Q&A and the Game Against the Steelers

Sorry guys, it’s been a slow week in Seahawks land.  Aside from the inevitable rehashes of a painful week one loss to the 49ers that few fans want to revisit, the only Seahawks-related activity as of late was the cutting of third string TE Dominique Byrd to make room for FB Eddie Williams, who was signed off of Cleveland’s practice squad to replace FB Michael Robinson while he recovers from an ankle injury. 

In other words, we’ve hit a patch of early season doldrums.  Well, that’s not exactly true — here at Seahawk Addicts, we’ve hit the doldrums in every place but one.  Those of you who regularly follow the discussion threads for each post already know this, but we’ve had a pretty lively question and answer session going for the last few weeks, due in no small part to a series of great questions from SA reader lazer hawk (seriously, take a bow, man).

So with nothing else going on right now, I figured this would be a good time to pull some of the most recent batch of questions out of the threads and answer them here on the front page so more people can see what kind of fun we’re having in there.  And hey, if you guys end up liking this and have more questions to ask, whether they be about the Seahawks, football in general, or whatever else you think I might know something about1, I might just end up making this Q&A thing a regular feature.  Anyway, on to the questions:

1) If the Hawks pull out a W over Pittsburgh this weekend, what do you foresee as the main reason?  What do you think our chances are?  Most people outside of Washington state give us virtually zero life expectancy.  I want to remain positive, yet realistic.

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Yes, the Seahawks do have a chance to win this one, but I’d put their odds of winning at no better than average.  In many ways, Seattle and Pittsburgh’s strengths are quite similar; both have solid defenses and great talent at the running back, wide receiver, and tight end positions.

However, so are their weaknesses.  The Steelers’ offensive line is average at best, and Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane should not have too much trouble continuing their run-stuffing ways. Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle Jonathan Scott appears to be a particularly weak link; if he continues to struggle, Chris Clemons could be in for a breakout game.

Likewise, both teams also have problems at the quarterback position.  Yes, you read that correctly: both teams.  We’re all intimately familiar with Tarvaris Jacskon’s struggles under center for the Seahawks, so let me focus on the other guy for a minute here.  Steelers fans tend to get pissy whenever someone fails to mention Ben Roethlisberger’s name in the same breath as Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s, but there’s a simple reason why no one ever does: Big Ben is not an elite quarterback.  Roethlisberger may get paid like one, and he’s got some great talents — he can throw the ball about a billion yards downfield, he’s got a quick release on his throws, he’s a decent runner, and I’ve never seen anyone who can pump fake as hard and convincingly as he does and still not losing his grip on the ball — but he combines all those traits with a remarkable ability to play lights-out dumb at the drop of a hat.  Just look at his horrific outing against the Ravens last week, or better yet look at his 77.4 passer rating in Super Bowl XLV back in July, his 35.5 passer rating against the Jets in the AFC Championship game before that, or his jaw-droppingly putrid 22.6 passer rating versus the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

In short, Ben Roethlisberger is eminently hateable both on and off the field.  He’s a double threat!

2) Did anybody pick up Thomas Clayton or is he floating around as a free agent somewhere?  Also, what does the term street agent imply?

Clayton is still a free agent, although the Dolphins did bring him in for a workout recently.  In other ex-Seahawk free agent news, WR Brandon Stokley was signed by the Giants and Lofa Tatupu is still inexplicably a free agent.

A street free agent is just what they call anyone who is still a free agent once the regular season is underway, the joke being that the team has run out of backups and is now just signing guys off the street outside their headquarters.  Calling a guy a street free agent has nothing to do with whether or not he can play.  Brandon Stokley was a street free agent when Seattle signed him last year, and he was an integral part of the offense for the rest of the season.

Here’s another example: back in the 2006 season the Seahawks were forced to sign a street free agent just before their first playoff game because they’d lost three cornerbacks to injury.  The guy they brought in, Pete Hunter, played well in both games, recovering a fumble against the Cowboys and making a great 4th quarter interception against the Bears.  He ended up getting cut in training camp the next year, but that doesn’t diminish what he was able to accomplish in the postseason.

