What better time for the Seahawks defense to look like they have hit their stride. With a division-clinch in sight, the Seahawks re-hashed some old tactics to hold the Los Angeles Rams' offense without a touchdown in a 20-9 win. Seattle finished the game with a defensive DVOA of -35.4%, their best performance of the season, and locked down the NFC West title.
The Seahawks defense has been gaining steam of late, so perhaps a dominant performance like this was only a matter of time. By DVOA, their last four games each rank among their top six defensive outings this year. The bar was low, of course, but it still means something that the Seahawks defense is ramping up a smidgen.
Seattle's secret weapon in this game against the Rams was linebacker K.J. Wright, whom they threw on the line of scrimmage as a walked-up SAM. The Seahawks have done this in varying capacity over the past however many years, but it has been some time since Wright took a majority of his base snaps from this alignment. Against the Rams, specifically, getting Wright on the line of scrimmage helped Seattle align in odd fronts while still playing from their base 4-3 or nickel 4-2-5 personnel. The Rams' wide zone offense notoriously struggles with odd-front defenses that load up players along the line of scrimmage.
To get away with putting a linebacker on the edge like Seattle did, that linebacker has to be a menace against the run. He must be able to set the edge, hold up against double teams, and fight to push plays towards rallying tacklers just like a standard defensive end would do. Wright got bullied once or twice on double teams, but for the most part, he was a stud in the run game against the Rams in a number of different ways.
Wright (50) is walked up just outside the tight end to the bottom of the screen. Since Wright is the last man on the line of scrimmage here, it is his job to set the edge and force the play back inside to the rest of the Seattle defense fitting things up. Wright takes his blocker 2 or 3 yards back behind the line of scrimmage while maintaining slight outside leverage and full control of the blocker's frame. At this point, Wright has not only forced the running back to cut inside of him, but has worked himself into a favorable position to shed the blocker and slip back inside to help make the tackle thanks to some strong, sound hand placement.
In a way, Wright effectively takes away one and a half gaps here by being able to work back the way he did after setting the edge. That's the kind of play you get from a Pro Bowl defensive end, not the kind of play most teams can get from a linebacker.
Here is Wright having to set the edge a little tighter. This windback run (a run that looks like a counter play without a pulling guard) from the Rams is not designed to hit as far outside as the last clip, so, naturally, Wright needs to set the edge even harder. Wright, lined up over the tight end at the bottom of the screen (Gerald Everett, 81), initially takes on the tight end head-up before seeing the windback coming across his way. Wright flashes some excellent strength to bully the tight end inside just enough to give himself some wiggle room around the edge. Once earning the edge, Wright crashes down while keeping his outside arm free in the event that the running back tries to bounce that way. Once again, Los Angeles' poor running back has nowhere to go, leaving Jamal Adams (33) and L.J. Collier (91) to clean things up.
As mentioned before, Wright also had to take on some double teams. The results in that regard were a bit more mixed, but that's the trade-off Seattle made for using Wright on the line of scrimmage to stay in their preferred personnel. Though less dominant overall against double teams, Wright still made a handful of nice plays.
This is not necessarily a true double team, but Wright (bottom) does draw some extra attention. Just before the snap, Wright is lined up right between the two tight ends (Gerald Everett, 81, and Tyler Higbee, 89). As the Rams motion Robert Woods (17) across the formation, Wright makes a slight shuffle to be more head-up on the outside tight end. Wright feels the play coming and forces his way through the outside tight end. In similar fashion of the first clip, Wright takes away the edge by forcing the blocker wide and behind the line of scrimmage while still keeping his inside arm free to work back inside. Wright is effectively taking away both gaps and somewhat occupying a second blocker, which forces Woods to hesitate. The hesitation buys just enough time for the nearby linebacker and cornerback to close for the tackle.
Wright has always been the "dirty work" player in Seattle. So much of what he does is not the type of stuff that shows up in his own statline, but has clear value in terms of how the defense as a whole is allowed to operate. Wright proved that a number of times in the run game, as shown above, but he also flexed his flexibility in the passing game. Even from this walked-up alignment, Wright was able to help unlock some neat coverage adjustments from Seattle.
Here is a rough look at what standard Cover-3 would look like. The two outside players -- Wright (top) and Adams (bottom) -- take the flat areas, while the two linebackers take the hook/curl areas near the hashmarks. On this play, though, the Rams are going to send the wide receiver at the bottom of the screen across the formation, prompting a coverage adjustment from the Seahawks.
Now Wright becomes the hook player to the boundary, while Jordyn Brooks (56) overlaps to the sideline and becomes the flat defender. The reason for this adjustment is that being both the flat player vs. the pass and the edge setter vs. the run would put Wright in a bind. He would want to expand with the motion player coming across while still having run responsibilities to crash the edge. It's the exact bind the Rams want to put that player in.
In allowing Wright and Brooks to effectively switch assignments as a built-in response to the Rams' motion (which it appears Wright is signaling at the beginning of the clip), Wright is taken out of that bind. It becomes much easier for him to play the run without worrying about expanding to the flat player. Once Wright recognizes it's a pass, he can sink to the hook and look back for crossers coming his way rather than worry about sprinting outside to carry the motion player up the sideline. Good luck getting away with this very often with a standard defensive end or pass-rushing outside linebacker.
The Seahawks still left this game with some questions to be answered. For one, this particular tactic of Wright being on the line of scrimmage, while useful, is not going to be as valuable against every team. It is something that is especially effective against the Rams and similar offenses. Seattle's cornerbacks also got beat up on iso routes a little bit this game, as they have all year. The difference in this game was that much of the Rams' passing over the middle of the field through play-action was stripped away from them, in part because of Wright and all of what he unlocked. Seattle has also played some atrocious offenses (Jets, Giants, Football Team) in the three weeks leading up to the Rams game, so it's possible the idea of an overall defensive turnaround is a bit misleading.
Nevertheless, seeing a thoughtful game plan out of the Seahawks is a major win. It feels as though their defense has struggled to find their identity all year, be it figuring out how to use all three linebackers or nailing down what they want to do with Adams. This was the game where it felt like they "got" what their defense was capable of and played to those conditions. Pete Carroll and Co. need to prove this is something they can continue to do into the postseason.