There are never any secrets in Seattle.
Think back to the start of 2011. In Pete Carroll’s end of season press conference he identified the running game as a cause for concern. It was supposed to be the heart and soul of this team, yet the Seahawks ranked 31st in the league for rushing. Jeremy Bates was fired as offensive coordinator, in came Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable. The teams first two draft picks were offensive lineman. There was no media kidology here — this was pure, unadulterated honesty. Carroll did what he said he was going to do.
A year later the pass rush was identified as a key area of weakness. Only ten teams had less sacks than the Seahawks in 2011. Carroll and Schneider zoned in on a pass rusher in the first round of the draft and selected a player defined by Carroll as, “the ideal LEO.” Bruce Irvin was taken with the #15 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Jason Jones was added in free agency to act as a specialist three-technique. Once again the Seahawks had been honest about their ambitions in the off-season, and most definitely pro-active.
The problem is, one plan worked better than the other. The repair work to the run game turned the #31 ranked rushing attack in 2010 into the third best this season. For all of Seattle’s moves to improve the pass rush a year ago, it’s only warranted a three-sack improvement. Bruce Irvin, Jason Jones, Greg Scruggs, Jay Howard, re-signing Chris Clemons to an extended contract. It all adds up to three more sacks.
Seattle’s total of 36 this year is probably a generous review of the pressure they were able to exert on opposing quarterbacks. An eight-sack half against the Green Bay Packers — more freak than anything – bloated that statistic into mediocrity. Without that blistering half of pass-rushing, the Seahawks are among the league’s worst for sacks. A true bottom dweller, belittling the claims that this is an elite unit.
Of course, it’s not all about sacks. It’s about consistent pressure. Green Bay aside, this was never achieved. The Seahawks faced some of the worst offensive lines in the NFL this year and couldn’t get home. In key moments against Detroit, Miami and in the season finale against Atlanta, a lack of pressure equated to defeat. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley were forced to rush five against the Falcons in the two key plays that set up Matt Bryant’s game winning field goal yesterday. That’s music to Matt Ryan’s ears. The top pocket-passers in the NFL want. you. to. blitz.
This is one of Carroll’s rare failures so far. He and John Schneider have found a franchise quarterback with a third round pick. They’ve created easily the best secondary in the NFL despite spending only one first round pick on Earl Thomas. They’ve devised a dominating running game and found a superstar running back via a trade worth a couple of late round picks. The roster is deep with young talent and it’s trending upwards.
The lack of pass rush, however, is right up there with the Charlie Whitehurst trade. Two big blotches on the copy book. The plan hasn’t worked and it’s time to start again.
Don’t take my word for it — these are Carroll’s sentiments exactly. He appeared on the Brock and Salk show (ESPN 710) this morning and was asked about the teams needs going forward:
“We didn’t settle the issue of rushing the passer. You know Jason (Jones) came in here and he got banged up and wasn’t really able to contribute the way we’d hoped. He did everything he could but he had a bad knee. We need pass rush, I think more than anything that’s it…. We need to add up front somehow to bring the heat.”
You can here the audio at the top of this article. The quotes used above appear at the 19:00 mark.
Carroll unsurprisingly appeared deflated in his post-game press conference yesterday, where he again addressed the lack of pass rush. On Bruce Irvin he commented, “I didn’t really see him out there.” In today’s open media conference he again stated, “We need another pass rusher. We really do. We’re going to need a couple of them.”
It’s a dose of refreshing honesty in a league where most teams guard their intentions like it’s a matter of national security. Then again, it doesn’t take a genius to work out Seattle’s biggest problem. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal has written a lot of positive articles about the Seahawks this season. Even he couldn’t avoid spelling it out when reflecting on the 30-28 defeat to Atlanta:
When Pete Carroll looks at the film from Sunday’s heartbreaker, he’ll know that his team’s lack of a pass rush hurt badly. The Seahawks’ defense didn’t force a punt until midway through the fourth quarter. The Seahawks registered one “quarterback hit” and zero sacks in 35 drop-backs. With the game on the line, Carroll had no faith he could get pressure Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with his front four.
Rosenthal’s rather bleak but honest ending to the piece kind of sums it up: “That made the difference in sending the Seahawks home for the offseason.” And he’s absolutely right. The Seahawks were a pass rush away from the NFC Championship game and a one-off shot at the Super Bowl. That’s how vital this issue is — and Carroll knows it.
Everything else in place. The offense will continue to grow with Wilson and Lynch. The rest of the defense is set. There’s plenty of depth across the roster. They just need to do a better job at rushing the passer.
