The Seahawks played an anachronistic defense in 2019. Specifically, and to quote Vincent Verhei’s essay on Seattle in the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac:
“[T]he Seahawks essentially played the 2019 season without the benefit of a nickelback. Seattle used a base defense 69% of the time, nearly twice as often as the next team (Arizona at 38%).”
Passing the ball has never been more important to winning in the NFL, and it was already by far the most important part of winning in the NFL. Offenses have adapted. Fullbacks are rare. Tight ends are increasingly primarily pass catchers with only a token contribution to the run game. But, by staying in a base defense, the Seahawks emphasized stopping the run.
Well, they didn’t stop the run, fielding the worst run defense of the Carroll era, and in prioritizing stopping the run, the Seahawks further undermined an iffy at best pass defense. No one player can fix a defense. But I sincerely hope Jamal Adams can help Seattle fix its suicidal tendencies. You’ll see what I mean in a second, but first let’s revisit an all-time great play from Seattle’s Super Bowl winning season. I highlighted it in this post, but I didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of how and why it worked.
Here’s the all-22 look.
One might say this is Seattle being inflexible in a good way. The Seahawks adjusted their personnel but not their scheme, and if this were to become a pass, the Seahawks are ready to drop into a cover-3. Balancing one side of the Saints’ offense is tight end Jimmy Graham. Opposite we find three wide receivers: Kenny Stills, Lance Moore and Marques Colston, listed from widest to closest to the line.
Moving from the line of scrimmage outward, we can see that Seattle has emphasized pass rush. The line is very small. Here are the pre-draft weights of every player on that defensive line, for purposes of comparison.
Cliff Avril: 253
Michael Bennett: 274
Clinton McDonald: 283
Chris Clemons: 236
A line like this is not going to hold up against a sustained push, and needs to get into the gaps between linemen and disrupt the blocking, or separate and make a play. Key to achieving this is a really quick first step, and you can see Avril, Bennett and especially McDonald have absolutely fired out of the blocks. At minimum, the Seahawks defensive line needs to create discord.
Now let’s look into the second level.
Many Monte Kiffin inspired defenses which have favored smaller, quicker players have extended that preference throughout the defense. The 2008 Seahawks come to mind. A relatively small sub-package line like Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill, Rocky Bernard and Julian Peterson might play in front of other smaller than average players like Lofa Tatupu, Josh Wilson and Marcus Trufant.
One of the distinctive features of Carroll’s early defenses in Seattle is that while parts of it were small, particularly the sub-package defensive line, other parts were large to compensate. That created a balance. Above we see that Richard Sherman is matched against a tight end, but Sherman is 6’2”+. Kam Chancellor, playing opposite Marques Colston, is 6’3”+. Bobby Wagner was a relatively typical height and weight for a middle linebacker, but KJ Wright is nearly 6’4” and built like a defensive end. This allowed the Seahawks to prioritize rushing the passer without fear that the run defense would be flattened.
Now let’s look at a reasonably similar play from 2019.
New Orleans is on the opposite hash mark and has flipped its personnel, but its the same basic formation. The quarterback is in the pistol with a back. On one side we have the tight end. Jared Cook is just beneath the 40> opposite Tre Flowers. On the other, three wide receivers. Colston was New Orleans’ best wide receiver in 2013, and in the same tight not quite tight end position we find Michael Thomas, the league’s best wide receiver in 2019. Outside of him is Ted Ginn Jr and in the widest position Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Seattle sticks with base personnel. They’re running what looks pre-snap like a cover-2.
(The Seahawks were ahead against New Orleans in 2013, 6-0. Seattle was losing pretty badly in 2019, 20-7, and the pressure exerted by that lead should not be ignored. Comparisons are never perfect.)
That base personnel does not create a balance by pairing smaller defensive linemen with larger second-level players. Instead it’s simply large and slow and incapable of defending the pass. Let’s again consider this group from the defensive line out.
Quinton Jefferson: 291
Poona Ford: 306
Al Woods: 309
Jadeveon Clowney: 266
Big, but bad at rushing the passer. If we use hits and sacks as measures of pass rush, we get this position by position difference:
Avril to Jefferson: -4.5 sacks; -4 hits
Bennett to Ford: -8 sacks; -23 hits
McDonald to Woods: -4.5 sacks; -13 hits
Clemons to Clowney: -1.5 sacks; +3 hits
Sizable decline, especially from the interior, and Avril’s superiority to Jefferson as a pass rusher is likely a bit understated there. In truth, Jefferson had one really good week of football in 2019. Whereas Avril was a consistent contributor in 2013.
