Why Seattle needs to “swing for the fences” at DT

23 year old Geno Atkins just finished playing in the pro-bowl after a 7.5 sack season

Written by Kip Earlywine

Its not exactly a secret that the Seahawks are going to prioritize improving the pass rush this offseason.  It’s been talked about so much, and yet there is one funny little detail that always gets left out:  Seattle actually has 4 pretty good defensive line starters already.

Red Bryant is perhaps the most unorthodox defensive end in the NFL, but for what he’s asked to do, he’s very effective.  He’ll be 28 at the start of next season.

There was a time near the end of the Tim Ruskell administration when a very compelling case could be made that Brandon Mebane was not just Seattle’s best defensive lineman, but the team’s best player period.  He’ll be 27 at the start of next season.

I know that some people are skeptical of Pro Football Focus and its metrics, but they loved Alan Branch last season- even naming Branch to their all-pro team at one point.  Branch may not create a lot of pressure, but like Bryant, he does a lot of quiet things very well.  He’ll be 27 at the start of next season.

Chris Clemons has 22 sacks in 2 seasons since becoming a Seahawk, has stayed healthy, and hasn’t been destroyed against the run as many thought he would be.  He’ll be 30 at the start of next season.

Across the board, this is a group of above average players who are in their primes.  So what’s the problem?  The problem is that the Seahawks only sacked the quarterback 33 times.  The Titans had the NFL’s second fewest sacks, and they had 28.  So how did this happen?   It happened because Seattle is (more or less) running a defense with a 3-4 styled defensive line and a 4-3 styled linebacking group.  And since 3-4 defenses rely on linebackers to create pressure and 4-3 defenses rely on the front four for pressure, you end up with the worst of both worlds from a pass rushing standpoint.  Out of the current front seven, only one player (Clemons) is counted on to consistently generate pressure.   Our pass rush is kind of like the experience of finishing off a loaf of bread to make a sandwich, then remembering that all you have left are the two crappy end pieces that no one ever wants to eat.  Even if the bread normally tastes great, its not much fun eating a sandwich made with those two skinny end pieces.

So what should the Seahawks do about it?  As I see, it, they have three options.  The first is to jettison Red Bryant and then acquire a more traditional 4-3 end.  Red Bryant is a free agent, and has 2 sacks- in his career.  Its hard to completely punt pass rush at one of the defensive end spots in a 4-3 and still hope to get pass rush results.  That said, given that Seattle appeared to sign Alan Branch primarily as 5-tech depth, and given how much Bryant contributes to the defense outside of pass rush, I don’ t think Seattle is going to revert to a more traditional 4-3 any time soon.

The second option is for Seattle to switch to a 3-4 defense.  Seattle has the defensive line for it, and is probably looking at overhauling their linebacker group anyway.  This isn’t the best draft for making a 3-4 conversion though.  There are no obvious Clay Matthews / Shawne Merriman / DeMarcus Ware caliber rush linebackers for Seattle to target if they moved to a 3-4.  It also seems unlikely because Pete Carroll is a defensive coach with strong ties to Monte Kiffin and a 4-3 scheme.

The last option is to just stay the course with the Red Bryant defense, but this could be the most challenging option of the three if you actually want results.  If the Seahawks want to be comfortably on the above average side of the league in pass rush, they’d need to add about ~10 sacks, and 10 sacks is a lot.  If you can’t add those sacks from Red Bryant’s spot (or Mebane’s spot- he’s probably the team’s long term 1 tech), you’d need to add them from the LEO position, the 3 tech position, and the linebackers.  Very few linebackers in a 4-3 scheme can be counted on to rack up sacks- so if Seattle wants to add sacks from the linebacking area, they will probably need to get creative about it.  One possibility is drafting Courtney Upshaw and playing him as a bit of a hybrid Will linebacker/stand-up end.  On pass rush downs you could have Upshaw line up outside of Bryant and create a look very similar to a 3-4 pass rush, while having Upshaw play a more traditional Will position on some other downs.  The downside of this is that it would put a lot of extra stress on the other two linebackers, and while Hawthorne is a nice player, he isn’t exactly known for his ability to cover a lot of ground.  It could expose Seattle’s defense to a greater risk of allowing a big play.

