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21 Dec 2017

Film Room: Seahawks Run Defense

by Derrik Klassen

Football is a game of attrition. The team left standing at the end of the year is not necessarily the best team, but merely the best team that remained healthy enough to compete.

For the Seattle Seahawks, injuries have derailed a defensive unit known to be dominant. Defensive end Cliff Avril was the first domino to fall in October. Seahawks defenders have gone down one after another since then, ultimately leading to the hobbled unit that allowed 42 points in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams this week.

In addition to Avril, defensive backs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were inactive. Linebacker K.J. Wright also sat out after suffering a concussion last week. Finally, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner played despite battling a hamstring injury that forced an early departure from last week's game. Slowing down an explosive Rams offense with a battered defense was not going to be an easy task.

Speed was noticeably lacking from Seattle's defense. Since the dawn of the Pete Carroll era, Seattle's defense has prided itself on being faster across the board than their opponent. Wagner and Wright are one of the timeliest and most athletic linebacker duos in the league, and with Chancellor in the box, it was as if Seattle always had three All-Pro linebackers on the field at once. That dynamic was gone this week, and Rams running back Todd Gurley took full advantage.

The Rams are running split zone -- a zone run with a kick-out blocker who crosses the formation to block the back-side edge defender. With eight defenders in the box versus seven immediate blockers, the Seahawks should be able to comfortably fill every gap (in blue). Gap control was not the problem for Seattle on this one, though.

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Wagner is able to get to the line of scrimmage uncontested. Nine times out of ten, Wagner secures this tackle in the backfield without any trouble. Wagner with a nagging hamstring injury, however, does not have the twitch to keep up with Gurley. Gurley makes a daring dash parallel to the line of scrimmage to get to the perimeter, leaving Wagner in his wake. Once out in space, Gurley makes two more defenders miss before ultimately being shoved out of bounds after a 9-yard gain.

Seattle also battled with the structure of their defense. When the unit is healthy, Chancellor can fit into the box as an edge defender or off-ball linebacker. Chancellor can allow the Seahawks to get into under/over fronts and load the box as if they had three real linebackers on the field. With Chancellor next to Wagner and Wright, a healthy Seahawks defense has the most terrifying and versatile second-level defense in football. In the absence of Chancellor, Wright, and a healthy Wagner, however, the Seahawks are playing a style of football that does not fit the personnel.

When Chancellor is playing on the edge, he is inclined to attack the blocker full force and generate chaos at the line of scrimmage. The chaos is built into the structure of the defense with an athletic linebacker corps and a dominant, rangy free safety in Earl Thomas. There is faith that someone will fight through the chaos and clean up the mess. That was not the case on Sunday.

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Bradley McDougald (30) is playing in place of Chancellor. Normally, Chancellor would crash the line of scrimmage. McDougald, on the other hand, barely engages with the blocker and tries to shimmy his way through the inside shoulder. Without resetting the line of scrimmage, McDougald allows Gurley enough space to shuffle along tight to the line. Gurley does not have to commit early, making the read and pursuit angles trickier for the cornerback and linebacker. Terence Garvin (52), in place of Wright, is unable to react to Gurley fast enough and catch him on the boundary. Gurley slips the cornerback and blazes past Garvin for another nice gain.

Gurley continued to beat the Seahawks defense to the perimeter all day. Often by choice, Gurley was carrying the ball outside the numbers and prancing up the sideline for chunk gains. The Seahawks did not have the speed to keep up with Gurley.

The dagger came right before halftime. Down 27-0, the Seahawks finally strung together what appeared to be a respectable defensive drive. A 2-yard run and a strip sack that lost 12 yards put the Rams in a third-and-20 on their own 43-yard line with under a minute to go in the half. There was no reason for the upcoming play to result in anything other than a fourth-and-whatever to bring the game to halftime.

The Seahawks lined up in a conservative zone shell. On third-and-20 with halftime around the corner, any team would do the same. The issue is that the Seahawks defense did not have the speed to cover the field properly from such a spread-out alignment.

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It is built into the defensive design that Gurley will make it past the line of scrimmage. With 20 yards to go before the first down, the idea is that someone should catch him before he crosses the sticks. Instead, nobody even got a hand on him. Wagner takes an aggressive angle and fails to recover. Thomas gets tossed aside by left guard Rodger Saffold. McDougald, the theoretical last line of defense, also takes a tight angle and can not redirect to catch Gurley in space. Gurley weaved through the entire Seahawks defense untouched for a 57-yard touchdown run. The Rams went into halftime with a 34-0 lead, vaporizing any shred of hope that the Seahawks had of mounting a comeback.

