Seahawks 2011 Season Preview Part III: Defense, Special Teams and Predictions
50 yard line on an american football field
Defense – Starters
Red Bryant – LDE
Brandon Mebane* – DT
Alan Branch* – DT
Chris Clemons – RDE
Aaron Curry – SAM (Strongside Linebacker)
David Hawthorne* – MIKE (Middle Linebacker)
Leroy Hill* – WILL (Weakside Linebacker)
Brandon Browner* – RCB
Kam Chancellor* – SS
Earl Thomas – FS
Marcus Trufant – LCB
* New starter or new position
** Pro Bowl
Defense – Running Game
No part of the Seahawks 2011 team has the chance to be as dominant as the Seahawks run defense. Many of the same key elements that were part of a strong run defense last season return, along with some upgrades. While scoring points is critical for success, don’t sell run defense short. Six of the Seahawks eight victories (including playoffs) last season came in games the team held opponents under 100 yards rushing. Red Bryant is a key element, as is Brandon Mebane. David Hawthorne is an upgrade over Lofa Tatupu, and Leroy Hill may prove to be an upgrade at WILL over Hawthorne. A less heralded part of the run defense last year was Lawyer Milloy who has been replaced by 237 lb wrecking ball, Kam Chancellor. Add to that, strong run supporting corners in Brandon Browner and Marcus Trufant, and you can see this defense is built to stop the run. It will be very difficult to win any games when opposing teams establish a running attack. Reasonable goals this year are to hold opponents average below 4.0 yards per carry and under 100 yards per game. A healthy Seahawks defense should limit those types of games, and has the potential to be the best run defense in recent team history.
Defense – Passing Game
If addition by subtraction is can truly happen, the Seahawks became infinitely better when they traded away Kelly Jennings. No move in the secondary may have a bigger impact that subtracting the team’s weakest pass defender and hopeless run supporter. The fact that the team replaced Jennings with some capable young talent makes the juxtaposition all the more stark. Youth is the rule for this secondary, as I detailed here. The team needed to do something as they were hopeless against the pass much of last season, yielding a 25th-ranked opposing 89.7 QB rating and a 31st-ranked 71 pass plays over 20 yards. The bright spot was an improved pass rush that recorded 37 sacks (13th), and the top-ranked sack duo in Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock. This defense is so stacked to stop the run, that it can struggle to get pass pressure and defend the pass. As great as Bryant is against the run, he’s a below average pass rusher. Creative blitzes, including many involving the secondary, were a staple last season, and should be again. Chancellor could be a special blitzer, as could the lighting fast Earl Thomas, and oft-forgotten Hill. The team will face improved QB play within the division, so they must improve just to maintain their level of last year. Treading water, though, is not enough. Reasonable goals should be to add 5-7 interceptions to the 2010 total of 12 (25th), and to drop opponents QB rating under 85.0.
Defense – Defensive Line
Bryant was the talk of the team before he got injured last season, and appears to be back to his old wrecking ball self. An element of the team’s great line play that was less discussed was Colin Cole. Cole was among the league leaders for tackles/game for a defensive lineman. He was injured in the same game Bryant was, but most attributed the drop-off in run defense to Bryant’s absence. Numbers tell otherwise. The Seahawks had 4 of 5 opponents to rush for more than 100 yards while Cole and Bryant were out. They then held 4 of 5 opponents under 100 yards after Cole returned. The team decided to cut Cole this season, and go with Alan Branch and a series of lesser-known guys like Clinton McDonald, Landon Cohen, and Al Woods. Time will tell if that was a proper trade-off. Mebane shifts to the nose tackle position, where he had his best seasons in years past. Branch takes over Mebane’s spot. He was a highly-drafted player who the Arizona Cardinals let walk. He has shown a penchant for batting down passes, but not a lot else so far. Clemons and Brock return as strong rush ends, but the team must force opponents into passing situations to get both players on the field at the same time. Brock has proven to be a dynamic playmaker, and looks to be headed for another big year.
Defense – Linebackers
Despite high-profile signings like Sidney Rice, Robert Gallery and Zach Miller, the most impressive move of the Seahawks off-season was having the stones to move on from Lofa Tatupu. He was an unquestioned fan favorite, coaches dream, and team leader. He was also a below league-average starting linebacker whose production was steadily fading, and was unlikely to recover. There is a reason no team in the league has offered him a starting position. Hawthorne is battling a knee injury as the season begins, but is a major upgrade if healthy. Hawthorne is not the pass defender Tatupu is, but excels in run support. Hill returns to his familiar WILL position where he has always been an above average player when healthy. There is some hope this coaching staff can give him a chance to recapture some of the pass rush ability he flashed while recording 7.5 sacks his rookie season (no more than 3.0 since). Aaron Curry is probably entering his last season with the team after his contract was renegotiated, but it could be his best. He made a handful of heady plays in the pre-season that he simply never demonstrated the ability to do in his first two years. Curry’s ideal is to be a Lance Briggs-style enforcer. Briggs never gets more than a couple of sacks in a season, but is able to impact the game in other ways like tackles for loss, forced fumbles and sure-tackling. Don’t be surprised if Curry has his best season, and then leaves. The depth at linebacker is far better than it has been in recent history. Rookies K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are potential impact players. Both should see the field over the course of the season. Wright is a strong open-field tackler, with great length and appears to have some special coverage ability. Smith is a blur that tackles with ferocity. Wright or Smith may even push Hawthorne on Nickel or Dime snaps as the year goes on.
