Everyone knew after the season that ended in Seattle's first Super Bowl Championship that two big questions would emerge on the defensive line: 1) what was Red Bryant's future? and 2) what will happen with Chris Clemons? The two men that had been founding cornerstones of Pete's "4-3 with 3-4 personnel" scheme were up against bloated contracts and production concerns.
Seattle loses two defensive stalwarts:
Red Bryant was a guy who played like a sledge hammer against the run, banging into guys but really not being one to offer penetration or pass rush. Bryant has been seen as an irreplaceable part of this defense, though, dating back to when he went down in 2010 and fans saw what had been an okay run defense fall into the dumpster.
On the other hand, you have Chris Clemons, who in 2010 was seen as a gimmick and a huge weakness in the system as he struggled with basic run defense skills. However, he dispelled that notion after notching double digit sacks for three seasons while becoming one of the best run defenders at the end position in football.
He shined at the CLink, notching all of his big games there at home. Chris Clemons is a uniquely built player who's get off was so quick I once compared it to the Bruce Lee one-inch punch. The best thing to watch about him though was his arms and hands -- I once commented after seeing him in a preseason game that he looked like he could "scratch his ankles while standing up."
But you're not here to read what we know. You want to know what will happen now that these guys are gone. Well, we can't really know, but we can guess. So here are my best guesses as to the Seahawks approach to moving on from the two anchors outside on defense:
The Seahawks' decision to woo, and eventually sign Kevin Williams is telling. Pete Carroll and John Schneider rarely make the veteran play unless there is a huge concern within a specific position group. Think Brandon Stokely at receiver, or the late signing of Raheem Brock in 2010. There are two sides of the coin for the KW signing: on one side, you could estimate that the decision doesn't say good things about the team's confidence in Greg Scruggs or Jesse Williams, or on the other, it's just in Pete Carroll's spirit of Always Compete, and we'll see a similar battle to what happened between Walter Thurmond and Antoine Winfield last year in camp.
The defensive line will be the biggest battle this offseason and preseason, and I am actually giddy for the potential of guys like Jordan Hill, Cassius Marsh, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Benson Mayowa. There are others too, and it's a much more competitive crop this year on the defensive line, so it should be much more interesting than last year, where we largely knew who was what.
This brings me to the first major decision in choosing a new anchor to replace Red Bryant. I said earlier that Pete is always looking to find more pass rush in base packages (run heavy formations, typically on first and second down). I had originally thought that when they signed him that Kevin Williams would take that role for now. However, based on what the team has been doing in OTAs and minicamps, they have had Tony McDaniel working in Bryant's old spot, which I realized would give Pete more of what he wanted.
I have to be honest, when the Seahawks signed Tony McDaniel, I was blah on it. I think a lot of fans were fairly ambivalent. Randy Starks was also coming out of Miami at the time and he was the sexy pick at DT, so the signing looked like the Seahawks were kind of snatching up table scraps. However, when I watched him against Green Bay in the preseason, I changed my tune.
McDaniel is never going to wow you with athleticism or impressive feats of strength. What he will give you, though, is consistent technical excellence at his position. He had some moments at the 3-tech spot last year, but isn't a bull rush type of player to apply late pressure.
However, off the ball, Tony is quick for his size and uses excellent leverage to put away blockers. He did a lot of dirty work inside and I really think putting him outside not only improves your pass rush day one, but his technical skill means that run defense shouldn't be a concern.
So that leaves Kevin Williams, who is a probably a two-down player to go into the 3-tech spot next to Tony or 'Bane, and to be the sledgehammer that had been the anchor of a tough Minnesota front-four for years. I personally love the potential combo because it makes it more likely that the run defense would further improve. (I know, right?) This entire scenario hinges on McDaniel, though, a guy that had almost none of the fanfare and has gotten none of the praise as the Seahawks notched their championship belts for the first time.
Everyone talks about Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril though, and that moves me on to what Seattle will do in replacing Chris Clemons.
I think we may see a LEO by committee, and I don't mean it in a way in which we'll see three or four guys simply splitting snaps. I mean, we could see a couple of different guys play that spot depending on their specific skill-sets, maximizing what they do best based on the formation and down/distance.
For example, we may see one in base packages, and one in 3rd down exotic looks or obvious pass rushing downs.
Run defense at the LEO position remains an important duty, and despite only notching four sacks in 2013, Clemons continued an impressive campaign as a run stopper in this unique system. Though slight (weighing just 255), he used terrific leverage and angles to control running lanes and make it difficult for runners to stay tight with their blockers, many times forcing them wide.
This skill isn't easy to replace, considering the unique body type and system needs of the LEO position. Bruce Irvin has a lot of raw talent but almost no technique and was repeatedly exposed in these situations in 2012. I think the decision to move him to linebacker was more about trying to find a more natural fit for his athleticism and also escaping his weaknesses which would take a season or two to overcome, in best case scenarios. Pete and Dan and John have all said that Bruce's future no longer hinges on the LEO position.
This leaves Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett and crop of unproven guys. I like Bennett if they want him there. I don't like Avril there. Watching both men work from the end spot, Avril lives to rush and his run defense is more happenstance of him being in the right place at the right time. He doesn't have consistent technique or even awareness when defending the run.