I suspect the Seahawks will get creative in some such way, but that probably won’t be enough in itself to fix the pass rush, even if Clemons continues to produce or is replaced by someone else (Dexter Davis, etc) who matches that production.  There really isn’t much way around it, Seattle needs to upgrade the pressure from its front four.  And if they keep Bryant, the only place they can really accomplish that goal is the 3-tech defensive tackle position.

As said before, Seattle isn’t exactly hurting at defensive tackle.  Branch was a quality starter.  Hargrove and McDonald combined to make for quality depth.  If Seattle goes out and acquires a “run of the mill” 3 tech, its unlikely that he’d have much of an impact.  The Seahawks have to be careful here- Branch’s contributions should not be overlooked- it really wouldn’t make sense to downgrade the defense as a whole just to add a handful of sacks.  If the team is going to replace Branch, they must make sure they are actually upgrading the position, and that means either trading for an elite player, or rolling the dice on a player who could be elite.

Seattle could try to draft a situational 3 tech pass rusher who plays only on pass rush downs, but one problem with that is that substitutions can be problematic against hurry up offenses- so if possible you would prefer your 3 tech pass rusher to be a 3 down lineman.  And that’s the problem.  Effective pass rushing defensive tackles who can play every down are one of the rarest finds in the NFL- its a big reason why you just about never see a 4-3 defense build a pass rush away from defensive end.

Complicating matters further is that good pass rush defensive tackles are rarely a sure thing.  Guys like Ndamukong Suh and Warren Sapp are a rare beast indeed.  It goes without saying that you won’t find anything comparable to that in the 2012 draft, and maybe not for many years to come.

Perhaps the best defensive tackle in this class is Michael Brockers, which is kind of funny since Brocker’s 2011 season looked an awful lot like Alan Branch’s.  Brockers only registered 2 sacks in 14 games, but made up for it by being an exceptional all-purpose 3 tech.  Brockers will not be a high pick this April because of those results though.  He’ll be a high pick because of the results he could be posting in 2013 or 2014.  Brockers hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but he’s a guy that could easily become an elite pass rushing defensive tackle if enough things break right.

I don’t know if Quinton Coples can safely be classified as a 3 tech- he strikes me more as a Justin Tuck hybrid type.  I’ve long been turned off by Coples lack of effort and inconsistency, but his senior bowl performance was illuminating and mind changing.  Coples truly does have elite potential.  Of that there is no longer any doubt.  And for what its worth, Coples’ hype began in the first place from a splash debut as a 10 sack 3 tech in 2010 in relief of the suspended Marvin Austin.  It would not shock me at all if Coples is drafted by a team with the intention of playing him at the 3 tech.

Two years ago, Geno Atkins dominated the senior bowl and hoped to elevate his stock.  He ended up falling into the 4th round, but today he’s one of the more exciting young defensive tackles in the game.  Interestingly enough, Atkins was a player that interested Seattle in the 2nd round of that draft, but they rated Golden Tate higher and never got a second shot at Atkins.  While I don’t think anyone takes the senior bowl more seriously than the dozens of real games that preceded it over a prospect’s career, it can help remove doubts about raw ability.  This is a game where almost every player is at or near NFL caliber while in a job interview type situation.  They want to look their best.  With coaches/GMs from every NFL franchise watching, the last thing they want is to have the guy across from them make them look bad.  Dominating in that kind of situation should stand out.

Atkins himself was a 4th rounder.  Remember Rocky Bernard and his 8.5 sacks in 2005?  He was a 5th round pick.  Just because Seattle needs to make a splash doesn’t always mean that player has to be an early pick.  Whether or not that kind of player can be found later in 2012 is yet to be seen.

My favorite defensive player in this draft is probably Devon Still.  And yet, I don’t think I’d draft him.  Still could easily be Mebane 2.0- perhaps even better.  The reason is because Still doesn’t really offer much hope as an elite pass rusher.  He will collapse the pocket.  He will occasionally shed blocks.  But Alan Branch is already doing that to a lesser degree.  Still is a very good player, but he might be redundant on this roster, a luxury pick in a draft where the Seahawks seem determined to avoid making a luxury pick early on.  As a pass rusher, Still can’t offer the same raw potential that Coples or Brockers could provide, and for Seattle’s crazy defense that relies on so few areas to create pressure, its key that those areas produce, and produce big.

