Rethinking Russell

by: Matthew Heuett

Just as a warning, I am about to say something that will not go over well with a great many fans. If you’re partial to rage, please clear the room of children, pets, and breakables; if you’re prone to ridicule, I suggest you start sharpening your witty repartee.

Ready? Okay, here goes:

Brian Russell is an okay safety, and I think he catches far too much flak.

I’ll wait for the shouting and laughter to die down. When you’re ready,

Okay, now that we’ve all gotten that out of our systems, allow me to explain myself. I don’t think that Russell is the greatest safety to ever play the game. His speed is only adequate for his position, he has a tendency to go for a big hit instead of wrapping up on tackles, and he clearly isn’t a naturally gifted athlete. He is not irreplaceable. However, I also don’t agree with all those many sentiments out there in internet-land that say he is a horrible curse of a safety who needs to be removed from any roster he inhabits, preferably with fire.

If Russell was as bad as everyone says he is, then how do we explain the ’07 season? You remember, that one where the team replaced Boulware and Hamlin with Grant and Russell, which resulted in the team giving up the fewest touchdown passes in the league? In ’08, the defense ranked near the bottom of the league in that same category, but it’s unfair to place the blame for that solely on Russell’s shoulders. Yes, players’ skills can and do deteriorate from one season to the next, but they don’t deteriorate that much — and besides, Russell was only one of eleven players on the field.

There are a great many non-Russell reasons the defense did so poorly last year. The d-line’s pass rush was hampered by injuries, the linebacking corps was more banged up than usual (Tatupu in particular), the number two cornerback spot was a revolving door (caused by equal parts injury and lost confidence), and Grant nursed a knee injury all season. Add to all that the stamina-sapping drain of having to stay on the field longer and longer thanks to an endless stream of three-and-outs from an even more injury-depleted offense, and you’ve got plenty of reasons for the defensive slump without taking so much as a glance at the guy in the number 25 jersey.

Still, there’s one more factor that I believe had a bigger impact on the secondary than everything else I’ve just mentioned, something that hasn’t gotten nearly as much blame as it deserves: defensive coordinator John Marshall’s switch from a cover-two coverage shell to a cover-one.

To help illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll include diagrams of both coverage schemes (courtesy of a scanner and my complete inability to draw):

In the base cover-two scheme used in 2007, the cornerbacks are generally used either in man-to-man coverage on a specific receiver or in a zone on their respective side of the field guarding against short to intermediate passes. The two safeties are largely used as deep-pass coverage by splitting the field between them into two equal zones. The weak and strong side linebackers are used (when not engaged in run support or blitzes) to cover tight ends and slot receivers in the short-to-mid range center of the field and help keep an eye on the flats, and the middle linebacker patrols the mid-to-deep middle at his discretion.

Keeping two safeties deep is beneficial in a couple ways. First off, safeties tend to be on the slow side for DBs (if they were faster they’d be cornerbacks), so giving them only half the field to cover makes it more likely that they will be able to react to passes in time to do something about it.

Secondly, the two deep safeties act as a security blanket for the cornerbacks, who can then jump routes and try for interceptions with the confidence of knowing there’s a safety close by to help bracket the receiver. That confidence had an awful lot to do with Trufant’s seven interceptions in ’07.

Thirdly, it plays to the strengths of Seattle’s personnel. Remember, Russell is an average athlete who relies on his football smarts to make up for his lack of natural physical talent, and the cover-two plays to his strengths. Giving him only half a field to cover allows him the dual luxury of being able to stand back long enough to read how the play is unfolding, then react and get into position to do something about it despite his slower speed.

On top of that, Russell and Grant are good friends who have made a habit of calling each other up to talk shop for years, and the cover-two scheme gives them ample opportunity to discuss and modify coverage responsibilities on the fly while they stand in the backfield together.

To compare, the cover-one scheme brings the strong safety up into the box and uses him as a makeshift fourth linebacker, effectively turning a 4-3 front into a 4-4. The strengths of this scheme are a stouter run defense (due to eight men being in the box at all times), more unpredictability in five-man blitzes (which was a wash for Seattle, given the injuries to the d-line), and better coverage of the short-to-mid passing game in the center of the field.

However, these bonuses come at the expense of making the margin for error in the mid-to-deep range pass coverage razor thin. The free safety’s zone of responsibility stretches from sideline to sideline, meaning that offenses are almost guaranteed single coverage if they send two receivers deep on opposite sides of the field — suddenly, that security blanket for the cornerbacks is gone, and the result is fewer interceptions for Trufant (hand injury notwithstanding) and a smoking crater where Jennings’ confidence used to be.

As you can imagine, the cover-one coverage shell demands a lot of athleticism from the deep safety in order for it to work, and if you have an Ed Reed or a Troy Polamalu who is fast enough to turn on a dime and make up yardage, that isn’t a problem. Russell is many things, but fast is not one of them.

To put it in other words, Marshall chose to employ a base coverage scheme that helped opposing offenses capitalize on the specific weaknesses of his starting free safety and left his cornerbacks exposed in single coverage.

As I said before, my purpose here isn’t to tell you that Russell is the greatest safety in the history of ever, because he isn’t; there are better safeties out there, and his position can be upgraded. What I am trying to say is that he is a capable, underappreciated safety who has rather unfairly been made into a scapegoat for all of Seattle’s defensive woes.

If anything should take the brunt of the blame here, it’s Marshall’s decision to switch to a base cover-one defensive scheme despite knowing he didn’t have the personnel to run it effectively. Good luck with that brilliant new defensive mastermind of yours, Oakland.