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Bryan Mone, Poona Ford and the art of fixing a run defense by doing nothing

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Someone needs to buy Jamal Adams an Arizer Solo II. I own a Volcano. The Solo produces far milder and more tasty vapor. Adams certainly has the incentive and cash to do better than a ratty looking spliff. Prez has enough dead presidents representing him to buy the best.

It’s nice to think of an NFL paycheck going to a noble cause. This is not a post about Bryan Mone being a good dude but word is Mone’s an awfully good dude. This is a post about how Mone, Poona Ford and Anthony Rush are contributing good value for relative pennies. Luckily for them, in the world of professional sports, relative pennies are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. They’re like bitcoin without the forever looming collapse in value.

Heading into the season the Seattle Seahawks appeared to be thin at defensive tackle. Well, they’re not. The Seahawks have employed a specific strategy at defensive tackle for most of the Pete Carroll era. One might say Carroll has depreciated the position. It has become a specialist position easy to fill, almost like kicker or punter.

For years Seattle has employed one or more typically oversized run stuffing defensive tackles who contribute almost nothing as a pass rusher. The Seahawks forfeit interior pass rush on early downs and against base formations while limiting yards after catch. The trick, so to speak, is to erase long touchdown scoring plays, allow a passing offense to unravel through incompletions, penalties or sacks, and win the vast majority of opposing rush attempts. That is, turn runs into negative EPA plays for the opposing offense. This should force passing downs. When facing passing downs or passing formations, defensive ends become pass rushing defensive tackles. Seattle’s effective pass rush exceeds its overall pass rush. In theory.

Sometimes this strategy fails. Obviously, Dan Quinn knows that something awful. But it’s mostly worked, notable, stab-in-the-gut, kick-in-the-balls examples notwithstanding. When Seattle has had a good run stuffing defensive tackle, the run defense has excelled.

As the specialist defensive tackle Ford and Mone succeed Tony McDaniel, Alan Branch and Ahtyba Rubin. Seattle attempted to fill the position with Malik McDowell and I think McDowell would have crushed it, but fate and youthful indiscretion interceded. That led to three seasons of nobody filling the role, and three seasons of bad run defense. Let’s look at the different eras and Seattle’s ranking in run defense as determined by DVOA.

The holdover era

Colin Cole (2010): 24

The big tackle era

Alan Branch (2011, 2012): 10, 10

Tony McDaniel (2013, 2014, 2016): 8, 3, 5

Ahtyba Rubin: (2015, 2016): 4, 5

The aftermath era

Jarran Reed? (2017): 16, 23

Shamar Stephen? (2018): 16

Poona Ford (2019): 23

The comeback

Ford/Bryan Mone (2020): 6

Neither Reed nor Stephen quite fit the requirements of the role, which is why I included a “?”. They were ersatz fixes after the McDowell pick went off the rails. Reed had a reputation as a run stuffer coming out of college but is clearly better as a pass rusher. I’m on the fence about Ford. He can sure crush a single block. But I do not think he fills quite enough space nor eats enough blocks to quite fit the position.

Ford and Mone have more or less alternated at what the gamebook calls the nose tackle position. Here’s how the team did against the run depending on who was on the field. No scrambles counted!

Reed + Ford: +0.12 EPA, +0.24, -0.35, -0.64, -0.84, +0.67, +0.26

Rush + Ford: -0.66*

Anthony Rush + Mone: -0.28, -0.16, -0.13, +0.32, -0.14, +0.49, -1.64,

Reed + Alton Robinson: 0.77

*(Value lost by a holding penalty.

Ereck Flowers holds Rush while Ford was swept to the ground and out of the play—Rush deserves 100% of the value of this holding penalty.)

Let’s compare the two major combinations by success and total EPA added or lost. Lost, in this case, is better.

Reed + Ford: 57% success allowed; -0.54 EPA

Rush + Mone: 29% success allowed; -1.54 EPA

Against one team, in a small sample, Mone and Rush were more effective against the run. It’s not enough information to make any grand assessments, but my read is that while Ford is better at walking back a single blocker, Mone is much better at maintaining his gap against double teams and just all around better at holding ground laterally. This can be seen on the snap in which Robinson tackled Myles Gaskin for a loss of two.

Mone never moves an inch backward nor allows any kind of edge. Damontre Moore is eventually forced back, but at the critical moment he holds the edges and cedes little ground. They turn four Dolphins blockers into an obstacle Gaskin must avoid. After that … should I say it? Robinson has a little Cliff Avril in him.

Ford is more often washed or turned, and—it’s silly and amateurish of me to suggest this but—I think Mone would make a more natural partner for Reed. Who is the only generalist of the group and possibly the worst pure run defender. He’s by far the best at beating single blocks and by far the best pass rusher. Mone would keep him clean and better able to do what he does best.

Whatever the case, Seattle has at least two really good run stuffing defensive tackles. They hardly cost a thing. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in fearing the run defense might falter with one of its leaders at home tarring up his lungs. It didn’t, and I think that’s a product of Seattle’s strategy.

Russian Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower said:

“Tactics is what you do when there is something to do; strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do.”

Tactically, Seattle has made great use of sub-packages and hybrid defensive linemen. They’ve started unheralded defensive tackles who mostly eat blockers and improve spacing. The offseason is a time for strategy. It’s how a team ensures the tactics it wishes to employ during the season have a good chance of working. Many people including me wanted them to sign or draft a defensive tackle. With nothing to do, it seemed an awful lot like they did nothing.

The Seahawks trusted the scrappy, no-name defensive tackles on the fringes of their roster to grow and develop. Restraint often appears outwardly like inaction, but whether it was a bluff or a purposeful act, doing nothing has worked terrifically. Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.