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4-3 Under Player Types: Linebackers

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The next installment of the ongoing Field Gulls discussion of the Seahawks/Falcons defensive schemes. This is post # 9 in the series; you can find the other posts by searching for the tag "Field Gulls." I will sometimes post comments and/or corrections in Red.

By Danny Kelly @FieldGulls on Jul 12, 2011 (4 years ago)

Breaking down the types of players Pete Carroll looks for at linebacker.

I've broken down, the best that I can, the different player types in the Seahawks 4-3 Under defense run by Pete Carroll.

In the 4-3, as you probably could have figured out, the Seahawks utilize three linebackers, on the strongside (Sam), middle (Mike), and weakside (Will). In simplest terms, Pete Carroll described each position as such:

"The Mike linebacker is a traditional middle linebacker. He is instinctive and makes a lot of calls for the defense. He may be the guy with the most experience or the best feel for the game.

The Will linebacker can be a smaller player. He is generally protected in the defensive schemes and will not see as many blocks. All you want him to do most plays is flow and chase the football. We want our fastest linebacker at this position.

The Sam linebacker has to be a good containment player. He has to be big and strong enough to play on the edge of the tight end. He has to be able to run in pass coverage also."

Just a reminder, but our projected starting LB's are MLB Worrilow, WLB Durant, and SLB Reed.

When the Seahawks run their version of the Tampa-2 defense, the middle linebacker is asked to play the deep middle of the field in pass coverage. This necessitates a quick and instinctual player with some ball skills, or at worst the ability to make the quarterback hesitate when looking to throw a deep ball over the top. (With Seattle abondoning the Tampa-2 defense in favor of Cover3/1, this is sort of a moot point nowdays. As we saw in the last article about safeties, the LB's in the Cover 3/1 are responsible for the short underneath zones or coverage in the flats. The deep safety is playing the middle of the field so the MLB doesn't have to drop that far anymore. However, that doesn't mean the LB's don't need to be good coverage players, they do.

The Will linebacker position like Carroll stipulates, is a bit smaller, though not particularly, and is without a doubt the fastest (starting) linebacker. He consistently leads the Hawks in tackles, but as Carroll mentions, this could be partly due to the fact he isn't faced with as many blockers and generally gets runners funneled his direction.

You saw the Seahawks draft Malcolm Smith in the 7th round this past Draft and he seems to fit the mold Carroll has laid out here. He's super fast for a linebacker, running in the 4.4s, is very athletic, and has shown an ability to chase the ballcarrier and make the tackle. Some people believe we could see newly drafted LB KJ Wright playing some weakside as well, as he too is fast, has a nose for the football, and wraps up well. (Wright actually started at SLB for them in 2011 due to his impressive size while Bruce Irvin played LEO during his rookie year. The following year, Irvin was moved over to SLB and they moved Wright to WLB. Wright isn't the prototype for them at WLB since he's 6'4" and not extremely fast. However, he has great length and instincts that allow him to play faster than his stopwatch speed suggests would be possible.

Just in general, the Will linebacker needs to be pretty good in pass coverage also. Not surprisingly, both Smith and Wright are fairly heralded for their pass coverage abilities so perhaps you'll see them in on passing downs in 2011 much like we saw the smaller, speedier Will Herring do in 2010.

The Sam linebacker spot is currently manned by Aaron Curry. He fits the bill in several areas but can be a liability in others. He is certainly big and strong and able to set the edge against tight ends. It can be argued that this is his biggest strength and when he's asked to take on blocks from these tight ends he has shown an ability to physically dominate. In pass coverage I don't believe he's quite as effective. He can get himself out of position and look a bit lost at times but regardless of his draft position he is an effective player on the edge in the 9 technique position and has been at worst a sturdy, tough linebacker for the Seahawks.

The other thing that Carroll has tried to do with the Sam linebacker is to rush the passer in certain situations. This has not been Curry's strong suit, but the Seahawks may envision KJ Wright in this role. He has the physicality and strength to play the edge against tight ends, has shown good awareness in pass coverage, and even showed the Seahawks' front office some things that make them hopeful he'll be a good pass rusher down the line as well. Whether that means he'll be stealing snaps from Curry or used in conjunction with him remains to be seen. The nice thing about Wright is that he's versatile enough to play at several spots, perhaps even the LEO defensive end position, and it should help him earn some snaps.

