Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) celebrates after sacking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the second half of NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ten of the eleven positions on the Seahawks defense are either settled or have more than one proven option as a starter. The one position up for grabs is the SAM linebacker spot vacated by Bruce Irvin. There are at least three guys vying for the position, and that number may swell as training camp wears on. Pete Carroll is taking a measured approach to addressing the opening that sets a high floor, and leaves open the potential for a high ceiling player to step in.
Who is SAM?
Most fans know the difference between a linebacker and a defensive lineman. A slightly smaller set can tell an inside linebacker from an outside linebacker. A far smaller group can describe the roles of a SAM, MIKE, and WILL linebacker in a 4-3 under cover 3 like what the Seahawks often play. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know, and we are not going to get into too much detail here. What is useful to understand the responsibilities of a SAM linebacker so we can discuss which characteristics make a good one.
Seattle asks its SAM linebacker to play near the line of scrimmage in combination with their larger, stronger defensive end (called a 5-technique). Red Bryant was the biggest 5-technique end the Seahawks employed. Michael Bennett has taken over that role. The reason this duo of SAM and 5T DE is important is because offenses usually bring a tight end next to their right tackle to form what is known as a “strong side.” Left tackles usually are left without anyone on their outside shoulder, so going it alone is called the “weakside.”
Teams often run to their strongside, because of the additional blocker, and because right tackles tend to be better run blockers. The Seahawks want to limit the run game wherever possible.
Much is made about their vaunted secondary and the Cover 3 look they play, but job number one for Seattle is stuffing the run. That helped them lead the NFL in run defense last year.
There are many nuances to the job of a SAM LB, but it really falls into three categories:
Set the edge and force any outside runs back into the middle of the defense
Drop into zone coverage, or sometimes matchup with a tight end
Rush the passer
Carroll will sometimes talk about how the role of a SAM LB and the role of a LEO DE are almost interchangeable in their defense. The biggest difference is that for a LEO DE, the responsibilities listed above are in reverse order. The primary job of a SAM LB is to set the edge. What does that really mean? There are technique specifics like getting your hands on the outside shoulder of the outermost blocker and turning his back toward the ball, but the thing that matters is not allowing any runner to get the sideline. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? The challenge is the tidal wave of blockers the offense sends in that direction that a SAM LB must wade through and stand up to.
It is a physical position. For all the things that Aaron Curry did poorly in his short and expensive career, he set the edge as well as an SAM during the Carroll era due to his unusual strength for a linebacker. Irvin did this wonderfully as well. What Curry was terrible at was playing in space. When he was asked to drop back into coverage, he looked lost and often left big holes in the zone for offenses to exploit. He did not do well tackling in space either when a running back caught a swing pass. He was a mediocre pass rusher, which was fine for what a SAM needs to do. It just made him far too overpaid. The thing that really torpedoed his value to Seattle, though, was his inability to be strong in coverage.
Irvin is a rare athlete. He was strong enough to set the edge, fast and agile enough to play man-to-man coverage with a tight end 2o yards downfield, and quick enough to generate an effective pass rush. There does not appear to be another Bruce Irvin on this roster. That is okay. The team can thrive with a SAM LB who can excel at setting the edge and be competent in pass coverage.
Another key point to understand is that the SAM LB comes off the field whenever the Seahawks are in nickel or dime. Since the team is in nickel or dime about two-thirds of the time, that means whoever becomes the starter this year will only be on the field for roughly a third of the snaps. Not all starting spots are equal. The SAM LB is one of the lesser roles. Irvin played more because he was also the rush defensive end in nickel or dime situations. That role will go to Frank Clark this year, so the SAM LB will really just be the SAM LB.
Mike Morgan – The Safe Pick
Carroll and GM John Schneider resigned Morgan this offseason to effectively set the floor for the SAM LB position. They know him well and are confident he can play the position well enough to at least keep the defense running on time. His upside is limited. There is a reason he has been a career backup. He has done relatively well when subbing in past years and making a few spot starts. His strength is knowing the defense.
That said, Morgan has been caught out of his gap at times, which has allowed big runs. He also has not been tested in coverage much, and he can be a bit stiff, which does not lend itself to operating well in space. The team could do a lot worse than Morgan. They also could do better.
Carroll has rightfully placed him at the top of the depth chart at SAM to begin camp. It will be up to the other guys to prove they can do better.
Cassius Marsh – The Heavyweight
Marsh started as a defensive tackle his rookie season and moved to defensive end last year. He is now being given a shot at SAM. It is rare to see someone who ever played a snap at DT trying to make it as a LB. There is some logic, though, to the move. Marsh has excelled as a run defender in his brief career. He set the edge wonderfully as a DE, and showed good ability to make tackles in space.
The thought here is if he can prove that he is not a liability in pass coverage, the Seahawks could get a badass edge setter. It would be like having three defensive ends on the field at once. The coverage question is a big one. Teams would surely try to isolate him on running backs in the flat and test his zone discipline.
What I saw of him yesterday in the first day of camp was encouraging. This is the guy the team would love to see reach out and take the role.
Eric Pinkins – The Speedster
Pinkins is not quite the opposite of Marsh, but he is close. Pinkins played safety in college, and was asked to play cornerback as a rookie. He has moved into linebacker the past two years. Given his past play in the secondary, his coverage skills should be above average for a linebacker. Although, that has yet to be proven.
What we really do not know about Pinkins is his ability to set the edge and whether he offers anything in the pass rush department. His speed should be helpful. Does he have the strength?
Pinkins is a terrific special teams player, so the team wants to find a place for him. The problem for him is that Marsh and Morgan are great special teams players as well. Pinkins probably needs to prove he can at least be a quality backup at the SAM position to cement a spot on the roster. Should Marsh win the starting role, there is a chance the team could choose to keep the younger Pinkins over Morgan, but only if he has shown he can play the position.