Defense mechanism: Packers can follow Seahawks’ blueprint
GREEN BAY, Wis. — John Schneider calls Ted Thompson his football “big brother.” And as is the case with real-life siblings, every once in a while, the kid brother can teach the first-born a thing or two.
So, if Thompson, the Green Bay Packers general manager, wants a defense that bears some resemblance to the Seattle Seahawks defense that Schneider, the Seahawks GM, has assembled, he’d be wise to use the blueprint Schneider
And the good news for Thompson? He wouldn’t have to deviate significantly from his usual modus operandi. He’d only have to tweak it slightly.
The Seahawks enter Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with the best defense in the NFL. They were No. 1 in points (14.4 per game), No. 1 in yards (273.6 per game), No. 1 in takeaways (37). (They were also No. 1 against the pass, tied for No. 7 against the run and tied for No. 8 in sacks.)
The Packers, in contrast, finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game), 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
Schneider and coach Pete Carroll, who collaborate on personnel decisions, have built that defense by drafting well, including some brilliant third-day selections; turning other teams’ trash into their treasure; making a trade or two; and signing unrestricted free agents, although not those of the break-the-bank, get-all-the-headlines variety.
Whereas Thompson has relied heavily on his draft-and-develop philosophy – one that, it must be pointed out, led to the Super Bowl XLV title with a defense that was No. 2 in scoring and No. 5 in total defense – and limited his free-agent work to college players who go undrafted, Schneider has been more aggressive and used every personnel tool at his disposal.
“I think it’s just a melding of styles of philosophies,” Schneider explained on Green & Gold Today on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Friday. “We knew when we came to Seattle — we knew we had to be a bigger, faster, stronger football team as fast as we possibly could. When we graded our team, that’s the way our board looked. Whether it was free agency or the draft, we wanted to establish a team that could play anywhere with anyone.
“Quite frankly, at the time, San Francisco was a very big, physical, great-looking football team. We knew if we were going to catch up to them, we had to be aggressive in our approach with acquisitions. On the flip side, you have to have a staff that is willing to teach and play young people and develop.”
That is one area where the Packers and Seahawks are similar. Both teams rely on getting young players ready to play right away, counting on the coaching staff to accelerate rookies’ and youngsters’ developments.
“Coach Carroll, [former defensive coordinator] Gus Bradley, Kris Richard with our defensive backfield, [defensive passing game coordinator] Rocky Seto – those guys have done a phenomenal job in terms of spending extra time and really investing in the players that we have selected or acquired,” Schneider said.
But how have the Seahawks acquired the players to create the league’s top defense? Of the 17 players who played at least one snap on defense for the Seahawks in their NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco, 10 were drafted by the Seahawks, including nine since Schneider and Carroll took over in 2010. What’s more, only two of the 11 players who started the game weren’t Seahawks draft picks, so the narrative that Schneider has been significantly more aggressive in free agency doesn’t hold up, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
Here’s a look at the 17 players who saw action on defense in the NFC Championship Game and how each was acquired:
LDE Red Bryant: 2008 fourth-round pick.
LDT Tony McDaniel: Signed a one-year, $890,000 deal as an unrestricted free agent from Miami in March. Entered league as undrafted free agent with Jacksonville in 2006.
RDT Brandon Mebane: 2007 third-round pick. Signed a five-year, $25 million contract ($9 million guaranteed) on July 29, 2011.
RDE Chris Clemons: Acquired in a trade with Philadelphia on March 16, 2010. Seattle also obtained a 2010 fourth-round draft pick (DE E.J. Wilson) while the Eagles received DE Darryl Tapp. Signed three-year, $22 million extension ($10 million guaranteed) on July 23, 2012.
OLB Bruce Irvin: 2012 first-round pick.
MLB Bobby Wagner: 2012 second-round pick.
OLB Malcolm Smith: 2011 seventh-round pick.
CB Richard Sherman: 2011 fifth-round pick.
CB Byron Maxwell: 2011 sixth-round pick.
SS Kam Chancellor: 2010 fifth-round pick.
FS Earl Thomas: 2010 first-round pick.
CB Walter Thurmond: 2010 fourth-round pick.
DE Michael Bennett: Signed by the Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent on March 15, 2013 to a one-year, $5 million contract. Originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Seahawks on April 26, 2009. Was
claimed by Tampa Bay off waivers from the Seahawks on October 12, 2009. Spent four seasons in Tampa Bay.
DT Clinton McDonald: Acquired by Seattle via trade with the Cincinnati Bengals on August 29, 2011. Originally drafted in the seventh round (249th overall) in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Bengals.
DE Cliff Avril: Signed with Seattle as an unrestricted free agent March 13, 2013 to a two-year, $13 million contract that included a $4.5 million signing bonus, Originally drafted by the Detroit Lions in the third round (92nd overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft.
LB Heath Farwell: Signed as a street free agent by Seattle on October 19, 2011. Signed a three-year, $4.5 million extension ($500,000 signing bonus) in 2012. Originally signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2005.
CB Jeremy Lane: 2012 sixth-round pick.
“I look at it and think Pete and John did a great job putting together a lot of guys who understand each other,” Clemons told reporters in New York/New Jersey at midweek as the Seahawks prepped for Super Bowl XLVIII. “Once we get all these pieces in place, it was just a matter of going out and being able to play together. That’s one of the things that we’ve done over the course of this season, grown together as men and teammates. We’ve all learned how to play with each other and off of each other. It’s been a great opportunity to get to play with them.”
Added Bennett: “I think Pete and John do a great job of looking for guys with a chip on their shoulder and want to prove themselves and the guys just not really being media hungry or guys that just want to be about themselves. They pick guys that really care about the team, and we’ve got a lot of guys like that.”
The biggest key for the Seahawks has been drafting well – both in the early rounds, and in the late rounds.
While Schneider’s third-round selection of former University of Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson may go down as his smartest move as a GM, finding Sherman in the fifth round in 2011 has to rate a close second. Sherman began his college career at Stanford as a wide receiver but switched to the other side of the ball and went 154th overall, 23 picks after the Packers took New Mexico State cornerback Davon House 131st and 13 picks after they took Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams 141st. House remains with the team but has played sparingly in three seasons; Williams was cut at the end of training camp last summer.
Chancellor was taken with the second pick of the fifth round (No. 133 overall) in 2010 – the Packers took starting safety Morgan Burnett in the third round (No. 71 overall) in that same draft – and has also proven to be a much better player than his draft status.
In contrast, Thompson’s recent defensive picks have not had the same impact, whether it be because of injury problems or limited effectiveness.
In 2010, he took defensive end Mike Neal in the second round, Burnett in the third round and defensive end C.J. Wilson in the seventh round.
Neal found success converting to outside linebacker this season after playing just nine games his first two NFL seasons because of injury; Burnett was a keen disappointment after signing a $24.75 million extension in the offseason; and Wilson was a run-stuffing big-body whose career highlight was playing the piano on the eve of Super Bowl XLV, contributing to the team’s relaxed mood.
In 2011, Thompson took House in the fourth round; inside linebacker D.J. Smith and outside linebacker Ricky Elmore in the sixth round; and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy in the seventh round. House has seen most of his action on special teams and has had injury problems; Smith was a spot starter his first two seasons before being released this offseason following reconstructive knee surgery; Elmore didn’t make it out of camp as a rookie and Guy spent his rookie year on injured reserve before being cut in 2012 and catching on with Indianapolis.
The 2012 draft was supposed to fix the defense, as Thompson spent his first six selections on defensive players.
First-round pick Nick Perry has been plagued by injuries his first two seasons and has struggled to convert to outside linebacker after entering the draft hoping to play end in a 4-3 scheme; second-round pick Jerel Worthy showed some promise at defensive end as a rookie before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the 2012 regular-season finale, making 2013 essentially a lost year; second-round pick Casey Hayward led the team in interceptions as a rookie cornerback (six) and was third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting last year but played only three games in 2013 because of a hamstring injury; fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian showed poor instincts at safety and got himself cut at midseason, a rarity for a draft pick under Thompson; and fifth-round pick Terrell Manning scarcely played as a rookie inside linebacker before being cut at the end of camp last summer.
Only fourth-round pick Mike Daniels has been healthy and productive, and after registering 6.5 sacks this season, the defensive end figures to be a building block on defense going forward.
Thompson took five defensive players in the 2013 draft: Defensive end Datone Jones (first), cornerback Micah Hyde (fifth), defensive end Josh Boyd (fifth), outside linebacker Nate Palmer (sixth) and inside linebacker Sam Barrington (seventh).
All five made the 53-man roster coming out of camp, but only Hyde saw extensive action (439 snaps) as the nickel corner. Jones (270 snaps) was limited to the sub packages as a third-down rusher and saw Boyd (116 snaps) start to eat into his playing time late in the year.
Barrington played only one snap on defense before a season-ending knee injury, while Palmer (116 snaps) played about a third of the snaps undrafted free agent outside linebacker Andy Mulumba (355) played.
Back in Seattle, not only have the Seahawks’ later picks been greater contributors, but Thomas, the second of two first-round picks in 2010, has been a home run. He and Sherman each received votes for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, which went to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on Saturday night. Just as Schneider gambled on Irvin (character concerns) with his 2012 first-round pick, he took a chance on Thomas, who was young (20) and undersized (5-foot-10) for the position.