We now know what the primary ambition is going to be during the off-season. This team will add at least two key pass rushers. It all begins when free agency opens on March 12th and moves on to Seattle’s #25 overall pick when the draft begins on April 25th. The hard part is working out what exactly they might do to rectify this problem.
Nobody guessed the Seahawks would take Bruce Irvin with a mid-first round pick. Trying to guess what they’ll do this year could be even tougher.
What are the options?
According to John Clayton, the Seahawks have $18.6m in cap room for 2013. Part of this will come from the savings made on Alan Branch and Jason Jones becoming free agents (both could still re-sign for cheaper deals). The other part is down to the rules of the new CBA which allows teams to ‘carry over’ unused cap into future seasons. You have to expect the front office will build on this strategy going forward with many of the teams young stars due major pay increases if they’re going to stick with the Seahawks. For example, in 2014 Richard Sherman is due to earn $690,606. He’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015 and will probably command a much greater salary. Earl Thomas and K.J. Wright will also be free agents that year.
Keeping the band together is not going to be easy unless money is saved.
Even so, there’s enough cap room to at least entertain the possibility of making some moves in free agency. The cap situation could be improved further if Matt Flynn is traded/cut or if Zach Miller is willing to spread some of his $11m 2013 cap hit into future years (he’s due to make $7m in 2014 and $6m in 2015).
In terms of pass rushers, there are some nice prospective options assuming teams don’t use the franchise tag. Desmond Bryant (DT, Oakland), Henry Melton (DT, Chicago) and Randy Starks (DT, Miami) would all upgrade the teams interior pass rush. Bryant (27) and Melton (26) are both entering their prime and will be costly. Starks (29) would probably be more cost effective but with a much more limited upside. The Seahawks made two big splashes prior to the 2011 season by signing Miller and Sidney Rice. Would they entertain a similar move to bring in a veteran three-technique?
It’s unlikely Oakland will be able to afford Bryant, given they’re a projected $4.5m over the cao for 2013. Chicago has enough room at $13.3m to make an offer to Melton, while Miami has $35.8m to play with. Funnily enough, both teams could be impacted by the future of Jake Long. Miami will surely try to re-sign their left tackle, but using the franchise tag would cost $15.4m next season. The Palm Beach Post has already reported that it’s an unlikely scenario for the Dolphins. If Long hits free agency, the Bears could be a suitor given their major issues blocking for Jay Cutler. If the left tackle market dominates the start of free agency, it could present an opportunity for teams chasing the top defensive tackles.
Out of the three options I still favour a move for Starks. He’ll not be as expensive as the other two, while his run defense is superior. He’s still capable of collapsing the pocket and making plays, plus he might be open to a front-loaded two-year contract that’ll end in time for the Seahawks to free up cap room to re-sign their own key players. Both Bryant and Melton will be searching for longer term deals with lots of guaranteed money spread over several years. At the same time, there’s no doubting that Melton is the best pass rusher of the three and would have the greatest impact overall. But at what price?
Finding a veteran edge rusher could also be a possibility, especially if Chris Clemons needs to start the 2013 season on the PUP list as he recovers from an ACL injury. Anthony Spencer (DE, Dallas), Paul Kruger (DE, Baltimore) and Michael Johnson (DE, Cincinnati) will all command good contracts as young, productive pass rushers. Osi Umenyiora (DE, New York Giants) will also be a free agent and at 32-years-old, he might be willing to sign a more modest contract to play for a contender in his final 2-3 years in the league.
Addressing other needs in free agency could allow the Seahawks to concentrate on the pass rush in the draft instead. Receivers like Dwayne Bowe (WR, Kansas City), Mike Wallace (WR, Pittsburgh), Wes Welker (WR, New England), Greg Jennings (WR, Green Bay) and Danny Amendola (WR, St. Louis) are all likely to reach free agency. Victor Cruz (WR, New York Giants) is a restricted free agent, while former USC tight end Fred Davis (TE, Washington) could emerge on Seattle’s radar.
The problem is, this will be an expensive road to go down. Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars invested $32m in former Dallas wide-out Laurent Robinson (anyone remember him?). He caught 24 passes for 252 yards and no touchdowns in 2012. Rest assured the big-name stars listed above will be wanting at least as much as Robinson stole from the Jaguars.
This is a team being built through the draft, with pay-days earned via performance and competition. It’s unlikely that the Seahawks would ‘chase the dream’ in free agency by making multiple big moves. Stuff like that turned the Philadelphia Eagles into a laughing stock. A choice move or two seems likely though.
