Monday, September 3, 2012

Seahawks 2012 Season Preview Part V: Breaking Down The Defense & Special Teams

HAWK BLOGGER 2012 SEASON PREVIEW PART V: Breaking Down The Defense & Special Teams

Defense – Starters

Red Bryant – LDE
Brandon Mebane – DT
Alan Branch – DT
Chris Clemons – RDE
K.J. Wright – SAM (Strongside Linebacker)
Bobby Wagner* – MIKE (Middle Linebacker)
Leroy Hill – WILL (Weakside Linebacker)
Brandon Browner** – RCB
Kam Chancellor** – SS
Earl Thomas** – FS
Richard Sherman – LCB

* New starter or new position
** Pro Bowl

Defense – Running Game

Many coaches will say the most important element for a defense in any game is to stop the run first. Seattle built an entire defense with that premise in mind. It has been two years of dominant run stopping for the Seahawks when the defensive line has been healthy. The basic premise has been simple. Instead of the typical two boulders in the middle of the line, Seattle decided to add a third. Right tackles and tight ends around the league are not accustomed to facing what is essentially a defensive tackle. This has allowed the Seahawks to seal the edge with regularity and force most runs back into the teeth of the defense. Seattle's front seven returns six starters from a group that finished 4th in the NFL in rush defense (as judged by yards per carry). That finish could have been even higher if the offense and pass defense were not as suspect early in the season. Even great run defense wear down. A more capable offense that holds onto the ball for longer and puts up more points will give this defense a chance to be the best in the NFL defending the run.

Defense – Passing Game

Only a secondary as talented as this one could have held opposing quarterbacks to a 74.8 passer rating (6th in then NFL), and 2nd-fewest passes over 20 yards (43) last year given the mediocrity of the pass rush. It was a truly stunning performance. The 2010 squad gave up an 89.7 passer rating and a 31st-ranked 71 pass plays. Gone are the days when Seahawks fans needed to cover their eyes when tall receiver lined up across from Seattle cornerbacks. The team took a page out of their run defense approach and took players that normally would be found roaming the middle of the field, and put them on the outside to lean on receivers. The result has been stunning. All four players are Pro Bowl-caliber, and each has All-Pro potential. The only thing holding this group back from completely dismantling opposing offenses is a consistent pass rush. The front office made numerous moves with an eye on improving that part of the team. Results were mixed in pre-season. The goal here should be a Top 10 finish in sacks, and the best opponent passer rating in the NFL (likely sub-70.0).

Defense – Defensive Line

Fans, by now, know the names Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Chris Clemons. They started almost every game last season and mauled opposing lines and running backs. They should match that performance again this year. The upside to this group comes with the new weapons that can mixed in at appropriate moments. Jason Jones should be the most disruptive interior lineman the Seahawks have put on the field since John Randle. Bruce Irvin is a nuclear missile that is having a guidance system installed while in flight. His physical gifts and motor are fantastic. He enters the season with the potential to eclipse 10 sacks even while still learning how to play at this level. Greg Scruggs looks like he could be another John Schneider diamond found in the late rounds of the draft. He is all about getting up-field, and did it regularly in pre-season. Jaye Howard was another draft choice in the interior that started emerging as the pre-season wound down. Irvin will get a lot of attention as a compliment to Clemons on the edge, but the additions of Jones, Scruggs and Howard may end up having the greatest impact. This group needs to find a way to get pass pressure on first and second downs without the benefit of a blitz. They were near the bottom of the NFL in that category last season. That will be the key to unlocking the full potential of this overall defense.

Defense – Linebackers

Remember when half of the defenses cap number was dedicated to Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill and Aaron Curry? Those days are behind the franchise, but identifying top-shelf impact linebackers remains a work-in-progress. K.J. Wright had a promising rookie season, and can play both middle and SAM linebacker. The team loves him at SAM, and he was among the most impressive players in training camp. He returned bigger, more confident and hungry. He wants to be great, and has the tools to do it. This may be the year Wright breaks out. Bobby Wagner is a physically gifted rookie who takes over for David Hawthorne. He is surrounded by experienced players, so the hope is that he can focus on finding the football. His best talent may be in coverage where he can get exceptionally deep drops due to his speed, and can also break on the ball in a blur. He needs to prove he can stuff running plays in the hole. Making tackles 3-5 yards down the field will not cut it. Hill returns as the capable veteran. Do not be surprised if you see younger players like Malcolm Smith get some reps to insert more speed on the field. Smith and Mike Morgan add some speed to the back-up corps, and Heath Farwell is a special teams ace who made strides at middle linebacker. Wagner is setup to have a solid rookie season. If he can be better than that, it would be a bonus to an already stacked defense.

Defense – Secondary

There will be no free passes against this secondary. They are smart, fast, physical, and oozing with confidence. The only thing closer to NFL wide receivers than their new Nike jerseys will be these cornerbacks. Much was made of the penalties incurred by Browner and Sherman. What many people never saw was the pass routes that never materialized because of the physical play from these guys. The TV will not show players tangled up that are not involved with the action. Do yourself a favor and spend a few plays following each of these corners, regardless of where the ball goes. They are both influencing the outcome of more snaps than most realize. Browner finished the year 2nd in the NFL in interceptions and 1st in passes defensed. Sherman was 32nd in interceptions and 11th in passes defensed, despite only starting for just over half a season. Earl Thomas is the best player on the entire team. He has the potential to be the best safety in all of football. The missing ingredient is impact plays. He has effected the game largely by eliminating throws from quarterbacks. It is hard to truly shine when teams throw away from you. The great ones find a way. Thomas enters his third season needing to up his game to the elite level. Kam Chancellor made a ton of plays last season, and will continue this year. He will force fumbles, intercept passes and cover tight ends like a glove. Expect to see Byron Maxwell get more playing time, potentially as the slot cornerback. Marcus Trufant is the early slot corner, but Maxwell is better suited for the physical interior.

Special Teams – Coverage & Kicking

Special teams fell off terribly last season after a stellar 2010. Coverage teams were mediocre, at best, and return teams were not much better. Steven Hauschka and Jon Ryan were fantastic. It was the guys around them that needed to improve. Team speed was an issue last season that is much improved this year. Expect a major rebound in this part of the team. 

Defense – Overall 2012 Outlook

Savor every moment this defense takes the field. It already belongs in the conversation with the best this franchise has ever had to offer, and has the potential to be the best in the NFL. They were, by almost any measure, the 7th best defense in football last year. They return with significant reinforcements, experience, and added confidence. Finishing this season in the Top 5 in points allowed would be a major accomplishment given the quality of opposing offenses lining up against the Seahawks this year. The Achilles heel for a seemingly impenetrable unit has been quick, ball-control, passing games. Disruptive pressure up the middle will be key to interrupting that rhythm, as will effective press coverage on the outside. Teams will struggle to go over the top with big plays. It will require discipline over the full length of the field to end up with points, and the length across the board will make red zone offense even more challenging. Defensive line play will determine the upside. If Jones, Howard, Scruggs, Irvin, Clemons, and others can wreak havoc with a four-man pass rush, the sky is the limit. 

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