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Steelers Film Room: Seattle Seahawks’ Defensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Seattle Seahawks’ defense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT: 

The Seahawks’ usually dangerous pass rush isn’t playing like it in 2015. They have just 25 total sacks. Only 4.5 of those come from non-defensive linemen while another 4.5 come from Bruce Irvin, who is likely to miss Sunday’s game.

There is some good individual play happening though. Cliff Avril is a dominant force at left end with 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and five pass deflections.

Big fan of their linebackers, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, who are one and two on the team in tackles. Wright is one of the best in the league, leading the squad with 73 tackles, 3 forces fumbles, 2 pass deflections, and a sack. He’s an every-situation player, a guy who just doesn’t come off the field. Logging 98% of the snaps. Jon will go into greater detail but he does a fantastic job of staying clean, scraping down the line, and filling his run gaps.

Seattle’s secondary is…surprisingly underwhelming. There’s still a lot of talent here but it isn’t translating into production. As a team, they have only four interceptions on the season, all from Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, meaning none are coming from their cornerbacks. Compare that to 2014 when the Seahawks’ cornerbacks had eight interceptions.

One impressive stat defensively they have are three defensive touchdowns this year. All three were fumble recovery scoop and scores, tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first in the league.

The run defense is strong, allowing just 15 runs of 10+ yards. The Steelers are tied for sixth-most offensively with 35. That will be a fun battle to watch.

Like any four down front, there’s a heavy rotation at play. Generally speaking, Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, and Ahtyba Rubin are the starters with Irvin starting until he got injured. Rubin is always the three technique while Mebane serves as the one, the nose tackle to Rubin’s under tackle. Jordan Hill is Mebane’s backup at the one. Bennett is flipped to each side and there is no real left/right or strong/weak tendency. They do a nice job matching him up over different lineman. Both tackles and probably both guards will encounter Bennett on Sunday, who is a big threat with 6.5 sacks and potentially their most potent defender. Creates a lot of negative plays or at worst, attention that allows others to do so. Bennett doesn’t leave the field often either, playing over 81% of the time.

Frank Clark was an impressive talent out of Michigan but the rookie had domestic violence issues that pushed him down the board. He’s played well and saw a sizeable uptick with Irvin sidelined, playing 42% of snaps last week in the team’s win against the San Francisco 49ers. He’ll play both sides too, though I’ve mostly seen him spelling Avril at left end.

They are generally a one-gap scheme with the desire to penetrate and get into the backfield. If they’re playing eight in the box, they’ll ask the end to the side the safety is rolled up on to shoot the gap and get into the backfield.

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Mike Morgan has seen an increase in snaps with Irvin out but the Seahawks will pull him off the field in subpackages.

Three of the four pieces in the secondary are known. Richard Sherman, Chancellor, and Thomas. Sherman used to play on just the left side but is getting work all over the field, playing left, right, and in the slot. He won’t always shadow the opposing team’s top receiver and I couldn’t come up with a great rhyme or reason for when he did/didn’t. Just look for him to be able to cover anyone anywhere at any given point Sunday.

Cary Williams had been the starter all year long, and I liked what he was doing to support the run, but Pete Carroll benched him on Sunday. Deshawn Shead, who had been running as the team’s nickel corner, moved into their base 4-3 while Marcus Burley bumped up to the nickel. Not sure if Williams will start Sunday or not.

I had a pretty good idea of what their coverage was going to be before even turning on the film. Carroll’s concepts are well-known and well-documented. At its core, it’s a Cover 3 defense that does a lot of pattern matching to prevent getting exploited against four verticals, a common weakness in this scheme.

James Light has written a ton of great information on it, and I’d encourage you to check it out because he explains it better than I could. It’s their Mable/Skate coverage they usually employ against 3×1 sets.

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They don’t blitz a ton because of their trust in the guys up front to get pressure. They will stunt a good bit out of their four man rush whether it’s T/E stunts or cross stunts from both tackles.

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There may be a slight tendency to blitz the nickel corner on third and long versus 3×1 looks. Blitz to the trips or weak side, doesn’t matter if it’s field or boundary.

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Watch out for them to drop an interior lineman in the red zone. Saw it a ton, much more than I anticipated. You’ll see it a lot in the red zone.

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Seattle’s Special Teams 

The kick coverage team doesn’t do anything exotic. Where you start is where you finish. Just maintain your lane and get off a block. The Steelers, for example, will at the least, twist their R5 and R4 (same with the left side) players. Not in Seattle.

