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Defining the Seahawks' Defense: Pete Carroll's Journey

From Arkansas to Minnesota to New York to San Francisco to Boston to Los Angeles.

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"Sitting in the film room one day in Arkansas, coach Lou Holtz asked me what I thought of our twenty-five-year-old graduate assistant, who happened to be sitting in the back of the room taking notes. My response was short and simple:

'Coach, get to know this young man because he won't be here very long - he's born to be a head coach.'" ~ Monte Kiffin on Pete Carroll, from Win Forever

With the boyish demeanor and enthusiastic energy that Pete Carroll espouses on the field, it's easy to forget that he's also been in the professional football business for more than twenty years. At 61, Carroll is currently the second oldest head coach in the league behind Tom Coughlin of the Giants, and has already established his share of a coaching tree within the college and NFL ranks. He isn't just some up-and-coming riser with an innovative knack for defense, but rather a traditionalist who outlined a philosophy that he now fully believes in.

Just like every other playbook in the NFL, a lot of the philosophies and identities the Seahawks use today were once used by different teams in the past, and at the core of this "new" defense we're talking about are the same aspects or factors that Carroll worked with in those twenty years. It's safe to say with the amount of players and coaches he's had to work with there must be some influence on the way this team is built.

So this is what this article is about - how Pete Carroll came to be the strategist he is now and he how he has arguably created the most interesting and perfected scheme in the league today:

"Of all the great coaches I have worked with, none would have a more fundamental impact on the tactical side of my coaching than Monte Kiffin." - Pete Carroll, Learning to Coach

As reiterated by Danny here, Monte Kiffin remains to be the biggest influence on Carroll's development of his scheme. Kiffin, as I wrote on the last post, revolutionized defenses with his Tampa 2 scheme, which featured quickness over size and a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. More elements of Kiffin's own defensive philosophy could be seen below:


Again, a lot of similarities right? The Seahawks primarily run a 4-3. Coaches preach gap control and attacking with the defensive line. Strong rolling suggests that the OLB might come down when we play an under; we use man-on-man with Sherman and Browner but there's also zone in Cover 2, and finally there are complicated packages that Carroll uses as well with Amoeba/Bandit.

Offered Carroll himself: "During that time I got to work with Monte Kiffin's staff on defense. He had been at Nebraska before he came to Arkansas. I think he is one of the best coaches in the United States. He is just an unbelievable coach. He ran a 4-3 under defense that he perfected at Nebraska and they won a national title and many conference titles while he was there in the 1970's. He brought that same defense to Arkansas. I have been running that same base defense since 1977 when I learned it from him. I have used variations of this defense my entire career. I have stayed with its principles through all my years of coaching. I have a real strong belief in this defense. I know the defense and its adjustments so well that my belief system in it is strong and rock solid."

Of course, what's perhaps the most important question regarding Kiffin's scheme was whether or not it was effective, and as you can tell be the longevity of the Tampa 2 by its continued usage today (interestingly by Kiffin himself in Dallas). The Kiffin's Tampa 2 would've perhaps shown its fullest potential under its tenure with the Buccaneers, where the trio of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber capped perhaps the best defensive performance at the Super Bowl in 2002 with five turnovers and five sacks. While Sapp was always highlighted as the best three-technique to have ever played, Brooks and Barber were both faulted at the draft for being too small. However, Kiffin used their quickness and tackling ability to his advantage, and like Carroll, made third round selections and draft reaches into Hall of Fame players.

Kiffin would "take" Carroll with him to his first NFL gig, which would be under Bud Grant and the MInnesota Vikings. He would stay there for six more seasons and would notably coach a 6'2, 200 lb. DB named Joey Browner...

"I loved everything about the coaching life - the strategy, the tactics, the focus, and the pace. I loved the tight-knit intensity of coaching a position group, and in my close relationship with the guys I coached, I guess I developed - for better or worse - a reputation for being a "player's coach".

