Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Jan 2006
By Michael David Smith
Two weeks ago, in an examination of Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, we mentioned one weakness in Tatupu's game, that he can't always fight off the blocks of offensive linemen.
This week we'll look at the players who prevent Tatupu from having to be blocked by offensive linemen. Seattle has quietly assembled one of the league's best defensive tackle rotations, and in the Seahawks' 34-14 NFC Championship victory over the Carolina Panthers, all four tackles turned in excellent games.
Although Chuck Darby and Rocky Bernard start and Craig Terrill and Marcus Tubbs come off the bench, Seattle rotates its four defensive tackles, and Terrill and Tubbs got the majority of the playing time against Carolina. (That's not just because the game was a blowout. Terrill and Tubbs got most of the snaps both in the first half and in the second half.)
In our examination of Seattle's defensive tackles below, we list them in order of the number of snaps they spent on the field against Carolina.
A second-year player out of Purdue, Terrill has come on strong during the playoffs. He has a great motor, once running about 25 yards to chase Jake Delhomme out of bounds. Even though he played the most snaps of any of the tackles, he looked fresh late in the game.
The Seahawks primarily use a 4-3 alignment, but they used a three-man line 11 times, mostly in long-yardage situations, and Terrill was usually the tackle in that formation. That's because most of his value comes in his ability to rush the quarterback. Although he didn't register any sacks against Carolina, he got close enough to Delhomme several times to rush his throws.
Terrill sometimes tries to get too cute, though. On a first-and-10 pass late in the third quarter, Terrill tried a spin move and never got close to Delhomme. Why use a technique like that when you've succeeded all day with simple straight-ahead pass rushes?
Seattle's first-round choice in 2004, the 324-pound Tubbs is by far the biggest player on Seattle's line. On a second-and-8 on Carolina's second possession, Tubbs clogged the middle of the line, not budging even though both center Jeff Mitchell and fullback Brad Hoover blocked him. When both the center and the fullback are occupied, it's easy for the middle linebacker to make the tackle, and that's what Tatupu did, taking running back Nick Goings down for a loss of two yards. (Terrill also got a great first step past Carolina guard Tutan Reyes, getting into the backfield immediately after the snap and forcing Goings to shift direction.)
Occupying multiple blockers was the norm for Tubbs against Carolina. On Carolina's third possession, on third-and-10, Delhomme tried to force a pass to Steve Smith, and Tatupu intercepted it. On that play, Seattle rushed only three and Carolina kept seven in to block, which meant that both ends were double teamed while Tubbs was triple-teamed by Mitchell, Reyes and Jordan Gross. Despite all that, Delhomme still felt pressure in the pocket. With eight Seattle defenders back to cover three Carolina receivers, is it any wonder that Delhomme threw into coverage?
Mitchell had a very difficult time with Tubbs. On second-and-1 in the second quarter, Tatupu stopped Carolina running back Jamal Robertson for no gain. On that play Tubbs knocked Mitchell flat on his back, leaving no room for Robertson to run. Again, Tatupu gets the credit for making the tackle, but it was the defensive lineman in front of him who made the play work.
A digression: Did any team have a better draft in 2004 than the Seahawks? They took Tubbs in the first round and Terrill in the sixth. They also selected starting safety Michael Boulware in the second round, starting offensive tackle Sean Locklear in the third, linebacker Niko Koutouvides in the fourth and receiver D.J. Hackett in the fifth. They even selected punter Donnie Jones in the seventh round, although they weren't smart enough to hold onto him. He was one of the best punters in the league for the Dolphins this year.
Darby is in his first year with Seattle after spending four with Tampa Bay. On Carolina's first play, Darby lined up over left guard Mike Wahle, then shifted before the snap and lined up as a nose tackle over Mitchell. Wahle and Mitchell double-teamed him, but he got around both of them and stopped Goings for no gain.
That was an atypical play for Darby, though. His contribution to the Seattle defense usually takes the form of freeing up Tatupu to make tackles, not making them himself. At six feet and 270 pounds, he's one of the league's smallest defensive tackles, but he doesn't play like a small lineman. Despite his size, he plays like a much larger tackle, the kind who absorbs double teams frequently but isn't fast enough to get to the ball carrier himself. On the evidence of this game, Darby is the worst of Seattle's four tackles, but that says more about the quality of the other three players than it does about him.
Bernard is Seattle's best pure pass rusher. On a first-and-10, Bernard got a good first step on Reyes, who had to hold him to keep him from killing Delhomme. But Bernard stuck his arm out, grabbed Delhomme, and yanked him down with one hand. Bernard would have been credited with a sack on the play, but the play didn't count because Seattle accepted the holding penalty on Reyes. Reyes is lucky the season is over, so he doesn't have to go to film study and answer the question of how he could get called for holding and still allow his man to sack the quarterback.
Three plays later Bernard got a sack, and this time it wasn't nullified by a penalty. Seattle came out in a three-man line with Darby at nose tackle and Bernard at left end. Bernard pushed through Jordan Gross and Delhomme tried to retreat, but he couldn't get away in time and Bernard brought him down for a loss of 13 yards. Three years ago, Gross stepped in as a rookie out of Utah and played at an All-Pro level almost immediately, but this season he has struggled, and against Seattle he had a particularly bad game. Bernard beat him on that play, and Seattle end Bryce Fisher beat him on several others.
The versatility to play end in a three-man line makes Bernard a particularly valuable player, and after watching this game it's hard to understand why Bernard is rarely mentioned as one of the league's elite linemen. Perhaps it's because Seattle takes him out on so many plays. Although all four linemen are good, Bernard is the best of the bunch, and he should be on the field a lot against Pittsburgh. He'll certainly be well rested.
Praise like this for Seattle's defensive tackles naturally raises the question of whether Tatupu is getting too much credit, but there's plenty of credit to spread around when the front seven has come on so strongly during the latter part of the season. And there's another member of the defense who deserves credit: Seattle linebackers coach John Marshall, who took over the defensive game-planning after coordinator Ray Rhodes suffered a stroke. Even among hardcore fans, not many people know Marshall's name. If Seattle beats Pittsburgh, they will.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
76 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2006, 4:34pm by J.S.