Take the under: this week will see multiple teams with good defenses square off against one another in games including Michigan-Northwestern and Florida-Missouri.
09 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
This past May when the Seattle Seahawks turned down an invitation to be on Hard Knocks, they didn’t just avoid a potentially monster-sized distraction, they also kept the lid on what might just be the best-kept secret in the NFL. Want a likely breakout team for 2012? Turn your attention to the upper left corner of our country’s map.
The Seahawks are returning a solid, aggressive young defense that quietly ranked in the top 10 last season. It’s a defense that plays a fairly straightforward brand of football, relying on talent more than gimmicks. Offensively, the Seahawks finally discovered a run game in 2011, which is largely why they went 5-3 in the second half of the season.
Head coach Pete Carroll and his fellow decision-maker, general manager John Schneider, entered this past offseason knowing their team was just a passing attack away from serious playoff contention. Obviously, a "passing attack" is not an insignificant hole to fill. In fact, it’s many holes: offensive line, receivers and, of course, quarterback. Feeling okay (but probably not good, and almost certainly not great) about the offense’s talent and depth up front and at wide receiver, Carroll and Schneider revamped the lackluster quarterback position by signing free agent Matt Flynn and drafting Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson.
One could take umbrage with this approach. In an age of superstar signal-callers, the Seahawks opted for a competition between a veteran backup whom they signed for just $10 million guaranteed, and a rookie whom they acquired in the third round. But a funny thing happened during training camp: one of the quarterbacks stepped up and clearly won the job outright. And it wasn’t the one people would have guessed going in.
What should give fans in the Pacific Northwest permission to be almost as optimistic as the perpetually enthused Carroll is? With the style they play and the division they play in, the Seahawks don’t necessarily need sensational quarterbacking in order to make a postseason run this year. They might need sensational quarterbacking over the long haul if they want to be a perennial contender, but either way, the first step in their growth process is simply reaching the playoffs. From there, they’ll believe anything can happen.
There seems to be a consensus on Russell Wilson: good, perhaps even great, arm in terms of accuracy and strength. Smart, cerebral player. Superb athlete. Admirable character, respected leader ... and ... too short. Three inches cost the 5-foot-10 Wilson millions on draft weekend; if he could have broken 6-feet-even, he would have gotten to go on the first-round ride.
If Wilson turns out to be of mutli-Pro Bowl caliber, a red-faced Football Universe will look back on the spring of 2012 and regret having been so concerned about something as silly as height. With Wilson lighting it up in the preseason, that’s already starting to happen a bit now. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, though. There’s a reason all 32 teams thought a lack of height was problematic enough to pass on Wilson in the first two rounds, and there’s a reason only 17 six-foot-and-under quarterbacks have started an NFL game in the past 25 years. NFL coaches and scouts don’t care what players look like -– they just care about winning. The only reason players with certain physical shortcomings don’t get chances is because coaches and scouts have learned in the past that they couldn’t win with those guys. In a win-at-all costs industry like pro football, prejudices don’t appear out of thin air.
The vast majority of short quarterbacks fail because they aren’t excellent in enough other areas to compensate. And it takes excellence. The Seahawks believe Wilson is excellent at making and executing smart, decisive, throws from the pocket. And they believe he has the athleticism to be an excellent run-pass threat out of the pocket when things break down. At Wisconsin, Wilson was good enough in these areas to compensate. He completed over 70 percent of his passes, threw 29 more touchdowns than interceptions, and had only four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.
There are ways to help Wilson see over the line. Shotgun is one solution. Rolling pockets are another. In the grander scheme, though, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell needs to be able to use his entire West Coast oriented playbook. Like the similarly-sized Drew Brees has done, Wilson will ultimately have to make even quicker decisions than he already makes, master his footwork, and develop subtle movement skills in the pocket.
Expect Wilson to get a relatively long leash, as from a long-term standpoint, he offers a much better potential return than the meager-armed Matt Flynn. (Flynn was originally drafted in the seventh round for a reason.) And don’t expect the Seahawks to ask too much of their rookie quarterback; ideally, Carroll and Bevell will have the offense run through Marshawn Lynch.
After being an undisciplined runner his first four years in the league, Lynch discovered newfound patience and vision in his first full season behind Seattle’s zone-blocking offensive line. That, coupled with his already decent burst and exhausting tenacity, made for a 1,200-yard feature back. Lynch can be that for the next few years assuming he stays healthy and out of trouble. (He was arrested for suspicion of DUI in July.)
