There’s still a lot of football to be played, but yesterday’s 24-21 defeat to Miami made something pretty clear – this team must upgrade at defensive tackle. #1 need, straight up.
I previously wondered if the bigger need was a more athletic WILL that can cover. That comes a close second, particularly after all the busted coverages involving Leroy Hill against the Dolphins. Adding another receiver also looked like a realistic option, but nobody can say that position has been an issue in recent weeks. The clear #1 need is at defensive tackle. Here’s why…
Seattle’s base defense uses a front four consisting of Chris Clemons, Alan Branch, Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant. Of that quartet, only Clemons offers any pass rushing threat. With the Seahawks opting to use a four man rush more often than not, they’re relying on Clemons too much to create pressure. This has been the case ever since Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle in 2010. It’s a pretty unique situation where your starting defensive end (Bryant) and your starting three technique (Branch) have almost no pass rushing responsibilities. I see it as the Seahawks trying to create a lot of 2nd/3rd and long situations so that the specialists (Bruce Irvin, Jason Jones) can have an impact. Play stout against the run early with three +300lbs lineman, rely on the second level guys not to give up the 7-8 yard pass and force the offense into an obvious throwing situation. I suspect this was of doing things is to try and create turnovers – a key mantra in Carroll’s philosophy. Put a team in 3rd and ten, use speed rushers, put an extra defensive back on the field. You can understand the thinking here even if you don’t agree with it.
Here’s the problem though – too many times this season, particularly on the road, the run defense has been poor on those key early downs. Miami had +6YPA on Saturday. If the base defense isn’t getting the job done, it’s harder to maximise the qualities of Irvin, Jones and anyone else you want to use in nickel or bandit formations. For this system to work, you need to be effective in base.
It’d also be nice to have a starter to take some of the pass rushing responsibility away from Clemons. After all, what better way to make the most of Irvin/Jones than to put a team in 2nd/3rd and 17 because of a sack on first down?
Finding an interior upgrade that maintains the size up front while also offering a superior pass rush option is key and will help this defense take the next step.
There are solutions in the draft and it’s a rich year for defensive tackles. Star Lotulelei has the size and freakish athletic talent to become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He’s extremely streaky and dips in and out of games, but his upside is off the charts. He’s mostly a terrific run blocker, which would be key for the Seahawks. When he sets his feet and gets leverage, he’s proven almost impossible to move. He has tremendous upper body power and the size to plug holes. Unfortunately, he’s not a great pass rusher. Yet.
At the moment he’s too one dimensional, relying exclusively on the bull rush. Guards and center’s are able to adjust and predict what he’s going to do, and there have been times where he’s started a game on fire and then disappeared in the second half(see: USC vs Utah below). Once an offensive lineman sees the same move time and time again, they suss him out. He also plays too high at times and it’s led to some pretty ugly looking blocks over the last two years. Even so, you’d like to think he’d improve with pro-coaching although it might take a year or two to max out the extreme physical potential on offer here.
It’s presumed that Lotulelei will be a high pick, but if he leaves the board early there are alternatives. Sheldon Richardson doesn’t have the ideal size for Seattle’s scheme (approximately 290lbs) but he might be the best pure three technique. He’s a high motor, big effort player who doesn’t give up on plays and constantly finds ways to get into the backfield. He’s sparky and his personality can rub coaches up the wrong way – he was suspended recently for a key game for breaking team rules. It’s the kind of thing that could lead to a fall, and if he does drop he could be an option for Seattle. The main concern here would be the considerable size difference between Richardson and Alan Branch. You’re talking about 40lbs. The Seahawks aren’t going to completely abandon their defensive scheme and they will want to remain big and stout on early downs. If Richardson can’t maintain that, he becomes nothing more than another Jason Jones. For those reasons, I’m not totally convinced Richardson would be on the radar. They’d have to feel very good about his frame holding up against the run.
Another player who compares favourably in size to Lotulelei is North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams. Again, you’re talking about a top-tier run defender in college. Williams has dominated at times this year, despite playing for the most part with a heavily-strapped ankle. He controls blockers, has the size to fill running lanes (320lbs) and chases after running backs when he gets into the backfield. He doesn’t quite have the physical upside of Lotulelei, but he might be better prepared to have a quicker impact. One area where he’s vastly superior to Lotulelei is pass rushing. Williams has a patented swim move which consistently brings results, he can bull rush, he’s got a great burst off the snap and like Richardson – he lives in the backfield.
Teams will look into his background, as he’s had quite the journey to get to UNC. At high school he struggled for motivation, skipped lessons and at one point his father had to arrange for a police escort to take him to the school gates just to make sure he actually turned up. He eventually took a job working in a car-parts factory, earning $12 an hour. That appears to be the catalyst for some kind of career-epiphany, but he eventually walked on at Coffeyville in the JUCO ranks before enrolling at North Carolina. All of this means he’ll turn 25 as a rookie – just as Bruce Irvin did this year. What I’d want to know is – will the old Sylvester Williams turn up when the cheques get cashed? Is he truly a reformed man, ready to continue his new-found worth ethic having made it to the pro’s? Or will it be seen as job done and the end of the journey? Some teams probably won’t entertain the risk. A 22-year-old rookie Williams without any of these issues is a top-fifteen pick based on the tape. With this lingering in the background, he might last into the 20’s.
What about the others? Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins doesn’t play with enough fire in his belly to compete for this team, while Kawann Short might be available in round two. The one other player I’d possibly consider as a round one option is Jesse Williams at Alabama. He’s not a natural three technique and has played 3-4 DE and nose tackle for the Crimson Tide. Williams is strong at the point and offensive lineman struggle to move him versus the run. If the Seahawks were just trying to solve a run defense issue here, I’d suggest Williams would be a great option. However, I think they need to find someone who can also provide a pass rush on early downs. Can Williams do it? I wouldn’t rule it out. He’s disruptive, but predictable as a rusher – exclusively relying on brute force. He lacks an explosive first step and he could be better with hand placement and execution. His improvement level from last season to this is cause for optimism though and he’s got the athletic potential to be a better pass rusher.
Of course, not every need will be filled in round one of the draft. After all, the teams greatest need was addressed last off-season by a third round pick. There’s nothing to stop Seattle’s front office working their magic again and finding a solution outside of round one. However, every off-season Pete Carroll and John Schneider have identified need areas and been quite focused with their early picks. Finding an upgrade at defensive tackle and a player who can feature on early downs will surely be on the target list as a key area for improvement. The Seahawks don’t have a ton of glaring needs, but filling the few that remain with talented players will ultimately be the difference between eternal 7-9 win seasons and maximising the potential this team has to reach 10+ victories.
Even so, it doesn’t mean this need will be addressed in round one. We sat here discussing quarterbacks for four years before a third round pick answered the call. In a deep draft for defensive tackles, the solution may not be obvious to fans or humble bloggers just yet. And nobody should be surprised if they go for that first round linebacker, wide receiver, tight end or offensive lineman instead. I could just as easily make a case for the team going after Zach Ertz or Alec Ogletree. After all – all three of Lotulelei, Richardson and Williams could be off the board before Seattle picks. But this is an area that has to be dealt with one way or another for sustained improvement to continue.
Need rankings after week 12:
#1 Defensive tackle
#2 WILL linebacker
#3 Another weapon for Russell Wilson at WR or TE
Star Lotulelei (DT, Utah) tape vs USC: