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Modern Hybrid Fronts


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The next installment of the ongoing Field Gulls discussion of the Seahawks/Falcons defensive schemes. This is post # 11 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.

This one is less about X's and O's and more about theory.


The Seahawks, and the Modern Hybrid Fronts

By Thomas Beekers @thomasbeekers on Mar 12, 2012 (A little over 3 years ago, after 2011 season)

Observers tend to think and talk rather strictly about defensive front sevens as "3-4" or "4-3", which is easy enough to spot (how many guys have their hand down) and from there on out you expect a certain style of defense. But it's becoming increasingly meaningless in the modern NFL. It's not just the Packers - who ran a base 2-5 for a long time - or the Patriots - who vary between 3-4 and a very interesting form of 4-3 depending on the opponent and situation, a front seven that uses Vince Wilfork as a central anchor and then shuffles chairs around him. But I'm also thinking of teams like the Houston Texans. the Dallas Cowboys, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Miami Dolphins.

Nominally, all these teams ran 3-4 defenses. Hearing that, people assume they run a 3-4 "just like" the traditional 3-4s (like the 49ers and others run). But if you watch footage of them play, and pay close attention to what they do, you soon find they all execute their defenses a lot closer to 4-3s than to 3-4s, to varying degrees. This past season, Ravens DE Terrell Suggs played something a lot closer to a traditional 4-3 DE than to a 3-4 OLB, though he can play either one fine. The Dolphins are transitioning to 4-3 for the 2012 season, and shouldn't have many problems because that's basically what they were playing already.

The most interesting of the lot is the Phillips 3-4 (named after Bum), which Wade ran in both Dallas and Houston (and other places he's coached). It is by far my favorite front seven style in the NFL, because it is an attacking, one-gap-penetration style (including the down linemen) that is all about enforcing your will on the opposing offense, rather than responding to the opposing offense. If you watch it closely, you'll find it runs a lot like the one-gap-attack-style of the Kiffin 4-3, and really nothing like the traditional 3-4 at all.

That's where a bit of personal frustration comes in. I see people suggest Mario Williams is a "3-4 OLB", when he really isn't. (Keep in mind this was written when Williams was still a Texan) Worse, the fact that he "can play" 3-4 OLB led some people to conclude he could play a 4-3 OLB too. This tells me a lot of people who do these off-season free agent lists really don't spend enough time watching football. If anything, Mario's physical make-up and toolset is closer to a 3-4 DE than a 3-4 OLB, but he's never really played either, and there's no real reason to think he would excel at either, certainly not to the level he plays 4-3 DE.

This is the Houston defense: three guys with their hand(s) down, one guy lined up on the line left or right, sometimes with his hand down, the other OLB wandering, and the two ILBs behind, spying on anyone escaping through empty gaps. Does that really sound like a 3-4 to you? Just because Williams is usually standing up? It's at best as much of the one as it is of the other.

To continue talking hybrid defenses...what about the Seahawks...

The Seahawks defense is certainly unusual in its front seven, no doubt about that one. Is it "a 4-3 defense with 3-4 elements" ... well ... What does that even mean? Descriptions like that tend to cause more confusion than they clarify anything. Does that mean our front seven is schematically close to a traditional 3-4? It really isn't. That we have the personnel to run a 3-4? For the most part, we really don't. The basic thinking here stems from the fact that we have three unusually big bodies on the front line, especially Red Bryant, a prototypical 3-4 end. But we play a fairly straight-up, although not very traditional, 4-3.

(For the conversation that follows it is important to keep a few things in mind. He is discussing the 2011 season, which was year 2 for that coaching staff. The Seahawks were still building their defense and hadn't found all the right personnel at this point. One of the biggest problems was not having a good pass rushing 3-tech DT for their base defense. Mebane had failed at that role in 2010, and had yet to prove he could be the type of 1-tech they needed also. They adjusted their scheme to fit the players they had. More on this below.)

Right now, the Seahawks run a primarily one-gap-and-hold 4-3. Usually, when you hear "one-gap" 4-3, you should think of Kiffin/Tampa 2 or Phillips 3-4 style, attacking relentlessly through single gaps to overwhelm the opposing offensive line. But that's not the case for us. One-gap-and-hold sees linemen take on single gaps (and often two gaps), but not to penetrate, rather to outmuscle the offensive line and choke out any running attempts. Our defensive linemen play primarily one-gap, with only Red Bryant two-gapping every down, while Mebane and Branch play one-gap in "base" but frequently switch up so either one (but mostly Mebane) plays two gaps, depending on down and distance. This gap variation is just the start of it. The Seahawks very frequently switch personnel, lineups and gap assignments, even if they do primarily stay in a 4-3.

