The Seattle Seahawks have a number of star players who key their success on defense.
Cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, about whom fans and media members cannot stop talking, demand their time in the spotlight because of their dominant play. Yet one of the most important players on Seattle's defense is someone who is rarely mentioned: defensive end Red Bryant.
Bryant's expertise is in stopping the run, and he's one of the best run-stuffing defensive ends in the entire NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bryant's plus-6.1 rating against the run is sixth amongst all defensive ends in the NFL, even though Bryant has played roughly half the number of snaps of those players ahead of him. On a per-snap basis, they have Bryant as the best run-stuffing DE in the league.
It is time to examine some of the amazing things Bryant does against the run, and why he is an essential cog in Seattle's defensive machine.
Setting The Edge
Here is a play that demonstrates a key component in stopping any run play. Bryant is the outer-most defender in the front seven. In this alignment, Bryant's primary responsibility is to keep any run from getting to the outside. His goal is to force all runs back inside, where the rest of the defenders are waiting.
At the snap, Bryant explodes upfield and into the offensive tackle, pushing the offensive tackle backwards. By the time Tennessee's running back Chris Johnson gets the ball, the edge is already set. Johnson has no other option but to cut up inside where Seattle's linebackers are waiting.
Also, look at Bryant's head and shoulders. He's staring right at Johnson. If Johnson decides to try and take this play to the outside, Bryant is ready to shed his block and tackle Johnson for a huge loss.
While it certainly wasn't part of the defensive play design, Bryant's initial win over the offensive tackle at the line of scrimmage had an additional positive effect for the Seahawks. By blasting the OT backwards, Bryant was able to disrupt the fullback, and keep him from blocking one of Seattle's linebackers.
This is the type of play that doesn't show up on any stat sheet since Bryant wasn't in on the tackle, but it is still perfect execution by the six-year veteran.
It doesn't happen very often, but occasionally the Seahawks allow Bryant to attack a single gap and just be disruptive. This is most commonly seen when Seattle lines up in what is called a "Bear front."
A Bear front means that the defense lines up with the center and both guards covered, and with no linemen covering the tackles. It is typically used by 3-4 teams when they are expecting runs though the A or B gaps.
When the Seahawks shift to this defensive front, Bryant becomes free to just attack upfield. The outside linebacker is responsible for setting the edge, and there is no reason for Bryant to two-gap since the Seahawks have enough defenders to cover each gap individually.
At the snap, Bryant tosses the guard to the side and attacks the mesh point. The fullback is forced to then block the defensive end instead of getting to the second level and blocking one of the middle linebackers.
Bryant casts the FB aside as well. As you can see, Bryant is currently being held by two defenders, though no flag was thrown on the play. He ends up tackling Johnson almost as soon as he gets the ball.
His ability to defeat two blocks and get to the call carrier four yards in the backfield destroyed this play. While this level of dominance isn't typical for him, Bryant does have a tendency to blow up a couple plays per game in this manner.
One of the things that helps Seattle avoid giving up big plays in the running game is having Bryant and nose tackle Brandon Mebane use a two-gap technique. This allow those two players to account for four of the gaps and allows the Seahawks to use other defenders to account for both front- and back-side containment. Two-gapping is rarely seen in 4-3 defenses, and it is one of the techniques that makes Seattle's defensive scheme unique.
On this play, Bryant is responsible to cover the gaps on both sides of the right tackle. He has to read the play as it happens and shed his block at the right time to plug the hole that Johnson wants to run though.
At the snap, Bryant does exactly what is required to successfully two-gap. He stands up the offensive tackle and squares up both his shoulders and that of the OT toward the line of scrimmage. From this position, Bryant can move in either direction, depending on where the run goes.
Another important thing to note is Bryant's head. He's not looking at the OT. His eyes are locked on Johnson. He's reading the run action so he'll know which gap to shut down.
At this point it is already clear that Johnson is going to be headed outside. Bryant wastes no time in shedding his block and moving to close the gap.
Johnson is left with nowhere to go, as there's no hole to run though. Linebacker K.J. Wright ends up making the tackle, but it was Bryant's ability to control two gaps and close the running lane that made Wright's tackle possible.
It is important to note that this play was executed well by the entire Seattle defense. For example, Bryant's ability to close off his gap wouldn't have mattered if Johnson had been able to bounce this play to outside and get around the corner. Linebacker Bruce Irvin expertly established containment on the outside, leaving Johnson with no alternative place to go.
Putting it Together
The Seahawks ask Red Bryant to do a lot things in the run defense. He has rare versatility and excels in the kinds of skills that allow the Seahawks to use both three- and four-man fronts.
Bryant's varied skills are a major reason why the Seahawks are able to play multiple alignments with their front seven. Without him, the flexibility of the Seahawks defense would be limited in the ways it could attack the run, making the unit much easier for offenses to game-plan.
Bryant's name may rarely get called by the announcers on game day, but he is still an critical component in Seattle's defense.