Fixing Seattle's Run Defense
By Corbin Smith
For most of the 2013 season, the Seahawks have boasted one of the top defensive units in the NFL. While the pass defense has continued to be dominant, Seattle has had major issues stopping opponents on the ground in recent weeks, giving up more than 100 yards rushing in two straight contests to rookie running backs. Many have wondered why a normally-stout front seven has struggled so much. After watching game film, I believe these issues are minor in nature and can be quick fixes.
Pete Carroll's defense ranks second against the pass, surrendering only 179.8 yards per game through the air. Opponents understand that trying to beat Seattle with an aerial assault isn't a good strategy, but after watching Zac Stacy (Rams) and Mike James (Buccaneers) both rack up more than 100 yards in consecutive weeks against the Seahawks, teams will try to continue exploiting a suddenly-porous run defense. Only two weeks ago, Seattle ranked No. 6 against the run, but two dreadful performances in a row have dropped the team all the way to No. 20.
What has caused this drastic regression? Some have argued that scheme issues have played a major role in giving up so much yardage on the ground, but film tells a different story. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been out-smarted on a few plays by opposing coordinators. For the most part, though, he's still calling a very solid game and doesn't deserve the blame for getting gashed by the Rams and Buccaneers. In the end, struggling to win at the line of scrimmage and poor tackling have doomed Seattle's defense, and two particular plays stood out to me during my film study.
Two weeks ago in St. Louis, the Seahawks got a wake-up call when Stacy, a fifth-round draft choice out of Vanderbilt, rushed for 134 yards, at a healthy 5.2 yards per carry. On numerous occasions, he gained significant yardage after contact with the Seahawks failing to finish tackles. Stacy deserves credit for being tough to bring down, but Seattle defenders need to watch film and get back to making fundamentally-sound tackles. In too many instances, Seattle has tried too hard to generate turnovers and tackling has been sloppy as a result.
On this particular play, the Rams called a counter play out of an I-Form set. Seattle had eight players in the box when St. Louis snapped the ball, but the front line failed to maintain gap responsibility and lost the battle at the point of attack. The Rams' front line managed to create a wall and forced defenders to the right side, which created a massive cut back lane for Stacy to work with. While the defensive line was pushed toward the sideline, linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner became overly aggressive on the counter. That created a hole at the second level of the defense. Once Stacy got past the front line, he broke several arm tackles on his way to an 18-yard gain, and he had several other runs on the night where over-pursuit by Seattle's defense allowed for him to pick up big chunks of yardage.
After seeing the Rams find success with a physical ground game, I wasn't surprised to see the Buccaneers attempt to do the same last weekend. With a shortened week of preparation, the Seahawks came out flat on both sides of the football, but shaky run defense served as the biggest culprit for falling behind, 21-0, in the first half. Seattle came out early with a majority of the plays featuring eight men in the box, daring rookie Mike Glennon to beat them with his arm. Much like St. Louis, the Buccaneers were able to establish the running game early despite facing these eight-man fronts. In this instance, the Seahawks had four down lineman, as well as safety Kam Chancellor, Wagner, Wright and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin sneaking around the line of scrimmage.
This play came down to two factors. First, the defensive line did a poor job establishing position at the point of attack, allowing Tampa's offensive front to create a cut back lane for running back Mike James. Secondly, linebacker Bobby Wagner ended up getting sucked into this "wall," which compromised gap responsibility, and left safety Kam Chancellor (No. 31) on an island by himself at the second level. As the Buccaneers' offensive line sealed off the entire right side of Seattle's defense, James took the hand-off and quickly darted around his blockers before finding open space as he approached the sideline.
Tampa ended up knocking three players, including Wagner (No. 54), out of the play from the outset by forming a blockade on the left side. At the second level, Chancellor ends up getting blocked inside, while corner Brandon Browner can't escape a block downfield by tight end Tom Crabtree. Safety Earl Thomas now has to make the tackle in open space, and instead of using a solid form tackle, he tries going in for a big hit to James' legs. Instead of blowing the play up, James ends up running over him before being pushed out of bounds after a 21-yard burst down the sideline. By not maintaining gap responsibility up front, and showing poor discipline at the second level, Seattle allowed Tampa Bay to control the line of scrimmage and find success running the ball all afternoon. James finished with 158 yards rushing on the day, more than he had his entire rookie season coming into the game.
Based on Seattle's strong play against the run during the team's first seven games, it's still too early to start panicking. The Seahawks invested a lot of money to bolster the defensive line, and a majority of these issues had nothing to do with talent. Seattle simply has to get back to the basics, and it starts with the interior defensive line. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald need to show more discipline and not allow opposing lineman to win battles in the trenches. If they can do that, it will allow Wagner, Wright and Irvin to make more plays at the second level and prevent big cut-back lanes from developing.
Tackling also needs to be cleaned up as a whole. Everyone loves seeing big hits that force fumbles, but the Seahawks have gotten away from good form-tackling in recent weeks and need to be more focused on bringing the ball-carrier down than creating a turnover. If they can do that, there's no reason why Seattle shouldn't revert back to old ways and start shutting down opposing running games.
This week should be an ideal week to get back on track, as Steven Jackson and the Falcons have had little success running the ball behind an underwhelming offensive line. Carroll placed heavy emphasis this week on cleaning up this area, and it'll be interesting to see how the defense plays after being out-muscled the last two games.