They appear to like to start the game kicking off from the right hash (from their point of view). Bunch the left side and keep the right side at a normal split. After several kickoffs, to mix things up, they’ll move the kick back to the left hash. Give you a different look so you don’t get used to the same kick and coverage look.

Defensive backs Steve Terrell and Burley act as the starting gunners. Shead is the Seahawks’ upback, the quarterback on punts.

I have not found any evidence of a fake punt over the last two years, from 2013 to the present. Chris Margos is listed as having a rush but that came on a botched field goal when he became the emergency holder. Not a fake.

JON’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT: 

On paper, and most of the time on the field, few defenses appear as imposing in every facet of the game as Seattle. They’ve got edge rushers, they’ve got interior pass rushers, they’ve got outstanding safety play, several of the most athletic and versatile linebackers in the game, and one dominant cornerback. On most teams, that would result in a better record than 5-5, but for all their talent, the Seahawks defense has struggled to close out games this season.

14 4th quarter points allowed in a loss to the Cardinals, 13 in a loss to the Panthers, 17 allowed against the Bengals in Week 5, and 11 given up to the Packers in Week 2. That’s not even mentioning the 37-yard game-tying touchdown pass they allowed Nick Foles to toss with just 59 seconds left in Week 1, eventually leading to the Rams 34-31 victory. In fact, in every single one of Seattle’s five losses this season, the team was winning in the fourth quarter and the defense blew the lead. That’s absolutely inexcusable from a unit with this much talent, and don’t think that fact is lost on Seattle.

The defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points in any of the Seahawks five victories this season, albeit all against pretty poor competition. Seattle has yet to beat a team with a winning record this season, heading into Week 12 against Pittsburgh, but they’ve been this close most weeks.

Seattle currently ranks 7th in the NFL in points allowed per game (19.2), 2nd in total yards (303.6), 2nd in pass defense (207.2), and 11th in rush defense (96.4). The group has been dominant on 3rd downs, allowing teams to convert just 32 percent of the time, the third best mark in football. While the Seahawks are one of the most penalized offensive units in the NFL, they are one of the least penalized defensive groups, with just 23 flags on the season.

The Seahawks have recorded 25 sacks this season, most of which has come from the dominant trio of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Bruce Irvin. The first two each have 6.5 sacks on the season, while the latter has 4.5 in just nine games. Irvin looks like he will be a game time decision on Sunday, but word is it is unlikely he’ll be ready to go.

Bennett and Avril are typically the only guys out there for most snaps, playing 81.2 and 77.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, respectively. Rookie Frank Clark and Cassius Marsh each split Irvin’s snaps against San Francisco, and should be expected to do so again this week if the WVU defensive end can’t go.

Avril is a pure speed rusher, gonna try to win the edge with quickness and bend almost every time on pass rushing downs. Shoulder dips around Erik Pears here after a great get-off helps him beat the offensive tackle to the edge.

Avril has some speed to power, but he’s not that strong, and if you get your clamps on him and stop his initial rush, he’s not the best counter guy. He sets the edge with some nastiness in the run game though. One of the more underrated players in the game today in my opinion.

Bennett will play all over the defensive front, depending on the opponent and the down-and-distance. He’s a little slight for an interior defensive linemen, but make up for it with great explosiveness in all aspects of the game. Gets off the line of scrimmage in a hurry, and uses his hands brilliantly to keep blockers off his frame.

So explosive. On passing downs he’s typically inside, or lined up as a five technique with Avril outside of him in a wide set. On early downs, Bennett will typically bookend Avril as the right defensive end, but even that can vary. His ability to consistently give offenses different looks and be just as adept from any technique is impressive.

As talented as he is, Bennett is crazy undisciplined. At times he’ll completely abandon technique and get run out of plays entirely, not always keeping gap integrity. He’s also a penalty machine, with the second-most flags of any defensive linemen in the NFL. Three were declined, but Bennett has a whopping five offsides penalties this season, including three in one game against Green Bay.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a huge Kam Chancellor fan. Love the way he plays the game and how instinctive he is. Incredibly physical but shows great form and technique as a tackle. Tack on another neutral zone infraction and three personal fouls, and you have a player who will make boneheaded moves at times. If you’ve ever heard him interviewed, or know anything about him as a person, that shouldn’t shock you.

