|"Say that to my face, skinny white boy."|
Bryant, a fourth-round afterthought before the experiment, left such an indelible impression in his six games healthy that the run-stopping RDE in Carroll's scheme is now popularly named after him. With Red's future clouded by injury, the "Red Bryant position" is now seen as one of the team's foremost needs, the key to unlocking smashmouth defensive play. This has a lot of mock drafts, including this week's version from Rob Staton, handing Seattle a similar hulking-but-quick hybrid like Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson, who is set to visit with the Seahawks.
Here's the thing: the numbers don't support the idea that Seattle's early-season defense was all that amazing in the first place. In fact, it looks downright overrated upon close examination. And an overrated defense calls into question the value of, perhaps not Red Bryant himself, but the position he plays in Carroll's scheme.
I investigate this because it affects Seattle's draft board: where does a hulking-but-quick 5-tech like Taylor or Wilkerson really belong in the hierarchy of the Seahawks' needs?
This is a long one.
I bring up scheme because it's hard to criticize Bryant after watching him on the field. Tim Ruskell envisioned him as an inside player, but Bryant was buried on the depth chart, struggled with injury, never took to gap assignments and was too tall to get leverage on good guards. At end, the tape depicts a playmaker, a monstrous but quick and powerful defensive end with a simple job: overwhelm right tackles and make plays on ball-carriers (helped along by a 3-4-ish gapping scheme). Like Taylor and Wilkerson, his tools are a rare and indispensable combination that would be foolish to ignore. Bryant needs to play. Moving him to the 5-tech was smart and an economical attempt to fill holes with in-house personnel.
For evaluation's purposes, I'd prefer to focus on the defensive numbers before Bryant went down because I feel they make the greater statement on him, reflecting as they do his direct impact on the defense. Saying "Bryant was good because the defense tanked after he went down" is a vacuous argument because it leaves out all kinds of spurious factors, such as the rise and fall of Seattle's schedule. It's more fruitful to discuss how good Seattle was with Bryant than how how bad Seattle was without him.
So...Seattle deployed Bryant, and one of the stats most commonly cited to promote his influence is the mere 465 rushing yards allowed in his six games - an average of 77.5 yards per game - and only 3.4 yards per carry in the same span. It's also pointed out that Seattle had the #2 run defense in yards per game in Week 7, behind only Pittsburgh. I remember being stoked about that.
But as we all know, stats are superficial and have to be put into context, specifically the competition. I believe in Any Given Sunday and that a team deserves some credit for even the easiest win, but let's be honest - holding Julius Jones to 50 yards doesn't raise eyebrows. Holding Arian Foster to 50 yards does. Pittsburgh opened the season against Michael Turner, Chris Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Ray Rice, and Peyton Hillis. Stopping five straight 1,000-yard rushers is true quality. Seattle, by comparison, opened against Steven Jackson and Matt Forte at the worst.
Here are the opponents Seattle faced in Weeks 1 through 7, including their season DVOA ranking in rushing offense:
Here's what this chart tells me right away:
- The rushing teams that the Red Bryant defense stopped were mediocre to worst in the league. By contrast, after Bryant's injury, the Seahawks mostly went belly-up against the 6th, 7th, 23rd, 21st, 9th, 32nd, 17th, 27th, 12th, and 31st ranked rushing offenses. Bryant's departure just happens to coincide with the tougher segment of Seattle's schedule. Using the season DVOA tells us that the bad rushing teams were bad in general, not just against the Seahawks.
- Chicago rushed only 14 times in Week 6, and that wasn't because Seattle scared them away from it. It's because Chicago's offensive coordinator is one Mike Martz, that pass-happy mad scientist of a play-caller who's known for abandoning the run at the drop of a helmet.
- The Red Bryant defense allowed a 100-yard game to the 23rd-ranked Cardinals - 113 yards on 20 carries for 5.7 YPC. Some people just omit this game entirely from their evaluations. It's tough to fit this outlier into the big picture, but if we're going to judge Bryant based on only six games, I feel it's pertinent.
- Seattle allowed 4.2 YPC after Week 2 and 3.9 YPC with San Francisco thrown in. The struggles of Denver's run game in Week 2 skew the YPC number quite a bit.
The Value of Run Defense
That Denver game makes a strong statement: not only is it the only game in which the Seahawks really succeeded against the run, but Denver still won that game in decidedly dominant fashion. Seattle was clobbered 31-14, its run defense making virtually no difference.
The following week, Philip Rivers posted 455 yards at Qwest Field. We forget this because Leon Washington bailed the team out, and it's true that Leon's scores kept Rivers on the field longer and inflated his stats. But scale Rivers' passing attempts that day back to his per-game average for the season, and he still throws for 280 yards. The tape shows a surgical passing attack that defeated Seattle despite Bryant having a big-play game.
These struggles weren't on Hasselbeck - they were on the defense. I can't help but feel that Bryant's value to the defense is somewhat exaggerated, at least statistically. There's too many defensive failures and bad opponents to ignore during his all-too-brief time in the lineup. The 2010 Seahawks have all the appearance of a team that started hot defensively because of a soft opening schedule, got a few breaks, and crumbled because that schedule toughened up, not because one player went down.
But this doesn't eliminate Bryant's value by any means; again, it's hard to dismiss him when you see him set the edge that he does against the run. I won't just dismiss reports of his excellence out of hand. Instead, it leaves us with the conundrum of how a player can tear up the field yet not improve the defense from its unmistakable 2009 characteristics.
