Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Red Bryant Illusion And Why I'm So Hard On Our Defense

It's an exciting time for the Seahawks defense. It's coming into its own. Young future cornerstones like Brandon Mebane, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor are flying around and delivering huge, shuddering hits. Wily veterans like Marcus Trufant, Leroy Hill, Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock are enjoying a high-impact resurgence. And other hopefuls like Walter Thurmond and KJ Wright are lurking around hinting promise. The speed is there, the physicality is there, and we're finally starting to see some of the instincts and discipline we've been lacking. There's no denying the talent on tape.

There's one guy on this defense who doesn't quite seem to fit into any of those categories, though. At first glance, the stats seem to support a top-notch performance from any 'Hawks lineup containing DE Red Bryant. As Hawk Blogger recently pointed out, opponents are converting only 32% of their third downs in the Bryant defense's nine games, 29% so far this season - lofty numbers indeed, worthy of top 5 in the NFL.

My response, as the token wet blanket of the Seahawks blogging network, is that you have to put this into context. I've written before about how the Bryant defense faced mostly mediocre-to-terrible rushing teams in 2010 and completely folded against the only two strong passing games it's faced (Denver and Pittsburgh) even when they could stop the run.

Which suggests two possibilities: that the success of the run-focused Bryant D is either irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, or that it's still relatively untested against better opponents - the real yardstick of NFL success. Maybe some of both.

The Present

Hawk Blogger sees the "Red Bryant Effect" extending into 2011:
Some have claimed that six games was not a large enough sample size, or that the opponents were not great rushing teams. Three games into the 2011 season, the Red Bryant Effect continues to show up.
But so do the bad rushing opponents. Arizona and San Francisco have not visibly improved from their 2010 look. The former was missing its primary rusher for their contest against us. The latter is a run-first team desperately trying to mask the inadequacies of a QB who's so bad (and timidly game-planned this year) that shutting him down demands few resources. Expecting that kind of success against opponents on the high end of the totem pole, like Atlanta, doesn't necessarily translate.

A much better barometer is our performance against Pittsburgh, a good rushing team who gashed Seattle despite statistics claiming otherwise. The Steelers posted 94 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries against Seattle in the first half - a 5.0 YPC - which put them in a hole that the watered-down Tarvaris Jackson offense couldn't hope to climb out of. Seattle did surge back against the run during the second half, which helped create the deceiving cumulative stat of 3.5 YPC for the Steelers.

But the damage was done, and cumulative stats often miss this sort of thing. There's room for debate over the significance of this - did the Seahawks succeed better in the second half because they stepped up, or because Pittsburgh was idly running off the clock from three touchdowns up? Perhaps it was more of a situational failure than an empirical one, but tell that to the scoreboard. Either way, it can't really be called a win for the Bryant D, especially since Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient game independently of the run.

The Near Past and Future

So what should we expect from Atlanta RB Michael Turner? Not quite sure. He looked pretty ordinary against a Bryant-less Seattle line last year, racking up 82 yards on 25 carries (3.3 YPC). But QB Matt Ryan, like so many other QB's the last three years, overcame that rather easily with 3 touchdowns. That could speak to poor game-planning and secondary play on the Seahawks' part last year, because Ryan accomplished this with only 174 yards.

Or it could also speak to the fact that it is possible - common, in fact - to win with pure passing excellence despite really very bad rushing performances from your team.

Seattle exemplified this well last year - on the wrong end. Yes, the Red Bryant defense has shut down a lot of running attacks in its first nine games. What nobody seems to notice is that three of those games - @ DEN, @ STL, @ PIT - were blowout losses for Seattle, in which the opposing QB's frankly didn't even need a rushing attack to slice and dice our defense like a cheese grater. San Diego was a fourth example, although Leon Washington narrowly kept it out of our "L" column.

If Seattle can stifle a run game to the tune of 2.0 YPC and still allow 307 yards and four 80+ yard scoring drives from Kyle Orton - again, that's Kyle Orton, the Golden Boy of Stopgaps - then I'm thinking we might need to revise our opinion of the run game's importance, and therefore that of the Bryant defense.

I'm using the phrase "Bryant defense" instead of "Bryant" for a reason. This might have less to do with Bryant and more to do with scheme. Bryant could be another Colin Cole - very good at his tasking, but slapped by his coaches with a tasking that ultimately makes few dents in modern NFL offenses. He's not a speed rusher or a terror in space, more useful for setting the edge and pulverizing running lanes (which he's brilliant at). But a close look reveals that the Bryant D was far less invincible last year than some people claim, so it's not as if head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley have proven the worth of that scheme beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Which is why I'm skeptical of a few good defensive showings against subpar run games, especially since the run hasn't been the driving force of the league for a decade anyway. The Atlanta game will provide a somewhat better test for the run defense, but not for the overall defense. Matt Ryan is more of a point guard QB who relies on play-action from his run game (Carroll has cited Ryan as a model for his own offensive vision, by the way, so pay attention to that offense). Taking away Michael Turner may be enough to control Ryan. But what about the kind of QB's you might face in the playoffs, who thrive without running games to shelter them?

The Further Past

If you think I'm over-thinking this, think back to 2007. Our defense looked awesome. The interior was getting pressure. Marcus Trufant was racking up the picks. Lofa Tatupu was everywhere. And the "old free agent" additions of Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson were making Tim Ruskell look pretty darn good. (This was before their first-round replacements busted, leading folks to the weird conclusion that all free-agent stopgaps are bad.)