Not everyone saw that as a positive, but I always felt it was important to have a relationship with the players I coached." - Hard Lessons in New York


Aug 1, 1992; Canton, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; New York Jets defensive coordinator Pete Carroll on the sideline during the 1992 Hall of Fame Game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Fawcett Stadium. Photo By USA TODAY Sports Copyright USA TODAY Sports

Carroll was officially named the defensive coordinator of the Jets in 1990, and would stay at that position until he was promoted to his first stint as a NFL Head Coach in 1994 when he had led the defense to 6th in the league just a season before. With some control over play-calling duties and roster building for the first time in his career, this was the opportunity for Carroll to test out the scheme he always wanted to build. Let's roll the tape:


As you can see here, the 4-3 influence is easily observed with the defensive line's positioning. Note also how the OLB drops down to the strong to cover the slot/TE instead of bringing a safety down - which is what we're doing right now as well!


At the time, of course, Carroll was also running more Kiffin Tampa 2 and conventional 4-3, which is why you see quicker DE's playing a closer position and the safety covering the middle (also known as Cover 3, which is again what we usually run!)

Jets2_medium Jets3_medium

Also, there was a lot of confusion and curiosity back in Week 2 or 3 last season when Carroll publicly supported Greg Schiano for playing full speed at a kneel down against the Giants one game. That was probably because Carroll himself was burned by something similar, known as Marino's Fake Spike:

(via jillian ricard)

A 6-10 season would be enough for the Jets, and Carroll was canned after only one year at the helm. Nevertheless, his scheme drew many interest from different teams, including one of Denver lead by an up-and-comer named Mike Shanahan. Carroll, at the last minute, changed course and instead took a job with the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, where his defensive scheme will evolve again into another dimension.

"The 49ers had been the team I had rooted for as a kid, and I was honored to coach for them and George [Seifert]. being a defensive coach himself, he easily could have micromanaged me, but instead he allowed me to call the defense and have an ownership of our scheme." - The 49ers Way


Aug 18, 1995; San Francisco, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; San Francisco 49ers head coach George Siefert (left) and Pete Carroll (right) prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park. Photo by USA TODAY Sports

Carroll probably coached the best defense of his career with the 49ers at the time (they were ranked 2nd in points allowed and 1st and yards allowed in 1995), and the roster was stacked with perhaps an equal amount of instinctiveness, athleticism, and speed. One such player would be hard-nosed All-Pro linebacker Ken Norton Jr who would often trash-talk to his teammates, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, in practice. Needless to say, Norton was hired by Carroll when he was first at USC, and is now currently the linebackers coach for the Seahawks.

The Niners' defensive line, while usually playing in 4-3 formation, unusually played two-gap football. As Carroll said: "We mixed the concepts of one-gap football and two-gap football in a very unique way in San Francisco," harkening back to 1995-1996. "And we played great defense."

"We made some scheme adjustments to the style that was here in years past, and really the style that I've been playing in college, and I flipped it all the way back to when I was at San Francisco. [That] was the last time we've played this formula of defense."

Carroll also had an amazing All-Pro safety duo who were amazingly comparable to Seattle's safety duo today. The starting lineup included: Free Safety Merton Hanks, who measured at 6'2, was hard-hitting, and had a nickname called "Bamm-Bamm" and had a famous chicken dance. On the other side was Tim McDonald, also at 6'2, but was more instinctive and caught more interceptions than his partner in crime. (McDonald's son, T.J. would also play for Carroll under USC and was recently drafted by Gus Bradley and the Jaguars) I have no doubt the experience with Hands and McDonald was a big reason why Carroll sought the need to keep Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor together in Seattle's secondary.

Then there was Coach Seifert himself, who would introduce Carroll to the LEO position. As Jene Baramel wrote in the New York Times: "Carroll [uses] a pass-rushing variation that was first popularized by George Seifert in San Francisco. Looking to create mismatches anywhere he could against opposing offensive lines, Seifert allowed his weakside defensive end to move around his defensive formation to rush the passer from either side of the defense from a two-point stance. Players like Charles Haley, Chris Doleman, Rickey Jackson and Tim Harris filled this "Elephant" role with great success."


