Seattle Seahawks: 2011 Defensive Preview, Part 1 of 4…The Linebacker Edition
The Seahawks defense is encountering a major period of flux heading into the 2011 season, significant changes on the coaching staff and the possibility for a large player turnover both concerns for the organization this offseason. The team has six new players via the draft to work into the defense, the best case scenario being they all contribute in 2011.
The free agent group that may need to be replaced includes two safeties with nearly a quarter century of combined football experience, two career-Seahawk defensive linemen and one of the two linebackers remaining from the Super Bowl team. Not to mention there are injury concerns for key players at all three defensive positions.
As football is currently standing still—but hopefully making progress towards having a season in 2011—I have decided to take a closer look at the potential changes to the 2011 Seahawks defense through a series of articles; first evaluating the linebackers, defensive backs and defensive line, before taking a look at the defense as a whole.
The purpose of the position specific articles will be to evaluate the performances of the players over the past two seasons—my resources for analysis being TV broadcasts from 31 of 34 games played the past two seasons.
The goal isn’t to re-hash stats or scrutinize the teams play from those two years, but more to gain knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of each player, in hopes of figuring what they potentially bring, or don’t bring, to the mix for the 2011 season—all 2009 players not on the 2010 roster are not included in the evaluation.
One crucial piece of information to note; the Seahawks primarily ran a traditional 4-3, Tampa 2 defense in 2009. In 2010, the defense stayed as a 4-3, but now featured a base “under” front with multiple variations and a more aggressive mentality.
We won’t worry about the differences and why they are important until the end of the series, when the entire defense becomes the focus.
Meet Lofa’s Legion
Lofa Tatupu has battled injuries the past two seasons, but remained the unquestioned leader of the defense. He is the main facilitator and field general, as he consistently directs all 10 players around him; he is more often than not one of the first players over to praise a guy for good hustle and finishing the play.
No matter his health when on the field, the collective uncertainty and discomfort of the 11 men on the field when Tatupu is not out there was noticeable. As he is the leader of the defense, we start with the linebackers for the evaluation process. The rest of the group for evaluation:
David Hawthorne filled in admirably for Tatupu as a second year player in 2009, and was the primary weak side linebacker in 2010.
Will Herring has been a special teamer and backup/sub-package outside linebacker for the Seahawks since 2007; six starts in 2009 and 31 games played the past two seasons.
Aaron Curry, the 4th pick in the 2009 draft, has 28 starts in his two seasons with the team. He carries the expectation of being a future cornerstone of this defense.
Leroy Hill and Matt McCoy, both free agents, will not be included. Hill had career lows across the board in 2009 and played in one game in 2010. McCoy is a special teams linebacker that was signed to a one year deal before last season.
Nine Nuggets of Note from 2009: An Unexpected Source of Heat
1. A fast start: Will Herring made his presence known early in the season. Week 1 hosting St. Louis he recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff, made a solid tackle on the game’s first punt and was effective as both a blitzer and in coverage throughout the game. In week 2—filling in for Leroy Hill—Herring burst through the line and tackled Frank Gore in the backfield on Gore’s first carry and brought energy to a dizzied defense.
2. A steadier ship with their captain: In re-watching the 2009 season I was reminded of the true leadership Lofa Tatupu brings to this defense; frankly, it was pleasant to watch. In Week 1 he was directing the defense and confusing the offense, playing quarterback; hinted at above, as soon as he left the field in week 2 the defense looked commander-less.
Even though Tatupu didn’t have a great start to the 2009 season, injured during week 2, out for week 3 and his defense shredded by Peyton Manning in his week 4 return, the defense still appeared to have unwavering confidence in their leader.
3. Cannonball: David Hawthorne looked the part of a second year player when filling in for Tatupu, but his energy and effort came with a variety of praise and nicknames, most commonly known as “the heater.”
The one trend that started in week 2 and only became more prevalent throughout the year; Hawthorne had a short memory-- he had an unfortunate tendency of making a mistake on his first or second play, having it lead to a big play on a handful of occasions weeks 2 through 13--, was around the football more than any other player on the team and had potential to be an impact player in the league; the mentality needed when trying to fill the shoes of a franchise great.
