The Secondary, the Bandit, and Why the Future of Both Looks Bright

Seattle’s 2011 draft may have been low on recognizable names, but it made up for that in the far more important category of needs addressed.  Once the Seahawks were done picking up their offensive line of the future1, they spent six of their remaining seven draft picks on defensive players, and three of those were defensive backs.

Why so many DBs?  Because the Seahawks’ pass defense has been awful the last few years2:

Year Completion % TD/Att % Int/Att % Yds/Att Yds/Game QB Rating
2001 60.2 (20th) 3.6 (13th) 2.5 (25th) 6.6 (12th) 217.8 (23rd) 81.4 (18th)
2002 57.8 (11th) 3.8 (14th) 3.4 (7th) 6.5 (10th) 213.2 (18th) 75.6 (9th)
2003 59.9 (19th) 4.2 (20th) 2.8 (22nd) 6.5 (13th) 217.5 (27th) 81.4 (20th)
2004 60.8 (20th) 4.3 (15th) 4.1 (5th) 6.8 (12th) 224.4 (23rd) 78.3 (14th)
2005 58.0 (12th) 3.2 (5th) 2.8 (20th) 6.1 (17th) 222.4 (25th) 77.4 (12th)
2006 59.3 (16th) 4.6 (25th) 2.4 (25th) 7.0 (19th) 203.5 (19th) 86.1 (26th)
2007 58.6 (6th) 2.6 (1st) 3.5 (8th) 6.7 (11th) 219.1 (19th) 73.0 (2nd)
2008 64.7 (27th) 4.4 (26th) 1.6 (30th) 7.7 (29th) 259.3 (32nd) 96.0 (29th)
2009 65.8 (29th) 4.8 (22nd) 2.3 (24th) 7.2 (21st) 245.4 (30th) 93.4 (28th)
2010 57.9 (9th) 5.3 (26th) 2.1 (29th) 7.2 (23rd) 249.6 (27th) 89.7 (25th)

(Note: Each statistical category shows how well opposing offenses performed on average against the Seahawks’ defense.  The defense’s league rank in each category for that year is included in parentheses  The best three season performances have been highlighted in good ol’ Seahawks blue, while the worst three have been highlighted in pink in order to draw attention to their shame.  Also, interception rates are an incredibly unreliable measuring stick, but it felt wrong to talk about the defensive secondary and not include them.)

Aside from some periodic bouts of respectability, the Seahawks’ secondary has spent the majority of the last decade being pretty average.  Then three years ago the bottom fell out of the defense, and ever since we’ve been learning just how attractive “pretty average” can be when it gets replaced by “outright embarrassing.”  As you can see from the chart above, statistically last year was more of the same from Seattle’s defensive backs — in fact, the 2010 secondary actually performed worse in several categories than it did the year before. 

As I’ve said in past articles, stats are nice, useful things, but only if you understand their limitations.  The numbers above do an excellent job telling us what the end result of each play was, but they don’t tell us why or how those results came about; they tell us the effect, but not the cause.  Seattle’s pass defenses in ’09 and ’10 performed more or less identically from a statistical standpoint, but while the ’09 secondary’s failures had just as much to do with former head coach Jim Mora’s ill-conceived “West Coast defense” as they did with the lack of talent on the roster3, most of the games I watched in 2010 left me with the impression that Carroll and Bradley’s defensive schemes were fundamentally sound, they just lacked the personnel to pull them off consistently.  To put it more bluntly, the numbers can’t tell you whether your team lost because the players weren’t good enough to execute the plays effectively or because, say, a talent-poor roster was further hamstrung by a flawed, predictable defensive strategy dreamt up by an angry manchild masquerading as a head coach.

The Seahawks’ base defense, a 4-3 under front bookended by a run-stuffing DE on the strong side and a standup pass-rushing “Leo” DE on the weak, is not a new thing.  The idea goes back to George Seifert with the San Francisco 49ers, who designed the scheme to allow his 4-3 front to take on some of the benefits of the 3-4 by standing up his best pass-rusher, or “Elephant” in Seifert’s terminology, and moving him around to exploit different matchups4.  The scheme helped Charles Haley (and for shorter periods of time Chris Doleman and Tim Harris) to high sack totals in San Francisco, and it worked again last year to help Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock post career bests.