So hopefully that gives you a basic idea of what Carroll looks for in each linebacker position. In general, in Pete Carroll's version of the 4-3, you'll see smaller-than-normal players, but also faster-than-normal players. With a four man front plus a Sam linebacker up on the line, you'll see safeties and linebackers needing to cover a lot of ground in pass defense. Because of this, speed is valued over size, and instincts are valued over brute strength. In general, 'tweener' players are functional and you'll see other teams' cast-offs able to function in certain specific roles.


On Sideline-to-Sideline Speed at Linebacker

By Danny Kelly @FieldGulls on Jul 19, 2012 (3 years ago, before the 2012 season)

One of the main things that the Seahawks' front office talked about upgrading over this offseason was 'team speed,' particularly at the linebacker position. David Hawthorne, for all his savvy and leadership and veteranosity and all that, wasn't offered a big contract and ultimately left to take a better deal with the Saints. Before him, Lofa Tatupu was allowed to leave after he declined a large pay cut. The one main thing these two former Seahawk linebackers had in common was a lack of top-end speed (to put it kindly).

The Seahawks made good on their word and selected two of the fastest linebackers in the draft this year - Utah State's Bobby Wagner in the 2nd and Idaho's Korey Toomer in the 5th. Rumor has it that the Seahawks were also really high on an insanely athletic linebacker out of Cal, Mychal Kendricks, who went to the Eagles just before the Seahawks took Wagner. Personally, I was disappointed to see them pass on Lavonte David in the 2nd there, but it is what it is -- I guess Wagner was a bigger need in the middle of the field to replace a departed Hawthorne.

With the way the Seahawks' defensive line is set up in base personnel, using three 310+ pounders in Red Bryant, Alan Branch, and Brandon Mebane to plug up the middle and strongside of the field, soak up blocks, and stop the run, teams are going to try and bounce things out to the perimeter or utilize their speed to otherwise counter the Seahawks' advantage in the middle. Also, very generally speaking, because of the size the Seahawks have up front, their linebackers should have to take on fewer blocks and instead flow to the ball and make plays in space. This is where speed is so important.

Seahawks Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley recently described their evaluation process when it comes to the linebacker position. "I think it's a unique combination that we're looking for," he said. "In the 3-4, the linebackers are big, physical type guys; the guards are going to come right at them and they have got to be stout enough to take on the guard. Then, the 4-3, you want speed. The Lance Briggses, the Derrick Brookses, the guys that can really move well, lateral movement, and those guys are always protected. Well, we do both. Instead of maybe the 260 pound linebackers, or the 225 pound guys, we like that guy that's 240 and can run a high 4.4. So, we're getting that hybrid that can do both. That's what we're really trying to be looking for. But, we try not to put them in too many positions where they're taking on the guard, so we're probably leaning more towards the 4-3 principles."

Now, the most obvious need for speed at the linebacker position comes down, simply, to matchups. In base personnel, you're going to have linebackers matched up against running backs and/or tight ends and in particular, tight ends are becoming more and more athletic and rangy. Teams are employing tight ends in non-traditional fashion (i.e., not just on the line, blocking) and linebackers these days must be able to follow a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez down the seam in pass coverage. As for running backs, even that position has become more dynamic -- facing backs like Arian Foster, Lesean McCoy, Ray Rice or especially Darren Sproles is no easy thing.

According to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Seahawks, over the past three years (2009,10, and 11), have ranked 30th, 29th, and 32nd, respectively, verses running backs. They ranked 10th and 11th the past two years against TEs, so again, this is one of the reasons that the Seahawks felt the need to upgrade their speed at the linebacker position. (Keep in mind they allowed all of that while still improving their overall defensive ranking each year) They loved Bobby Wagner in coverage and that's a big reason he should see plenty of snaps early on. But, this article is not about linebackers running in pass coverage. I wanted to talk about sideline-to-sideline run defense from the middle linebacker position because when we talk about speed at the position, it's more than just pass coverage.

One of the things that happened in 2011 as the season wore on is that teams recognized it was going to be very, very tough to run up the middle of the field against the Seahawks. So, because offensive coordinators at the NFL level, generally, aren't stupid, opposing teams started utilizing their speedier running backs and went about moving down the field by working and stretching the field laterally. Red Bryant isn't going to catch many 210-pound running backs from behind or break down and tackle them in space, and David Hawthorne (their old MLB) is just not a sideline-to-sideline guy.

Now, K.J. Wright did a pretty great job on the strongside next to Bryant for the most part and his versatility and athleticism is a big part of the reason the Seahawks still did have a run defense that gave up a mere 3.8 yards per carry on the year, good for 4th best in the NFL. That said, the Seahawks' final six opponents eclipsed the 100 yard mark in rushing and you know that Pete Carroll wasn't loving the fact Seattle gave up 178 yards on the ground to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers in Week 16. The speedy Kendall Hunter picked up 73 yards on 12 attempts for a 6.1 per carry average and with LaMichael James now in the mix, Seattle must evolve.

