In doing research for various things about the Cowboys switch back to a 4-3 and emphasizing on the Under for the line and Tampa 2 for the back end, I came across some interesting stuff. The only teams that seemed to be utilizing this scheme as their base were the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. All three definitely have their own wrinkles, and even with Chicago D-Coord Rod Marinelli joining the staff, the one that initially piqued my interest was the Seahawks version. As soon as I came across the quote by HC Pete Carroll that they "run a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel", I was hooked.
"We've kind of played that scheme... they do play some single-high safety, they have some good corners that can bump. You know, we play cover-2, they play cover-2... so that's where you hear about the Seattle deal... but we're also very much the Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, without a doubt." - New Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin
Of course word had leaked a few days prior that Kiffin told Brandon Carr and Jason Hatcher to study up on the Seahawks D, confirming my earlier suspicions. Carroll was a student of Kiffin's philosophies (DC while Kiffin was HC at NC State) and has added his own twists to "update" the scheme, as Marinelli did in Chicago. I'm very excited to see how the teacher learns from the pupils to concoct what Dallas will be rolling out over the next few seasons.
After the season ended and Rob Ryan was removed from his perch, owner/GM Jerry Jones let out that the team began thinking about moving in a different direction after the losses to Seattle and Chicago; both occured early in the season. Now if folks remember correctly, the defense didn't have horrible performances in those games. My summation is that it's not what Dallas' D didn't do, it's the havoc that was wreaked by the opposing defenses on Jason Garrett's offense.
We don't know to what extent Kiffin is going to be modeling the "Dallas-2" after what Carroll does in Seattle. Seattle's D-line is constructed a lot differently than what Kiffin molded during his days in Tampa. Dallas' secondary is nowhere near as physically imposing as Seattle's is. Still though, I thought it would behoove us to get some good inside info about what it is that Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have constructed in the Pacific Northwest.
To that end, I wanted to have a sit down with Danny Kelly, managing editor over at Field Gulls. FG is SB Nation's Seahawks blog, and as OCC pointed out last week, their X's and O's posts are pretty much unmatched on the network. Over here, we have Coty bringing us the goodness on a regular basis, and he's been a godsend with his series on Monte Kiffin's playbook. Over at FG though it seems their entire staff is bringing scheme conversation at one point or another; highly recommended add to your bookmarks.
In Part I, Danny will speak to the evolution of the Seahawks D into a top-ranked unit, as well as the Seattle secondary. Part II will focus on the meat and potatoes; the front seven.
BTB: It's pretty clear that Carroll came in and turned around the Seattle defense. I'm not sure if you're a fan of Football Outsider's DVOA metric, but they had Seattle ranked 27th in '09, then 29th in Carroll's first year. That quickly shot up to 10th in '11 and last year they finished 4th. AdvancedNFLStats Expected Points Added metric says that Seattle's D had been below average until this past season when they became Top 10. Wondering what kind of timetable the Cowboys might be facing, can you speak to the evolution of your defense, in terms of personnel change and the progression of the schemes in use?
FG: I do like DVOA and we've talked about the Seahawks' improvement on defense ad nauseam over at Field Gulls. The Hawks' roster was bereft of talent on the defensive side of the ball when Pete Carroll and John Schneider took the reins in Seattle, but after a scheme change, identity change, philosophy change, and more or less and entire roster turnover, the Seahawks finished with the number one scoring defense in the NFL last year (in other words, they gave up the fewest points).
A large part of this was identifying players that fit their scheme and getting the most out of them -- there's probably only two or three guys left over from the previous regime -- and identifying ways to maximize their talents has been the hallmark of the roster rebuild. Seattle has used 19 of their 28 draft picks since 2010 on defensive players. So, they've built through the draft. It's pretty surprising that they could turn around the defense so quickly with this method, but they've hit on some really great players, which obviously starts with scouting.
Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Brandon Browner have all been All Pros or Pro Bowlers now in this scheme, and K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are talented and exciting linebackers. Brandon Mebane was moved back to the nose tackle position under Pete Carroll, and Red Bryant - a depth defensive tackle holdover from the previous regime, was moved to end, where he's done a fairly good job with what he's been asked to do (he played hurt this year so his effectiveness suffered - I'm hoping he improves next year because he was much better in 2011 than 2012). Chris Clemons was a depth DE for the Eagles when Carroll took over, and the Hawks traded for him. Clemons has racked up 11 sacks in each of the three seasons he's been with the team now.
As for Carroll's scheme change -- it's a descendant of the Monte Kiffin 4-3, but also features evolutions based on some of George Seifert's 49er defenses from back in the mid-90s. Carroll was Siefert's defensive coordinator there, and some of the ideas they adopted are a major part of the Seahawks' current defense. The most obvious one is the LEO/Elephant defensive end - a DE that starts out in a wide-9 technique alignment prior to the snap and a possesses slightly smaller, more explosive frame. Carroll has used various players at this position, but the two most effective guys in Seattle's scheme here have been Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. Explosively fast, aggressive, flexible - quick off the snap but able to diagnose a run and maintain gap integrity from the weakside of the offense.
Paired with Seattle's abnormal defensive line, which features 6'5, 320 pound Red Bryant at Defensive End, are two tall, physical cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. These press-cornerbacks re-route receivers, attempt to disrupt timing, and throw off routes, and behind them is the rangy and instinctive Earl Thomas. The Seahawks pretty much exclusively play 8-in-the-box, leaving Thomas, Sherman, and Browner responsible for deep pass routes. The linebackers have to be assignment correct but rangy enough to move from sideline to sideline.
It will be interesting to see where Kiffin puts current Dallas players in his defensive system. Major improvement probably won't happen overnight, but for a guy like Kiffin -- who has been doing this longer than I've been alive -- it should be an advantage for Dallas to be able to identify players in the draft and free agency that really fit what he wants to do. He knows exactly the traits and attributes that are necessary, so this will help. This is pretty much how Seattle turned their D around.
BTB: You all are well known for the size of your secondary, with Sherman, Browner and Chancellor all standing 6'03" Then you have mighty mouse Earl Thomas at 5'10". The only DB Dallas has penciled in as a starter taller than 6' is Barry Church at 6'1". Can you expand on how the physicality of your secondary plays into the coverages that you all run? Is there a lot of press and bail being played?
FG: Yeah, Seattle plays a lot of press-man and press cover-3. Like I said above, it's almost all 8-in-the-box. That's where the physicality on the outside comes in -- if you can jam, re-route, funnel, or disrupt receivers from where they're supposed to be and when they're supposed to be there, it makes the job of the opposing quarterback very difficult. So much of quarterbacking is anticipation and timing, and Sherman and Browner's job is to throw both of those things off. They do a pretty good job at it so Seattle runs it a ton, and for times when Sherman or Browner get beat, they rely on one of the fastest players in the NFL to have their back - Earl Thomas, over the top. But, if the corners on the outside were unable to consistently win in one-on-one, the Hawks would have to do more zone and cover-2 stuff. They still do run some zone concepts and will mix up their looks, but their identity is as a three-high defense.
The height thing is a factor in all this, because it makes for tougher throws by the quarterback, specifically on sideline routes (which is why Seattle plays a lot of bump and run to the outside with inside leverage). It's physics - if Richard Sherman can get his arms up and into passing lanes, it just makes that the opposing quarterback's window on trajectory and ball placement that much smaller. My guess right now, is that if your corners struggle in man-to-man or press, that you'll run a little more cover-2 and perhaps even some Tampa 2. The length factor is a little more important for CBs over just straight height -- if your DBs have long arms and big wingspans, that's essentially the same as being tall.
Now that's an interesting thought. Of course, as we all know, Dallas invested very heavily into cornerbacks that employ great press technique. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne should be capable of being placed in one on ones that the defensive staff feels comfortable in their chance of winning the battle and disrupting the timing of the QB.
We'll be back shortly to discuss the Front Seven with Danny.