Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Overrated Red Bryant...Position?

"Say that to my face, skinny white boy."
He was the mini-Hutchinson of 2010, the one who got away. Most eulogies of Seattle's 2010 season mark the injury loss of DE Red Bryant as the point of collapse for Seattle's run defense, which ranked a surprising #2 by Week 7. It was a frustrating end to one of the offseason's most exciting stories, as training camp reports gushed about Bryant's experimental shift from tackle to end and the immediate improvement that followed.

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.

The Numbers

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:

San Francisco19492.617th
San Diego21894.218th
St. Louis28883.131th

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.

We can't blame Matt Hasselbeck for it, either. There were games that Hasselbeck threw by giving opponents short fields with his interceptions, but this wasn't one of them. Denver's touchdowns were attached to possessions that began from their own 19, their own 7, and their own 20 twice. Only one of those drives started from a Hass pick, the one at the 7 - a longer field than most normal kickoff returns would have yielded, yet Denver still marched right down the field with it. (You can blame Walter Thurmond's muffed punt for another score, but only one.)

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.

The Scheme

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.

The Rub

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.


  1. Wow- fantastic write-up! I've been thinking about this same question for a while now.

    You made me want to look at our 2011 opponents and their rankings:

    2011 Opponents

    (ordered by 2010 Team Rush. Off. Ranking)

    Eagles 1
    Giants 7
    Ravens 13
    Steelers 14
    Browns 15
    Cowboys 16
    49ers 17
    Cards 22
    Redskins 24
    Bengals 29
    Rams 31

    Assuming we have the same approach with a healthy Bryant, it'll be interesting to see how your theory plays out esp. against the Eagles and Giants.

  2. Minnesota had the best rush defense in 2006, and their total defense finished 25th. In 2007, they, once again had the best rush defense, but they also had the best rush offense as well. Their defense, and offense, both finished 13th overall. In 2008, their rush defense was again the best, and their overall defense was fifth. Their offense ranked 17th, while the rushing offense was fifth. In 2009, Minnesota's rush defense was second, and their overall defense was fifth. Their offense was fifth, while the rush offense was only 13th.

    Why did I post these statistics? Because it is still believed that establishing the run, and stopping the run lead to success in the NFL. In 2006, Minnesota finished at 6-10. In 2007, when they had the best run offense and defense, they finished at 8-8.Minnisota finished 10-6 and 12-4, in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

    Minnesota had great run offenses and defenses over a three year period, and it netted them one winning season and no playoff wins. When they finally had a quarterback, they won one playoff game. When Minnesota learned to play pass defense, they finally posted winning records.

    Brandon, as you said, the NFL is a passing league. Teams do need to be able to run and stop the run, but only enough to keep their opponents off balance. Once a team is able to dictate their way with the passing game, whether it's on offense or defense, then that team has a winning foundation. A defense either needs rushers that can have an effect on the passing game, or defensive backs that can take away the receivers until the rush can have that effect on the qb.

    Great article. I'm torn on the Hawks first round pick. If the Hawks go defense, Phil Taylor would be a great pick because he can get to the passer, as well as support the run. A cover corner, like Jimmy Smith would also be a great addition. I'd love to see a big, speed rushing end, but I don't see any of those guys being around after the 15th pick.

  3. Thanks, Bart! Welcome to the site and thanks for the research. Yeesh, that's a scary lineup. Bryant will certainly get his true test right off the bat in 2011.

    Neuro, you're definitely right in that run defense has its place. Kip Earlywine would say that run defense is a form of damage control when you're playing from behind, and rushing offense in general does need to be there to help a QB. It helps wear down a defense.

    But even then, when Drew Brees played us in the playoffs without a running game, he posted great stats and would have won the game singlehandedly without a Marshawn Lynch run that's so improbable it probably wouldn't happen again in a century.

    I really want a 3-tech, if any are available. A good 3-tech can scoot Mebane back to 1-tech and effectively fill two holes, while a CB, 1-tech, or 5-tech fill only one. But they're all needs. It's hard to go wrong when you have this many needs!

  4. Bryant would show his worth if we could shore up the defensive backfield. How many times did we have to get crazy creative with defensive backs, hoping something would work, someone on the opposing offense would slip, or Kelly Jennings would grow three inches? It seemed like half the game in the latter part of the year we'd field one defensive lineman and ten backs just to avoid the touchdown that would eventually come anyway. I know that's a bit of hyperbole, but it still shows how much we had to hedge our bets toward stopping the pass.

    If we concentrate our efforts on stopping the passing game, the run defense will be there. It'll be amazing how much of a 'comeback' Red Bryant will appear to have if we can stop the pass.

  5. Brandon, your blog is awesome, and this was yet another quality read. It would seem from the statistics that Bryant was overrated. But at the same time I remember watching the games, and he truly dominated. He was an absolute beast. There was never any room to run on the strong side when he was in. He always seemed to get push and disrupted plays. Curry seemed to benefit hugely from his presence too. I love to use statistics to analyse football but sometimes you just have to judge it with your eyes.

  6. Agreed Anonymous, a better back seven would give Bryant a couple extra seconds to terrify QB's. And there could be another explanation for the disconnect between Bryant's stats and his impact - maybe teams just ran away from him. I might explore that later.

  7. Another thing to think about. A really good rush defense should have the ability to defend the short pass on first and second down, which falls on the linebackers and safeties. The downfall of our run defense was just that.
    A guy like Clayborn is a perfect fit just because he can go from run defender to pass rusher at the snap. That is where Pittsburg's run defense excels, their personnel can play the run and the short passing field on first and second down. Ours can't.

  8. Brandon,

    New reader, very impressed with your post. Just one comment concerning one of your comments, specifically about Lynch's miracle run.

    That run didn't win the game. Remember the circumstances. Seattle in the lead (by 3 I think) with around 3 minutes left in the game. If Lynch makes a first down, the odds of Seattle winning must exceed 90%. Even if Seattle doesn't score on the drive, NO gets the ball with mere seconds on the clock. If Seattle gets another first, game over.

    Yes, the TD iced the game, but Seattle was close to winning it anyway, barring a turnover.

  9. Thanks a bunch 77! Glad to have ya.

    But New Orleans scored a TD after Lynch's run. Without that run, Seattle is tied if the "Run" possession merely ends in a FG, and behind if it results in no points, leaving less than three minutes for Seattle's stop-and-go offense to get a FG. Precarious position.

    Agreed, Scott. Our LB's not being able to cover is another huge reason why Bryant's impact may not matter.

  10. First post here,

    That is true, but that is only assuming they could score the tying/winning td in around a minute with the whole field to go...

  11. Brandon, I am new to your blog. I am so glad that I found a Seahawks blog to replace the one that was lost a while ago on FieldGulls.

    I don't typically post comments much, but I wanted to let you know I appreciate your writing style, even if I don't always agree. I like to read others opinions and sometimes I learn something I didn't know(pretty frequently actually). Thanks!

  12. Love your great posts. I feel like I'm always educated. It feels like I've read your work at Fieldgulls. Ever consider writing there? Either way, I really appreciate your enthusiasm and writing. Keep up the good work!

  13. You have to remember too, that no one had tape on Seattle's D-Line. I have no idea if the DB run Seattle went on will help, but you have to have faith.