NFL free agency is an annual rite of spring. The media and fans pontificate with absolute certainty about all the signings that occur. There’s rarely a gray area, especially for those loyal followers who truly believe they know what’s best for their respective team. If only the general manager and the coach would listen ... well, "we’d" be Super Bowl champions every year.
It’s a fascinating ritual, one that engenders such emotion and passion you’d think you were in the middle of the season, fighting for a division championship and home field advantage. There’s no question that free agent signings have a meaningful impact on a team’s outlook for the coming season. For me, it’s not so much the individual player or players, it’s what those players signify about the specific team’s beliefs -- how it sees itself in the context of its division, its conference, the rest of the NFL, and where the league is trending schematically.
That’s why I was so captivated by the moves the Seattle Seahawks made over the last 10 days, especially the trade for Percy Harvin, and the free agent signings of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. It’s easy to say they acquired good players who will make them better, but to me, that’s too simplistic and misses the point. It’s the kind of players they targeted, and how they fit into Seattle’s larger world view of how best to compete and win in a constantly changing NFL landscape.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at the NFL as we enter the 2013 season. We know it’s a passing league; that’s been clearly established in so many different ways, the most obvious being the considerable increases in passing attempts and yardage. We also know it’s so much more than that. There are spread formations with multiple wide receivers, more athletic tight ends that align all over the formation, shifts and motions that create matchup advantages for versatile receivers and backs. The NFL is becoming more and more of a space game, with greater emphasis on expanding the field rather than constricting it. This may well be the influence of the college game, where the hash marks are much further apart, and there’s a clearly defined wide side of the field that significantly impacts offensive concepts and play calling.
It used to be fashionable to say with conviction that the NFL game was played in the middle of the field, and the college game was played on the perimeter. That axiom followed from the placement of the hash marks. In fact, many coaches I have spoken to over the years have strongly echoed that sentiment. There’s no question it has merit, if for no other reason than the mathematical parameters that the wider hash marks present. There’s simply more room to one side of the field. That allows for greater spacing in route combinations, especially in 3x1 distributions where there are three receivers to the wide side. Chip Kelly, when he was at Oregon, was a master at route spacing with three receivers.
In the NFL, you can’t replicate that faithfully. So the question then becomes, how can offenses best reproduce the spacing concepts, both in the passing game and the running game, so that defenses must defend the entire field, horizontally and vertically? Asked a different way, how can the NFL game extend even further outward, away from the cluttered bodies between the hash marks? I’ve already mentioned tactics that have now become conventional, like multiple wide receiver personnel and tight ends and backs that can split from the formation.
As I’ve studied college tape over the years, I’ve learned that there’s so much more. And Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll knows this from personal experience, spending nine years at USC. Interestingly enough, he spent his last three years there trying to defend Kelly’s offense at Oregon; in Carroll’s last game against Kelly, Oregon rolled up 613 yards of total offense, the most allowed in Carroll’s tenure at USC.
One tactic that I repeatedly see in college with both the quarterback under center and in the shotgun is a player from outside the formation, usually from a wide receiver position, motioning into the backfield with speed. That places a tremendous pre-snap burden on the defense.
Think about it in the context of the Seahawks. You have Russell Wilson in the shotgun, with Marshawn Lynch next to him or behind him in the Pistol formation. If Lynch is next to Wilson, the defense must be prepared for read option, which presents its own set of tactical issues. If it’s the Pistol, then the defense must be ready for the complete and multiple running game with Lynch, which of course is no easy task to defend. Of course, you can throw very effectively from these formations as well, with multiple play action and run action principles. Now add Harvin into the mix, sprinting into the backfield. That gives the Seahawks so many more options, and the defense much more to digest, process and adjust to in a matter of seconds. It’s a very difficult balancing act for even the most experienced defense.
It’s a fascinating dynamic. Even though Harvin is motioning tight to the formation, he is really stretching the field horizontally because of the speed with which he is crossing the field. That kind of velocity motion forces the defense to widen. Why? What if Wilson takes the snap, and immediately hands the ball to Harvin racing to the perimeter? That attacks the edge, and puts the defense in a tough predicament. The result, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the multiple skill set of Harvin, is the further integration of the college spread game with the NFL game despite the closer hash marks. It’s a means of expanding the field, utilizing more space and forcing the defense to defend more area. Harvin gives the Seahawks that dimension. I’m convinced they made the trade with that in mind. He will not simply be a wide receiver. He will be a movable chess piece that advances the continuing evolution of NFL offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Seahawks have also recognized where the NFL is going. In a passing league, what must you do? You must rush the quarterback, and you must cover receivers. That’s the Cliff's Notes version. The devil is always in the details. What the Seahawks have done is draft and sign players that give them tremendous pass rush versatility -- and just as important, disruption on the outside versus wide receivers.
Go back a year to the 2012 NFL draft. All we heard when Seattle selected Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall pick in the first round was, “what a reach.” Those same “experts” would then tell you in the next breath that rushing the quarterback is the most important defensive element in today’s NFL. And by the way, Irvin played 46 percent of the snaps in his rookie season, including the playoffs, recording 11 sacks. But there’s a much larger point at work here. It’s how you scheme pass rush pressure. With Irvin, a returning Chris Clemons, and newly signed Cliff Avril, the Seahawks have three players who can align anywhere in their nickel sub-package. They all have what we call “Joker” ability, the talent to line up in either 3-point or 2-point stances and rush from different positions and angles.
What you have is an ideal mix of physical athleticism, and multiple schemes. It’s the new age pressure concepts in the NFL. It’s very difficult to line up with four defensive linemen in conventional positions, and create consistent pressure on the quarterback. Not only is it difficult to find four players who can do that, it’s tactically easier for the offense to protect against those more basic fronts. What defenses are trying to accomplish is pass protection indecision based on front alignments, coupled with athletic mismatches. The Seahawks are well positioned to do that with their personnel.
Let’s not forget Bennett. In Tampa last season, he played defensive end in the base 4-3, and then moved inside to tackle in the nickel and dime sub-packages. His pass rush quickness was not only a problem for offensive guards, it allowed him to be effective with stunts, another tactic that creates hesitation and confusion in pass protection schemes. The bottom line is this: the Seahawks have constructed a multi-dimensional combination of talent with speed, athleticism, and position and scheme versatility. That’s what’s necessary in the NFL of 2013 and beyond.
The picture is not complete, however. The Seahawks made a commitment to big, physical corners, players who were not held in the same high value around the league because they did not possess what has long been regarded as the necessary attributes of lateral quickness, dynamic change of direction and timed speed. Richard Sherman was a former wide receiver at Stanford who switched to corner his final two years. The Seahawks selected the 6’3” Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL entering the 2013 season. 6’4” Brandon Browner was undrafted out of Oregon State in 2005; again, he was seen as too slow and not quick enough to play NFL corner. The Seahawks signed him as a free agent after 4 seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
Gus Bradley, the Seahawks defensive coordinator the last four seasons before becoming the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach in January, summed it up best. He once said, “Whatever scheme you play, you’ve got to create disruption at the perimeter.” With Sherman and Browner, the Seahawks do that more consistently and better than any team in the NFL. Disruption outside with taller, more aggressive corners; pass rush flexibility and adaptability with athletic and versatile hybrids who can align all over
That’s the template for defensive success in a passing league.
The Seahawks have recognized the tactical advances that are in the forefront of the NFL’s next strategic cycle, and they have taken proactive measures to implement them. I will be very anxious to watch Seattle in 2013. They could well be the model for the NFL of the future -- the ideal fusion of Saturday and Sunday football.