John Schneider’s drafts so far have been risk averse at the top.  In the first round, it doesn’t get much safer than drafting two offensive tackles and a safety.  Would this front office be willing to take a chance with a high pick on Brockers or Coples?  If addressing the pass rush through defensive tackle is their goal, and they want to make that investment this year, I would say they almost have to.  Of course, the team will keep all options open, and I get the feeling they are leaning more towards defensive end than defensive tackle early, but wherever they end up addressing defensive tackle, I’m hoping for a player with as high a ceiling as possible, even if that player is a big risk.


  1. JS

    I’m sure everyone has noticed that Earl Thomas spends some time around the line of scrimmage and makes plays in the backfield. I’m wondering if that is limited to run blitzes because he obviously doesn’t get a lot sacks not that many safeties do. I’d like to see him in coverage more, but certainly any big plays from him are celebrated. What I’m getting at is the non-traditional defense the Hawks have put together requiring the generation of a pass rush from places like the LEO and ET are seen as stop gap solutions until a more traditional setup can be put in place? There obviously are a number of directions to go which you addressed but I’m certainly looking forward to an acquisition of game changing pass rusher, or at least someone that allows the pass rush to come from other places. I would like unpredictability in the pass rush.

  2. Doug

    I’m starting to think that they are going to go get Mario and then see what’s available. If they get a shot at Trent, or Blackmon (td makers), they go., Otherwise they try to trade down

  3. jim J

    Our existing defensive line is good but there are two problems with it. One is age, if they get injured they won’t recover quickly and they aren’t going to be with us much longer. The other – and this is more important – they just can’t run anyone down. QBs that roll out have all the time in the world to pick a receiver. Our defensive line is SLOW. That’s why we can’t get any sacks.

    We need some quick players who have strong motors. Coples and Upshaw fit the profile. There are other DE’s that could help. But I’m not against picking a DT in the second round. Because if you improve the middle that keeps double teams off the DE. A young DT will clog up the middle and when they shed a block will have the speed to run a QB down.

  4. 1sthill

    If we stay with our current defensive scheme then I think we should address our pass rushing needs in free agency. There are some under the radar guys that could really improve our pass rush.

    Upshaw just does not have the speed to play the Will…the only way I think that could work is if we drafted a MLB that has exceptional speed to make up for the lack of Upshaw’s range on the weak side.

  5. Turp

    I’d still love to add Bruce Irvin in the middle rounds if possible. Not a lot of a good 3tech talent available this year.

  6. Rob

    Doug – I’m led to believe Richardson would definitely be an option, Blackmon not so much. More tomorrow.

  7. David

    I really wish the kid from Georgia wasnt so loyal and left school for the pros, haha whats his name Jarvis Jones i think, from what i read on here Rob you were pretty high on him

    Id like us to get Bruce Irvin hes got alot of speed, think he lacks in Strengh but havent watched alot of videos.

    it would be nice to have Griffin slide to us or closer so it wouldnt be as costly to move up and get him, but i can see the chiefs maybe making a play for him.

  8. Rob

    Hey David,

    Jones would’ve been a top-12 pick in my eyes, and we’ll see a little more from him on Thursday when we break down Kirk Cousins vs Georgia. As for Griffin III – I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much there, it sounds like he won’t be making it past the few picks. More on that in Wednesday’s mock.

  9. Vin

    As improbable as I think it will be, Im hoping the Hawks make the switch to 3-4. But I say that assuming that we maintain the current roster. Im a fan of our current defensive roster, except for Heater. If the Hawks stay with this hybrid 4-3, I cant imagine that they keep Big Red. He’s already proven to be ineffective at DT and I really like the Branch/Mebane combo on the inside. So if you’re gonna spend the $$$, and assuming he’d consider it, I’d like to target Mario Williams in FA. I believe he’s a better DE than an OLB in a 3-4. Then I’d draft Upshaw to play Will or maybe Coples to eventually replace Clemons.

