BY Doug Farrar 11:31AM 12/04/2010

Seahawks down the stretch: The defense

Thomas, Mebane emerge as the best of injury-plagued unit

Rookie safety Earl Thomas has had a large impact on the Seahawks defense. (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

With five games left in the regular season, and an improbable shot at a division title at 5-6, the new-look 2010 Seattle Seahawks look a lot like any other start-up – voids are often filled with frantic positioning (witness their hyperactive approach to roster construction), and there are times when you have to go live before the paint is dry. So it has been for the Seahawks in the first year of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era.

The new football brain trust in Seattle had to begin their efforts by blowing out the failure of the past administration, which it did with a vengeance. And while that cut-cut-cut approach made sense in both the long and short term, it has also led to offensive-line combinations in which one would swear the players don’t know the names of the guys lining up next to them, and some very inconsistent results from individuals of varying talent levels.

But hey – we’re doing the start-up drill here at Sportspress Northwest; we feel their pain. Here’s a two-part by-position look at what must go right and coalesce from now through the end of December if the Seahawks are to extend their efforts after Jan. 2 The review of the offense is linked here; we’ll now look at a Seattle defense that has taken a lot of lumps in the last month.

Defensive Tackles: Brandon Mebane, Colin Cole, Junior Siavii, Craig Terrill, Jay Richardson

Mebane is the stalwart of this line; through the changes from 4-3 malaise to multiple (if not always effective) fronts, he’s been the paragon of effectiveness. Alternating primarily between one-tech (shading the center and/or guard) and 3-tech (shading the guard and/or tackle) depending on the front and system, he’s allowed just 0.8 yards per running play on the 15 plays that have gone his way, per Football Outsiders metrics.

Cole, the ostensible ideal nose tackle (right over the center), has missed the last four games due to an ankle injury, and his absence has been felt – a fact that we’ll take a closer look at soon. Siavii has replaced Cole in the middle of those fronts, and while he provides some dynamic interior penetration, he isn’t really the same kind of hole-plugger that Cole is – the kind so necessary in defenses with 3-4 principles.

Terrill has been winning the game of “Seahawks: Survivor” for years, making rosters most of the time and being asked back whenever he doesn’t. More a backup 3-tech in a straight 4-3 scheme, Terrill does have a very useful, specific skill – his seven blocked field goals ranks second in team history to Joe Nash’s eight. Richardson, who was signed in early November to take up some of the line attrition, plays inside more often than not, though he is listed as a defensive end.

Defensive Ends: Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Kentwan Balmer, Dexter Davis, Clifton Geathers

When discussing Seattle’s defensive ends, one must start with Red Bryant, the former afterthought fourth-round pick who was taken from roster purgatory to his ideal spot as the 5-tech end in Carroll’s defense. Providing edge containment opposite Clemons’ pass-rushing, Bryant led a defense that allowed 2.9 yards per carry in the first seven games of the season, and 5.0 in the weeks since. The primary difference? Bryant’s residence on the injured reserve list. Balmer has been Bryant’s primary replacement, and he’s done a decent job, but he doesn’t have quite the same stopping power – he’s allowed 2.7 yards per carry on running plays in his direction as opposed to the 1.4 on plays in Bryant’s vicinity.

The “Leo” position, the hybrid 3-4/4-3 pass rush spot occupied by everyone from Willie McGinest to Clay Matthews in the last 15 years of Pete Carroll defenses, has been ably handled by Clemons this season. The trade of Daryl Tapp to Philadelphia for Clemons was one of GM John Schneider’s more worthy acquisitions – Clemons leads the team with 7.5 sacks, plus another seven quarterback hits. Brock, perhaps best-known for the absolutely ridiculous roughing the passer call against him in the Saints loss, is an able backup and complementary player. Davis and Geathers are developmental guys.