Then Brett Favre and Ryan Grant appeared and shattered the illusion like a thin sheet of ice.

The fact that this happened on a literal sheet of ice (Lambeau Field in a January snowstorm) doesn't have as much significance as you think. The writing was on the wall for the defense all season. Nobody stopped to look at who Seattle was beating defensively. It's easy to jump routes, snatch picks, and confuse/delay/pressure/sack quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer, Marc Bulger, Alex Smith, Rex Grossman, Gus Frerotte, AJ Feeley, pre-2008 Kurt Warner, Troy Smith, Chris Redman, and Todd Collins. That was more than half of the 2007 lineup, and it didn't contain a whole lot of arm strength or good decision-making. Some of these guys imagined pressure just fine on their own, without Patrick Kerney's help.

But against the four playoff-caliber QB's on the schedule that year - Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, 2007 Derek Anderson, and Favre - our defense was a completely different animal, namely a turtle without its shell. No pressure, no turnovers, no killed drives. The difference was stark, night-and-day. It even managed to lose to Matt Leinart, Matt Moore, and Chris Redman. It should have been evident to everyone that Seattle's defense might have been hiding serious problems behind a lineup of bad opponents.

Then 2008 arrived and confirmed the suspicion. Fielding the same defense, Seattle played a respectable schedule for the first time in years and has been exposed ever since.

The Further Future

That's why I reserve my excitement until we start beating truly good offenses. I don't want 2008 to happen again. I don't want an "NFC West"-brand defense, and I don't want a pretender defense that shows up against run-first teams and bad QB's but vanishes against Ben Roethlisberger. Or Kyle Orton. I want the real deal. I want consistent, disruptive pressure, stifling coverage, and THEN hard hits. I want a foundation of good fundamentals underlying the big plays and making them count for something. I want the Ravens or Steelers defense, tested and approved against the best offenses in the league, capable of dealing in a playoff environment, admired by everyone.

Our 2010 lineup offers no such validation. There's room to conclude that the illusion is happening all over again, only this time there are convenient injuries to use as a scapegoat for the poor record.

That's why I'm not satisfied yet. I hope you understand - this isn't about being the contrary voice in the room (though I'm pretty good at that). This is about demanding the best from my team instead of settling. This is about eliminating those shadows of doubt.

And I'm actually pretty optimistic. The talent on this young defense is undeniable, something an elite defense can't form without (duh). And if you're following Fieldgulls (which you should be, also duh), you've been reading about the subtle evolution that Carroll's defense is undergoing. He's learning as he goes, adjusting on the fly, game-planning heavily. That's comforting. As is the fact that some of our young guys are gaining attention even in road environments and during double-digit drubbings (alliteration alert!).

But the defense won't arrive until it can stop or at least limit elite QB's, something it hasn't sniffed for years. Bryant may be a part of that, and he may not. Carroll may find a way to use him as a pass-killing weapon, or he may end up reduced to a spot role in the vein of Jordan Babineaux. It's hard to say, because I see a smaller correlation between good NFL defense and Bryant's current role than some do - but I also see talent.

This is all okay. It's a rebuild. We're in for the long haul, and we have a lot to learn. I won't be standing out on a ledge if our defense holds to pattern and crumbles against Eli Manning in two weeks. We can't say anything definitive about our defense yet. But, at the same time, we can't say anything definitive about our defense yet. It's far from proven against the elite of the NFL. Its philosophy has yet to ossify fully. It's still missing two crucial cogs (pass-rushing DT, #2 CB) and has a lot of older cornerstones to rotate out. Their replacements will need to be found and developed. It'll take time - maybe years.

But for the moment, there are tantalizing signs and highlight reel hits to enjoy. Don't forget to enjoy them, and don't let me forget to, either.

So now you've hopefully got a better glance inside my head. I hope you are better off for it. Your therapist probably will be, financially. Just don't write me off as a knee-jerk pessimist. Surely you can't blame me for wanting to beat better opponents than Kevin Kolb.


  1. Red is on the field primarily for two downs. He does his job well, which is eliminate a gap. Red can't fix Seattle's vulnerability to edge rushers, which is where Pittsburgh got their yards. He can't fix the vulnerability to pass catching running backs.

    Red is a plus player. That is all. He works in an area slightly bigger than a phone booth, but has the ability to command the attention of both a right tackle and guard. he makes the assignment of the DT next to him and the linebacker/safety behind him easier on a handful of plays every game. I know why you break down the defense based on his presence, because his absence last year seemed to so profoundly affect the defense, but he is simply a part time piece who crosses a worry item off of the defensive coordinators anxiety list.

    If I am playing Seattle, I simply line a TE up on his side to command the attention of the linebacker or safety behind him, and then run RB routes to the flat on his side until the Seahawks show they can stop it. Make Red play in space. Running to the B-gap when he is on the field is a waste of time.

    For the record, B, you are not a knee jerk pessimist. You are very premeditated in your pessimism, which is quite different. And I am my own therapist, which saves me money, but doesn't get me the best pills.

  2. the red project has seen the field less than a year and with basically two completely different looking backfield and line. this year's d is incredible considering there has been no time to play together.

  3. the red project has seen the field less than a year and with basically two completely different looking backfield and line. this year's d is incredible considering there has been no time to play together.

  4. We'll see how well it does shutting down an Atlanta offense with a lot of weapons. Especially without Kam Chancellor.

  5. Good conversation. I learned lot of info from here. Thanks for the share. Keep posting such a kind of post on your blog.
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