The rest of the defensive line is medley of fun pieces and top-tier talent. Brandon Mebane is one of the longest-tenured Seahawks, playing all of nine seasons in Seattle. He’s got some great quickness off the ball and is very physical at the point of attack. Not gonna push him around much. He’s typically the nose while Ahtyba Rubin plays the three tech in the Seattle 4-3 front on early downs. Jordan Hill also exists and will see time as the other interior pass rusher with Bennett on longer down-and-distance situations.

See how early Chancellor breaks on the ball? And the closing speed and textbook tackle to drop the receiver for a one-yard loss. Instincts is the most important trait for a safety in my book, the ability to see or sense a route or play developing before it actually occurs.

Some of it is natural, some comes from studying opponents diligently all week, something Earl Thomas has taken to another level. Thomas is fanatical about football, so much so that he once slept in front of his locker at Texas so he would be sure not to miss an early morning meeting in college. That work ethic and dedication has paid off in the NFL, where Thomas continues to be one of the most committed tape-watchers in the league. Helps him be able to make exceptional, touchdown-saving plays like this one:

No safety in football closes on the ball as fast as Thomas, who combines, instincts, smarts, and incredible foot speed to consistently make splash plays. He’s the best free safety in the game, I don’t think it is close, and it has been that way for several years now.

I think the unsung aspect of Seattle’s defense is their linebackers, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. Wagner has officially solidified himself as one of the best tacklers in the game, rarely missing despite his stocky frame and less than ideal length. He’s also outstanding in coverage, as is Wright, who both have excellent instincts and movement skills in a zone-heavy scheme. Really not many weaknesses from these two, who show great flow to the ball thanks to excellent read-and-diagnose abilities, beating blockers to the ball before linemen can lock up the linebackers. Seattle doesn’t go with three linebackers a ton, but when they do Michael Morgan has been taking Irvin’s snaps, playing over Kevin Pierre-Louis, who the team seemed to be high on last year. Both Morgan and Pierre-Louis are top-tier special teamers thanks to their athleticism and speed, but they are raw and don’t see much defensive action.

Richard Sherman and Cary Williams are the clear-cut top two corners, playing over 99 and 96 percent of the time, respectively. DeShawn Shead plays almost exclusively as the nickel, seeing action on over 56 percent of the defensive snaps. Marcus Burley is the only other defensive back on the roster with a snap, but he’s played just 15 since Week 3.

Sherman and Williams are cut from the same cloth, big physical corners who play almost exclusively outside on the boundary. Not ideal man cover guys due to their limited short area quickness and mirror-and-match abilities, but great fits for Seattle’s Cover 3 defense. They love to bump and press at the line of scrimmage, disrupting routes and keeping more explosive wide receivers from getting into their patterns cleanly.

If Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant can get off the line of scrimmage cleanly, I like their chances a lot, as neither corner is great in space. Sherman does have some awesome body control and ball skills in the air, thanks to his former wide receiver days. Williams can get grabby and isn’t the best route recognition corner. Plays more with his body than he does with his head. Shead is another big (6’1, 220), raw kid with good athleticism but a very raw skill set. I’m guessing Todd Haley wants to get some advantageous matchups in the slot clicking against the undrafted free agent from Portland State.

Alex Kozora astutely pointed out to me that Williams was benched this past week during the game against San Francisco. I doubt it is a permanent thing, but Shead took his place on the outside and Burley moved to the nickel.

Punter Jon Ryan is in his tenth season, and is averaging 46.2 yards per punt this season, one of the better marks in the league. He’s dropped 17 of 49 punts inside the 20, but has had one boot returned for a touchdown. Hasn’t had a punt blocked this year, but did have one blocked last season.

Ryan is a fake master as a punter, completing both of his attempted passes for a combined 58 yards in two successful efforts. He’s also rushed nine times, but the results of those are much less favorable.

Burley and Jermaine Kearse were the gunner pair of choice against San Francisco. Not often you seeing a starting wide receiver as one of the team’s top gunners, but such is Pete Carroll’s way. Kearse missed a tackle with a weak attempt on one punt, then got buried on another. Safety Steven Terrell and wide receiver Kevin Smith each get reps too from time-to-time, but Burley seems to be the main guy they rely on to get pressure as a runner. He works hard, but can get beat up by double jammers at 5-10, 185 pounds.

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