BY Doug Farrar 09:01AM 02/19/2011

Seahawks Personnel Review: The defensive line

The Seahawks made strides with their front four in 2010, but the solutions proved fragile.

The Seahawks' front four was asked to fill several different roles with an array of former misfits and eventual injury replacements. (Drew Sellers/Sportspress Northwest)

For the 2010 Seahawks, the story of the defensive line was one of a very frustrating mid-season split – specifically, the Week 8 injury to the medial collateral ligament to the knee of defensive end Red Bryant. That injury took Bryant out a game in which the Seahawks were eventually gashed by a rushing attack assembled by then-Raiders head coach and new offensive line coach Tom Cable, and the timing had no coincidence about it.

A one-time fourth-round afterthought whose highest local cache was his marriage to the daughter of team legend Jacob Green, Bryant went from mystery tackle in the Seahawks’ old straight 4-3 fronts to his new – and incredibly effective – role as the five-tech (run-stopping and anchoring) end in Pete Carroll’s hybrid lines. The stats with and without Bryant were startling – the kinds of differences in run defense effectiveness we hadn’t seen since the injuries that marked the end of Marcus Tubbs’ career. That’s where we have to start when we talk about the Seahawks’ defensive line last season.

The Defensive Ends

Long and strong at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds (conservative estimate), Bryant led a run defense that averaged an allowance of 3.4 yards per carry when he was present and accounted for. But that same defense fell apart to the tune of a 4.9 yards per carry average in Bryant’s absence. Kentwan Balmer and Junior Siavii tried to play the stopgap role, but both were defeated by their own relative limitations – Balmer proved unable to get past blocks and set the edge on a consistent basis, and Siavii suffered his own season-ending injury (a bruised spinal cord) after showing some ability to penetrate as a pass disruptor at the five-tech.

With Balmer unfortunately ineffective, Carroll, line coach Dan Quinn, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley put end Raheem Brock outside LEO (pass-rushing end) Chris Clemons late in the season and through the playoffs to more effective purpose. Stopping the run became more the purview of the defensive tackle rotation, and the Clemens/Brock combo proved extremely effective whenever pass disruption was required.

Clemons, acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles in what turned out to be a brilliant trade for Darryl Tapp, led the team with 11.0 sacks and also managed four passes defensed. It wasn’t just his sacks that made Clemons such an effective pass-rusher—he also led the team with 19 quarterback hurries, according to Football Outsiders’ game charting statistics. Brock, for his part, came up with 9.0 sacks of his own, and he led the team with 11 quarterback hits.

The Seahawks finished 28th in FO’s Adjusted Sack Rate metric, but no fault could be assigned to Brock and Clemens – it was more that so few players beside them brought any real quarterback pressure. Tackles Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole had one sack each, supposed occasional pass-rushing linebacker Aaron Curry had 3.5, and safety Lawyer Milloy actually had more than any other defender besides Clemons and Brock with 4.0 — Milloy’s highest sack total since 2004.

The Defensive Tackles

Cole, another misfit acquired by former team president Tim Ruskell to play in a 4-3 defense he didn’t fit (it’s actually kind of interesting how many 3-4 or hybrid players Ruskell drafted or acquired, whether by accident or unknown grand plan), and thrived in the new fronts. He led the team with 42 run plays in his direction, and finished with 34 Successes and two Defeats.

These are FO metrics, as well – Defeats refer to the total number of plays by a defensive player that prevent the offense from gaining first-down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a turnover. Successes indicate running plays in which enemy offenses failed to gain 40% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. Mebane had seven Defeats and 21 Successes in the 28 run plays in which he was involved, and Siavii had three Defeats and 22 Successes on his 28 run plays inside.

It’s a line with a lot of talent, but several question marks, as well. Brock is a free agent, and he’ll turn 33 in June – that’s tough stuff for a position in which players don’t generally slide down the age curve – they fall off a cliff. Mebane is also a free agent, and he’s someone who would most likely be in high demand were he to hit the open market. The Seahawks could apply the franchise tag to him, but they’d be guaranteeing Mebane over $12 million for the 2011 season, a number up from about $7 million in 2010. Why? Because the franchise tag number equals the averages of the top-five paid players at a position, and the huge bonus given to (and most definitely not earned by) Albert Haynesworth by the Washington Redskins skewed the tag number out of proportion.

What’s Available

The draft provides potential options at nearly every position – it’s an incredibly rich class for defensive linemen, and draft expert Mike Mayock has said that it may be the best class he’s seen. As many as 10 defensive linemen have a legitimate chance to be taken in the first round, which means that several players who would receive first-round grades in other years will be pushed down a round or more.

The options at the five-tech position at or around the Seahawks 25th overall pick in the first round include Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, and Muhammed Wilkerson from Temple. Players that stand at least 6-foot-4 and weigh 280-300 pounds, with interior leverage but perhaps the wrong body type to play three-technique tackle would be ideal candidates for that position. At the Senior Bowl, the Seahawks showed specific interest in Clemson’s Jarvis Jenkins, a projected mid-round pick with those same measurables.

Three-techs, who shade between guard and tackle and stop the run and pass (different defensive schemes place different priorities on pass and run at the position) would include Oregon’s Stephen Paea, Drake Nevis of LSU, and North Carolina’s Marvin Austin. The list of nose tackles – the big run-pluggers who take up two blockers inside – is smaller, but Paea’s impressive strength and ability to get leverage at any position makes him an intriguing hybrid possibility.

Pure edge rushers include Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee (both players looked great at the Senior Bowl), as well as potential converted linebackers like UCLA’s Akeem Ayers.

Pete Carroll has said that the Seahawks’ offseason priorities will be to – first, re-sign Matt Hasselbeck, and second, to upgrade the talent on both lines. The good news for Carroll and general manager John Schneider is that no matter where teams aim in this draft, the chances are good that they’ll connect with the right target, as long as the scheme fit concept is followed. And unlike previous administrations, the Carroll/Schneider combo seems to have a very solid handle on the types of linemen they need to turn this patchwork personnel quilt into a dominant defense.