BY Doug Farrar 12:50PM 10/13/2010

Seahawks try to close the screen door

The Chicago Bears could exploit Seattle’s new defensive vulnerability.

Lofa Tatupu and Gus Bradley

Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu talks with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley after practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center on October 7, 2010. (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

In any new defense, certain vulnerabilities will pop up … and usually at the worst possible times. The Seahawks are trying to reinvent the wheel with their previous four-man fronts by installing different pressure concepts, and Pete Carroll’s “Leo” position. Rookie safety Earl Thomas has added a measure of deep coverage that the team hasn’t had since the salad days of Kelly Easley.

But if there’s one thing that this new defense has shown, it is a disturbing inability to stop screen passes. Quick throws to running backs with second-level blocking leading the way was a particular issue in Seattle’s 20-3 loss to the Rams. Both Steven Jackson and Kenneth Darby ran up the hashes and down the sidelines for big gains as part of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense. The screen is a staple of the WCO (you may remember it from the Holmgren era), and the Rams know how to block it. Young tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith are particularly adept at getting downfield in a hurry to help the backs make big gains.

Before the game, Lofa Tatupu and Aaron Curry each discussed the Rams’ ability to get to the second level with their line,  but forewarned was not forearmed in this case. Jackson and Darby combined for 73 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches, and Carroll know that the problem had to be solved – soon. In the NFL, any schematic vulnerability will be exploited by future opponents.

At his Monday presser after the loss, Carroll described what happened on the 49-yard screen to Jackson. “Colin (Cole) knocked the ball down last week in the game and this week he just missed [knocking the ball down] by an eyelash and didn’t get it, he was right on it. (Steven) Jackson went for 49 yards on the play.”

And the 21-yard touchdown to Darby? “That touchdown play was perfectly designed by them. They got us in a vulnerable situation, the lineman didn’t feel it, and they knocked one in the end zone on us. Those were really the big issues in this game. We played a lot of stuff really well and those were the two big third-down plays that made a difference, one big third-down play and then they changed field position with another play to Jackson that was a big deal. We really could have got out of that game with a very good game on defense had we played those plays better.”

Against the Chicago Bears this Sunday, the Seahawks will face another offense in which a primary idea is to get the backs involved in the passing game. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz, renowned for his “Greatest Show on Turf” offense in St. Louis, has always been less a one-trick pony with the aerial attack and more about balance. This was especially true when he had future Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk back there. Only Larry Centers has more career catches among NFL running backs than Faulk’s 767.

And in Matt Forte, Martz has another back who will let it roll with screens and swing passes. Through Week 5 of the 2010 season, Forte ranks first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics among pass-catching running backs – he’s the most valuable at his position in the NFL.

On Monday, Carroll talked about the challenges his defense will face against a deep passing game in which checkdowns are also valuable cogs. “They really showed the balance that they can go to when they need to [last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers]. They ran the heck out of the football, threw the ball twenty times or something like that, and really controlled the game on the ground. That makes it very difficult for us to know what they are going to do now. They had a very difficult game against the (New York) Giants and they came right back and found a good balance of running the football, even with the turnovers that they created in the passing game, they were able to sustain a good winning effort. It was highly unlikely that would happen, but they did it with Forte breaking plays. They can do some stuff with the running game. Right now we have to kind of figure out where they’re going with it — we won’t know really probably until game time.”

Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has been a prime beneficiary of Forte’s ability to catch passes, especially when he grabbed seven of Cutler’s throws in the season opener against the Detroit Lions. Forte blew out Detroit’s defense for 151 yards (including an 89-yarder) and two receiving touchdowns. And even before Cutler and Martz were on the scene in Chicago, Forte led the Bears in receptions in 2008 with 63.

“Yeah, Marshall [Faulk] caught a lot of balls with St. Louis, and Matt is a similar player with his ability to get out of the backfield and catch balls,” Cutler said this week, when asked about how backs are used in that offense. “He’s smart, and he understands the scheme, so any chance we have to get him the ball, we’re going to try.”

Having watched the film of Seattle’s little disasters against the Rams, it would be wise to assume that Chicago will try a little harder.


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