Linebackers: Lofa Tatupu, Aaron Curry, David Hawthorne, Will Herring, Matt McCoy

There have been many questions about Tatupu’s continued effectiveness, but it must be remembered that the former second-round pick has always played his best when there is more and better size up front, allowing him to split gaps to make plays, and drop into coverage as opposed to having to read gaps and take care of run fills.

Curry was drafted fourth overall in 2009, but it’s the undrafted Hawthorne who has been the revelation over the last two seasons. Tim Ruskell didn’t do a lot right, but he scored big-tine when he signed “The Heater” as an undrafted free agent. In 2009, Hawthorne led the team in tackles while replacing Tatupu for 11 games, and he currently leads the team in tackles having replaced Leroy Hill on the weak side.

Curry has the kinds of physical tools for which most linebackers would give large coin, but his demon speed is not accentuated by assignment-correctness – -he is too often out of place, still struggles to get home as a pass rusher, and is inconsistent in his sideline-to-sideline efforts.

Herring and McCoy can back up the main players in a pinch (Herring in particular outside), but they’re both on the roster right now as products of Carroll’s and Schneider’s mission to improve special teams.

Cornerbacks: Marcus Trufant, Kelly Jennings, Walter Thurmond, Roy Lewis, Kennard Cox

In 2009, Trufant was toasted to a crisp by enemy receivers (particularly Andre Johnson in an embarrassing loss to the Houston Texans), but he was playing through a back injury that probably should have shelved him for the season. Healthier and in a better scheme in 2010, Trufant has returned to his old form,  at least to a large degree. He can still be taken out by quick changes on intermediate routes, and the Giants targeted him as such. He’s never been the shutdown corner expected for his pay grade, but he’s played well most of the season.

Jennings, relegated to nickel duty in last year’s mess of a defense, has done well this season – the new defense is a good place for his trail speed and closing quickness. Schneider’s history with Green Bay would seem to inform a need for bigger, more athletic cornerbacks, and that’s a likely trend over time.

Thurmond and Lewis have played well in spot duty, especially when asked to defend short to intermediate passes to the flats and seams. Thurmond, who may have been a first-round pick had he not been derailed with a terrible knee injury, has the most potential of the backups.

Safeties: Earl Thomas, Lawyer Milloy, Jordan Babineaux, Kam Chancellor

When asked after the first day of the 2010 draft why the Seahawks took Thomas with the second of their two first-round picks, Carroll immediately and definitively pointed to the Texas star’s rare speed from sideline to sideline and ability to play center field (the back third of a defense) in Seattle’s new schemes. And as good as Russell Okung someday may be, it’s easy to argue that so far, Thomas has been the new regime’s best pick by a crushing margin.

Thomas has the kind of athletic ability that had a lot of teams looking at him as a cornerback. It’s changed what the Seahawks can do. His five interceptions (tied with Michael Boulware for the Seahawks’ rookie record) is matched by at least as many near-picks and seven pass deflections. Like certain rangy shortstops who get penalized by official scorers because they get to balls that others simply can’t, those groans of disappointment from the fans when Thomas doesn’t quite get there on a ball should be curbed by the notion that there are very few safeties in the league who would even make it close.

Because Thomas has the back end of that pass defense so well in check, Milloy has been freed from the bench and turned loose in seemingly infinite ways – he’ll do everything from playing run at the tackle position in the “Bandit” defense, to stellar intermediate coverage, to delayed blitzes and more. In a way, Milloy has taken to the role played by Troy Polamalu and Taylor Mays in the USC defenses coaches by Carroll – those safeties who often act like linebackers by using downhill tackling. The difference is that the Seahawks don’t pay by taking one safety out of place, because the other can cover so well.

Babineaux has seen his role change back to that of nickel defender ,and that’s the best place for him; the unselfish veteran is a good corner/safety hybrid who is now optimized by proper planning around him. Chancellor, a great athlete who looks like a medium-sized linebacker, is an intriguing prospect.


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