Finding productive pass rushers in the draft can be a bit of a crap shoot. For every Aldon Smith and Von Miller, there’s a Derrick Harvey, Brandon Graham or Aaron Maybin. Who expected J.J. Watt to dominate as the most dynamic pass rusher in the NFL? Probably not even the Houston Texans. The Sehawks have been burned before in this situation, owning the #25 overall pick and trading down before taking Lawrence Jackson. No other position is quite so boom-or-bust when it comes to the draft.
The 2013 class actually has a cluster of talented pass rushers available. Bjoern Werner, Damontre Moore, Jarvis Jones, Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo, John Simon and Alex Okafor could all be first round picks at defensive end or outside linebacker. Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei, Sylvester Williams, Jesse Williams and Sharrif Floyd could all be drafted at the three or five technique positions.
And that’s just a sample size. This is a deep class for defensive lineman.
Seattle’s greatest need is an interior pass rusher. They’ve lacked a natural three-technique all season and it’s been costly. It’s testament to Chris Clemons that he’s once again managed to record double digit sacks this season playing almost as the teams sole pass rusher in base defense.
There’s no reason why the Seahawks couldn’t go big in the draft to improve the pass rush. They drafted offensive lineman back-to-back in 2011 to improve the run game, would they do defensive line back-to-back in 2013? Getting an interior presence is vital, particularly if they don’t find a solution in free agency. Edge rushers and a cost-effective replacement for Jason Jones are also possible.
One player I keep coming back to at the moment is Margus Hunt — the most Seahawky non-Seahawk who’ll turn pro this year. There are numerous things that will put off teams riddled with conventional wisdom. He’ll be a 26-year-old rookie. He has limited football experience having travelled to America to work on his discuss throwing. His technique is raw. None of these things stand to concern the Seahawks, who will no doubt ask what he can do as opposed to what he can’t. What you’re getting with Hunt is a 6-8, 275lbs beast with unnatural speed for his size. While he might be an outside bet as a possible first or second round pick for Seattle, he’s exactly the kind of player you can see Carroll and Schneider taking a chance on.
In the last fortnight I’ve also begun to consider Texas’ Alex Okafor as a more realistic possibility for the Seahawks. His 4.5-sack domination of Oregon State was a master-class in speed rushing off the edge, technique and control. He has a similar frame to Clemons at 6-4, 260lbs and he had 12.5 total sacks for the Longhorns this season. Importantly, he has solid upper body strength, good hands and he understands leverage to work against the run. That’s crucial for a tall and lean defensive end.
If the Seahawks do target edge rushers in round one again, it still won’t shake the biggest need unless they act in free agency. A nasty, violent three technique is a must. Sheldon Richardson is that man. He’s likely to be a top-15 pick given the rarity of good three-techniques in the NFL. The position has proven so difficult to get right in recent years with the leagues best (Geno Atkins, Henry Melton, Darnell Dockett) being found in the middle rounds. Every now and again though, a talent emerges. And Richardson looks like he could buck the trend of disappointing first round defensive tackles.
Do you need further evidence that he fits the Seattle’s scheme? USC spent considerable time trying to prize him away from Missouri during his time in the JUCO ranks. At one point he appeared to commit to the Trojans, only to stick to his initial decision and play in the SEC. Monte Kiffin wanted this guy in his defense — and it just so happens Seattle’s two key defensive brains are both Kiffin disciples.
Getting Richardson with the 25th overall pick would be a gift from the football gods. Yet there’s some hope in the form of character red flags. He’s the prototype three-technique, right down to the attitude and smack talk. It’ll rub some coaches and GM’s up the wrong way. He also served a one-game suspension in 2012 as a punishment for skipping class. It’s still a long shot, but if you’re lucky enough to find a franchise quarterback in round three of the draft, you’ll never rule out Sheldon Richardson suffering a fall on April 25th.
Carroll seems agitated by the lack of pass rush, and maybe even a little let down. Bruce Irvin has endured a mixed rookie season. He hit a wall mid-way through the year and struggled to have much impact after the bye week. The Atlanta game was supposed to be his chance to show he can be a starter at the LEO position — but he struggled mightily. So concerned at getting beaten by the run, Irvin committed to it almost exclusively. The end result? He was a complete non-factor as a pass rusher.
The Seahawks might be going through the same moment of realisation experienced by West Virginia. They tried to force a starting role on Irvin, albeit in an ill-suited three-man front. He struggled and quickly reverted back to his productive specialist role. The decision paid off and he ended his final year with the Mountaineers strongly.
It might be time to accept what Irvin really is — a specialist. He’s always been at his best concentrating on one thing and one thing only… getting to the quarterback. Let him pin his ears back and go. Playing at the line of scrimmage in a four man front carries too much responsibility for a player incapable of manning the role. He’ll get you 8-12 sacks a year as a third down specialist. He’ll make big plays — just like he did against Carolina and Washington. But those big plays will come in decisive and specific moments, not regularly during a four-quarter game of football.
