How The Hell Did The Seahawks Build An Elite Defense?
From: Jack Dickey
To: Josh Levin, Barry Petchesky
Great defenses often have an intentionality to their construction. The Ravens spend their early draft picks on defensive players, and they talk up their defense. One would never think of the Ravens without thinking of Reed and Lewis and Suggs and Ngata and all the rest. The Jets hired an architect of the Ravens' defense (Rex Ryan), signed a linchpin of the Ravens' defense (Bart Scott), and then spent three of Ryan's first four first-rounders on defenders. The 49ers built their recent success on their own first-rounders—Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith—other teams' first rounders—Justin Smith, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers—and an old Ravens coach, Vic Fangio, as coordinator.
Then you have the Seattle Seahawks defense. Not only did it not announce itself, but hardly anyone has noticed it. Seattle's head coach, hired in 2010, is Pete Carroll, who had last coordinated a defense in 1996. As far as any outsider can tell, Carroll is the Seahawks' cruise director. He inherited the defensive coordinator, a fellow named Gus Bradley, from Jim Mora's brief and hilarious 2009 season.
Bradley has never been interviewed for another team's head-coaching vacancy. He is part of no great coaching tree: He coached under Monte Kiffin for three years in Tampa, which essentially makes him a disciple of Lane Kiffin's top lieutenant. Yeah. And before that, he was the defensive coordinator for the North Dakota State Bison, where he punted in the late 1980s. During the years Bradley ran their defense—1997-2002 and 2005—the Bison went 53-26. He coached current NFLers Craig Dahl, Ramon Humber, and Joe Mays, and in his final season, with all three there, Bradley's unit led the Great West conference in scoring defense and total defense.
The cameras don't often cut to Bradley on the sidelines, and announcers don't extol his scheme, because his scheme doesn't draw attention to itself. In recent years, the league's great defenses—save the Bears'—have been 3-4 affairs, with complex blitzes and coverages heavily influenced by the Patriots and Ravens. This is to say nothing of whatever the hell Dom Capers is doing in Green Bay, where he will throw seemingly random combinations of linemen and linebackers out on the field. Color commentators love these schemes. The Seahawks run a 4-3, the white bread of defensive schemes.
But there's plenty of note going on in the Seahawks' 4-3. On rushing downs, the Seahawks switch to something resembling a 3-4: They have four down linemen, but three of them are defensive tackles—big ones, like Alan Branch, Red Bryant, and Brandon Mebane. Together the three weigh 959 pounds. A pass-rushing end, usually Chris Clemons, will stand apart from the three linemen and try to beat the tackle one-on-one. The Seahawks call this man the "Leo," presumably because it sounds cool.
On third downs or in obvious passing situations, Seattle might throw two Leos into their formation, with rookie phenom Bruce Irvin (who has 4.5 sacks already, despite playing only a third of Seattle's defensive snaps) playing opposite Clemons (who has 5.5 sacks). Then the Seahawks' line looks like the "wide nine" everyone talked about with the Eagles last year, except it actually works.
The Seahawks back up their front with the league's best and baddest secondary. (Seattle's linebackers—K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Leroy Hill—have all played well this year, but the Seahawks play a lot of nickel, and the linebackers aren't terribly essential to their scheme. Hill told John Clayton as much earlier this year: "The front four is a lot more important in Pete's scheme than it was in the previous [linebacker-heavy] regime.") No defensive backfield hits as hard collectively as Seattle's does, with Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, and mouthy Richard Sherman bruising receivers in front of Earl Thomas, the deep safety. To wit, here's Browner's hit on Wes Welker this week. Browner is a cornerback. He hits like Ray Lewis.