Ok, so, let's use a real-world example of why it's important to have speed at the middle linebacker position because on some level, it's important to see its practical use. "Speed is nice to have at linebacker." Well, no duh. But, why?

Below -- the play I picked out from Seattle's Week 10 win over Baltimore was a good enough example. The Ravens, on their first possession, badly gouged the Seahawks with two consecutive end-around plays, first to Torrey Smith then followed up with one by Seahawks MVP that game, David Reed -- both for 16 yards. Then, they completely abandoned that idea because it didn't seem to be working. Let's just throw it deep and forget we have Ray Rice! Ok, their curious offensive playcalling is neither here nor there.

Below, 1st and 10, no score, Ravens nearing mid-field. The Ravens will fake the run to the left with a total sell by the line, the fullback, and the running back. It works. I've penciled in where David Reed will run at the snap.


Below, you can see the Seahawks bite on the run action -- Chris Clemons actually gets pancaked here so the run-blocking was, shall we say, genuine? Regardless, you can see below that Leroy Hill (ROLB) and Earl Thomas crash toward the line, and on the backside of the play, LOLB K.J. Wright and MLB David Hawthrone bite on the run that way as well. Richard Sherman is playing heads up on Torrey Smith on the wing in man.


Below, as the numbers indicate, the Seahawks have seven defenders bunched into the box, with K.J. Wright on the backside as a borderline eighth. He will get sucked in too far and by the time he recognizes it's an end around, he's out of the play. A rare misread play by Wright.


Above, you see Hawthorne react.

Edited by RandomFan
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Below, in the next two slides, you'll see why an ability to 'close' is important. Reed just beats Hawthorne to the corner. 5_large.png



Kam Chancellor takes a bad angle too, as you see above, and Reed manages to pickup an additional six yards or so from where he's standing here. This sideline-to-sideline speed that you'll hear people talk about is what could make Bobby Wagner a special player. He's lauded for his ability to get off of blocks, run in coverage, and read plays, but his closing speed should allow him to make plays in space where you must break down and tackle or chase down an offensive ballcarrier -- the above end-around being an example. Another factor at play here is that often you'll see a quarterback get flushed from the pocket against the Seahawks, and far too often those quarterbacks were able to scramble for ten yards in front of the tightly-covered receivers in the secondary.

Anyway, it's common sense as to why this speed may be beneficial for the Seahawks' defense. But, when you really look at individual plays from 2011 where things broke down in the intermediate range of the defense, many times, the lack of speed was apparent.

This is an article from the same writer, months later during the season, pinpointing the importance of the speed he was talking about.


Bobby Wagner with that sideline-to-sideline speed

By Danny Kelly @FieldGulls on Oct 10, 2012 (Under 3 years ago, during 2012 season)

Sideline-to-sideline speed at linebacker makes up for compromised gaps.

I wrote an article earlier, during the offseason, breaking down the importance of 'sideline to sideline speed' at the linebacker position for the Seahawks. The way Seattle plays with so much size on their defensive line - last year more than this year, maybe - it dictated that the big bodies in the middle were there to hold the point of attack, prevent penetration up the middle, and hopefully hold contain to keep the quarterback in the pocket.

Seattle was stout last year against the run early on, but as teams began gameplanning against Seattle's weaknesses, they started getting things out on the edges more, and opposing teams with some speed at running back were able to pick up chunks of yards by stretching the Seattle defense toward the sidelines. Seattle's linebackers were often left to clean up the mess -- often the middle linebacker that was assigned coverage duties on the QB scrambling or running back on a delayed draw play.

All too often though, we saw that once the pocket failed, plays broke down and gaps were compromised for the Seattle defenders, QBs and/or ball carriers out of the backfield were able to get yardage by attacking the lack of speed on the defensive front-seven. David Hawthorne is not a speedster, and with Leroy Hill or K.J. Wright out in zone coverage or blitzing to the wrong side, one small weakness for the Seahawks defense that began to show up was their inability to close on runners (either a scrambling QB or a cut-back running back) once they'd gotten past the wall of Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, and Alan Branch.

One example that I broke down -- a simple end-around by the Ravens, exposed the lack of make-up speed from the middle linebacker position -- not something that can be exploited on every play, but something the Seahawks certainly had in mind as something to consider. This defense, generally, isn't exotic or wildly schemed -- it's about maintaining gaps and discipline, but when gaps are inevitably compromised, it's essential speed and power are there to compensate.

