A Look At Seattle’s Mutating Front Seven

Michael Bennett is everywhere on the defensive line for the Seahawks

Free agency started to unfold this off-season with a big splash acquisition of Percy Harvin via trade. That was surprising, but most people expected Seattle to add a wide receiver in one way or another. The team announced the signing of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett soon after. Signing one was a shock. Signing both was unthinkable. Just adding a pile of pass rushers does not improve your pass rush. They cannot all play at the same time, especially when there was already at least one healthy player at their position in Bruce Irvin. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, however, was not signing a string of defensive ends. The first three days of camp have revealed a different configuration and utilization of the talent than could have been predicated at the time of signing.

Mutating Positions

The first key to understand Quinn’s plan is to realize that not every position will be played the same way in each scenario. The LEO position has been occupied by Chris Clemons the last three seasons. He played it on first, second, and third downs. He was in there against the run and against the pass. The LEO so far in camp has changed depending on the package on the field. Bennett appears to be the base LEO who play opposite Red Bryant on early downs. Avril becomes the LEO in nickel packages. Some would say that makes Bennett the starter. The truth is that the team will spend a significant amount of time in nickel this season for a variety of reasons, so while Avril may not be out there on the first snap, he will play a ton.
The 5-technique defensive end that Bryant plays also changes in nickel. That was the case last season as well, so not a lot new there, except who is taking on the nickel 5-technique duties, which will be covered in a bit.
Finally, the strongside linebacker (SAM) role will also change from base to nickel packages, and have different players take on each role. K.J. Wright was always the SAM last year, so this is a departure.

Your base front seven

Bennett is the base LEO. He brings the best combination of pass rush and run stuffing ability of any of the healthy LEOs. Clemons is a better edge pass rusher when healthy, but is not the run defender Bennett is. Having Bennett will help shore up the run defense, and could keep the weakside linebacker (WILL) more clean than in past seasons.
Tony McDaniel, the forgotten free agent addition, is the base 3-technique defensive tackle. This is the role Alan Branch occupied the last two seasons. McDaniel looks more fresh and more disruptive than Branch ever did.
Brandon Mebane is the base nose tackle. No change there.
Red Bryant is the base 5-technique. No change there, except he looks healthier.
Malcolm Smith will line up behind Bryant as the base SAM. Again, he is technically the starter, but the opponent and the defensive game plan will determine how much he plays versus the nickel SAM.
Bobby Wagner is the base middle linebacker (MIKE). No change.
K.J. Wright is the base WILL. He takes over for Leroy Hill, and could be the guy that benefits from better edge protection versus the run from Bennett.

Your nickel front seven

Avril joins the fray in nickel situations as the LEO. 
McDaniel remains as 3-technique in nickel, unlike Branch who was replaced by Jason Jones last year. Jesse Williams has also got some play here, but McDaniel appears to be leading this competition. I had expected Bennett to slide inside to 3-technique in nickel situations, and Quinn has glowed when asked about Bennett rushing inside, so it would seem they either like what McDaniel is doing more, or like what Bennett is doing as a different spot.
Mebane remains as nose tackle.
Bennett is the nickel 5-technique. This was the role Bruce Irvin played last season. 
Irvin is the nickel SAM. He lines up directly over the shoulder of Bennett on most snaps, but does drop into coverage on occasion and even slides along the line from time-to-time. He had a split-second sack today knifing right up the middle of the line when playing this position. Pete Carroll has said the SAM and LEO positions are somewhat interchangeable. More accurately, the nickel SAM and the nickel LEO are somewhat interchangeable. The base SAM will not rush the passer nearly as much as the nickel SAM will. Irvin is not in their to drop into zone on most plays. He is in there to attack.
Wagner and Wright are the remaining linebackers. 

Nickel may not be the right name

Nickel means there are five defensive backs on the field. When Antoine Winfield has come on as the nickel defender, the SAM (Irvin) has dropped off. That would imply there is another name for the defensive configuration that brings Irvin and Avril onto the field. It may be a sub-package that they will switch to on any down. It may depend on opponent and game plan more than down and distance. Only snaps against real opponents will determine that. What is clear is that there are two very distinct personnel packages at play here that bring different players and different position definitions. 


Jaye Howard has spent time as both base 3-technique and nickel 5-technique. He shows the most promise at 5-technique so far. Jesse Williams also has played at the 3-tech and 5-tech. We still have not seen him in pads, but the guess is he could be a monster 3-tech in the base defense. Jordan Hill has primarily been the nose tackle. Although, he has seen some snaps at 3-technique. There were at least a few times where Mebane shifted over to 3-tech and Hill played nose tackle. Ty Powell has seen the lion’s share of backup duty at the nickel LEO spot. There does not appear to be anyone behind Irvin at the nickel SAM spot. Newly signed O’Brian Schofield might make sense ahead of Powell at nickel LEO and as an option to back-up Irvin at nickel SAM. 
Finding a guy to play Irvin’s role becomes more important in the first four games of the season. That may be where Schofield finds a roster spot if he can prove a good fit. If he takes to the role well, he may see significant playing time while Irvin is out. If not, it is unclear what the team would do. Most likely, they would fall back to the classic nickel package with Winfield replacing the SAM. 

Corners getting into the act

If today was any indication, this new nickel package will signal that the pass rush could come from anywhere. Corners and safeties were regularly coming after the quarterback today. Jeremy Lane showed particular promise in using his speed to crash from the edge while Irvin would drop back into coverage. Quinn is likely experimenting early on to see what he likes. It has been a long time since the Seahawks had an unpredictable pass rush, possibly all the way back to the Jim Johnson days in the late 90s. That was easily the most fun defense I ever watched in Seattle. This new package looks like it was designed to destroy opposing quarterbacks. None of it matters until it shows success in the regular season, but the plan is a promising one.