Like Seifert’s 4-3 Elephant, Carroll’s 4-3 Leo uses four defensive backs — two corners and two safeties.  At corner, Marcus Trufant was generally reliable in 2010, but not spectacular, and Kelly Jennings was, well, Kelly Jennings.  Granted, Jennings did show marked improvement, making some great pass break-ups and standing firm against the run in ways that he never had shown himself capable of doing in the past, but unfortunately for him an improved Kelly Jennings still makes for a sub-average CB.  At safety, Earl Thomas mixed pure awesome and bonehead rookie mistakes in equal quantities, and Lawyer Milloy looked every bit the bruising enforcer who can no longer cover up his physical decline with veteran craftiness.  Final tally: one developing superstar at safety, one dependable CB beginning to decline, one improved but still disappointing CB, and one former all-pro safety knocking on retirement’s door.

So if the team didn’t have enough talent to man the four DB slots in the base defense, it absolutely didn’t have the seven DBs it takes to run one of Carroll and Bradley’s more exciting changeup looks, the 3-1-7 Bandit alignment.  I like the scheme an awful lot; it’s a ballsy mix of quarter defense personnel, 3-4 pass rush, and tendencies straight out of Fritz Shurmur’s Big Nickel playbook.  It requires big defensive backs to run properly: cornerbacks on the outside big enough to bump-and-run with authority, and safeties big enough to handle a linebacker’s job (at least for a couple snaps per game).  The Bandit has the ball-hawking centerfielder in Earl Thomas it needs to patrol the back end, but was victimized an awful lot in the middle of the field, where the coverage skills of nickel and dime backs Roy Lewis and Jordan Babineaux proved to be no match against above-average slot receivers and tight ends.

Two members of the base defense’s secondary are now free agents, and as luck would have it they just so happen to be the weakest of the four, Jennings and Milloy.  Assuming that Thomas and Trufant will stay on the field regardless of defensive scheme, the Seahawks are going to need two more DBs to fill the 4-3 Leo’s secondary and five additional DBs to man the Bandit.  Including the three new draft picks, here’s a list of the defensive backs Seattle currently has on the roster:

 

Name Age Position Contract
Years Left
Measurements 2010 Games
Played
Ints Pass
Def.
Sacks Tackles
Marcus Trufant 30 CB 3 5’11″, 197 lbs 18 1 8 0 80
Earl Thomas 21 S 4 5’10″, 202 lbs 18 5 7 0 71
Walter Thurmond 23 CB 3 5’11″, 190 lbs 16 0 6 0 33
Roy Lewis 25 CB 1 5.10″, 190 lbs 14 0 4 1 20
Kam Chancellor 23 S 3 6’3″, 232 lbs 18 0 1 1 16
Kennard Cox 25 DB 1 6’0″, 191 lbs 11 0 2 0 9
Brandon Browner 26 CB Futures
Contract
6’3″, 210 lbs - - - - -
James Brindley 23 S Futures
Contract
5’11″, 191 lbs - - - - -
Marcus Brown 24 CB 2 6’0″, 190 lbs - - - - -
Mark LeGree 21 S Draft Pick 6’0″, 210 lbs - - - - -
Byron Maxwell 23 CB Draft Pick 6’0″, 202 lbs - - - - -
Josh Pinkard 25 CB 3 6’1″, 218 lbs - - - - -
Richard Sherman 23 CB Draft Pick 6’3″, 195 lbs - - - - -
Lawyer Milloy 37 S Free Agent 6’0″, 211 lbs 18 0 3 4 88
Kelly Jennings 28 CB Free Agent 5’11″, 180 lbs 16 1 13 0 40
Jordan Babineaux 28 DB Free Agent 6’0″, 210 lbs 18 2 8 1.5 36
Nate Ness 24 DB Miami Dolphins 6’0″, 190 lbs 1 0 0 0 5

Of the five non-Trufant or Thomas players who saw playing time last year, Walter Thurmond is the likeliest candidate to earn a starting job.  He was hampered last season while he recovered from knee surgery, but still flashed some respectable coverage skills.  Assuming his mobility returns and his health holds up, Thurmond could find himself with a lot of playing time on his hands.

The other four, Roy Lewis, Kennard Cox, Marcus Brown and Kam Chancellor, have yet to show they’re anything more than special teams players. Lewis is rather excellent as a special teamer and his coverage skills did improve over the season when called upon to perform in nickel and Bandit packages, but he’s still got a long way to go before he gets to dependable.  Chancellor has good size and is capable against the run, but hasn’t shown much in pass coverage, and Cox mostly looked jumpy and overmatched in his limited opportunities.  Brown is a mystery to me; I know he’s got decent height and 4.4 speed (more specifically, 4.44 against the wind and 4.37 with it) and he’s under contract for two more easily affordable years, but that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of him.