4. Struggle in unfamiliar waters: Week 2 at the 49ers was one of Aaron Curry’s worst games as a rookie. They consistently attacked his side of the field with misdirection runs; Curry struggled mightily in his first road game.
As a result, Aaron Curry’s role began to be somewhat reduced. The team played much more Nickel coverage—matchups against pass-heavy Indianapolis and two versus Arizona also contributed to the scheme change—and relied on experience in the secondary; Curry’s athletic ability and motor were not the issue. His playing time would fluctuate throughout the year.
5. Out for blood: David Hawthorne’s second career start came at Dallas week 8, and his youth showed throughout the game. However, two things stood out: a cut opened on the bridge of his nose after a tenacious tackle in the first half and he didn’t deal with it until halftime, this the first of a couple bloody noses for Hawthorne in 2009—if anything, it served as middle linebacker-war-paint for the unheralded player. Second, the latter of his two sacks in the game was a fourth quarter strip sack in Dallas territory, a clear boost of confidence.
The next week hosting Detroit, Hawthorne would intercept two passes, and have a third go right through his grasp, while playing down the “pipe”—the middle linebacker’s coverage responsibilities in the Tampa 2 system, defending in-between the hashes in the intermediate to deep middle.
Hawthorne proved to be very strong while playing this area of the field in zone coverage, but very weak in man coverage in the same area.
Nuggets of Note from 2009, Continued: Fresh Faces Emerging
6. Behind the scene footage: Lofa Tatupu’s presumed off the field role as an injured player/coach paid dividends via Hawthorne’s improved play.
Hawthorne showed better recognition and reaction both in underneath zone coverage and while reading screens throughout the second half of the season; at times stone-walling receivers. He was also beginning to show better wiggle and awareness when blitzing.
However, his hands were unexpectedly inactive in the passing game; the use of his hands, as both a rusher to disrupt the passing lane and as a one on one defender to tip balls, needed to improve.
7. A little more seasoning: As mentioned above, Curry’s role was reduced due to his consistently rookie-like play; his responsibilities were too great in the beginning of the season. However, his role in the defense was once again expanded as Gus Bradley began to move Curry inside on the line of scrimmage as a sub-package rusher.
Curry looked more disciplined when given less responsibility—such as usually being placed in underneath, sideline coverage in his drop instead of dropping deeper-- and was able to focus more on purely playing football; week 14 at Houston being was one of his best games as a rookie. Unfortunately, he was injured week 15 hosting Tampa Bay and his season was over.
8. Willing and able: In came Will Herring, with vengeance, at the weak side spot, Hill moving to Curry’s strong side spot. Herring made plays up and down the line of scrimmage in Green Bay, both filling the hole off the snap and making second effort plays across the field.
Against Tennessee he forced a Chris Johnson fumble, running down the line from the backside to strip Johnson as he burst through the hole, and caused a sack. He showed the range to cover the entire field and capability to handle the majority of coverage responsibilities from the weak side spot.
9. Getting warmer: There is no doubt Hawthorne struggled with his fundamentals at times in 2009; his heater mentality would sometimes lead to a fierce whiff at a players feet instead of a controlled wrap and drive tackle.
Furthermore, his propensity to consistently press the turbo button would backfire if he was unable to break through the line and lineman got a hold of the undersized ‘backer; Hawthorne spent too much time rebounding backwards or having his feet cut out from under him when starting a second effort at pursuit.
But again, Hawthorne and lackadaisical didn’t fit in the same sentence; in my opinion, his most toughly fought effort was the week 15 game hosting Tampa Bay where the team finally began to quit on Jim Mora for good; “the heater” showed he was in Seattle to stay.
Not the campaign the Seahawks hoped for in 2009, but the Seahawks’ linebacker core did show promise: Out went defensive leader Lofa Tatupu and in came David Hawthorne, an undrafted second year player that played bowling ball in the middle of Bradley’s defense; at 6’2”, 255 and beastly, Aaron Curry proved he had the physical tools, it was just a matter of where did he fit, more importantly could the staff fit the scheme around his ability to attack the line? Lastly, Will Herring showed his colors as a college safety turned NFL linebacker that played with a special teams attitude and an oversized safeties skill set; could he learn the physicality and recognition skills needed for the linebacker position?
