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The Seahawks and the 4-3 Under Front: Winds of change?

The over-front vs. the under-front.

Look at how big this human being is.
Look at how big this human being is.
Steve Dykes

"I like where I'm at in terms of my agility. I've got to constantly work on my weight, but I like where I'm at right now. I don't see anything that's going to stop me from taking that next step and being considered the top five-technique in the game. That's definitely my goal. It's been great getting DQ (Dan Quinn) back because there's familiarity there. There's just some subtle changes in terms of how he's going to play me. He's basically putting me back to where I'm going to be on the tackle the majority of the time, in a phone booth and just getting back to the basics of playing heavy on a guy and just being disruptive."

- Red Bryant

With Chris Clemons likely to begin the 2013 NFL season on the PUP list, Red Bryant inherits the title of highest-paid active player on the Seahawks' defense with a $6.6 M salary and a $7.6M cap hit. This upcoming season is a big one for big Red - and he knows he has to play at a level more commensurate with his salary after a disappointing 2012. Last year, the big defensive end was fairly quiet (at times downright ineffective) due in part to a lingering and constant plantar fascia injury. He wants to be the top five-tech in the game? I'd say that's a damn good goal - establishing himself as one of the best defensive players on his own team is a better place to start though.

Bryant mentioned recently in interviews that he never really recovered from his foot issues during last season - it was a week-to-week battle and really the only way to get over that particular injury is time off. Free agent acquisition Cliff Avril recently injured his plantar fascia as well and will take at least five weeks off with no stress to his foot - so imagine trying to get back out on the field every six or seven days to aggravate what I've heard is an excruciatingly painful ailment. All while carrying around 323 pounds.

Now, let's keep in mind that Red did start every game and the Seahawks ended up surrendering the fewest points in the NFL, so it's not like he was an abject failure at what he was asked to do - but after a injury shortened but fairly dominating 2010 season and a strong 2011 campaign that helped earn him his big free agent deal, I think it's fair to say that 2012 was a disappointment. While the plantar fasciitis was a big part of Red's quiet year, perhaps Seattle's scheme changes played a part as well.

In 2012, we saw Seattle move to a 4-3 Over Front look way, way more often than in prior years, where the 4-3 Under Front looks were the mainstay 'base' formation for the Hawks. As a quick refresher - we always use Pete Carroll's now-famous 4-3 Under Front workshop to glean how he uses individual players in his scheme, but the 'old-school' Carroll 5-tech is described as such:

The defensive end to the tight end side needs to be a defensive player that can play the run. He does not have to be a big time pass rusher, but he has to play the C gap and stop the run.

Red checks those boxes. Not a big time pass rusher, but can stop the run. In Carroll's old scheme, the five-technique was a one-gap player. Here's how he described it.

The defensive end to the tight end side is responsible for controlling the C gap. He is an inside-foot to outside-foot alignment on the offensive tackle he is lining up against. If the tackle blocks inside then the defensive end has to close down with him in keep relative control of the C gap.

You'll see this on run plays - if the right tackle in front of Red blocks down with the rest of the line, Red must keep control of his gap while moving laterally and not giving up much ground. That's not an easy thing, but in his heyday, Red was adept at this, plus was a very tough man to move off his spot if the play was coming at him.

If the solid side defensive end is aligned in the strong side C gap he simply can not get hooked. He has to control that gap as does each position on the defensive line.

In other words - own that C-gap. Be a badass. Don't get hooked. DON'T. GET. HOOKED. This is what made Red so good in 2010 and 2011, and it's the reason he earned his big new salary.

Now - that's a general description, and from when Carroll was still at USC, one-gapping almost exclusively, and generally speaking, things have obviously changed since then. Kind of a lot. Over the last several years, the Seattle defense has evolved every season - different proclivities and preferences - and Bryant now has two-gap responsibilities at times and is a one-gap player at others. This is a big deal, because being responsible for two-gaps (ie, C and D gap to the strong side) is a very different mentality than simply minding the C-gap, as Carroll's 5-tech would do at USC.

