Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lockout Hangover: Defensive Line

Seattle's 2011 defensive line is impossible to predict. It could be a force to be reckoned with. There's also the potential for it to be the biggest surprise disappointment on the team.

The common perception is that Seattle's defensive line was top-caliber for the first six weeks of 2010. The context for that, which too many are ignoring, is that during that span Seattle faced some of the feeblest offenses in the league and crumbled against Kyle Orton. The collapse of our defense coincides with the injuries of most of the starting line (Red Bryant, Colin Cole, and Brandon Mebane, in order of perceived importance but not necessarily actual importance), so many people understandably blame that. But it also coincides with the point at which Seattle hit the respectable part of its schedule (i.e. the last 10 games). That rise in respectability was pretty steep.

So it's hard to say how good Seattle's D-line truly was last year. The evidence is circumstantial and could swing either way. The Denver game serves as a disturbing hint that the line may have been tremendously overrated; the starters were all on the field and provided zero pass disruption. Stopping a bottom-five rushing attack isn't that impressive. At no time anywhere in the season did the defense stop a strong passing attack or even come close, starters healthy or not.


The good news is that Pete Carroll has chosen not to take those first six weeks at face value, a mistake Tim Ruskell made in 2008 when he contented himself with a defense whose success had been inflated by a ridiculously bad run of opposing QB's. Instead, Seattle is upgrading, albeit slowly.

Instead of a camp surveillance piece on the position battles, I'd prefer to just project the starters and discuss their potential based on what's come before, leaving out the likely camp fodder. For all Carroll's "competition" angle, last year's training camp didn't yield a lot of surprises from amongst the scrubs, so I'm not too worried there.

Starters

Chris Clemons, Leo DE

I'm still somewhat dazed by Clemons' surprising breakout season. Nobody saw it coming after a backup's career in Philly and Oakland. Now, despite being undersized and vulnerable against the run, he's considered the team's leading pass rusher, and that we got him for peanuts just makes it better.

I'll agree to an extent. Clemons notched many of his 11 sacks while blitzing, suggesting that he's more a scheme beneficiary than an absolute pass-rushing standout. Then again, Seattle's blitz rate was right about league average, so I don't think the team was sacrificing extra defenders too much for Clemons' sake. Some of his big moments came against legit left tackles. And other indicators suggest even more consistent pressure from him, especially on third down when it matters. Yes, I know, the latter article is PFF, but let's not shoot the messenger. There's probably plenty to be gleaned when 3rd/4th down productivity and actual pass-rushing snaps are emphasized.

(Click here for a more detailed defense of Clemons from February, one of 17 Power's first articles.)

At age 29, Clemons has a couple good years left. The team will no doubt look to upgrade eventually, but for right now, his presence makes defensive end a not-hole and allows the team to focus elsewhere. He's got a wicked first step and good closing burst that serve him well as long as Seattle looks like it's blitzing (a game they play a lot under DC Gus Bradley). I don't mind his issues in run support; considering the rest of the defense is built with the run in mind, we can spare a pure pass-rushing specialist here and there. Here's hoping Clemons repeats his surprise success.


Brandon Mebane, nose DT

I've already been trumpeting about Mebane's re-signing and subsequent return to the 1-tech position, so this will be quick. Seattle has intelligently kept the best player in its defensive core, and set him up to succeed by putting him at the position that both his gifts and his past record suggest fit him best. New comments suggest that he'll be lining up in the 1-gap (between opposing linemen, not right over them), a style that he enjoyed better. By playing the run and pushing the pocket, Mebane will make a difference.


Alan Branch, 3-tech DT

Everyone's getting excited about getting bigger, but would you want a 330-pound man playing wide receiver? There are certain positions that are better filled by a less-heavy guy, and 3-tech defensive tackle is one. Branch is built much more like Red Bryant and may be a better fit at "Bryant DE" than at 3-tech, where Seattle will be deploying him. He's never played a shoot-the-gap position like this, although he has played interior nose tackle and made little headway there.

Should Carroll manage to deal with any lazy tendencies in Branch (and let's not assume that), Branch's latent quickness and talent could serve to make some noise at 3-tech. It isn't a done deal, but I'll wait and see. Solid play from Mebane and Bryant will help, but Branch will need to develop pass-rush moves of his own.


Red Bryant, 5-tech DE

I still feel that Carroll's 5-tech experiment is still in progress. 2010 proved little, for reasons I already mentioned. Still, Bryant (and Branch) is a unique specimen, fast despite his towering frame and helped by a scheme that isolates him against right tackles. Smarter football minds than I swear that Bryant is a nightmare waiting to happen, and we've seen enough action from him against good offenses like San Diego to maintain a wait-and-see attitude. Bryant does set a heck of an edge against the run and should easily elevate the play of Leroy Hill behind him.

This is the final year of Bryant's contract, after which he could be replaced by Branch if Seattle finds a real 3-tech. No matter where this goes, kudos to Carroll and Schneider for tweaking in-house talent to streamline the rebuild.


Depth

Colin Cole, DT

Between the acquisition of Branch, a couple of recent comments from Mebane, and Cole's recent injury, I'm guessing his days in Seattle are numbered. That's okay. Cole is solid in the pure run-stopping role Tim Ruskell hired him for, but that role serves to undercut the rest of the line when it doesn't demand (or defeat) double teams and free up other players. He's also expensive, which might preclude him from hanging around as depth unless he accepts a pay cut.