The trio of new draft picks, Richard Sherman, Mark LeGree, and Byron Maxwell, are all big guys for DBs.  (I’d say it’s safe to say that the Ruskell era of tiny defenders with hearts of gold is over.)  The limited tape I’ve seen on Sherman and Maxwell makes it hard to judge them much, but first impressions point to Sherman being much better in coverage than his 6’3” frame would seem to indicate (although his 4.56 forty time may make him a better fit at safety) and to Maxwell being a speedy (4.46 forty), brutal defender who loves to hit people as hard as he can.

The video I’ve seen on LeGree is more extensive, and all of it makes him look awesome. Not once did I see him hesitate or allow a ballcarrier to fake him out.  Once he read the play, he committed fully, leading to lots of decisive-looking interceptions, pass defenses, and tackles.  The guy has a good nose for the ball, so much so that his positioning made him look like he was the intended receiver on several of the interceptions he made.  It’s a long time yet until training camp and the preseason, but LeGree looks like a guy who could pair with Thomas to great effect in the base defense as well as firm up the pass coverage in the middle zone of the Bandit.

Two of the three players left on the list, Josh Pinkard and James Brindley, are not exciting prospects.  Pinkard played for Carroll at USC, and he’s big, muscular hulk of a cornerback.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the extent of the good; every scouting report I’ve read on him points to him not looking all that great in pass coverage and possessing poor instincts and speed.  Oh, and he spent six years playing at the college level because he was granted two medical redshirts for consecutive season-ending knee injuries, which he followed up witha stint on the Seahawks’ PUP list.  It would be really cool if the light were to click on for him and he suddenly became a healthy wide receiver-eating beast, but I won’t be holding my breath.  Brindley is a much less sizeable player than Pinkard but has the same marginal playing ability.  He does seem to have a history of poor hair decisions though, so I guess there’s that.

Last but not least is Brandon Browner, and I can’t wait to see what he can do in training camp.  Browner is a big-bodied, fast corner who excelled in two full seasons at Oregon State, then impressed the heck out of the Denver Broncos when they brought him to training camp as an undrafted rookie in 2005.  Then he broke his arm in the preseason, prompting the Broncos to put him on IR and then waive him.  Since then, Browner has spent the last five years playing for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, and for the last three of those years he’s been named to the CFL All-Star team.  Provided he can translate that success to the NFL — and judging by his time in Denver there’s a good chance he will — the Seahawks may very well have another great find on their hands.

So now that you’ve all had a chance to see the menu of defensive backs the Seahawks have at the ready, where do you guys see them fitting?  Who joins Thomas and Trufant in the base defense?  Do you think enough of the new prospects will pan out to make the Bandit the weapon it should be in 2011, and if so where do you see them fitting in to the scheme?

*        *        *

On another note, I’d like to apologize for the lateness of this article.  All I can say is that chronic pain is a stone cold bitch.  I try not to let it stop me, but it slows me down enough sometimes that an article that should have been available for all of you to read on Monday ends up not getting delivered until Thursday.  I can’t promise you guys that a delay like this won’t happen again — on the contrary, I can guarantee just the opposite — but I can promise you that if I’m late again, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part.

 

1 I hear that’s important to have if you don’t want your eventual quarterback of the future to become the next promising young franchise QB to be beaten into a shell-shocked husk of his former promise.  Joey Harrington died for your sins, Matt Millen.

2 To be fair, it’s also been unwatchable, farcical, infuriating, depressing, and execrable.  (This footnote brought to you by a thesaurus and a childhood spent reading books while all the normal children were outside being all social and stuff.)

3 As I understand it, Mora’s defensive scheme was based on the idea that if you allow your opponent to throw lots of short passes, you maximize your defense’s opportunities to snag interceptions.  Which sounds okay until you realize how abysmally low the percentage of interceptions per pass attempt is for even the worst starting QB (seriously, even reigning king of interceptions Derek Anderson only throws one 3.8% of the time).  I suppose it’s possible that Mora is just really bad at math, but it seems like someone on staff should’ve pointed out this little flaw in his plan.

4 Actually, the main thing that distinguishes a 4-3 Elephant front from a 3-4 front isn’t the stand-up DE at all.  Rather, it’s the way the other three linemen line up.  In the 3-4, the middle defensive linemen lines up head-on the center as a nose tackle, and both defensive ends (both essentially the same size as 4-3 DTs) line up head-on the offensive tackles.  In the 4-3 elephant, the larger run-stuffing DE lines up on the outside shoulder of the right tackle, the DT closest to him lines up on either the right shoulder of the center or the inside shoulder of the right guard, and the other DT lines up in the disruptive 3-tech position on the outside shoulder of the left guard.  The reason for these positions is simple: the 3-4 defensive linemen are tasked with guarding two gaps apiece, while 4-3 DLs generally only worry about one gap each.

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