem last year? Yes. Given that he was a rookie playing corner for the first time in his life is that encouraging? Absolutely.

So let’s review the “new” defense:

  • The defensive line swaps Clark for Ziggy, Q-Jeff for Collier, more Poona Ford for no Shamar. It means that the Week 1 defensive line could be Collier-Jarran Reed-Ford-Marsh, should Ziggy start on PUP. It’ll also include Green in his second year, Woods at defensive tackle, and some combination of Branden Jackson, Jefferson, Jones, Meder, and Christmas.
  • The linebackers go from Bobby Wagner and a ward of some sort (rehab, criminal, you choose) to Wagner-Wright-Kendricks-Barton-Burr-Kirvin. (Note to self: you can’t dash all your linebackers anymore.) The Seahawks went from one of the worst linebacking groups around Wagner to perhaps the best. Perhaps. In the best case scenario it’s the best, but in an average scenario it should still be very good.
  • The secondary swaps Coleman for Amadi or King or perhaps Jamar Taylor and brings back Shaqull Griffin and Flowers at corner. Bradley McDougald returns at safety, while Blair, King, Tedric Thompson, Lano Hill, and Shalom Luani fight for snaps next to him.

In addition to additions (Collier, Ansah, Woods, Marsh, Christmas, Barton, Burr-Kirven, Blair) and subtractions (Clark, Stephen, Jordan, Coleman, Thomas) there were also position moves (Naz, Martin, Jefferson) to attempt to fix the defense. And on top of those personnel changes, regression itself should improve Seattle higher than 30th in yards per carry allowed and given Carroll’s reputation for being smart on defense, I think we can expect improvement on their DVOA ranking as well. We can add in hope that more time for younger players (Ford, Flowers, Green, a safety) will also bring in fruitful returns.

And fewer long runs against them.

The Seahawks went from 23rd in rushing in 2017 to first in 2018. From 21st in yards per carry to fifth. From 23rd in DVOA to sixth. Carroll and Schneider focused on how to fix that one thing and they did a great job of that. When most teams attempt similar turnarounds, they seem to fail or fall short. They overspend in free agency and panic in the draft. We know that Seattle doesn’t do things like that with this front office and they took a similar patient approach with the defense. Can they go from 30th to top-5?

They’re certainly trying.