Jimmy Wilkerson, DE

The 6’2, 270lb Wilkerson was a sixth-round pick and depth guy for Kansas City in 2003 before becoming a rotational starter for Tampa Bay with 11 sacks, 4 passes defenses, 3 forced fumbles, and 69 tackles in two seasons. That production remains the only distinction of his career. It also happened to come on the watch of DL coach Todd Walsh, who's now with the Seahawks.

An injury at the end of 2009 has plagued Wilkerson ever since and limited his action with New Orleans last year. Should he overcome it this year, he looks like this year's Raheem Brock: a 30-year old vet who might be served well by Carroll's Leo machinations. He's known for good motor and being a hard worker, and should rotate with Clemons, possibly joining him on the field in dual-Leo sets in pass-rushing situations if Carroll keeps them from last year's post-Bryant playbook.

So Wilkerson is a good boost in pure pass-rushing depth and the next in a line of veteran stopgaps until Carroll finds an elite pass-rusher. Normally I would end that last sentence with "in the draft", but considering Carroll's recruiting


Junior Siavii, DT

Not a starter, not an outright liability. Can play any position on the defensive line. Good depth.


Kentwan Balmer, DT

Balmer's struggles last year drove PC to regret not moving back to traditional 4-3. That might not say much, as not everyone can handle the duties of a Bryant end. He's signed with Seattle through 2013 and will probably best work as 3-tech depth. That Branch was named the starter there instead of Balmer could be telling.


Dexter Davis, DE/LB

Last year's late-round tweener hasn't made a lot of noise in training camp yet. Then again, unlike last year, there doesn't appear to be a free-for-all competition for the Leo spot. With our situation at LB, don't be surprised if Davis sticks, as he can play both.


Lazarius Levingston, DE

He's had the usual character profiles done on him, but never flashed many of the necessary NFL traits that secure one a higher draft spot. He's having an okay camp, but his spot as depth isn't assured, partially because of...


Pierre Allen, DE

Allen has been hailed as the team's best UDFA pickup, and a lot of people had him pegged as a mid-round pick and were shocked he wasn't drafted. Watch for him to make noise in the preseason.


Camp Fodder:

Ladi Ajiboye, DT

Jay Alford, DT

Jarrett Crittenton, DE

A.J. Schable, DE


Conclusion

Seattle's D-line has, at least on paper, the potential to improve from the complete unknown that 2010 actually was. I have no idea what that last sentence means.

But I feel that there's promise - a mixture of early-round talent in the middle and scheme-salvaged grit at end. The depth is definitely better. This line is the core and heartbeat of the defense, as it is on every team, so keep an eagle's eye on its performance in camp.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with your overall points, but feel like I should point out a few things:

    1) No sane person would ever classify the 2010 Seahawks DL as "top-caliber". Some over-excited fans, maybe. I thought that they exceeded expectations, but schedule and scheme contributed to that, as you attest. You might have made the case before the season that the Hawks DL was bottom 5, and their early season performance, even accounting for schedule, pushed them more toward the middle of the pack. By the end of the season, they probably didn't slide all of the way back to the bottom 5 due to Clemons and Brock having sack success, but I still don't think anyone would call them top-caliber.

    2) As for Clemons getting most of his sacks while we're blitzing...I would probably chalk this up to scheme as well. The Steelers OLBs (Harrison/Woodley) get most of their sacks on blitzes, or disguised blitzes. I think a big factor in having a LEO/5tech instead of a more traditional 4-3 is to get more blitz/disguised blitz pressures.

    Interested to see where Wilkerson/Sims (from the Bucs) shake out, as both seem to be recovering from issues.

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  2. In isolating Red last year, a couple of things stand out. His assignment is read first, penetrate second, as you would expect from a guy with a run first assignment. Problem being on pass plays he had a slow get off, like glacier slow, and allowed the double team to get in place. On the couple of occasions when he apparently made up his mind and got the snap timed for a good rush, he collapsed the right side with what looked like ease. I would like to see this more, especially if Branch is his relief.

    Clemons has one role, and I think that is behind some of his success. Pass rush first, react to anything else second is a pretty easy assignment. Problem is, Curry is behind him, and the number of times he was clearly assigned contain and blew it was staggering.

    As of now, this team is only a dream for fantasy players. Loaded with offensive talent, an Oline that should maximize that talent by 2012 and 2013, and a porous defense.

    Remember, the college coach who hung 59 points on the ballyhooed defense of Pete Carroll is in the NFL now.:)

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  3. Based on what I've seen, I get the impression that Carroll is shifting away from his scheme a little towards something more NFL-proven.

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  4. Curry is behind Clemons? In the base defense Curry is on the strong side and Clemons is on the weakside.

    I talked with a Tampa Bay fan, who seemed like a fairly astute football observer, and he said that Wilkerson did pretty well for them as a DT on passing downs. Something to watch.

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  5. I'm regarding Curry as a LB.

    Good news on Wilkerson, Colin. Thanks for dropping that! With the Raheem Brock signing, we have a nice pass-rushing rotation.

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