Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pass Rush May Not Equal Defensive End

Seattle ended the season in the Top 10 of just about every meaningful statistic on defense, from scoring to yards per play to opposing passer rating to turnovers. They finished tied for 19th in sacks. TeamRankings.com puts Seattle as 23rd in the NFL in sack percentage, the percentage of opponent passing plays that resulted in a sack. Philadelphia led the league at nearly 9% (meaning they sack the QB almost 1 out of every 10 times he drops back). The Seahawks posted a 5.73% sack percentage, same as they did a year before. Pete Carroll mentioned the challenge in his season-ending press conference yesterday, stating the team needed to improve in that area. Most people are assuming that means adding another defensive end. Not necessarily.

The foundation of Seattle's defense has been about stopping the run. Moving Red Bryant to defensive end, and adding players like Alan Branch in the middle are aimed at making the Seahawks line a shield instead of a spear. They may not get up-field, but the opponents have a terrible time getting down-field. This style comes at the expense of a pass rush from your defensive end spot, as only one end is rushing the passer effectively. Red Bryant is a free agent, and the team will certainly try to bring him back. Even if some calamitous happens, and he is not back, the team will bring in another player who can reprise the same over-sized end role. In other words, don't expect the Seahawks to change the fundamental scheme of their defense in order to generate more pass rush.

Seattle has relied on substitutions to put them into "pass rush mode" thus far. Raheem Brock was the guy who came in last year, and I'm pretty sure he played this season, even if he never showed up. Anthony Hargrove was the interior lineman who would enter in passing situations. The problem with depending on substitutions to generate pass rush is that the offense is not going to tell you when they are passing. Sure, 3rd and long is a pretty good bet, but it gets dicey otherwise. That means that you will be forced to generate pressure with your base personnel quite a bit. Where does that pass rush come from when Red Bryant is on the field? That's the more important question.

The answer probably is in one of two positions. Either the team finds a linebacker who excels at rushing the passer, or it finds a young defensive tackle that can wreak havoc collapsing the pocket while still being stout against the run. Ideally, you find both. K.J. Wright already showed some flashes of being a decent pass rusher late in the season, and he will be part of the solution one way or another. The question is whether Leroy Hill is also part of the solution.

Hill had a very solid year, posting 89 tackles and 4.0 sacks, his most since his rookie season. Even so, his speed seems diminished. He will be 30 going into next season, and is a free agent. The team could decide to get faster at that spot. Rookie Malcolm Smith missed most of the year, but is a intriguing prospect who clocks in below 4.5 in the 40. Pass rushing is more than just speed, so he is not a sure bet. Durability for a smaller player like him is also a question. The team could also choose to slide Wright back to middle linebacker, let David Hawthorne go, and find two new outside linebackers, knowing Smith may fill one slot. Hawthorne played on one leg most of the year, and still led the team in tackles. He played slower than he ever has, but it is hard to say if that's age or injury. He's only 26, so you would hope he could recover that speed next year.

The team will have to weigh the cost of bringing back players like Hawthorne and Hill versus the prospects in the draft, and other free agents. Linebacker happens to be one of the positions where good players make an impact right away in their rookie year. Wright is a great recent example. The team could decide to spend their #11/12 pick on a special linebacker. Depending on the player, it could be someone who doubles as a pass-rush defensive end on obvious passing situations to take the role Brock played. Two birds, one stone.

Finding an interior lineman who can be disruptive is difficult. The Seahawks were hopeful that had one in Jimmy Wilkerson before his pre-season injury. Hargrove has been great in the locker room and was a passable interior rusher. Great interior lineman who can rush the passer are rarely found outside of the Top 10. There are a number of terrific offensive tackle prospects, a running back, and few quarterbacks you may have heard of that could push a normally Top 10 prospect down to the Seahawks. Less probably than linebacker, but still possible.

None of this is to say a pass rush defensive end is not a need. It is. The team will also certainly add a replacement for Brock. Carroll is high on Dexter Davis who was out much of this season. Maybe they find a Robert Mathis-style player who can get double-digit sacks without being a starter, but the team needs to find ways to threaten the quarterback when Bryant is on the field. That is what will make the defense truly dominant. Keep an eye on those linebacker spots, and possible a defensive tackle to meet that need.

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