Michael Bennett is sturdy enough, but I almost feel like Seattle wants to keep Bennett as their exotic-look swiss-army knife. He can play all four spots, rush and defend the run, but how effective will he be with a bigger plate to eat off of? There's a concern on my end that he could wear down and so his spectacular games would be hurt as a result. He was huge in both of Seattle's big wins against the 49ers last season, so keeping him fresh would be an epic balancing act if you wanted him to play three downs instead of spot duty against particular formations and looks.
I think in my ideal world, Cassius Marsh will win this job. He plays hard but as we all know it doesn't matter how hard you play unless you know the techniques behind your job. I'm probably getting a little long winded here, but think about Marshawn Lynch's breakthrough in 2011. The first half of the season he was running hard but had a ton of negative plays and didn't really look good despite banging into everything like it was wall that insulted his family.
In the second half of that season, after sitting down with Tom Cable and asking him what he was supposed to do and how to understand Cable's system much more wholly than just "run to daylight," he was able to finish the year with more yards in the final nine games than any other back in the NFL that year.
So that's what these young guys are up against. It's time to put on the big boy pants and see what they're made of.
Example personnel groupings and formations:
So instead of just closing with a list of guys and jobs up and how the line will shake out, Danny Kelly and I wanted to diagram a few looks based on how I personally feel this will shake out. Please feel free to adjust, discuss and savagely attack my reckless and ill-informed decisions in the comments below.
An Important note: I won't be covering all the possible looks on the line. This would be insane to attempt as sometimes Pete and Dan did little things like slide Red Bryant inside or switch Mebane and McDaniel based on the formations and schemes teams used to run the ball. These are going to be rough ideas on about three or four basic formations.
4-3 Base package -- 1st and 2nd Down, 2 or fewer receivers in opposition
WLB: #50 K.J. Wright
LEO (weakside DE): #72 Michael Bennett
3-tech (under tackle): #94 Kevin Williams
1-tech (nose tackle): #92 Brandon Mebane
5-tech (strongside DE): #99 Tony McDaniel
SLB: #51 Bruce Irvin
Note: Weakside means there is no tight end beside the tackle on that side. Strong side means the tight-end is lined up next to the tackle. These are noted in defensive schemes when Identifying run gaps.
4-3 Nickel Package (1st & 2nd Down with 3 wide receivers in opposition)
Seattle has a more robust set of options here, but here's an example:
WLB: #50 K.J. Wright
LEO: #56 Cliff Avril
1-tech: #92 Brandon Mebane
3-tech: #97 Jordan Hill
5-tech: #72 Michael Bennett
Nickelback: #20 Jeremy Lane
4-3 Over Nickel 3rd Down (or any obvious passing downs)
Not exactly last year's NASCAR package but a close facsimile.
LEO: #51 Bruce Irvin
1-tech: #98 Greg Scruggs
3-tech: #72 Michael Bennett
5-tech: #56 Cliff Avril
Notes: Irvin is the X-factor here. You also may see Kevin Williams inserted back in here for these types of looks. Not often, but with his rush and strength, if it commanded a double team like it usually does for him, think of the potential for free rushers. Jordan Hill or perhaps even Cassius Marsh could see snaps for #98 Scruggs, and the Bennett-Avril pairing should be a common occurrence.
3-4 Bear Front:
Something the Seahawks use quite a bit against San Francisco's pulling/trapping blocking scheme and heavy personnel.
SLB: #51 Bruce Irvin
3-Tech: #99 Tony McDaniel
Nose-tackle: # 92 Brandon Mebane
3-tech: #94 Kevin Williams
WLB: #50 K.J. Wright
ILB: #53 Malcolm Smith
ILB: #54 Bobby Wagner
The nice part of this formation is that you can rush the passer from different angles with different guys, dropping your normal 'defensive ends' on the line of scrimmage and rushing with linebackers. Same concepts in basic form as to a 3-4 defense (though gap responsibilities may vary). This play below shows personnel flipped as compared to above, but it's the same idea.
3-4 exotic looks
LEO: #93 O'Brien Schofield
SPY: #51 Bruce Irvin
3-tech: #72 Michael Bennett
5-tech: #56 Cliff Avril
Notes: I know this looks crazy, but Bennett and Avril rushed from this position before and had a series of good successes with it, not the least of which came against the 49ers at home twice, including the game ending interception in the NFC Championship. On that play, we saw a Bennett spin force a double team, opening a huge inside lane for Avril to apply pressure on Kaepernick.
In lieu of Schofield, you could see McDaniel, Jesse Williams, or maybe Greg Scruggs in there because, having a bigger body would be useful, and having a technician who can shake blockers against the run would be big against the draw play in this look.
In the final analysis though, Pete and Dan and John will adjust themselves to whatever the team needs each game. I remember at least two games last year where Pete and Dan just decided to flip McDaniel and Mebane when they struggled against jumbo looks or needed more help on the overload side. Against Houston, and again later against the Saints in the divisional round, Brandon Mebane spent a number of snaps at the 3-tech spot.
The possibilities are endless when you realize how unafraid Pete and Dan are to try anything. This is what lead them to save Red Bryant's career in 2010. Now with so much on the horizon and so many guys looking for a spot I know this will be can't miss TV all preseason long. Leave your thoughts as I said earlier. No one is wrong it's a guessing party and everyone should play at least a round or two.