For durability's sake, it would be wise to give a few more of Lynch’s touches to veteran backup Leon Washington and, if he’s ready, fourth-round rookie Robert Turbin. Washington is a scatback who can be dangerous in space; Turbin showed some short-area explosiveness at Utah State. In this one-cut scheme, he could be punishing as a fresh runner late in games.
You might think that fullback Michael Robinson is another ball-handling option given that he played quarterback at Penn State and running back early in his NFL career, but Robinson had just 16 total touches last season. It’s possible he’ll see his role shrink in 2012, as Seattle’s trade with Tampa Bay for Kellen Winslow indicated that the team could be looking to use more two tight end sets. Winslow was eventually released and replaced by Evan Moore, a former Brown who knows Bevell’s system. Moore will compete for playing time with Anthony McCoy, a third-year pro who struggled mightily last season but showed improvements this past training camp. Having one of those two on the field alongside starting tight end Zach Miller, a solid all-around player who wasn’t as involved in the 2011 offense as he should have been, will have Lynch operating out of a single-back set more often.
Hopefully Miller can be flexible enough to occasionally play the slot on first and second downs, enabling Bevell to keep the ball on the ground or create one-on-one matchups for his tight ends against linebackers. If Moore or McCoy aren’t serviceable at blocking, Bevell might as well line up on first downs with No. 3 receiver Doug Baldwin in the slot. If he can overcome his preseason hamstring problems and continue his development, the small, quick, and strong second-year pro will offer enough dynamic qualities to make defenses eventually have to gameplan for him.
Baldwin is far from the only Seahawk receiver with an "if he’s healthy" asterisk. Top wideout Sidney Rice has battled injuries since arriving here, most recently to his shoulders, which sidelined him for most of the summer and leaves in doubt his effectiveness heading into the regular season. 2011 fourth-round pick Kris Durham was sidelined with a torn labrum last November. He wound up losing his roster spot to undrafted journeyman Charly Martin. Fourth-year pro Deon Butler was once expected to be what Baldwin is, but his career has been derailed by a broken leg.
Competing for playing time opposite Rice is Ben Obomanu and Golden Tate. Obomanu is a possession type target who might be just a tad too sluggish. You could probably describe him as a less athletic but more stable version of Braylon Edwards. Speaking of Edwards, he's also in the mix! Tate is an intriguing catch-and-run downfield talent, but he was very green entering the league as a second-rounder in 2010, and hasn’t ripened much.
Wide receiver isn’t the only sector that injuries have put in limbo. Up front, starting right guard John Moffitt missed most of August with an elbow injury after recovering from knee surgery earlier in the offseason. (Seventh-round rookie J.R. Sweezy has filled in during Moffitt’s absence.) At right tackle, last year’s first-round pick, James Carpenter, is battling a knee injury and has been shifted to left guard. Thus, Seattle is counting on limited 26-year-old backup Breno Giacomini at right tackle.
In 2010, center Max Unger was lost for the year with a toe injury. Fortunately, Unger bounced back well enough last season to earn a new five-year, $25.5 million contract. Unger has improved his technique to become very adept in the run game, and he’s always had good mobility in space. He’s a good fit in this scheme and will have to continue getting better with the right side of the line qualifying as iffy and left guard Paul McQuistan being nothing special. Same goes for Russell Okung at left tackle. The supremely-talented 2010 first-round pick has the light feet and strength to be a star, but a multitude of injuries have hindered his development. Seattle can’t afford to be without Okung (or any of their other starters) again this season, as their top backups are the always-vulnerable Frank Omiyale and underachieving veteran Allen Barbre.
Obviously Seattle’s offense has plenty of significant "ifs" heading into 2012. What takes a bit of the edge off of them is the fact that this defense is potentially good enough to carry the team. It starts in the secondary. With cornerbacks like Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, the Seahawks are one of the few defenses that can play true bump-and-run coverage every down on the outside. They don’t do this, as Carroll and coordinator Gus Bradley subscribe to a lot of zone concepts, but they have the option to –- and that’s important. Both corners are uncommonly big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds, give or take) and, as you’d imagine, physical. They’re often too physical, in fact. Browner led the league with 19 penalties last year, Sherman had 10 despite starting just 10 games. Neither is a star, as Browner is fairly stiff in his change-of-direction (though improved technique has assuaged this a bit) and Sherman sometimes pays for his aggressive, brash, style.