Eric Stoner put together an awesome article about the Hawks' defense in 2012 as a preview for the Jags' scheme in 2013, and it kind of paints a picture of the slight changes at play:

Here's a look at the most common Seahawks' base set - the 4-3 Under Front. In 2012, though, as opposed to the "USC-brand of 5-tech", Bryant started getting more 2-gap assignments, and would oftentimes align heads-up with the offensive tackle - in a 4-technique as seen below. He could and did two-gap from a 5-technique as well. Note the SAM linebacker to Red's outside shoulder - this is the hallmark of the Under Front.


Notice the gap assignments below, as laid out by our own Mike Chan. These aren't set in stone, but just one example, and even the three-technique may 2-gap at times. Jesus, this defense is hard to figure out. Regardless, this diagram shows current Seahawks players:


Notably, though, in 2012, the Seahawks started using, with much, much greater frequency than in prior seasons, a 4-3 Over Front look. The easiest way to spot an Over Front versus an Under Front is to watch the linebackers. In the Seahawks' Over Front, the SAM linebacker is off the line and playing in the 2nd level - much more of a traditional 4-3 look with four down linemen and three linebackers behind them.


The photo above and the diagram below are flipped, but above you can see the SAM linebacker in K.J. Wright well off the line and behind the three-tech and five-tech. The huge thing here is that you'll see Red Bryant, out further on the line in a six-technique spot, on the tight end. Not the tackle. Remember that.

You can see the alignments and general gap-assignments below. Again, these aren't set in stone, but just examples that we may find in 2013.


In an Over Front, the three-tech and five-tech find themselves next to each other on the line, which is different than the Under Front, which would place the nose-tackle and five-tech next to each other.

Anyway, that's a refresher on the two Fronts, but here what I'm getting at:

I don't have a strong sense of which front was more effective for Gus and Pete in 2012 - the Over or the Under - but from the sound of things during this offseason, I do get the sense that the Under Front will be more heavily featured going forward.

Here are a few clues as to why I get that thought - from a feature on Bryant by Eric Williams this past week:

Bryant should benefit from the return of defensive line coach Dan Quinn, who spent two years away from Seattle to serve as the University of Florida's defensive coordinator. Quinn was named the Seahawks' defensive coordinator after Gus Bradley moved on to take the head coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Quinn originally thought of moving Bryant from defensive tackle to a run-stuffing defensive end in Seattle's hybrid 3-4 scheme, which revitalized Bryant's NFL career.

Again, you may remember, that Quinn was the architect behind the Bryant experiment at DE in the first place.

Bryant said he'll return to being more of a penetrating, one-gap defensive end and playing mostly over the right tackle.

That last sentence is pretty key. Bryant, returning to his role of a penetrating, one-gap DE, matched up with opposing tackles. Most teams put their tight end on the right side - just an offensive tendency, so typically you'll see Bryant lined up against the right tackle going forward. He'll also see time against left tackles though, too.

Either way:

"It's been great getting DQ (Dan Quinn) back because there's familiarity there," Bryant said. "There's just some subtle changes in terms of how he's going to play me. He's basically putting me back to where I'm going to be on the tackle the majority of the time, in a phone booth and just getting back to the basics of playing heavy on a guy and just being disruptive."

Again, key. "Putting me back" insinuates a return to his previous role under Quinn - more of a one-gap five-tech on a tackle. Putting him back "in a phone booth", insinuates the Under Front because he'd be protected on his outside shoulder by the force-playing SAM linebacker, who will matchup with the tight end on the line and force everything back inside. "Playing heavy on a guy" is what earned Red his starting job and his new contract, and "being disruptive" is what Seattle needs him to be.

Again, when I think of 'playing in a phone booth,' I definitely picture the 4-3 Under, with the SAM linebacker lined up nice and tight on the tight end, leaving Red inside to push the pocket and collapse running lanes.