One possible explanation is the scheme. Football Outsiders had this to say about Bryant's scheme usage:
What made Bryant such an effective run defender? To answer that, we have to look at the Seahawks' defense under Pete Carroll, a hybrid 4-3 scheme that usually brings a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the formation, almost as a fifth lineman. The Seahawks then plant the tackle on that side of the field in the A-gap between guard and center. That leaves the strongside end (usually Bryant, before he was injured) to line up in a five-technique on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. With the linebacker occupying the tight end and the defensive tackle taking the guard, it becomes very difficult for the offensive line to get a double-team on Bryant, usually leaving him one-on-one with the tackle.
Since Bryant is largely a run-stopper in this role, the real question begged here is the value of run defense and the degree to which it should be prioritized. Moving a linebacker up to isolate Bryant on the tackle has the same potential downside as a blitz: one less guy to defend the pass. Might this scheme be emphasizing run-stops at the expense of coverage? It's hard to say; Seattle didn't blitz any more often than the league average in 2010, and they relied a lot on deception and false-blitz looks to confuse the offense.
Pete Carroll is the second Seattle head coach in a row to put a premium on stopping the run, yet the NFL is a passing league and has been for a decade now. Run defense is the least reliable predictor of success, pass defense being the 2nd best and pass offense being the best. Jim Mora's Seahawks were decent against the run as well, but it didn't stop the blowouts.
The common theory is that good run defense helps the pass defense; you'll often hear commentators talk about how a defense needs to shut down the run, make the other offense one-dimensional and predictable. But when Seattle "dared" Kyle Orton to "beat them through the air" in this fashion, he simply shrugged, said "Okay", and did just that with ease. Advanced NFL Stats observes that Seattle ranked 20th in pass defense efficiency by Week 5. (And it wasn't just; holding New Orleans, San Francisco, and Atlanta to modest rushing totals didn't help either.)
Either the above theory is flawed or Seattle has so many other personnel problems on defense that Red Bryant's influence is thoroughly muffled - perhaps both. And you can certainly talk about Seattle's personnel problems. Seattle's corners had an awful year. The linebackers can't cover well and are inconsistent in their own run containment. Earl Thomas had his trial by fire. And opposing quarterbacks usually had time in the pocket to grill a hamburger before throwing. The spate of injuries to Bryant, Brandon Mebane, and Colin Cole revealed the hard way that Seattle ached for D-line depth; Kentwan Balmer disappointed so much that Pete Carroll admitted on the radio that he should have switched to conventional 4-3 right after Bryant's injury.
Whether it's scheme or personnel, if Bryant's influence is that overwhelmed by other defensive issues, then I say Seattle has much bigger fish to fry than 5-tech. They need pass rush, and they need it from the interior. This alone makes replacing Bryant less urgent; although he supplied a little extra QB pressure from time to time, simple geometry says that an end playing in a 4-3 has a longer route to the QB than one playing in a 3-4, hybrid defense or no. That makes speed rushers ideal until you're in an actual 3-4, and despite Bryant's quickness, he'll never be a speed rusher. He was also never really singled out by opposing offensive coordinators; I never saw him targeted much with screen passes or other plays in space, to see whether he had the agility and awareness to deal.
Bryant looked awesome on tape, but it never translated to the containment of a quality offense. Maybe he just didn't get enough playing time. I welcome alternative judgments on Seattle's early-season defense, but from a standpoint of raw results (not always the best standpoint), I just can't get excited about it. Six games is admittedly too small a sample to judge upon, so the fairest grade to give the Red Bryant experiment is probably an "incomplete".
Like all "incomplete" grades, Bryant could go either way next year, and that informs how the Seahawks should use their #25. Many are mocking big 3-4 DE's like Wilkerson to Seattle because of Bryant's perceived impact (and this is a deep draft for such players), but if that impact has been overstated despite his standout play, the scheme deserves scrutiny and makes a 5-tech more of a lateral pick. I'm not yet sold on Carroll's scheme, and thus I'm not sold on using a first-round pick to maintain it. On the other hand, if Bryant is truly transformative, then we still have him and better play at interior tackle could make him absolutely deadly in 2011. Do you use a #25 pick on a position with that much potential already there? Too hard for me to justify. First-rounders should fill holes, not kinda-holes.
To be sure, it'd be stupid to pass up a truly elite prospect like Adrian Clayborn if he fell to #25; that kind of fall could tempt a value guy like GM John Schneider. Seattle could always draft him and try to trade Bryant (once a new CBA arrives), hoping that his 2010 reputation nets a second- or third-rounder. Kentwan Balmer's struggles indicate that it takes Bryant size to man the position, and Seattle has none other than Bryant himself, but it's hard to stack a position that usually requires a high pick. Until the scheme is proven, the unresolved question of Bryant's value lessens the need either way and suggests better uses of the #25, such as glaring, indisputable weaknesses like defensive tackle or cornerback that can also bolster the defense once addressed.
I'll leave it at that. I certainly don't want to be the guy dousing cold water on a 6'4", 325-pound defensive tackle. Dude could eat me for breakfast and still be hungry. The thought of Bryant coupled with a strong interior defensive line - well, that's nothing short of awe-inspiring. Make it happen, Schneider.