The second level is mostly the same except that Kam’s job has been filled by linebacker Mychal Kendricks. In some ways, it’s not such a crazy trade off. Only their respective positions make it seem odd, but Kendricks is very quick and agile for a linebacker, and Kam was relatively slow for a safety. But, as one might expect, Kam was definitely the better pass defender. Also missing from the second level is a nickelback. Seattle opts to keep two safeties back instead.
Once the play starts, the tactical unsoundness of Seattle’s defense becomes painfully evident.
Only Clowney fires off the snap, and he’s easily behind the pace set by Avril, Bennett and McDonald. Nothing in the way of pass rush is created.
Jeff’s probably best but Teddy Bridgewater is pretty much unbothered. It’s like a practice rep. Seattle’s cover 2 just can’t squeeze down on seam plays like its cover 3 can, and Thomas (13) strolls into a gaping opening.
Alvin Kamara puts a lot of stress on Wagner as an underneath defender, but that doesn’t explain this.
This is typical leaky zone coverage. The quarterback can calmly survey the field. Holes in the zone are so numerous as to make one question the entire idea of zone defense. This is what I mean by “suicidal tendencies.” Pass rush would help, but Bridgewater’s pass comes out very quickly. Execution can always be improved, but it’s difficult to determine who could have better covered Thomas or how. That hole is schemed in.
How does Seattle fix that? Adams cannot do it himself, of course, but he should help Seattle to move back to a cover 3, and the cover 3 is notably less vulnerable to such gaping holes in its zones. Let’s look at New Orleans play design and match it against a cover 3.
The Saints create three levels of horizontal breaking routes.
This actually looks like cover 4, with Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin both staying over top their receivers. Well, bless Flowers, that’s what I think he’s trying to do. The extremely conservative nature of Seattle’s cover scheme is self-evident. When Bridgewater’s lobbed, inexplicably high pass is mid-flight, Bradley MacDougald is positioned nearly 15 yards behind the first-down marker, and 25 yards from the line of scrimmage. Delano Hill (42) is nearly as deep, though who or what he’s covering is anyone’s guess. But I think what we’re seeing here may best be described as cascading failures.
Seattle lacks the overall ability to defend the run, and so the base defensive line is played against a pass-first formation.
The lack of pass rush forces Seattle to defend the deep pass.
The lack of an Earl Thomas style cover 1 safety forces Seattle to play two safeties deep, opening up many, many holes in its zones.
The lack of a box safety forces Wagner to cover his zone and keep tabs on Kamara.
Now let’s look at this play against a cover 3.
We’ll put Quandre Diggs at free safety, Adams at strong, and in the spirit of compensating small players at one position with larger players at another, Marquise Blair at big nickel.
Admittedly, this is all a bit silly and my photoshop skills leave much to be desired. Diggs better get on his damn horse and move to his left, too, because he looks suspiciously similar to how he might pre-snap. And uh Adams is green. Adams is still playing in his Jets uniform for some reason. But here’s what’s right about the graphic.
Diggs can play deep middle freeing Adams to play close to the line. There he can track Kamara freeing Wagner to drop a bit deeper in his underneath coverage and make it, at least, much harder for Thomas to get open. Blair can sink deep enough from the nickel position to free Griffin from the burden of defending two deep routes on the right.
Suddenly the spacing looks much more intuitively right, much less botched. That doesn’t give Seattle the kind of players to create a formidable sub-package defensive line, but Adams presence so close does at least make for easier to design blitzes from a nickel package. A line of Bruce Irvin, Jarran Reed, LJ Collier and Benson Mayowa is similar in type to the above line of Clemons, MacDonald, Bennett and Avril.
(I loved the addition of Irvin whose speed and agility contribute even when he’s not directly involved in the play. We can hope Reed bounces back to his 2018 form. I do not know much about Mayowa. As for Collier, the presumptive bust, I will say Schneider is right when he said the kid has “heavy hands.” He should be able to separate if nothing else. A Bennett-like contribution does not seem impossible.)
Setting aside consideration of the cost of the trade, it is now at least possible for me to see the purpose of the trade. Adams ultimately is not a physical match for Kam, but he definitely plays bigger than his size. He’s also quicker, faster and a better overall athlete. Nickel defense is becoming the new base defense, and for teams who build their scheme off stopping the run, finding a way to play nickel without forfeiting run defense is essential. Seattle opted to sacrifice pass defense or at least pass defenders in that pursuit in 2018. It didn’t work.
Adams, if this all works out, should create a cascade of successes. His presence as a run defender should allow Seattle to play nickel more frequently. Adding a DB to the field should allow Seattle to revert back to its preferred use of a single high safety. That, and a full-season’s play of Diggs, of course. If Adams proves to be truly a transformative talent, his presence may even allow the Seahawks to roll with more sub-package lines. If it can, suicidal coverage schemes and personnel groupings like the one we see above should all but vanish.