Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
If there's any weakness amongst Seattle's defensive squad, it's their frustrating failures in zone defense. So what's wrong, and is it fixable?
Here's a scenario for you to ponder: The Seattle Seahawks just had two great stops on defense, blowing up a run play in the backfield and then stopping a screen play before the opposing offense could get anything going. It's 3rd and 13. Do you feel confident that the 'Hawks would stop the conversion attempt? Of course, who the opponent is plays a big role in answering this question, but personally, I never feel comfortable in those situations. Situations like that lost games against Miami (ugh), Detroit (double ugh), and Arizona (are you kidding me right now?). Situations like that kept the Dallas Cowboys in the game for a half. Stopping third and long has been a bugaboo for the Seahawks all year long. Heck, even amongst the romping of the Buffalo Bills, Seattle still allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to find Stevie Johnson wide open for a conversion of 3rd and 20.
Who (or what) is to blame for these game changing, momentum affecting conversions? Well, if you typically find yourself reading the titles of articles, it is very clear. In two words: Zone Defense. Now, before I get ahead of myself, let me clarify. Zone defenses occur with multiple personnel groupings, while operating under many different fronts. On a given play, some defenders can be assigned to man coverage, and some can be assigned to zone coverage (this is, for some odd reason, referred to as a man-zone scheme). So to quantify all types of zone defenses under the same heading is extremely unfair and wrong. But more on this in just a second.
For now, let's figure out the purpose of the zone defense. Why would you have defenders simply owning a pocket of the field, responsible for that area instead of being assigned to a man and sticking to that man? Essentially, the zone defense exists to confuse quarterbacks, causing them perhaps to take an extra half-second or second longer to figure out a good place to throw the ball. In that extra time that the quarterback hangs in the pocket, interior pressure ought to penetrate through the line, forcing the quarterback either to break the pocket (hopefully into the hands of some hungry defensive ends), or make an errant throw. That second part is one of the root causes of Seattle's problems. Derek Stephens over at Field Gulls wrote a phenomenal piece on how Seattle lacks a true interior pass rusher, and how it hurts the defense. Give it a read.
So, there's the issue of lack of interior pressure. But beyond that, the Seahawks have major issue with one specific package: the Nickel Zone scheme. Quick refresher: a nickel zone is when an extra Defensive Back comes on the field in place of a linebacker in order to provide better zone coverage in an obvious passing situation (like third and long). The "nickel" back for the Seahawks was Marcus Trufant, up until he got injured. And that's where the first issue begins.
Trufant has been an outside corner his whole career. The emergence of superstar Richard Sherman lost Trufant his outside job, and forced a move to the Nickel spot. The learning curve has not been friendly for the lifelong Seahawk. Instead of having the sideline as an ally (employing a concept called "leverage"), Trufant is now smack in the middle of the field, often isolated in his zone against faster receivers. The savvy veteran tactics that worked on the outside no longer work on these small speedsters. Essentially, an aging, declining player is learning a new position. And that, my friends, is a matchup nightmare for the Seahawks. I suppose it's true, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
This is not to say that Seattle's best defender, Richard Sherman, would be better for the position. In fact, Seattle had Sherman lining up on Stevie Johnson when Johnson was in the slot (which is covered by the Nickel corner usually), and Johnson burned Sherman with some regularity. Sherman even gave up what I consider to be his first touchdown of the year while lined up in the slot. Ultimately, it takes a speedy, agile football player to defend the slot position and play Nickel corner.
Now we've isolated one main hole in Seattle's third down defense, but what might other causes be? Well, the other guys under the spotlight are the linebackers. It makes sense, right? If the guys who are responsible for the 5-12 yard routinely give up plays of 3rd and 5-12, they probably aren't doing their jobs very well. Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and occasionally Leroy Hill are part of the third down defense. Too often, these players (KJ in particular) are caught cheating towards other zones, trying to make a play. This of course results in easy completions and third down conversions. There isn't much too it beyond that. It's certainly an age issue; we're talking about first and second year players exclusively (especially since Leroy Hill is actively doing his best to be replaced by Malcolm Smith). With more experience, these talented youngsters will learn more discipline in staying true to their zone assignments, and will have good reason for moving out of their zones.
Rest assured good fans, there are fixes for these problems. These are fixes that many fans have been calling for all season, and Pete Carroll is finally starting to institute. First off, Marcus Trufant is being replaced with Walter Thurmond III, and Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell are getting Nickel training as well. It must be noted that Thurmond was injured for every game except one so far, so Carroll had little choice but to start Trufant. Unfortunately, Thurmond's injury proneness struck again less than a few days after his first game back. Hopefully, Byron Maxwell is athletic enough to play the part, because Thurmond is really the only true Nickel corner on the team. I'd never wish injury on any player, but it's looking like Marcus Trufant's injury was a blessing in disguise (not in disguise?) for the team. He's had a great career in Seattle, and is now well suited to be a veteran backup to our young DBs.
As for the linebackers, I sort of touched on it above, but age is the issue. These are guys playing their first (Bobby Wagner) or second (KJ Wright, Malcolm Smith) years of pro ball. They are playing above rookie-sophomore level, but that doesn't mean the rookie-sophomore mistakes aren't there occasionally. Game experience, and the ever intense coaching of Ken Norton Jr. ought to correct the zone issues.
To conclude, there are very specific holes in the Seattle defense that teams have attacked quite productively. With any luck from the injury fairy and the experience fairy; however, these holes ought to fill and Seattle's defense will truly be scary. Go Hawks.