Nine Nuggets of Note from 2010: Hot and Cold
1.Running warm, but in the wrong position: Early in the season David Hawthorne didn’t appear to be comfortable at the weak side spot, a natural middle linebacker. Furthermore, I questioned whether or not Hawthorne had the range to play as the weak side, contain ‘backer in Carroll’s system, not as an attacking downhill middle linebacker.
In Week 1, he and Lofa clashed at times, cutting each other off to the ball; in week 2 Hawthorne looked uncomfortable with some of the weak side ‘backer coverage responsibilities, a trend I believe continued all season.
However, he continued to prove one key middle linebacker quality at the weak side position; he was the stoutest linebacker on the team around the goal line in 2010.
2. Running cold and out of position: Will Herring did not pick up where he left off in 2009, flying around the field as a safety turned linebacker and making plays. Instead, Herring looked uncharacteristically confused in coverage and was not able to make tackles with the consistency he did in 2009.
Herring’s week 4 sack was one of the few positives to the first half of his season, a cold start to follow a finish that showed a player hot in pursuit of more playing time. However, the second half of the 2010 season brought a second wind for Herring.
3. Running on a flat tire: From week six forward, Lofa Tatupu did not appear to be in the football shape the majority of the 12th man remembered; he was overpowered and out matched too often to be a consistent playoff team’s middle linebacker—the Panthers Jonathan Stewart shed Tatupu with a one arm shoulder press in week 13.
He had a few flashes of prior form—such as the first half of week 15 hosting Atlanta--, but Tatupu spent the majority of the season struggling to play with the same presence that made him a three time pro-bowler.
His biggest struggles came when covering the middle/deep middle in zone coverage, especially on third down, and minimizing yards after the catch on screen plays—he was alarmingly a non factor covering the screen in 2010. He also struggled to finish tackles and protect the goal line, issues that would persist throughout the year.
But, Lofa remained the most important player on this defense; the main component of the mind and body for the unit. He played 16 games, appearing on the injury report with knee issues for most of the final two months of the season due to his now surgically repaired knees; enough said.
4. Finding the right fit: Aaron Curry looked more comfortable early in the season, especially compared with early in his rookie season. Curry’s major fault was consistently jumping offside—a flaw that unfortunately stuck throughout the year--, but he was a more consistent tackler.
The team was going to have to live with his freakish abilities and frustrating unforced errors. His week 10 performance of eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and generally beast-like play helped fuel a Seahawks defense that had given up 74 points combined the past two weeks.
He remained inconsistent as the defense struggled as a whole, but he continued to show a relentless motor and the athleticism to become a factor attacking the line of scrimmage.
5. Dropping the ball: I’ll expand on Tatupu’s coverage issues mentioned above by highlighting the first half of the week 11 game in New Orleans. Marques Colston scored two touchdowns in the first half, both balls caught over the outstretched fingertips of Tatupu.
The first play was a 23 yard touchdown, a pass caught inside the 10 and a nice run by Colston; Tatupu reading the pass the whole play, not able to tip the ball and missing a long-shot ankle tackle near the goal line.
The second occurrence came after Drew Brees picked on Tatupu as he moved the Saints down the field inside two minutes remaining in the first half: two receptions out of the backfield with Tatupu covering, one for 25 yards, and a nearly identical play as the first score for the second; this pass to the left side 22 yards to Colston.
Brees went 4 of 5 for 59 yards and a touchdown when throwing at Tatupu on that drive, Tatupu having an interception go through his hands the only positive for the veteran.
Nuggets of Note from 2010, Continued: Stepping Up at the Right Time
6.Double vision: I want to circle back to a comment from point one on the last slide; the idea that Tatupu and Hawthorne clashed on the field at times in 2010.
The tendency led to the following occurrence in week 12; they both closed on Chiefs defensive lineman turned fullback Shaun Smith on a goal line run from the middle, Lofa closing from closer and first, Hawthorne from farther away and later.
