The term “copycat league” is thrown around every NFL offseason as teams work to adjust their schemes and personnel to mimic the productive units that make championship runs in the playoffs.
But how realistic is it for NFL clubs to copy what the Seattle Seahawks did from a defensive perspective? Can teams find the proper personnel to produce the same top-tier results we saw from Pete Carroll’s secondary?
Let’s take a look at why the Seahawks are ahead of the game in today’s NFL and focus on how teams can try to catch up by adjusting the way they scout prospects.
Every NFL Team “Steals” in the Offseason
The offseason is the ideal time on the NFL calendar for players and coaches in the league to do self-scouting in the film room and start to prep for their divisional opponents.
Players can use the extra time to study their own technique from the previous season, and coaches will begin to flush out the negative schemes, packages, etc. based on the tape.
However, the offseason also provides plenty of time to get in the film room and “steal” from the top clubs in the league.
When I played in Washington during the mid-2000s, we used the offseason to watch film of Dick LeBeau’s Pittsburgh Steelers. That meant time to study the Steelers’ zone blitz packages, their alignments, pre-snap disguises, coverage rotations, the blitz technique of Troy Polamalu, etc.
I would bet good money that the same thing goes down this offseason as defenses throw on the Seahawks’ tape to study their system.
Whether it is the way Seattle presses its corners in Cover 3 or the pre-snap looks that allow Carroll’s secondary to drop a safety down in Cover 1 Robber, teams will try to emulate those same schemes.
However, drawing up the Seahawks’ Cover 3 shell on the chalkboard isn’t the same as executing that scheme on the field with the proper personnel.
The Seahawks are much more advanced than the two single-high-safety defenses (Cover 1, Cover 3) we focus on when breaking down their defensive game plan. However, those two base schemes allow this unit to maximize its personnel in the secondary when paired with a front-four rush that gets home.
Let’s run through some examples of Seattle’s Cover 1 and Cover 3 using the All-22 tape.
Cover 1 is your basic man-free defense. The cornerbacks and strong safety (plus the nickel in the defensive sub packages) will play with outside leverage and funnel the receivers to the safety help (Earl Thomas) in the middle of the field.
With cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell aligned in press—along Thomas closing the post—this base defense becomes a lockdown scheme for Seattle.
Here’s a look at the Seahawks playing Cover 1 (press) versus the San Francisco 49ers out of a slot formation:
As you can see, Thomas has enough depth to create a downhill, 45-degree angle inside or get over the top of the 9 route (bottom of the numbers).
With the Seattle defensive backs using technique to win on the release, they have the 49ers receivers secured underneath.
I mentioned Cover 1 Robber above. Think of Cover 1 with the Seahawks dropping a safety (either Thomas or Kam Chancellor) into the underneath “hole” to play the multiple Hi-Lo concepts (inside crossing routes) we see every Sunday.
With the defensive backs playing from an outside leverage position, Thomas has enough depth to create an angle to the intermediate dig route (square-in) while Chancellor drops in the “hole” to drive to Demaryius Thomas on the underneath crossing route.
In a traditional Cover 3 shell, the corners will play the outside third with the free safety in the deep middle of the field. Underneath, four defenders will drop to landmarks (curl-flat/hook-curl). This creates the three-deep, four-under look.
However, in Seattle, Carroll’s secondary will press its cornerbacks and “match” the vertical stem outside of the numbers. This allows both Sherman and Maxwell to use Cover 1 technique versus a vertical release—funneling the receivers inside to Thomas—with the four underneath defenders playing zone coverage.
Here’s how the Seahawks align in their Cover 3 (or Cover 3 Buzz) shell:
This is “3 Buzz” from the Seahawks—Chancellor drops as a hook-curl defender inside—with both cornerbacks pressed outside of the numbers to match the vertical release. The four underneath defenders will get to their landmark drops with Thomas again in the post.
How does it play out on the field? Let’s look at the All-22 tape from the Super Bowl matchup.
With both corners (Sherman, Maxwell) matching the vertical releases outside from their press alignments, they can funnel the receivers to Thomas in the post:
Check out the four underneath defenders. They get to their landmark drops with eyes on the quarterback and are in a position to drive underneath on any throw. This allows Chancellor to drive to Wes Welker and deliver a clean, violent hit.
We aren’t talking about complex schemes here.
But given the personnel the Seahawks have in the secondary, no one in the league plays these basic single-high-safety defenses better than Carroll’s unit.
Matching the Seahawks Personnel
During the opening week of NFL free agency, teams around the league made moves to upgrade the secondary at both the safety and cornerback positions.
Take the New Orleans Saints and the $28 million guaranteed they paid out to free safety Jairus Byrd. A player with the range and ball skills to impact the middle of the field, Byrd gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan an excellent safety combination when paired with Kenny Vaccaro.
Or look at Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots with the additions of Darrelle Revis and former Seahawk Brandon Browner—cornerbacks with press-man ability who can squeeze the field for free safety Devin McCourty in New England’s Cover 1 defense.
The idea is to try and build with size/length in the secondary to create positive matchups. That allows you to play press, impact the release and win outside of the numbers with help to the inside.
That should be a priority for personnel departments in today’s league with the amount of size NFL offenses are using at both the wide receiver and tight end positions to facilitate matchups from a variety of alignments.
In Chicago, Marc Trestman’s Bears look like an NBA team at the offensive skill positions with Brandon Marshall (6’4”, 230 pounds), Alshon Jeffery (6’3”, 216 pounds) and tight end Martellus Bennett (6’6”, 265 pounds).
To counter that, defenses need to match the size on the release and throughout the route stem in Cover 1. Think of the quick, three-step passing game, inside breaking routes and the red-zone concepts that put stress on the secondary.
The Seahawks have that size/length everyone wants with Sherman (6’3”, 195 pounds), Maxwell (6’0”, 207 pounds) and Chancellor (6’3”, 232 pounds) to go along with the NFL’s best free safety in Thomas.
The rest of the league is trying to catch up on the defensive side of the ball.
Will the Seahawks' Super Bowl Run Impact the Scouting/Drafting Process?
Given that size we talked about in the Seahawks secondary, along with the talent at the safety position, will more NFL teams start to adjust how they scout in the secondary based off the success in Seattle?
As I wrote on Tuesday when breaking down Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, I do think there is a much higher demand for athletic and versatile prospects at the safety position—guys who can play both the free and strong, roll down into the front and align in multiple positions in the defensive sub packages.
Plus, everyone wants that range in the deep middle of the field or off the top of the numbers in Cover 2.
Think of Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix here—a first-round talent who has the transition skills to produce clean angles to the ball.
At the cornerback position, I believe the cut-off line for some teams will be at the 6’0” mark. Look at Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir or the ideal size of Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6’3”, 218 pounds) and Utah’s Keith McGill (6’3”, 211 pounds).
The bottom line is the Seahawks gave the rest of the NFL a “blueprint” of how to win with single-high-safety defenses. And it’s on tape for everyone to see.
Until teams have the personnel to fit the scheme, though, the idea of copying the success of this secondary is just offseason talk to fill time.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.