Football fans across the league are still shocked at the trade the Seattle Seahawks made to add safety Jamal Adams from the New York Jets in continued efforts to improve a defense that has seen its performance slide in recent seasons. While Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor once shared the Seattle secondary with the likes of Richard Sherman and DeShawn Shead, the names that occupied the Hawks’ secondary lineup in 2019 were far less recognizable across the league.
That’s not to say that Tre Flowers, Shaquill Griffin, Quandre Diggs and Bradley McDougald are bad players, simply that they aren’t currently the caliber of players with which the Legion of Boom was filled for much of the last decade. As such, between the slide in performance by the secondary and the Seahawks lack of a pass rush during much of 2019, most fans assumed the team would go all out to address that pass rush deficiency. Instead, the Seahawks have done the exact opposite, as they spent much of the offseason all but ignoring the pass rush while trading for both Diggs and Quinton Dunbar.
Why would the team do that? Why would the team work to further address an up and coming secondary rather than look to fill out a defensive front that is currently down half of its starts from last season? The answer appears to be what some observers have pointed out is apparently a conscious effort for the Seahawks to put a debate that has been ongoing in the media to the test, specifically, whether pass rush or coverage is more important.
Value of pass rush vs. pass coverage has been a popular topic of recent NFL debate.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) July 26, 2020
Whether by this design or not, #Seahawks are fully embracing building around their secondary & likely to field one of the NFL’s weakest pass rushes.
So, why would a team go all in on building around coverage while largely failing to address the pass rush? One part of the answer is that average to premium coverage players rarely come available on the eve of the season, while the fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of pass rush on the free agent market. There were only four Seahawks defenders who recorded at least eight quarterback hits in 2019 - Jadeveon Clowney (13), Quinton Jefferson (10), Ziggy Ansah (8) and Jarran Reed (8) - and two of them remain free agents. Further, there were eight front seven defenders for the Hawks who recorded at least two sacks in 2019, the four listed above plus Mychal Kendricks (3), Rasheem Green (4), Bobby Wagner (3) and Branden Jackson (2), and two more of those players remain unsigned. Add in other free agent names like Mike Daniels, Everson Griffen and Vinny Curry who remain available and teams looking for pass rush help know its out there if they want to spend the money.
In short, the paltry pass rush the Hawks fielded during the 2019 season could largely be brought back if the team were to decide that that is an effective use of its cap space. However, there are not a lot of free agent defensive backs available who are likely difference makers. Luckily, the Hawks have largely already addressed the secondary, a unit that is far more difficult to build because of the nature of coverage versus pass rash. Specifically, the general idea is the following:
Did Seattle spend a lot to get Adams?— John P. Gilbert (@JohnPGilbertNFL) July 26, 2020
Did they need to?
With what appears to be a pass rush that is likely to be limited in 2020, they'll need solid coverage in the secondary.
Coverage is a weak link group, meaning one player can drag down the performance of the entire group.— John P. Gilbert (@JohnPGilbertNFL) July 26, 2020
Between Dighs, Adams, Griffin, Flowers and Dunbar, Seattle now has the potential to not have a glaring weak spot in the secondary.
That should create additional opportunities for the pass rush as QBs are forced to hold the ball longer.— John P. Gilbert (@JohnPGilbertNFL) July 26, 2020
Pass rush is a strong link unit, meaning one player can disproportionately impact performance to the upside, especially when the secondary is outperforming.
With a tip of the hat to @AdamHarstad because the weak link/strong link idea is his— John P. Gilbert (@JohnPGilbertNFL) July 26, 2020
Like most of my ideas it's not actually my idea. I think the first time I saw someone applying the concept to football might have been @bburkeESPN back in 2009, but even then, it seems like one of those concepts that have just been hanging around forever.https://t.co/TYsSVjQc89— Adam Harstad (@AdamHarstad) July 26, 2020
What all that boils down to is that when it comes to secondary play a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Say for example one were to construct a secondary that consisted of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in their primes at safety, with a peak Richard Sherman at one corner spot and the other cornerback position manned by me, John P. Gilbert. While I would, unquestionably, be the best looking member of that secondary, there would be absolutely zero question about where the opposing team would go on every single passing play. It wouldn’t matter who I was lined up across from, any competent offensive coordinator would quickly realize the ability to take advantage of the slow, heavy footed cornerback whose man was always open, and the opponent would simply march up and down the field by throwing to the guy I’m guarding. In spite of a build (6’2”, 190 pounds) and the 33” arm length the Seahawks look for, my 5.2 40 speed and 7.9 3-cone time simply aren’t going to cut it against any NFL wide receivers. Bryan Walters would look fast and elusive on film matched up against me, and offensive coordinators would simply go to town.
That’s what is meant by a weak link unit. It’s a group whose performance will be defined by the weakest link within the group, much like a chain.
Secondary play is certainly a weak link unit, however, pass rush is the opposite in that it is a strong link unit.
Harking back to the example where a team is so bad they have to put me on the field, imagine a defensive line with four John P. Gilberts lined up across the defensive front. Again, while it would be the best looking front four in the history of the known universe, it would generate zero pass rush and the only run stopping capability provided by such a front would be the turf monster occasionally tripping a ball carrier. However, if the team replaced just one of those John P. Gilberts on the defensive line with Jadeveon Clowney, the group’s performance would improve instantly. This is because of the simple fact that a single pass rusher can levy a greater impact on a game than any individual member of the secondary.
However, on the flip side, a secondary without a weak link has the overall ability to impact a play greater than any individual pass rusher because if a receiver never gets open, every pass play is likely to eventually end in a sack.
So, are the Seahawks looking to take to the field in 2020 and put the pass rush versus coverage debate to the test on the field? Or did they spend the offseason addressing a weak link unit while knowing that the strong link pass rush unit can be addressed anytime by opening up the checkbook between now and the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons on September 13. Whatever their thinking was, the team is in position to potentially address its pass rush through free agency in the coming weeks while having taken the steps necessary to shore up the weak link secondary. Now the only question appears to be whether fans will actually get a season to put this to the test on the field.