What about the unbalanced line we used to discuss so much? (The 4-3 Under) It is an interesting concept, but rarely executed on an NFL level. (It is now that they have the correct players) Read this excellent story on Grantland on the New England Patriots 2011 defense. Wilfork anchors the middle, with two one-gappers on one side and one two-gapper on the other. That's your prototype unbalanced line, and it's very close to what we ran last year. A quick sketch of last year's defense:


The disadvantage of the unbalanced line is that by having the "weight" on one side (including Aaron Curry), you are exposing the other. This haunted the Patriots defense all year long, and you could frequently see the Giants backs run through and over one side of the Patriots front seven. The Seahawks fixed this by having the surest and quickest tackler, David Hawthorne, spy on the gaps on that side. He racked up tackles and did his job, in that role. (As we learned in a previous post in this series, the real fix is having a disrupting 3-tech that helps cover up the undersized LEO and disrupts running plays to that side, combined with sideline-to-sideline speed from your MLB and WLB.)

This year, most everything changed as we switched to a 4-3 over. I had a hard time sketching this year's defense because I feel it's more fluid snap-to-snap than last year's was, but here's a try:


Don't take K.J. Wright or Leroy Hill's positioning too literally, they were often on opposite ends and/or closer to Hawthorne, but the point is they were frequently asked to rush or cover the flats, while David Hawthorne would still do his job of spying on loose gaps. Compared to last year, Chris Clemons was asked to maintain his gap much more, and often line up further inside, but was occasionally unleashed as an outside rusher as well. This sketch has Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch one-gapping, where they'd frequently "push" from to strong to the weak side, but realize that just as often Mebane would two-gap, pushing Branch's responsibility from the A to the B gap, and freeing up Bryant. Red Bryant's job is mostly unchanged. (Remember how a 4-3 Over is different from a 4-3 Under. The two DE's keep their same positioning, but the two DT's basically switch sides. The 1-tech NT moves to the other shoulder of the Center, and the 3-tech DT moves to the other side of the Center all the way to the outside shoulder of the opposite OG he was lined up on. This is a huge change, with so many implications to every front 7 player. It's also the traditional look for most 4-3 teams, so the undersized LEO and the oversized 5-tech DE are less impactful in this front.

This is not the scheme that the Seahawks wanted to run, but were forced too since they had no good penetrating 3-tech, and had yet to realize that Mebane could hold up to the fulltime 2-gapping role they wanted out of a base defense 4-3 Under 1-tech)

There's a few things I want you to take away from this: the Seahawks 4-3 changed significantly from last year to this, Hawthorne and Bryant being the only pieces you could argue had very similar roles. And, on a related topic, I don't think this is the defense Carroll wants to run. (It wasn't) This one-gap-and-hold, man cover D is like the polar opposite of the Kiffin zone 4-3. The man cover concepts stay (as we've seen from a previous post in this series, they actually play about 80% press-zone, which looks like man coverage initially), but I get a pretty strong sense (and Scott Enyeart has stated the same) Pete Carroll wants to run much more of a penetrating, one-gap 4-3 style, compared to this one-gap-and-hold. This doesn't necessarily mean get rid of Red Bryant, but it would necessitate significant talent upgrades.

There we come to the next topic. 4-3 talent. I don't think we have a lot of it, at least if you're looking for outstanding, elite talent. My fellow writer Derek Stephens has argued extensively that K.J. Wright is a long-term starter, and I believe he is right. Brandon Mebane is probably our most outstanding front seven talent, or at least proven talent. Red Bryant is good but would be better in a 3-4 (Not at all. Once the other pieces fell into place in 2013, Bryant had a great year). Chris Clemons is good but old. Alan Branch is a severe mis-fit as a 3-tech (This was one of their biggest problems, and a big reason for the switch from a 4-3 Under to a 4-3 Over.

And the linebackers...Well, if someone wants to argue the Seahawks run a "4-3 with 3-4 elements", I would immediately bring up the linebackers. They're not 3-4 linebackers. At all. They are 4-3 linebackers, and not bad ones. Hill performed surprisingly well, versatile if not great at anything. Hawthorne is still a solid and quick tackler. Wright showed a ton of promise, especially in pass rushing and instincts. (I'm going to take a moment to clear up some confusion from this author regarding the "4-3 defense with 3-4 elements" issue. All this really means is unlike a traditional 4-3 where every player is a 1-gapper, this scheme will have one or two of the D Linemen 2-gapping, much like an old school 3-4 would have all 3 DL's 2-gapping. And unlike the old Kiffin 4-3 Under Cover-2 that used smaller and faster LB's, and the old school 3-4's that looked for huge LB's that could take on OG's, this Seahawks scheme looks for LB's that are in between both of those. But the 2-gapping DL's are the main difference, as well as the oversized 5-tech DE. It's not as confusing as I've seen a lot of people imply.)