Bryant said that last season he followed the tight end wherever he lined up and was not as aggressive as he usually is when lined up against a tackle. And it showed in his play. Bryant finished with just 24 tackles and no sacks in 2012, after signing a lucrative five-year, $35 million deal in the offseason.

Let's take a look at a few examples of this. Now, you may remember the Wildcard Playoffs game against Washington? Yes? Ok, so do you remember the Redskins' opening drive, when they pretty much just manhandled the Seahawks' d-line and drove down the field with ease? I do.

1-10-WAS 37 (13:33 1st Q) (Shotgun): A.Morris right tackle ran ob at WAS 46 for 9 yards (B.Mebane; E.Thomas).

Picking up nine yards on first down on a simple zone stretch play.... Pete Carroll probably sees this in his nightmares. Here's Seattle in their Over Front look - Red Bryant aligned in a six-tech look heads up on the tight end Logon Paulson.


The first issue at play, in my mind, is the diagonal running lane that immediately opens up for Alfred Morris - he's not running laterally, he's running downfield, and it's way, way, way too easy. This starts with Red - notice his tentative move after the snap, TE Paulson seals him then moves downfield, and the tackle picks up Red several yards downfield. This is not the 'disruptive' force you want from that position.

In an Under Front look in this situation - the SAM would have been aligned on the line outside at a nine-technique spot, outside Red's shoulder, putting him 'in a phone booth', meaning Red could attack forward, pushing back rushing lanes, and theoretically, the SAM would have not gotten sealed outside by a wide receiver, instead setting the edge against Paulson and pushing the play back inside.

That same drive....

1-10-SEA 21 (11:41) (Shotgun) A.Morris right end to SEA 3 for 18 yards (K.Chancellor; K.Wright).

Same thing. Seattle's Over Front simply not working here. Red gets completely stonewalled from the direction of the play. By a tight end.


Playing in space, laterally, against smaller, more agile tight ends, simply isn't Red's game. He needs to be in that phone booth, using his power and strength at the point of attack to push the line back, penetrate if possible, and disrupt running lanes at the line of scrimmage. In the above two situations, Red was sorely lacking in all of that.

Now - I'm sure the Over Front has its advantages too - otherwise Seattle wouldn't have moved to it so much this year, but it certainly doesn't seem best suited to Red Bryant's talents and skillset. He just isn't much of a force player in space.

Here's a look at the Under Front. This is from the STL game. You've got Malcolm Smith at WILL, Bobby Wags at MIKE, and KJ Wright at the SAM. It's Bryant, Mebane, Branch and Clemons up front.


Here's how it goes down. This is the same type of play as the Redskins were using above, a zone stretch-play to the left this time with the tight end sealing down on Bryant. First, focus on how Red plays it - he gets blocked by the tight end to his side but holds up well - he's pushed back slightly, but closes down on the hole that TE #88 is lead-blocking through. On the outside, Wright plays force and holds contain perfectly, forcing the run back inside.



The run is ultimately a success for a few factors - first - Alan Branch gets cut block on the backside and falls all the way down. In an ideal world, Branch would have avoided that and stayed on his feet. Second, Malcolm Smith fills correctly and has a bead on Steven Jackson but bounces off him on the tackle attempt.

I believe this is a good example of why my colleague Ben Harbaugh's analysis pointed out that "Smith's greatest limiting factor [is his] tackling" - and Harbaugh noted, possibly correctly, that Smith may be "One of the league's weaker tackling linebackers. He has some pop but his short arms prevent him from consistently wrapping up."

I can't help but agree with Harbaugh too when he opined:

"Smith leaves a lot to be desired as a tackler, but still contributes a lot of positive play in both run support and pass coverage. He's a cog. Even if Smith really steps up, wins the job, and plays well this season, I still think his ceiling is as a good backup who can start when called upon. Maybe we can view him as a younger, linebacker version of Paul McQuistan. Steady, a solid contributor, a good guy to have around, but ultimately a player at a position at which the Seahawks could seek an upgrade."