3) What type of defensive scheme do the Hawks use, is it a 4-3 under or something like that?  What does that really mean, and how do you think it will work against the Steelers?

You’re correct, the Seahawks’ base defense uses 4-3 under alignment.  4-3, 3-4, 5-2, and all their numerical variants are shorthand for how many defensive linemen and linebackers are used in a given defensive formation.  A 4-3 scheme uses four defensive linemen and three linebackers, a 3-4 scheme would have three defensive linemen and four linebackers, and so forth.  The rest of the players on defense are all defensive backs (if you wanted to be exact and count the DBs too, you could call it a 4-3-4 defense).

“Under” designates where the defensive linemen are placed in relation to the offensive line. But before I get into that, let me show you a diagram of the first 4-3 style defense, the “umbrella” defense Giants coach Steve Owen used to shut down the Browns’ passing attack in the early 50s:


As you can see, the umbrella defense technically lines up in a 6-1 alignment, but the defensive ends would drop back into coverage on passing downs much like 4-3 outside linebackers do today.  More importantly, I want you to take note of how the rest of the defensive linemen are lined up straight across from the offensive guards and tackles.  As other 4-3 defenses began to emerge, that’s precisely how the defensive linemen continued to line up, with the defensive tackles straight across from the offensive guards, the defensive ends straight across from the offensive tackles, and no one standing in front of the center except a middle linebacker situated a few yards back from the line of scrimmage.

Lining your defensive linemen up like that has the benefit of giving you more or less the same d-line strength no matter which direction the offense is going, but the downside is that it’s extremely predictable, and DLs ended up being sitting ducks for double teams and trap blocks all game long.  To shake things up a bit, defenses began to shift their players, usually by lining up their DLs strong to one side and their LBs strong to the other side.  When defensive linemen shifted toward the strong side of the offensive formation, that was called an “over” shift; if they shifted to the weak side of the offensive formation, that was called an “under” shift.

For ease of comparison, I’ve depicted both the 4-3 over and 4-3 under lined up against the exact same formation and in a Tampa-2 style coverage shell with man-to-man coverage underneath, with some typical points of attack and areas of responsibility outlined in red:



Both have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but I’ll just be focusing on the under alignment since that’s what the Seahawks run.  The main benefit of the 4-3 under is the way it isolates the left tackle and left guard, giving the right DE and 3-tech DT one on one matchups all day long and maximizing their disruptiveness.  The under alignment has made stars out of a lot of right DEs and 3-tech DTs, including the Colts’ speed-rusher DE Dwight Freeney and sack machine DT Warren Sapp during his tenure with the Buccaneers.

The Seahawks switch this scheme up a bit by giving their right DE (they call him the “Leo” DE) the option to stand up instead of always having to put his hand in the dirt, giving him some flexibility in how he chooses to attack the offense.  Both Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock did well from this position last year.

Unfortunately, the Seahawks haven’t had as much luck finding a truly disruptive player to man the 3-tech position, which is a big part of why Seattle’s pass rush was so ineffective in several games last year — if the offense isn’t worried about the 3-tech, they can focus more of their efforts on stopping the Leo end.  The team is hoping that free agent pickup Alan Branch will turn things around in that regard and make the 3-tech a force to be reckoned with in this defense, but I have yet to see that happen.  The season is young though, and Branch has plenty of time to grow into the role.

The jobs of the left DE and the other DT (i.e. the 0-tech, 1-tech, nose tackle, etc.) are similar in the Seahawks scheme in that on most plays they’re both two-gap defenders.  This means that instead of focusing on disrupting just one lane through the offensive line like the Leo and 3-tech, the 1-tech and LDE are responsible for monitoring and plugging up two offensive lanes.  The time it takes for those players to read the offense and choose which gap they’re going to fill usually slows them down enough that they don’t have a chance to make the play themselves, but thankfully for the Seahawks Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant are not typical players.  Both have shown an aptitude for getting in on the play more often than most two gap defenders, and that is a major bonus for Seattle.