But our front seven still had problems. One was the lack of pass rush from anyone else than Chris Clemons. Another was a lack of gap discipline/speed. It was on display early when one team studied our defense and challenged it early on with two end arounds. It came back with a vengeance later in the season as scatbacks were killing the defense with outside runs. (Again, as we've seen in previous posts, once they settled on Mebane as the 1-tech in the 4-3 Under and acquired McDaniel to play the 3-tech 2013, upgrading the speed at LBer was the final piece to the puzzle. Including the already outstanding secondary, of course.)

I think one important theme this article speaks about is how the Seahawks mixed and matched their personnel to cobble a decent defense together, while they were still looking for the pieces they needed for the defense they wanted to run. It's something we need to take to heart because our defense this year might not function like the finished product that Quinn envisions down the road. However, we already have a big jump on where Seattle started from - at least in the front 7.

We have the 1-tech already in Soliai. We have not only one 3-tech, but three of them in Hageman, Babs, and Jarrett - with Hageman being the best fit as the 3-tech in the base defense that still has to be tough versus the run game. We seem to have our LEO, even though Beasley is a rookie. And we have a solid 5-tech for the big Red Bryant role in Jackson if that is the route Quinn wants to take. Or even the smaller Clayborn for the Bennett role if Quinn would rather go that way. I personally think it will be the Jackson route, but Quinn does have options there with Clayborn if he chooses.

We have what should be a good facsimile of Irvin at SLB in Brooks Reed. Durant is a fast and instinctive WLB that should prove to fit this scheme well, as long as he can stay healthy - but his health might be a huge key to our season on defense. At MLB we have Worrilow who is a big question mark. I think he has the instincts and leadership needed for this scheme. He has the stopwatch speed and athleticism needed. We'll find out this year if he has the game speed needed, in this simpler to read defense. I have moderately high hopes for him, but this could turn out to be a big need for us in the draft next year if he doesn't get it done. Same for Durant if he can't stay healthy.

The front 7 is in a lot better shape than what Seattle started with in 2010, at least on paper. The secondary, on the other hand, is a conversation for later.

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I like it... The D looks different this year and I like the fact that he gets the guys that does great in "that" position. I like how you pulled different facts from what Quinn "Helped" do in Seattle and compare it to what he's doing here and where players currently sitting on the roster will be compared to how they were used in the last regime or where they wold best fit currently. I think most people like the bickering that sports brings. Hence why the other posts keep going and going lol. Most people don't like the complexity that can be broke down into compared the the actual game it's self. Some people like the just watch and want certain things to happen but have no clue or educution about what they're saying cause they don't have a indept view of skills thats needed to make that guy succeed. Some people just like the fight but don't like the technicalities. LOL, sorry just rambling on.

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As mentioned much is going to ride on the health of Durant. I think Worrilow will look better, but the question is how high his ceiling really is. As for whether Quinn will prefer to use Jackson or Clayborn in the 5 tech role/strong side defensive end, I think it will depend more on matchup and game plan more than anything else. It will probably change week to week/ down to down. The best part of our front line will be our versatility and range of options. While we may not have every single role nailed down with which exact player we will use for those respective roles the majority of the time, we have a bunch of options. This could wind up being one of the strengths of our defense. Ultimately the fact that we will be assigning more players to single gap assignments will pay enormous dividends.

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I have to wonder what our NASCAR package will look like. The 4 guys I would expect on the line would be


Man I'm so pumped for this season. Our FA signings were brilliant, provided Durant stays healthy. I absolutely love that Quinn is a coach who not only inspires his players and puts them in position to succeed, but in his very first offseason as a head coach he understands you can't build a team through FA. He didn't bite and overpay guys like Derrick Morgan just to address the pass rush. Add in that it looks like we hit our draft out of the park (by a mile).. Is it September yet?

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I have to wonder what our NASCAR package will look like. The 4 guys I would expect on the line would be


Yeah, I'd imagine that it's going to look a lot like that. Just consider who we have at each position and you'll get a good idea who will rotate in for NASCAR snaps.

At the two inside rushers, we'll probably have a combination of Babs, Clayborn, and Jarrett. I could even imagine Goodman at 265 pounds getting some looks there if he makes the team. I highly doubt Hageman is in for even one single NASCAR snap. They will want to keep him fresh for the base defense 3-tech role and keep him from having to play too many downs.

The two edge rushers will be some combination of Beasley, Schofield, Biermann, B. Reed, and whichever one guy makes the roster out of Goodman, Maponga, and Starr - so likely Goodman.

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