The above play and Ben's analysis serves as an excellent segue to my next point - I still think Malcolm Smith will be somewhat of a backup type player - which is fine, because he's a good backup. Why will he remain just a cog? Because, apparently, K.J. Wright has made the move to weakside linebacker.

As Wright pointed out last week:

"I've got a new position (the weak side, where free agent Leroy Hill started the past two seasons, as Clare Farsworth notes), but it's coming natural to me," said Wright, who then added of his role in the defense used by former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, "It's not that much different, because in Gus' scheme I was always off the ball and dropping into coverage also. So it's pretty much the same."

So, K.J. Wright moves to the weakside. Why is this designation meaningful? Well, first of all, the WILL in an Under Front 4-3 must be a playmaker, and does a lot of his work in space, cleaning up runs and defending against the pass. Wright doesn't have the prototypical WILL speed that you'd think Carroll desires, but he's super instinctive and intelligent. One of the main things I've noticed about KJ in watching the season in All-22 is the sheer amount of screens he sniffs out and blows up in the backfield. All of this is anticipation and instincts.

Says Dan Quinn:

"I saw him on tape and knew he was a really good player. But you have to be out there on the field to get a feel for his size, his length, his speed, the way he can cover ground. So on consecutive days [of OTAs], I saw him cover, bat balls down. He's a guy I've really been impressed with."

But there's more to Wright's game than those long limbs that allow him to bat down passes and wrap up ball carriers.

"On top of the physical skills, K.J. is totally in tune mentally," Quinn said. "K.J. is one who has totally jumped out to me. Really, the effort and the attention to detail, I've really been pleased with.

K.J. played MIKE his rookie year. He played SAM a lot last year but in the Over Front looks, the SAM/WILL designations don't matter anyway (you just pick a side and stick to it) - meaning K.J. really played both SAM and WILL, essentially. So, is the 'change' to weakside linebacker a big deal? No. Is it surprising? Only mildly, because KJ isn't the fastest LB out there. But he does have length, and instincts, and can cover, so it makes a lot of sense he'd play there. Ultimately, historically, you want a playmaker at the WILL spot in a 4-3 Under (think Derrick Brooks), and that's what KJ is. I think Dan Quinn is alluding to this too.

So, what about the SAM? Well, I believe, this is where all the "Cliff Avril/Bruce Irvin to SAM" talk stems from. I think, for at least part of the time - particularly in the Under Front looks, Seattle will align Avril at SAM as a strongside force player outside Red Bryant and put Bruce Irvin (or Michael Bennett, until Irvin returns) opposite him at LEO. The details of how they'll do all this remain shady (and I'm sure they'll have tons of wrinkles therein), but ultimately that's what I'm expecting. It's a theory, at least today.

With Avril as a SAM linebacker aligned outside of Red, Seattle now has legitimate pass rushers from either side of the field, and Clemons/Irvin have shown the ability to drop back in space from the LEO spot, meaning Seattle can still rush 4 if they want. If they want to 'blitz' from the SAM spot, there are not very many players in the NFL with a quicker first-step then Cliff Avril. Period. That's an added pass rush dimension that teams will have to account for. Gone will be the days where you can just adjust your protections to Chris Clemons' side, or Bruce Irvin's side, when you're playing the Seahawks.

Of course, this is all just conjecture, based on some quotes. But, Seattle's defense has evolved every season and they seem to change things up a bit every year, so that's my best guess of something we might expect. It certainly seems to make sense to me on paper. The one thing I still need to work out is what coverages over the top to expect. I don't really think Seattle will be asking Cliff Avril to drop back in man-to-man coverage on a tight end, meaning support will have to come from someone in the second-level. These are the details that I'll still want to look for once the preseason starts up.

Anyway. Theories. Watch them do something totally different. Trying to predict what this team will do is folly.