The eye-test was not kind to Seattle. Gurley simply looked faster than his opponents every time he touched the ball. Even Thomas, the best free safety in football, struggled to do anything in the run game other than force Gurley out of bounds 10 yards down the field. Their run defense DVOA against the Rams was 9.2%, their second-worst single-game performance of the year. This comes on the heels of 30-24 loss to Jacksonville that was the team's third-worst run defense DVOA of the year. Only a Week 2 slog versus the San Francisco 49ers tops Seattle's past two weeks of disaster. (Subscription required)

Next week's game versus the Cowboys is a make-or-break contest for Seattle. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will make his return after serving a six-game suspension just in time to ravage a brittle Seahawks run defense. Fortunately, Wright has cleared concussion protocol and will be back in the lineup, but he alone may not be enough. Wagner, McDougald, and the defensive line must all play better. If the Seahawks defense lets Elliott run rampant the way Gurley did, their season may come to a heart-crushing close.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 21 Dec 2017

8 comments, Last at 28 Dec 2017, 4:58am by atworkforu

Comments

1
by Pen :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 4:15am

The Seahawks playoff chances are slim to none. And even if they got in, with their depleted line up, they wouldn't go deep. I would expect that next year some salary cap is going to be cleared up and some people are going to be let go. They need a good draft and to restock that defense with young guys again.

3
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 11:11am

Is trying to restock the defense the best strategy, though? That defense was one of a kind in its prime, and it would be very difficult to even come close to replicating. DVOA tells us that offense is easier to keep consistent from year to year. They already have a top quarterback, so maybe they should focus on giving him more help (fixing the offensive line would be a good start...as would getting him a reliable complement to Doug Baldwin).

4
by jtr :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 11:27am

It's especially tough for them to rebuild the defense now that their defensive style is in vogue. Early on, they were looking for kind of oddball players for key roles: tall corners, a really big strong-side end and a small weak-side end, one linebacker-sized safety and one small rangy one. Those players (except the free safety) were easy to get on the cheap because they didn't fit the other popular schemes in the league. Key players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Chris Clemons, and Red Bryant were drafted or traded for with a fourth round pick or lower.
Now that their style of defense is really in vogue, with direct copycats in Jacksonville and Atlanta in particular, it's going to be harder for them to find those kinds of guys without paying a premium. It reminds me of back when the Tampa 2 was the big scheme and it became hard for teams like Tampa and Chicago to stock the cupboard since everybody was going after the same guys.

7
by atworkforu :: Thu, 12/28/2017 - 4:55am

Great comment. Reminds me of the 3-4 vs 4-3 debates. While I'm partial to 4-3, it's really a question of can you find edge rushers who weigh 250# or 270#? If the whole league swings one way you can find bargains the other way.

2
by jtr :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 10:11am

On that second run, #30 doesn't make any effort to keep outside contain. Would Chancellor do the same thing, attacking the inside shoulder of the tight end? If that's by design, it's ballsy as hell to plan to not bother with contain because you think some combination of your physical corners and your speedy linebackers can make the play after you allow the back to get outside.

5
by Derrik Klassen :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 2:50pm

With no WR to block the outside CB, typically the defense is going to spill (work inside shoulder) that play and bank on the LB and CB making a play. The CB becomes the force player. Part of the issue is Garvin (52) being sucked inside and away from Gurley's eventual path. Garvin is not able to flow over the top and get to Gurley by virtue of his poor initial steps.

Of course, you hope the CB can make a better play than he did. He should have worked closer to the LoS as the shift occurred, but I suspect he did not because most teams play off of LARM's tight sets because they have the athletes to threaten vertical even from those looks. That play was result of superior offensive design compromising two backup players and a rookie cornerback. I would guess Chancellor would have been more destructive at the LoS, and Wright would have better diagnosed the play and not been drawn inside so much initially.

I hope this clarified things a little bit. Thank you for reading!

8
by atworkforu :: Thu, 12/28/2017 - 4:58am

Good comment and reply. I think it's really on the corner... while 52 was running behind, any value out of the corner allows him to make it up and make the play. It's the corner who really is a cipher on this one.

6
by Raiderfan :: Fri, 12/22/2017 - 7:59pm

Really good article. You are absolutely correct--on that long run Gurley just looks faster than anyone in the D.