Lofa landed first, but Hawthorne took Smith off his feet; though Smith still fell forward for the score.
Not often do you get to see two competitors, on the same team and theoretically for the same position, react to the same play, at the same time, in the same manner and with a clear camera angle.
7. A strong second half: Herring’s season changed gears when the team travelled to Arizona in week 10, as his struggles from the season’s first half began to diminish.
A strong tackle on a miss-timed Larry Fitzgerald screen inside the redzone week 10 and a vicious special teams tackle week 11 seemed to begin a string of solid play for Herring.
He forced a fumble and provided good coverage on Tony Gonzalez week 15; in week 17 he stopped a reverse and he was able to finish the play that reminded America Sam Bradford was in-fact a rookie, a poor throw and resulting crucial interception in the Seahawks’ division title victory.
More vicious special teams play hosting New Orleans in the playoffs brought an improved second half of the season full circle for Herring.
8. A pick-six for the 12th man against Carolina: The other side of the coin to Tatupu’s week 11 struggles were the few plays that made the Lofa-like impact everyone expected.
Lofa took one step after the snap before keying on the fullback leaking out towards the right flat, his mind knowing the spot where he needed to get to before his feet could react; football IQ, not athleticism, put Tatupu in position to intercept Jimmy Clausen’s “safe” pass and run into the end zone.
Tatupu was able to use the receiver that motioned into the slot as a moving pick to shield himself from the vision of Jimmy Clausen after the snap, the quarterback unable to see Tatupu breaking towards the fullback until the ball was gone. This was the shining play of Lofa’s season.
9. Defense did something in 2010: Hawthorne was the team’s best linebacker in 2010, but still not the defensive leader. He consistently showed the physical ability to compete at the middle linebacker spot, but his field command was not to the level of Tatupu.
Tatupu finally left the injury report going into week 17, and he looked a little lighter on his feet against the Rams. More importantly, his attitude and energy was present throughout the defense; Tatupu had won a couple playoff games in his career and a rookie quarterback throwing short routes and a handful of fourth quarter deep throws wasn’t going to win in Qwest. The Seahawks can say defense won them a championship in 2010.
Widespread Competition in 2011
Heading into 2011, the Seahawks have a group of six players that should all compete for playing time at the linebacker position--assuming Will Herring stays with the team.
Lofa Tatupu is the veteran leader of this defense, but he hasn’t been healthy in two years. Can he regain his fitness coming off of dual surgeries?
With Hawthorne signed to a one year deal and Tatupu slated to make $4.35 million a year the next three years, his deal expiring after 2015, the Seahawks middle linebacker situation has a sense of urgency towards beginning the future; some irony in the fact the Seahawks have a “quarterback” situation to be decided on defense as well, but with a more seasoned challenger.
Tatupu may have trouble keeping his job if "the heater" comes to camp on fire, but if Tatupu comes to camp healthy there should be a strong competition.
If Hawthorne does not get the opportunity to compete in the middle, he will likely be the favorite to start at weak side linebacker. However, assuming Will Herring is a Seahawk in 2011, I think the team could get sound production from Herring and former USC ‘backer Malcolm Smith—Carroll and linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. know Smith very well and should be able to fit him into the right role quickly; Herring on early downs, Smith in obvious passing situations could be an option to start the 2011 season.
Herring and Smith would create a fast, athletic duo at a position that requires athleticism and sound tackling skills. Herring looked the part of a starting weak side linebacker at times in 2009 and towards the end of 2010; at worst there is a two way competition for the position between the 2010 starter and a former USC starter.
Aaron Curry has played two years on the strong side, and could stay there instead of moving to a more pass rush focused role; rookie K.J. Wright may actually have a more suited skill set for the strong side linebacker position, but we have to see him on the practice field before saying any more about his 2011 potential as a starter. If he can play a primary role at the position, a unique, disruptive role for Curry could be born.
The Seahawks’ linebackers could be an exciting group to watch next season; a group with the potential for growth in 2011.
How these players are used will also depend on who else is on the field with them at the other positions; a more detailed look at some of those combinations will be saved for the final part of the series highlighting the entire defense.
Part 2, focused on the Secondary, coming soon.