Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Brandon Mebane Conundrum

Hey, Kip here. You might remember me from Seahawks Draft Blog. I'm really tight on time this year, so I can't contribute terribly often either here or at SDB, but this is a topic I've had on my chest for a few weeks and since Brandon (Adams) asked me to contribute, I figured this would be a good place to start this topic.

When Pete Carroll brought his "Leo" defense to Seattle in 2010, it didn't officially change Seattle from a 4-3 to a 3-4 team, but in some ways, it was a step in that direction. Seattle's previous 4-3 defenses featured two pass rushing defensive ends who could perform reasonably well against the run, a pass rushing defensive tackle (known as the 3 tech), and a single gap run stuffing defensive tackle (known as the 1 tech).

Though technically still a 4-3, the "Leo" concept is a bit more unbalanced. The strong side (usually left) defensive end needs to be death to the run while also collapsing the pocket, but isn't expected to be a consistent pass rusher who generates sacks. The strong side defensive tackle, who manned the 3 tech in the previous defense, becomes a two gap player, something that is generally only found in 3-4 defenses. A two gap player does not shoot a gap, but instead directly engages a lineman and protects the gaps on both sides of him. The 3 tech role still exists, but was moved from the strong side to the weakside. Finally, you have the Leo position off the weak side end, and this is where almost all of the pass rush is generated from.

As with any scheme change, you will have players who benefit and others who suffer.

Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Aaron Curry, and Lawyer Milloy benefited. Brandon Mebane did not.

The reason being, Brandon Mebane is not a natural pass rushing defensive tackle. He is natural at dominating a single gap, penetrating into the backfield, getting hits and tackles behind the line of scrimmage and stopping the run in the process. What Mebane doesn't have is anything resembling elite pass rushing technique, aside from a super-quick first step. When tasked with the "1 tech" role in 2007 and 2008, Mebane was arguably the most valuable defender on the team in that time frame. In 2008 alone, he had 5.5 sacks and 18 QB hits, all of this while essentially acting as the 4th pass rusher. This misguidedly caused Seahawks coaches to think Mebane would be better in a pass rushing role, but just the opposite, the lack of pass rush support turned Mebane into a non-factor. He had only 1 sack and 1 QB hit in 2010 while playing a pass rush position.

Seattle appears to be committed to the Leo defense, and Brandon Mebane is a free agent. Mebane has proven himself to be incredibly valuable in a 1 tech role, but that role doesn't really exist on the current defense. Mebane has been a poor fit at the 3 tech, and if the team wants to upgrade the defensive line, the 3 is absolutely the first place to look for improvement, despite the fact that in the previous scheme, Mebane was one of our best players.

This is a tough problem to have, because when you are a team that needs a talent infusion as badly as the Seahawks do, its almost unthinkable to let a talent like Brandon Mebane walk away for nothing. And I don't think they should, even if they give his job to someone else.

Seeing this situation unfold, I can't help but be reminded of last year when the Seahawks hired legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who's legacy in Seattle was not that he turned the offensive line woes around, but that he ran our best offensive lineman out of town because he didn't fit a pure ZBS scheme, only to quit before the season even began. You know who'd be a very nice addition to a Tom Cable ZBS? Rob Sims. Ouch.

That's why the thought of losing Mebane for nothing is a painful one, even if Mebane didn't help the team much in 2010 or expect to help much in 2011. As soon as the scheme changes back, he's extremely valuable again. He's this year's Rob Sims. Its entirely possible that Seattle might fire Bradley or even Pete Carroll after next season if it goes badly enough, and when that happens, you can expect the Leo defense to leave with them. If Seattle were to revert to a standard 4-3 in 2012, they would desperately need a rare and coveted player like Mebane to man the 1 tech in it. Its not hard to see a scenario where letting Mebane walk could look very foolish in a year or two.

And then again, what about 2011. With a few tweaks to scheme, could Mebane contribute in the Leo system? Though I assume Mebane is not a natural two gap player, why not give him a chance to take Colin Cole's job, or modifying the Leo defense to allow for a 1 tech?

And while Mebane really struggled to rush the passer in a 3 tech role, there is something to be said about his value to the defense even in 2010. Mebane lines up next to Chris Clemons, and that helps mitigate some of the run liability that Clemons brings to the table. Seattle might replace Mebane with a stud pass rushing DT, and get good pass rush results, but be a worse team for it if it leaves Clemons constantly exposed against the run.

Seattle cannot afford to let talent walk for free. I don't know if a single gap 1 tech could replace the 2 gap role in a Leo defense, but I do know that Pete Carroll has already made compromises with scheme to work around talented players, particularly Aaron Curry, Chris Clemons, and Lawyer Milloy. Why not bend the rules a bit for another true talent? Seems like its worth a try, at least.

In the end, its Brandon Mebane's decision to make. I imagine Chicago will aggressively pursue him. Mebane's skills as a 1 tech fit exactly what Chicago's defense needs, and with Tim Ruskell working in their front office, they'll be very aware of how good Mebane is. From Mebane's perspective, leaving Seattle is probably in his best interest. But as a Seahawk fan, I hope Pete Carroll is able to find a role that works for Mebane, and keep him in the fold somehow.

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