Alvin Bailey and Malcolm Smith Get Their Shot

Pete Carroll indicated in his Wednesday press conference that he hopes to increase the offensive line and linebacker rotation this week to get Alvin Bailey and Malcolm Smith more involved. Hallelujah. This is much more the Carroll we came to know and love the last three years who made no position out of reach, regardless of the pedigree or experience of the players involved. The offensive line play has not been acceptable in most games since Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini went down. The linebacker play has been uneven throughout the year, and there is reason to believe the current configuration is not the optimal one. There is one way to find out if Bailey and Smith are part of the solution, and that is to find them some snaps in the game.

Expectations for Bailey

Training camp is a place to see wide receivers and cornerbacks for the most part. It is easier to see if they have the skills necessary to translate onto the field. It was over a week into camp before I noticed Alvin Bailey. I had never heard of him, and given my obsession with the Seahawks, that is saying something. He was doing team drills at the time, and I first was confused because he looked like Russell Okung in his stance, and I didn’t understand why Okung was taking snaps with the third-string line. I quickly realized he was not Okung, but his footwork was terrific. I watched more. I watched him in pass rush drills each day, going against every LEO they could throw at him. I watched him climb the depth chart ahead of Mike Person at left tackle. I watched him dominate during his first game at San Diego during the pre-season. He and Jermaine Kearse were the surprises of camp for me. The only time I ever saw him get beat in pass protection was one time during the Oakland pre-season game when he got fooled on an inside spin move. 
I have watched a lot of rookie lineman over the years. The only two tackles I ever saw that looked this calm, collected, and consistently successful so early in their careers were Walter Jones and Okung. Does that mean Bailey is that caliber of player? Of course not. It simply means his potential is intriguing and rare. 
That is why it has been so surprising to see the reluctance of Tom Cable and Carroll to even give him a few snaps over the past several weeks while Paul McQuistan struggled so mightily. Michael Bowie got the first shot at right tackle, which is where he played all of pre-season. Bowie was not nearly as impressive of a pass blocker as Bailey was during camp, but he is a prototypical right tackle in terms of size, and is a good run blocker. What appears to have been holding Bailey back was the concern that playing Bailey at LT would mean there was an incredibly inexperienced line out there with four of the five players never having completed a full season as a starting lineman. What has changed is probably two things: James Carpenter has struggled and Russell Wilson is getting pulverized. 
The Carpenter issue is key for Bailey because that allows the coaches to still keep the more experienced McQuistan in the game and play Bailey. The areas where an inexperienced lineman struggles are rather predictable. Communication and assignment-correctness are the big ones, and defenses can prey on two inexperienced lineman playing next to one another with twists and other games that require almost telepathic communication between the two players to pick up the right person.
Giving Bailey some time at left tackle with McQuistan next to him will help mitigate the risk of communication or assignment issues with Bailey, while also putting McQuistan back to his natural position. Carpenter is still the guy the team wants to be the answer at left guard, and has been dominant at times during the run game, but his pass protection problems are bad enough that the coaches simply have to mix Bailey in.
Look for Bailey to get a series sometime in the first quarter, and some more time if it goes well. I expect it to go well, or at least better than what we have seen thus far at left tackle.

Expectations for Smith

Smith is not a rookie. The sensitivities here are more far-reaching. Bobby Wagner was the runner-up defensive rookie of the year in 2012, and a second-round pick. He entered the season as a core part of the team’s defensive identify going forward. He was a player I thought was ready to make a big leap forward after his intensity and impact during training camp this year. That has not translated into the regular season thus far. A player that had only one poor game in run defense last season, according to Pro Football Focus, has had only one good game in run defense in 2013. A guy that had six tackles for loss last year, has none so far this year, according to ESPN. There is a new defensive coordinator this year, which may be part of it. There is no way to isolate the variables in situations like this, but results are what ultimately matter, and the team looked and played better against the run when Wagner was out for two games, and K.J. Wright slid to middle linebacker while Smith played his natural weakside position.
Wright may be able to play every linebacker spot, and Smith may be able to play SAM and WILL, but Smith is a different player at WILL where he is far more instinctive and can use his speed to great effect on blitzes. And WILL may be Wrights’s least effective position. The coaches do not want to sit Wright. They don’t want to sit Wagner. They have to acknowledge Smith’s play with more snaps. These are big boy management decisions that many coaches choose to ignore, and simply play the bigger name players with higher draft status. Smith has played well enough, and the run defense has been poor enough the past two games that rotating Smith into WILL and Wright into MIKE at times makes sense. The problem is that nobody is going to be happy. It will give the coaches the additional insight they need to determine how much of the run defense problem is players and how much is other variables like opponent, defensive line, scheme, etc. 
This is more high stakes than the Bailey situation. Smith needs to make some more impact plays in the snaps he gets to keep this door open. Look for the coaches to use Wagner’s ankle injury as cover for giving him “more breaks” or “taking it easy.” The pressure to go back to a Wagner and Wright crew will be significant. Bruce Irvin is doing great at SAM, so no changes should be expected there.