As a result, one of the main things that the Seahawks' front office talked about upgrading over this offseason was 'team speed,' particularly at the linebacker position. Bobby Wagner was targeted for many reasons -- he's good at shedding blocks, he's instinctual in zones, he's a strong tackler -- but above the rest was his speed and acceleration. That's shown up a good amount already this season -- he had a few great tackles for a loss in the backfield against the Rams and Wagner collected 1.5 sacks on Sunday against the Panthers.

Oh, and by the way -- Bobby Wagner is now playing in all the defensive sub-packages -- nickel, dime, you name it. Wagner played 56% of Seattle's snaps against St. Louis in Week 4, then 100% of Seattle's 55 snaps against Carolina in Week 5, and much like K.J. Wright's quick ascension to garnering complete trust by this coaching staff, after four weeks, Wagner and Wright are playing nearly every snap together as the Seahawks' linebackers, and it only broadens what Gus Bradley and Pete Carroll can do with their schematics.

I wanted to break down one play from Sunday that exhibits what I've been talking about with regard to sideline-to-sideline speed and 'making up' for compromised gaps, because Wagner's closing speed saves what would have been, most likely, a huge gain against this defense last season. Let's take a look.

3-7-CAR 46 (1:04 1ST QUARTER) (Shotgun) C.Newton sacked at CAR 42 for -4 yards (B.Wagner).

Carolina in 3rd and 7 here at their own 46 yard line, trying to string together some gains in their third drive of the game. The Seahawks are in their nickel package (5 defensive backs), and have some interesting line splits going on.

Going from left to right below, you'll see Chris Clemons in his wide-9 alignment, and a full ten feet over from him, you'll see Alan Branch at the 1-technique spot toward the weakside. Down the line even further you'll see Jason Jones and Bruce Irvin bunched closely together, both outside the right tackle. Off Irvin's shoulder is K.J. Wright. In a play that vaguely resembles the stunt-twist strip-sack by Bruce Irvin that Josh Kasparek broke down the other day, Alan Branch is going to barrell into the RG at the snap, allowing Jason Jones to stunt underneath him and try to find a lane to the QB. Bruce Irvin will rush to the outside, with K.J. Wright stunting underneath him through the B-gap (which Jonathan Stewart will pick up).

On the offensive left side, Bobby Wagner and Chris Clemons will attempt the same type of stunt.

So, six pass-rushers employing three stunts on 3rd down, with single-high safety, underneath man coverage. Maybe I spoke too soon about the Seahawks not using exotic schemes.


Edited by RandomFan
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Ball is snapped, the plan goes into action. You see the three stunts start - Clemons to the left, Jones in the middle, and Wright on the right.


Over the top -- Brandon Browner, Marcus Trufant, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor are in man-coverage, leaving Earl Thomas patrolling the deep middle of the field.


For Carolina's part, they do a decent job stemming the onslaught, but can only hold for so long. As Cam pulls down what would look to be his first read to the left, the pressure starts closing in.


Jones and Wright break through (above), but Cam Newton is a gazelle -- he takes off running to the left, with plenty of green space downfield to that side.

You can see below that Chancellor and Trufant are in man and this leaves the underneath zone mostly vacated. Browner must stick with his man until Newton crosses the line of scrimmage for fear that a pass could be lofted on the run.

Edited by RandomFan
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Essentially, this leaves Bobby Wagner, seen below getting off a block to his side, as the only Seahawk between Newton and probably 10-15, maybe more like 30, yards of open field. This is the type of play -- where original scheming has broken down and the quarterback gets out of the pocket, in which the Seahawks were gashed in at times last season.


Not many players are going to catch Cam Newton in the open field like this, but Bobby Wagner does a brilliant job of cutting off Newton's angle and making a tough tackle.




Edited by RandomFan
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This speed is going to be the biggest challenge for Worrilow. We know Durant has the speed and is a good coverage player. But this season will tell us if Worrilow is going to have what it takes to get it done in this scheme, or if we have to upgrade the MLB position next offseason in some way.