And again:


Finally, there was the legendary Bill Walsh, who was a consultant for the coaching staff at the time but one from whom Carroll consistently heeded advice. In addition to Walsh explaining his idea of a good QB, the defensive philosophies that he had during the "Golden 80's" still resound in Carroll's own roster building. Walsh describes his ideal 3-technique:

"Ideally, his size is 6-2, 290. Must have the girth, strength, ballast to hold off the guard, or to step into a tackles' block without being knocked off the line of scrimmage. Quick, strong hands to grab and pull are critical. This is common with the great tackles. The hands, the arms, the upper body strength and then the quick feet to take advantage of a moving man, just getting him off balance.

You are looking for somebody who can move down the line of scrimmage and make a tackle, pursuing a ball-carrier. That would be lateral quickness in a short area, being able to get underway and move over and through people. If you get knocked off the line, or get knocked sideways or knocked off balance, you cannot play this position. You must be able to work your way through people, so that kind of strength is a must.

The best defensive tackles move the offensive guard back into the quarterback. They won't have nearly as many sacks as others, but if they can move the guard back into the quarterback, then the quarterback has to avoid his own lineman as if he were a pass rusher before he throws the ball. So this is a key ability."

Sounds like someone in particular?

Despite having putting some of the most talented and well-rounded teams on the field, the 49ers would not repeat a Super Bowl appearance until this past February. And Carroll, enjoying the taste of success with his hometown, would again get another chance at the HC job with the Patriots two years later.

"They had a culture in place that was different from mine, and they were highly skeptical of embracing wholesale change. While they wanted to resemble the 49ers, they were very comfortable with certain aspects of their organization...I was about to learn an important lesson about the difficulty of implementing change in an established organization." - Getting Closer in New England


Aug 16, 1997; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Pete Carroll on the sideline against the Denver Broncos at Foxboro Stadium. FILE PHOTO; Photo by USA TODAY Sports

If Carroll traded up in taking the 49ers defensive coordinator job, then he might've landed one of the better gigs at the time taking on the 1997 New England Patriots. The Pats were a brilliant team that had just made the Super Bowl the previous year. On offense was a core group of stars under 1st overall pick Drew Bledsoe, a young buck RB known as Curtis Martin, a dynamic Troy Brown, a solid offensive line and Terry Glenn in his prime.

But what the Patriots had the most capital in was defense. This unit was comparably young and aggressive. Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law and Ted Johnson were all in their third years. Willie McGinest was in his fourth. Lawyer Milloy was in his second.

One problem. The coach that Carroll was replacing was a man known as Bill Parcells. Now, the last time I wrote about Parcells I mentioned he was a pioneer like Carroll, except that he was a innovator of the 3-4, not the 4-3. And as you can tell by the roster he constructed above, it shows that he was still fully committed to this scheme even ten years past the Giants era. Parcells took practically every incumbent staff with him - namely Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel.

So what does Carroll do now? He doesn't have the right personnel to fit his scheme, most of his staff are new, and no one was going to overturn the AFC Champion roster. The answer lies in the implementation of 3-4 concepts into a 4-3 defense, and had shades of what we know today as the Seahawks' defense.

For example: Bruschi, at 6'1 and 250 lb. was considered undersized as a DE, was moved to a OLB by Parcells in the Lawrence Taylor role. Under Carroll, Bruschi was the starting WILL and the primary pass rusher, similar to a role that might be employed by K.J. Wright this year. Chris Slade, who used to be the opposite OLB to Bruschi, moved down to DE and played the LEO.


Carroll's lack of speed and athleticism within the LB corps also led him to use DB-oriented schemes, which we now know as the Bandit and Amoeba packages. As you can see here:


Compared to this:


So there you have it. The different idiosyncrasies from different schemes that evolved over the years, and are implemented into the Seahawks' defense today. The 4-3 Under and Tampa 2 Cover Schemes from Monte Kiffin. The LEO, hard-nosed ILB and Big Secondary under George Seifert. The 3-4 components and Bandit package with New England. Schemes aren't created out of thin air, and the journey through Carroll's history proves the long and weary road he has traveled to create what we now see as extraordinary.