Latest Thinking On Linebacker Situation

In what is becoming the worst-kept secret in Renton, Bruce Irvin is moving to SAM (strongside linebacker). I hinted at this last week, but focused more on K.J. Wright moving to WILL (weakside linebacker). The truth is, I think the Seahawks are going to explore all options. They like Malcolm Smith as WILL in the role Leroy Hill played last year and Smith backed him up in. They will see if Irvin can swing over to SAM. They will see how Wright looks at WILL. How do I know? Deductive reasoning.

John Schneider, Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn have all stated in one form or another that Irvin will be played at SAM to some extent. They have also all stressed that Cliff Avril can play linebacker as well. Avril is not a candidate to play WILL, given it requires someone who can tackle in the open field, shed blockers in space, and can play the run. Take a look at the way a 4-3 under formation sets up in the diagram below:

Notice the strongside linebacker (SAM) is lined up directly on the line of scrimmage next the defensive end. That end would always be Red Bryant in the Seahawks defense. The weakside linebacker is off the line of scrimmage, and can play anywhere from behind the defensive tackles to shading outside the right defensive end. Remember that Wright’s first career start in the NFL was at middle linebacker. The critical aspect to that WILL spot is being able to hold up against the run as teams are induced into running that direction. An undersized defensive end is over there facing the offense’s left tackle, which is generally a better run match-up than going after Bryant and a linebacker standing over Bryant’s shoulder.

Wright has a nice skill-set for that role. Now, when the team goes to their Nickel defense–which happens a ton–an extra defensive back comes on the field (Antoine Winfield) and a linebacker leaves. Last year, that was Hill that left. This year, that could be either Irvin or the team could consider pulling Bryant and sliding Irvin or Avril in at left end. The major point being that Wright would stay on the field as much as he did last year, but just from a different spot on the field.

Irvin is incredibly athletic, and putting him in this role means that he won’t have to face offensive lineman as much. He can battle tight ends while Bryant takes on the tackle. This can make him a more effective pass rusher, and get him on the field more often. He also has shown the ability in practice to run down ball carriers from behind. He is tenacious. Part of the SAM responsibility is to scrape down the line and pursue the ball carrier. This was one of the few things Aaron Curry did well from the SAM spot. Irvin will still need to improve his technique in setting an edge against the run, but he’s got a better chance of accomplishing that against tight ends than left tackles, which would have been his job as a LEO.

It is still not clear where this leaves Cliff Avril. He might be the LEO, but I have heard Quinn and Carroll refer to Michael Bennett as a “base defensive end.” Playing Bennett in the base defense means he would be in on first and second down in many cases. The team is not starting him over Bryant, so that really only leaves the other end spot. Bennett is the only end on the team that is plus against the run and can rush the passer. It makes sense that the team would want him on the edge early, and then slide him inside in passing situations to play 3-technique tackle like Jason Jones did last year.

Avril is a mystery at the moment. Could he be battling with Irvin for starting SAM? Would they possibly just play him as a situational pass rusher a la Raheem Brock? That would be a lot of money for a guy that would play only 30% of the snaps. I had, like most, assumed that Avril would start at LEO, that Irvin would reprise his situational pass rush role from last year and that Bennett would play 3-Tech DT in passing situations. All of that is being challenged now, and my best educated guess is that Bennett and Irvin have a clear role in the base defense, while Avril may not. This will be one of the more fascinating aspects to watch unfold as we get reports from OTAs and mini-camps in the coming weeks.

In case you are wondering, the base defense 3-technique defensive tackle needs to be someone stout against the run. That is why the Jesse Williams pick could be so impactful. He has the best chance of any draftee to earn a starting role. That is a part-time role, that comes off the field when Bennett slides in side, but it is crucial to keeping teams like the 49ers from being able to control the game on the ground. Williams will see competition from Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald. Bennett will rotate inside with Jordan Hill and Greg Scruggs. Depth will not be the issue.