The strongside linebacker is asked to do a whole lot in this defense.  He has to be big and physical enough to help the DE set the edge against multiple blockers on runs to that side, but athletic enough that he can get into position to cover tight ends and running backs.  Seattle’s SLB Aaron Curry is well above average when it comes to setting the edge and playing the run, but is below average in coverage, which played a big part in his contract being restructured.  He’s got the athletic talent to succeed in this role, and he’s got a better chance to improve this season now that the coaches have backed off on trying to turn him into a LB/pass-rush DE jack-of-all-trades hybrid, and I hope very much that he does improve.  He’s been a bit of a disappointment so far, and I’d like to see him finally emerge as the sort of defensive force we all thought the Seahawks were getting when they drafted him back in ’09.

The other two linebackers have pretty typical jobs for their positions (i.e. basic coverage and run support with the odd blitz thrown in), so I’m going to skip over them and head straight to the secondary.  Pete Carroll likes to use big, physical CBs in his 4-3 under so that he can shake opposing wide receivers up through bump and run coverage.  We should be seeing Brandon Browner jam a lot of guys at the line this year, but don’t expect to see much of that from the other starting CB, Marcus Trufant.  Trufant is not a particularly big or physical guy, so he tends to play off the line a bit, but he’s excellent in man-to-man coverage and he makes good plays on the ball.

The downside to emphasizing bump & run coverage is that a wide receiver can slip the jam at the line and get deep down the field before the corner has time to recover and pursue.  That’s why it’s so important that both safeties don’t get caught out of position and can be counted on in coverage.  After last year, we knew Earl Thomas had it in him to do just that (aside from a few rookie slip-ups), but the big surprise coming in to this season has been how well 2010 fifth-rounder Kam Chancellor has performed in coverage.  Chancellor’s abilities should allow the defense to free up Thomas more often and let him roam and ball-hawk a bit more (think Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu), plus Chancellor’s ability to deliver bit hits already started to pay off.  If you re-watch last week’s game against the 49ers, pay close attention to how TE Vernon Davis begins to half-ass his routes whenever they take him into Chancellor’s territory — you can’t coach that kind of intimidation.

But how will this scheme do against Pittsburgh?  Well, if the Steelers were still running their traditional smash-mouth offense that used a strong running attack to pull in defenders, then went over their heads with deep passes, I’d say this defense would do pretty well.  However, the Steelers’ current offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, favors the pass in a big way; he was Peyton Manning’s QB coach from 1998 – 2000, if that tells you anything. (You can find a great breakdown of the “snag” route concept Arians used to score the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII here.)  As you might imagine, this approach is not well liked by Steelers fans, but in all fairness Pittsburgh simply doesn’t have a good enough o-line to dominate teams in the run game like they used to, plus they’ve got a lot of talent in their receiving corps.

Ultimately though, how the Seahawks’ defense fares this Sunday will depend heavily on two things:

1) Will Chris Clemons and Alan Branch get to the QB on a regular basis?  Even if they don’t finish with a bunch of sacks, making Roethlisberger run for his life  and/or forcing the Steelers’ offense to keep an extra TE on the line or a RB or two in the backfield for additional protection would be just as effective.

2) How will Roethlisberger play?  Will he focus and prepare, or will he phone it in and slump like he did last week against the Ravens?  Did I mention that I don’t like him?

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So there you have it: ask some questions, get some answers (eventually — sometimes I am slow). And hey, if I screw up and give you the wrong answers, or if you’ve just got something you’d like to add, don’t hesitate to speak up!  I promise I won’t hold it against you, and it’ll give me a chance to learn some things, too.  Learning is a goodness.

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1 A brief list of non-football subjects people have told me I know something about:

-book binding & repair
-how not to grow tomatoes (seriously I have none, what gives)
-The Punisher
-old video games
-and more! (maybe!)