The thing is, Carroll truly believed Irvin was the ‘ideal LEO’ for his scheme. I’m not sure that’s the case. Not any more. That could be premature, it could be unfair. But I have to believe Carroll is contemplating Irvin’s duties going forward, especially if Chris Clemons can’t start the 2013 season. When you draft a pass rusher with your first round pick and 12 months later state “pass rusher” as the teams biggest need, something isn’t right. Irvin can be a fine specialist pass rusher, but that might be his ceiling.
This isn’t about one player though. Overall the Seahawks haven’t rushed the passer well enough in three seasons of Carroll’s programme. If you’re truly going to review how to make things better, don’t you have to look at the scheme too? It hasn’t really ever created sufficient pressure, even against the bad teams.
One of the problems is the unbalanced nature of Seattle’s attack. By focusing solely on a LEO rusher, it’s easier for the offensive line to max protect one side. A running back in pass protection can cover the left tackle and suddenly Clemons is trying to beat a double team to get home on a lot of plays. Using three big bodies in base defense (Bryant, Mebane, Branch) should theoretically make the Seahawks tough to run on. That isn’t the case. The run defense got progressively worse as the season went on. The unit failed to receive any benefit from using three non-pass rushers on their defensive line.
Theoretically things stand to improve immensely with the introduction of a legitimate three-technique. It’s also worth noting that San Francisco use a tandem on one side more often than not with Justin and Aldon Smith. It’s unbalanced, but works because the two pass rushers are high-quality and the rest of the line plays stout against the run. Will it be enough for Seattle though? If the Seahawks are going to use a 4-3 defense, do they need to start running a more balanced pass rush? Do they have to re-consider Red Bryant’s role as a defensive end and consider moving him back inside?
I’ve argued with several people about the significance of Bryant this season. Carroll made him the highest paid defensive player on the team for a reason. I believe the use of a proper three-technique will lift the defense and perhaps legitimise his role as a defensive end if the pass rush and run defense both improve next year. He continues to be a vocal leader for a young roster. That doesn’t excuse poor play, but it has to factor into why the Seahawks are so keen to keep him at the forefront of their defense.
I concede Carroll will likely review the situation during the off-season. He’s shown a willingness to be pro-active and go against his own beliefs for the greater good. I also suspect after some soul searching he’ll stick with his original plan and try to enhance it. That doesn’t mean the Seahawks can’t bring in personnel to incorporate a more orthodox 4-3 front if needs be. I’m not convinced Irvin and Clemons can act as a base tandem without any pass rush up the middle. But get a player who can act as a more natural left end, bring in a proper three-technique and suddenly, you can be flexible against certain opponents and situations.
This is still a good defense overall, but they need a plan to combat late game winning drives like we saw in Detroit, Miami and Atlanta. Being able to turn to a more balanced pass rush in the hour of need is crucial. I don’t think this team will totally go away from the Bryant experiment or the 4-3 under. But I do think they’ll make the moves to be more flexible.
We’ve talked a lot about the defense here and it seems somewhat unfair not to even mention Russell Wilson. Hours after a stunning performance against Atlanta, he was in front of the media today for his final press-conference of the season. His performance in front of the microphone was almost more impressive than the action on the field. He looked and sounded like the heart of this franchise. He oozed confidence and spoke with authority. For the first time, he came across like a spokesperson for the players.
Wilson sported a hoodie noting his slogan, “No time 2 sleep” and acted like a ten-year veteran. This is a team game, he’ll be the first to tell you that. Yet Wilson looked every bit a franchise quarterback during this interview — saying exactly the right things, talking about his optimism for the future. I always believed the identity of this team would come back to Pete Carroll. Slowly but surely, it seems to be shifting towards Russell Wilson.
You’d like to make his life easier next season by at least investing in one more solid receiving option. A Zach Ertz, a DeAndre Hopkins or even one of those free agent pass-catchers could be a key addition to the offense. I suspect at least one of those early draft picks will be saved for a pass-catcher.
Ultimately though the difference between joy and pain this time next year will rest on Carroll and Schneider’s ability to improve the pass rush. To quote Kip — and I’m sure he won’t mind me using this quote — “I truly believe that the Seahawks would be unbeatable if they had a defensive line like Denver’s or Cincinnati’s and stayed healthy. They’d be the Women’s UCONN team of the NFL.”
I tend to agree.
I’ve included some game tape videos below to show off some of the prospects that could provide the answers in 2013. This includes a new Sheldon Richardson video vs Tennesse, courtesy of JMPasq.