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Where have all the linebackers gone?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Training Camp Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has rolled to September, meaning the start of the 2022 NFL season is right around the corner, however many fans of the Seattle Seahawks are still wondering when the team might get around to addressing the linebacker position. It’s a question that’s been at the forefront for many since the team released future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner on March 8, and then largely failed to address the position in any meaningful way during the offseason.

Thus, in spite of the wishes of fan, and even many in the media, the Hawks are set to open the season with a depth chart that is extremely light at off ball linebacker behind Jordyn Brooks and Cody Barton. Therefore, the primary question to be answered regarding the position is what exactly are the Seahawks doing?

The answer is simple, they’re building a roster that is designed to compete in the NFL in 2022, not 2012.

The simple fact of the matter is that every season the NFL becomes more and more of a passing league, and it doesn’t matter how good the cornerbacks on a team are if the offense can dictate matchups and force a linebacker to cover a receiver. Sure, there are certainly linebackers with high level coverage skills, but boiling things down to the simple reality, if a linebacker is covering a wide receiver in the NFL, there’s a very good chance that wide receiver is going to be open.

The solution to this is simple, take the linebackers off the field and replace them with defensive backs who are better in coverage. The downside to this strategy is that, obviously, defensive backs tend to be smaller than linebackers, so it’s an invitation for the offense to run the ball.

But here’s the thing - always running is a strategy that is doomed to fail more often than it works. No matter how dominant a team is running the ball, at the end of the day the median run in the NFL goes for three yards, and the odds of stringing together a drive built off running the ball are extremely long. An offense running the ball exclusively is literally playing into the strategy of dinking and dunking its way down the field that Pete Carroll’s defensive strategy is built around, in that eventually it’s extremely likely that a team will fail to convert on third down and be forced to punt.

Thus, part of the philosophical foundation of the defense the Seahawks are trotting out in 2022, the Fangio defense, is to encourage the opponent to run and run often. It’s far better to give up an extra yard or two or three because a defensive back couldn’t fulfill the role of a linebacker in the run game than it is to give up multiple explosive passing plays per game because a linebacker was unable to fulfill the duties of a defensive back.

Basically, Seahawks fans need to adjust their expectations because the new scheme will be using a lot of nickel and dime packages where linebackers aren’t used nearly as extensively. This should be a welcome change for Seattle fans, who watched the defensive unit in 2021 try to cover a receiver with a linebacker more often than any other team in the league.

And that’s what it all comes down to. An offense has a far greater advantage when it can dictate mismatches in coverage by forcing a linebacker to try and slow down a wide receiver. The simplest way to overcome that is by taking the linebackers off the field and using more defensive backs. To illustrate just this, here are comparisons of the snap counts for the 2021 Los Angeles Rams and the 2021 Seahawks.

2021 snap counts for Seahawks and Rams off ball linebackers

Rams Off Ball LB Snaps Played Seahawks Off BAll LB Snaps Played
Rams Off Ball LB Snaps Played Seahawks Off BAll LB Snaps Played
Troy Reeder 681 Bobby Wagner 1128
Ernest Jones 440 Jordyn Brooks 1107
Kenny Young 384 Cody Barton 189
Travin Howard 101 N/A 0
Jamir Jones 51 N/A 0
Justin Lawler 18 N/A 0
Chris Garrett 4 N/A 0
Total 1679 Total 2424
Team Def Snaps 1163 Team Def Snaps 1266
Total/Team Def Snaps 1.44 Total/Team Def Snaps 1.914691943

It’s really that simple. The reason the Seahawks have not spent any time going after depth or better talent at the linebacker position is because it’s not a position that is of great demand in the Fangio scheme. It’s certainly true that the team will be running a base 3-4 defense, but the reality is that they are likely to only be in that base configuration about a quarter of the time. They are likely to play a whole lot of:

  • 3-3-5 with two outside linebackers on the field (Uchenna Nwosu and Darrell Taylor likely),
  • 4-2-5 with Nwosu as an off ball coverage linebacker and Taylor or Boye Mafe effectively playing LEO and
  • 4-1-6 with Brooks as the lone off ball linebacker.

And that’s it. No need to spend a lot of time worrying about where the inside linebacker depth is going to come from because in all likelihood the team’s defense is going to have just a single off ball linebacker on the field for the majority of plays. In the place of that linebacker will be a defensive back, which should help explain the positional breakdown of the current roster in terms of why it’s so heavy on defensive backs and light on linebackers.