    I see arguments against Upshaw, noting his lack of speed. But he sure seemed plenty fast in the NC. I guess Im not sure who out there in the NFL is the ‘ideal’ Will. And if they dont draft Cousins with #2, then maybe that Vinny Curry.

  10. Derek

    Hey Rob, so your sources are telling you Richardson is a realistic option at 12 if available? I wouldn’t mind Doug Martin or Polk in the 2nd either. This must mean that they are planning on resigning Lynch and want to compliment him? I cant see them not resigning him and hoping Richardson will fall to them at 11/12. Also, have you done your mocks where we have the 11 and not 12 to see if that changes things? I see in all mock drafts we have the 12 but it’s 50/50 we could have the 11th.

    Great article Kip, I agree that the DT’s around 11/12 don’t really offer anything that we don’t already have. I could see us taking a couple though in the 4-7 range like we did last year with DB’s.

  11. Derek

    Also one more question, if we did get Upshaw in round 1, and a guy like Spence in round 2 to play our WILL and play Upshaw at the LOS, how do you think that changes our defense?

  12. A. Simmons

    We lost around 7 sacks due to Raheem Brock’s lost production. So given what Carroll has shown us so far, I would think they would target the following:

    1. Pass Rushing 3 tech
    2. Situational pass rushing defensive end to sub with Bryant.
    3. Pass rushing LB

    That would require each player to produce around 3 to 4 sacks to make up 10 sacks. I think Carroll and Schneider can find some players in that range of production or better to work with our current defensive scheme.

  13. Christon

    You make a great point Kip. I was thinking that DT was the last thing the Hawk’s needed.

  14. jim J

    It’s not just the sacks that we would get. It is the hurry ups and disruptions that are more common. Are current crew cannot chase the QB out of the pocket. If he runs to the sideline, he will have 2-4 seconds to look for a receiver. Our best hope is that a linebacker chases him down, because our defensive line is just too slow.

  15. Groundhog

    I think a top 3-tech is the best way to upgrade the D with just one player. Mario Williams is the only player who can have that kind of immediate impact. Unfortunately, his cost is probably prohibitive to the Carroll/Schneider gameplan.

  16. Micah

    I was just perusing some draft stuff looking for a big safety to potentially convert to LB, and George Iloka out of Boise State came up. He’s a 3 year starter, 6’4″ 222, 4.5 40 and seems to get good marks from scouts. Could he be a mid-round option to add speed to the defense while throwing in another ace pass coverage LB? This could also be a route to more sacks. He played FS at Boise, could he play MLB or OLB here? He’s certainly got the physical gifts.

  17. Richardfg7

    I see Branch developing into a very good 3-tech. He has the tools just give him time. Some rush support from the LBs and good secondary play will suffice for now. And as Branch & Red develop as QB killers we will see a truly dominate defense emerge. The line isn’t broken so we don’t need to fix it. Just time is all they need.

  18. JROCK419

    Considering the fact that Bryant had his first full season starting, it’s not surprising that he hasn’t developed a pass rush. Big Red is the heart of the defense, even if Kam Bam and Thomas are the pulse.

    I would give Red some time, and then also pick up someone to spell him on the obvious passing downs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 4-5 sack jump from Red and Branch if the team picks up some complimentary pieces.

  19. A. Simmons

    You could be right about Bryant. That was his first full season. If he puts the work in, he might improve his pass rushing ability.

    My main point as far as the draft goes is the pass rush can be improved with a multiplicative approach rather than a “swing for the fences” mentality. The Eagles in their best years under Jim Johnson stocked up on pass rushers and used creative blitzing out of the 4-3 scheme to get the QB. We can do the same. If one of our guys becomes a stand out player, great. But the focus should be on attacking from everywhere and overloading with the scheme than relying on a few great players to bring the rush. Jim Johnson was successful to the tune of 7 top 10 points allowed defenses between 1999 and 2008.

    I’m fairly certain Pete Carroll has a very good idea of what he needs to get pressure in the 4-3 alignment we are using. He won’t be relying on one great player to bring the pass rush. That’s why I think they’ll go for a multiplicative approach to building a pass rush.

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