Defense – Secondary
Brandon Browner stood out from the very first time he was spotted at practice. Not only is he 6’4″, but he covers with confidence. He frustrated Mike Williams multiple times during training camp. The larger corners Carroll likes to employ are going to be less prone to jump balls and fade patterns, but will probably draw more pass interference and illegal contact penalties than their smaller counterparts. Browner, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell all use their hands all over the field. That could become their reputation around the league if they start out drawing penalties early on. Fans should welcome that shift in risk. The Bears corners manhandled the Seahawks all afternoon in the playoffs last season, but the refs are not going to call it every time. Same thing with the Packers cornerbacks. Penalties are preferable to hopelessness.
Look for Earl Thomas to roll up on the slot receiver far more this season. He has cover corner abilities, and it also allows the team to utilize him as a blitzer on occasion. He practically teleports around the field, so putting him three steps from the QB can be dynamic. Atari Bigby will partner with Thomas is those Nickel and Dime situations, and is a veteran who can be a playmaker. Health has been his issue. Rookie Jeron Johnson was a surprise to make the team, and is promising, but should not see much time this season. Chancellor is the biggest unknown of the bunch as he has a Pro Bowl ceiling, but there are reasons other teams don’t sport 230+ lb safeties. Time will tell if he gets exposed. The best guess here is he becomes the breakout player on the team this season.
Defense – Overall 2010 Outlook
The defense is farther along than the offense in the overall rebuilding process. There are pieces in place to be a good defense this season, and their is enough talent to potentially be better than good. The secondary is similar to the offensive line in its youth and inexperience, but should not need the same 2-3 years to gel. Expect faster play and more turnovers this season. Health, as always, will be a major factor. Seahawks coaches hope they have better depth at some of those key positions than last season, but nobody really knows what the team has in McDonald, Cohen and Woods backing up along the line. Fans will enjoy watching this defense play, possibly more than the offense.
Special Teams – Overall 2010 Outlook
Special teams were the best unit on the team last season. Losing Olindo Mare was significant, and Steven Hauschka is unknown. Jon Ryan is a terrific punter, and the coverage teams should again be stacked with a good mix of athletic youngsters and proven veterans. The return game will be effected by the new kickoff rules, but fans should still expect at least a return or two for touchdowns.
Scouting the NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
No team had a more confusing off-season than the 49ers. They added Jim Harbaugh as coach, but lost key parts like Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements. They brought back Alex Smith. Their best addition may be rookie RB Kendall Hunter, who will be a thorn in the Seahawks side for years to come. They have a struggling offensive line as well, but have the size to be a good running team. It is hard to see how this team wins more than 4-6 games.
St. Louis Rams
Sam Bradford could be the best player in the NFC West this season. He threw a lot of short passes last season, but was brilliant as a rookie. He has some improved weapons, including rookie TE Lance Kendricks who Seahawks fans will also grow to hate for many seasons ahead. The defense is overshadowed by the bigger names on offense, but that could be the better part of the team. Anything less than a division title would be a serious failure for a Rams team that has more pieces in place than any other team in the division. Bradford sets them apart.
Much has been made of how much better Kevin Kolb will be than the schlock the Cardinals trotted out at QB last season. It is true that Kolb will be a major upgrade, but Cards fans should remember that their defense was just as bad as their offense last year, and is old. Their defense was always reliant on a special offense to score a lot of points and keep them off the field, even during their division title days. But is Kolb really going to play on par with Kurt Warner? Is the offense, as a whole, as talented as when they had Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin? That is highly doubtful, and the defense is less capable as well. Expect a middling season for the Cardinals. They don’t know it yet, but they are locked into mediocrity for the foreseeable future as they will need to rebuild their defense and their offense will not be elite.
There may never have been a team that could slide farther back from a record perspective, and still have a moved so much closer to a championship. This team is significantly younger and more talented than the team from last season, but expecting a better outcome than last year is like expecting a pie to taste good before you bake it. The things that matter this season are progress in building cornerstones for what could be a Super Bowl contending team in two years. Can Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor become a dominant safety tandem? Will Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell show they can be big and good? Can Russell Okung set aside the injury concerns? The answers to these questions are far more important in the big picture than what will the Seahawks record be.
Spending a bunch of time fretting about Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, or any other stop-gap quarterback is pointless. The team is setup to find their long-term quarterback next year, one way or another. Jackson will be a guy worth rooting for, who will take a beating and keep popping up for more. The defense could be fun to watch, and is the reason their is potential for a surprising outcome this season. A flurry of turnovers could give the offense the leg up it needs to make the club competitive. The forest is there, even if this season may be full of trees blocking your view.