For his part, he actually does have solid measurables to get it done. At his Pro Day at 6'2" and 238lbs he had:

Height: 6020
Weight: 238

40 Yrd Dash: 4.59
20 Yrd Dash: 2.59
10 Yrd Dash: 1.57

225 Lb. Bench Reps: 30
Vertical Jump: 34 1/2
Broad Jump: 10'04"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 3.97
3-Cone Drill: 6.50

Compare that to Bobby Wagner - MLB:

Height: 6003 (6' 0 3/8")
Weight: 241
40 Yrd Dash: 4.46
20 Yrd Dash: 2.64
10 Yrd Dash: 1.57

225 Lb. Bench Reps: 24
Vertical Jump: 39 1/2
Broad Jump: 11'00"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.28
3-Cone Drill: 7.10

and K.J. Wright - WLB:

Height: 6033 (6' 3 3/8")
Weight: 246
40 Yrd Dash: 4.71
20 Yrd Dash: 2.69
10 Yrd Dash: 1.66

225 Lb. Bench Reps: 20
Vertical Jump: 34
Broad Jump:
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.35
3-Cone Drill: 7.21

One thing that should jump out is that Worrilow is actually faster than Wagner in the 20 yard dash, has the same 10 yard dash time, and is a bit slower in the 40. And his 3 cone and 20 yard shuttle drill times kill Wagners. What this implies to me is that Worrilow is actually quicker and has more initial explosion than Wagner, but Wagner has better top end speed once he gets going. The top end speed could actually be what holds Worrilow back, though.

But compared to Wright, Worrilow wins in every category except around an inch and a half of height and 8 pounds.

The bigger picture if that we should once and for all find out if Worrilow is a keeper during this season. Perhaps in the last two seasons he hasn't been put in a position to use his talents best or to succeed. That should no longer be the case this year under Quinn. I for one am looking forward to seeing what he can do in this defense. Perhaps I'm just being overly hopefull, but I think he can actually be an asset going forward.

Edited by RandomFan
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Random, good posts. I love re-reading them.

Worrilow is interesting to me from an athletic perspective but it's hard to gauge his with instinctually. But some of that is probably to the increasingly weird way Nolan often put him on an island. In a true 43 with defined gap responsibilities maybe he'll thrive. Worst case he's experienced depth and still good value.

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From all reports, instincts are one of Worrilow's strengths. I don't remember the exact comment, but I remember last year our LB coach talking about how cerebral he is; how quickly he picks things up and is great with watching film. I think the big question for him is simply his playing speed. He admitted he bulked up too much last year and lost some explosion and speed. Said that is what he was going to work on this season: increasing his flexibility, explosion, and mobility with less focus on bulk.

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From all reports, instincts are one of Worrilow's strengths. I don't remember the exact comment, but I remember last year our LB coach talking about how cerebral he is; how quickly he picks things up and is great with watching film. I think the big question for him is simply his playing speed. He admitted he bulked up too much last year and lost some explosion and speed. Said that is what he was going to work on this season: increasing his flexibility, explosion, and mobility with less focus on bulk.

Instincts isn't same as intelligence. He looks intelligent. Seems to know where to line up. He seems to lack the ability (or hasn't shown) to simply react to the play on field particularly when the play or call on defense breaks down. Or as jazz players call it the ability to simply freestyle and instinctually play

Playing speed is often less a translation of the physical and more the ability to instinctually play rather than be robotic and dependent on scheme being perfect each time (which it won't be)

Now it's hard to tell if it's a comfort thing or an instincts thing with a young player on a bad team

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I remember Worrilow shooting some gaps up the middle and looking very good doing it. Letting him loose up the middle I think would be good for him. Also reducing the total area of his zone I think would make him look much better in coverage, as will having better talent supporting him on all sides.

I'm interested in seeing how he performs in a simplified scheme that allows him to play to his strengths.

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I remember Worrilow shooting some gaps up the middle and looking very good doing it. Letting him loose up the middle I think would be good for him. Also reducing the total area of his zone I think would make him look much better in coverage, as will having better talent supporting him on all sides.

I'm interested in seeing how he performs in a simplified scheme that allows him to play to his strengths.

Exactly. I'm ready to see if he really does lack speed, or if he was just playing in a too confusing scheme that didn't allow him to play fast, or having to cover for other's blown assignments which made hiim look worse.

Again, perhaps I'm just being overly hopeful, but I think he's going to surprise some people this year with some really solid play in this more simplified scheme that is built to take advantage of what player's CAN do well.

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Man every time I see those numbers for worrilow it gives me a little bit more hope that maybe he can be better than he's shown recently. He absolutely better leaven to play faster or they will move on. I like the guy but he hesitated more than any linebacker on the field post year imo.........boy that 3 cone drill is ridiculous.

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My understanding of the 4-3 under is, the linemen play like a 3-4 front would. The LEO is designated to rush the passer -most- the time. If our linemen do their jobs....tying up blockers...then Worrilow might look a lot better than he did last year, when our DTs seemed to disappear most the time.

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