But it’s that style that ultimately liberates the rest of this defense. Having a pair of quality press corners allows the safeties to roam more freely and take more chances. That leads to good things when your safeties are as gifted as third-year pros Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Chancellor, a brawny fifth-round pick, plays with tremendous downhill power. There were rumors of him moving to outside linebacker, not because he’s a liability in coverage, but because he’s so stout. Seattle can’t afford to play him there in the base packages (and perhaps not even in nickel) because undrafted backups Chris Maragos and Jeron Johnson are unsettlingly inexperienced. As for Thomas, he too is a great hitter and, more importantly, a rangy pass defender. In fact, the former first-round pick covers as much ground as any safety in the league.
The only concern with this secondary is depth. With rising young corner Walter Thurmond still on PUP after his gruesome broken leg suffered last October, 10th-year veteran Marcus Trufant is learning to play the slot for the first time. That’s a drastic change for a declining corner who made a career out of using the sideline to his advantage. If Trufant and his creaky knees can’t cut it, the Seahawks will have to turn to either journeyman Phillip Adams or recent sixth-round picks Byron Maxwell (2011) and Jeremy Lane (2012).
The stingy first string defensive backfield will be aided by what could be a potent four-man pass rush in 2012. A lot of draft personalities were shocked when Carroll and Schneider drafted West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin 15th overall, but seven different teams reportedly had the 245-pounder listed as the top pass-rusher of this year’s class. Critics aren’t pleased that pass-rushing is all Irvin can do, but in today’s NFL, a pass-rushing specialist can potentially play more than 50 percent of the snaps. (And they’re usually the most critical snaps of the game.) Besides, the Seahawks ranked tied for 19th in total sacks last season and fourth in yards allowed per carry. As "needs" go, it doesn’t get much clearer than that.
The man Irvin will replace on passing downs is Red Bryant, one of the most vociferous run-defenders in the NFL. The monstrous-sized fifth-year pro was signed to a new five-year, $35 million contract ($14.5 million of which is guaranteed) this past offseason. That was $4.5 million more in guarantees than Chris Clemons got in his new three-year deal, even though Clemons was easily one of the five best all-around ends in football last season. There's the power of the free market for you.
Seattle’s line is nearly as formidable inside. Nose tackle Alan Branch has finally come alive after underachieving as a high second-round pick in Arizona. Branch obviously has plenty of raw power in his 325-pound frame, but there’s also a hint of initial quickness to his game. Alongside Branch, sixth-year pro Brandon Mebane is constantly disruptive in both shooting the gaps and congesting multiple blockers. His energy and craftiness routinely open up big-play opportunities for the rest of the front seven.
Surprisingly, Mebane is not a productive pass-rusher. He had 5.5 sacks in 2008, but has recorded a total of just 2.5 since. To buttress the interior pass-rush and replace the versatility of departed veteran Raheem Brock, Schneider signed ex-Titan Jason Jones to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. That’s an unusually low-risk investment to make in an accomplished 26-year-old -– especially one who can be used anywhere on the defensive line and even in a two-point stance -- but Jones has battled various shoulder problems since 2009 and must prove that he’s not damaged. If he does turnout to be injured, the Seahawks will turn to fourth-round rookie Jaye Howard, a natural athlete with similar attributes.
Linebacker is the only position of real concern in Seattle, and that could change if second-round rookie Bobby Wagner is as productive here as he was at Utah State. Some are understandably leery of the fact that Wagner didn’t regularly face top-shelf competition in the WAC and has never been a fulltime Mike linebacker. (He played inside and outside in college.)
If Wagner struggles too much early on, K.J. Wright would likely slide inside. Ideally though, Wright, a fluid, aggressive, fourth-round pick a year ago, will make his permanent home on the strong side, where he’s shown explosiveness lining up close to the line of scrimmage. The key for Wright will be improving as a pass defender, as he’ll be needed in nickel packages. Last year’s primary nickel ‘backer, Matt McCoy, is still recovering from a nasty ACL tear. If Wagner doesn’t earn snaps in nickel, either Heath Farwell, Michael Morgan, or Malcolm Smith will get a crack.
Rounding out the linebacking corps is veteran Leroy Hill. He has managed to stay on the roster despite several off-field issues, which tells you how much the coaches like his instinctive run defense and how little they like their second string of linebackers.
Journeyman kicker Steven Hauschka was 25-of-30 on field goals in his first full NFL season last year. Jon Ryan has ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack in net punting each of the last three seasons. He did, however, lead the league in punts inside the 20 last year. In the return game, Leon Washington is the type of weapon coaches think twice about kicking to, though he was kept mostly in check last season.
The makings are here for a breakout season, but with iffy depth on both sides of the ball, Seattle’s key players will have to kick the rampant injury bug. Perfect health never happens in the NFL, which means the Seahawks will likely be trying to hide some serious vulnerabilities at some point.