So while there is plenty still to be discovered, there are some things we can say with confidence: Wright will not see his playing time diminish, Irvin will get a shot at SAM linebacker, and Bennett will get time inside at DT in passing situations. The scenario I’ve painted above is the most logical way to accomplish those immovable objects, but it is not the only way this could play out. The Irvin experiment could fail, making it more likely that Wright would remain at SAM and Smith would get a chance to start at WILL. Avril could win the SAM spot. Avril could be the starting LEO. There is even some small chance that Bennett will push Bryant at the 5-technique spot, but I have not seen any indication of that. Things get even more confusing when Chris Clemons gets back, and Carroll is making it sound like that is more likely as his recovery is ahead of schedule.

There is reason to cheer for the Irvin experiment to work, as it would mean the Seahawks would have two legitimate pass rushers on the field at all times without sacrificing run defense. They have not managed to do that yet during the Carroll era. It could make for a key improvement to an already vicious defense.

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  1. Interesting. It does seem like Avril doesn't really have a spot on the field on first and second downs if the Starting defensive ends are Red and Bennett, the starting tackles are Mebane and Williams, with the SAM Linebacker being Irvin, MLB being Wagner, and WILL being Wright, with Thomas Chancellor Browner Sherman as your defensive backs. In the Nickel it puts Antoine Winfield in, and takes Red out, by pushing Irvin to the edge. That may be when Avril gets in. We Irvin might be a base SAM, and then when its the nickel defense, which happens a lot, Avril could play on the edge and that could solve the problem there. Avril can also play SAM if Irvin were to ever be hurt. Hill and Scruggs will be the backups to the D-Line, and Malcolm Smith will be the backup to the linebacking group. Still crazy to imagine what will happen when Clemons gets back…

  2. The versatility that is at Coach Carroll's disposal is borderline unfair to the rest of the league. I can't wait to see what kind of defense they concoct in their secret lair.

  3. Hopefully this does not hurt our pass defense. Part of the reason for the success of Rodgers, Brady, Manning and Brees is that they are smart enough and have enough receivers to beat the blitz regularly. 49ers and Seahawks did well against them because for the most part they rushed only four and kept seven in coverage. Pass rusining is imprortant but you can't sacrifce too much in coverage. Go Hawks.

  4. I think they can mix and match players to get even more of an advantage. If they can sub in for guys in a rotation, and they all but into it, they could be really good. How would you like to be the LT that has to go against a guy in the 4th qtr that has only gotten 15-20 plays in, then another that has about the same. Plus another one on run downs only. Then have a guy from the DB's come flying in, and try to pick him up. If this D can fly around on the field, and work as a team, and not guys wanting to get theirs, like it does in my head, there will be articles, about the best D ever. If Clem can be back by week 4 it will only get worse for the opp O. I think Irvin to OLB, and Smith can switch out, then Irvin can do what he did last year too. More playing time in 2 roles would be sweet. I can hardly contain myself, it makes me so happy to think what can happen. We need to pray they all stay healthy. Last year if not for 2 injuries, we would have been in the SB. Jones, and Clem. I also watched a video on that Lotilelei LB we drafted. He is fast, takes good angles, and tackles. I really could see this being one of the best D's to ever play in the history of the game. We need good contracts for these guys when it is time, but promise of multi million dollar jobs when they retire. Pay it later not during, when it hits the cap. LOL IS IT FOOTBALL SEASON YET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Moral of the story: we have too many good players…and that's WITHOUT factoring in Clem, our best DL. Imagine if he gets back relatively soon and doesn't lose a step from last year…Remember the beginning of the offseason when DL was a weakness?

  6. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Hawks go to a 5-2-4 base defense this year with a lot of nickle and dime looks to counter the spread offenses. With the LEO on one end and a pass rushing SAM on the other end, defenses aren't going to know where pressure is coming from. I think base will depend on the football situation and rotation will be used to keep fresh guys flying to the football while wearing down the opposition. I think we will see guys lining up all over the field with multiplicity within a base philosophy.

    When Clem gets back our front could look like Clemons-Bennett-Hill-Avril-Irvin-Wagner with 5 DB. That's a lot of horsepower on the field.

  7. I think Ty Powell and Korey Toomer could be interesting stories in that mix as well. So fired up to see how this all plays itself out!

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