“I was too young. When you add into it the size factor – I’m 5-10 – all those factors kind of go up against me,” Thomas said at midweek. “When I had my visits, they said I was too quiet. But they didn’t understand when I’m on the football field, I’m a totally different person than just off the field. I turn into the most talkative person ever on the football field, just because I communicate well.”
In Chancellor and Thomas, the Seahawks have arguably the best safety tandem in football, which underscores another of the Packers’ issues. Not only did Burnett not play to the level of his contract, but M.D. Jennings started all 17 games despite grading out poorly and McMillian was a draft mistake.
“What do we hear every year about the draft? ‘Oh, you can get safeties anywhere,’ ” NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said of the Seahawks’ defense during a recent visit on The Herd on ESPN Radio. “Well, isn’t it interesting that the best defense in the league has the best safety duo in the league? That, to me, is the most overlooked [aspect of Seattle’s defense]. Earl Thomas is not overlooked. He’s the best free safety in the league, but I think Kam Chancellor is absolutely critical to the success of that defense.
“Thomas as a deep middle defender has the most range of any safety in the league and he also plays downhill in the run game with a lot more tenacity and toughness than a lot of people might think. And Chancellor is so much better than people might think, given his size, at playing man-to-man coverage. When they do go man-to-man, they will line him up on the tight end. They played man-to-man [seven or eight] snaps against San Francisco, and every time they did, he covered Vernon Davis. And he locked up Davis. Davis couldn’t get away from him.”
Cosell also suggested that the Seahawks benefit from the relatively simple scheme run by Bradley (now the Jaguars’ head coach) and current defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who was also a hot head-coaching candidate during the offseason. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has perhaps the thickest playbook in the league, and young players can sometimes be confounded by the scheme and play more slowly as a result.
“They’re more of what we would call an execution defense than a schematic defense. There’s not a lot of mystery to what they do,” Cosell said of the Seahawks. “They’re not difficult to figure out tactically. They’re an execution defense. They have really good players who execute the defense play after play after play at a very, very high level.”
Said Quinn: “There’s a real style that we like to play with, and when you talk to our players this week and you ask them that question, the first thing that I’d hope they’d say is we’re fast and physical. We take pride in the way that we want to play, in that style. I think that’s one of the first things that jump out for us: ‘Let’s make sure we have a style and an attitude we like to play our game in.'”
Meanwhile, back on the personnel side, Schneider has also filled holes on defense with veteran free-agents but in the cases of Bennett and Avril, got them at inexpensive prices. Bennett, who was coming off a shoulder injury when he hit the market last year, is expected to command a much larger deal on the open market this spring, while Avril found a softer market than he expected when he hit the market.
“I’m Catholic, so I kind of always have that feeling in my stomach that we’re never really doing enough,” Schneider – having attended De Pere Abbot Pennings High School in suburban Green Bay and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. – said with a chuckle. “I think it’s just something where you have to feel like you’re covering all your bases or you’re not doing your job.
“We’re looking at all avenues and we don’t necessarily feel like one is more important than the other. Now, there is obviously no question that you put a lot more time into the draft just because you’re starting from scratch with these guys. [But] we [also] look at the waiver wire every day. We have agents calling us about guys that may be feeling better and improving off of specific injuries and you may want to give them a shot. We talk to teams about trades. We always feel like we can walk away from the deal, is really how we look at it.”
Schneider and the Seahawks will face some major salary-cap challenges in the near future, with Wilson, Sherman and Thomas likely to command hefty raises. Wilson’s four-year, $2.198 million deal runs through 2015; Sherman’s four-year, $2,222,424 deal is up after next season; and Thomas’ five-year, $21.1 million deal ends after next season. Chancellor signed a five-year, $29.323 million extension ($17 million guaranteed) last April.
Assuming those three core players are signed to extensions, Schneider and Carroll will have to face the same challenges Thompson and McCarthy do – and may have to fill some holes with young, inexpensive talent. That will mean the Seahawks will have to keep hitting for a high average with their draft picks and inexpensive veteran pick-ups.
“That’s the fortunate thing for me with John. He can handle those kinds of things,” Quinn said of salary-cap issues. “The nice part about working here is that we have a real style about how we want to play and they know the kinds of players to bring in, to feature those players, whether it’s through the draft or through free agency.
“One of the most important things for us is developing our players. The guys who are here, how far can we take them? That’s one of the things that you have a lot of pride as a coach to say, ‘Let’s not worry about where they were drafted or how they got here. How far can we take them?’ I think that’s one of the real things that we stress, in the competition here. It really doesn’t have a big bearing with, ‘You were a first-round pick. You’re going to play right now.’ It’s more the fact that you come here and compete and see what you can do. That’s one thing that we really take a lot of pride in.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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