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Seahawks schedule: Defensive Coordinators
An intro to "Bear fronts" and what defenses Seattle can expect in 2023: Seaside Joe 1549
There are many ways to dissect the Seattle Seahawks 2023 schedule without needing to draw win/loss conclusions too soon, with “too soon” sometimes being as late as when there’s :01 second left on the clock in the actual game. But there are other ways for us to prepare as fans that will help us grasp what to expect without scratching that itch of wanting to know if the Seahawks will be among the NFL’s most winningest teams of 2023.
Knowing the defensive coordinators and schemes that Seattle will face over their 17-game schedule won’t get us closer to knowing the Seahawks final record and that shouldn’t be something we’re even trying to find out so early anyway. I understand the inclination to peek, I was the type of kid who would try to Mission: Impossible his way into Christmas presents days, if not weeks before the 25th, but ultimately there’s nothing satisfying about ruining your own surprises.
However, what does increase the satisfaction of a win, if not also easing the pain of a loss, is knowing what the Seahawks are up against.
I’ve been open about the fact that I have not been as adept and knowledgable on the Xs and Os of football as I would like to be, so a few months ago I added “10 minutes of film study” into my list of non-negotiable daily habits, which I consider to be either soft intros or clear refreshers on the basics and fundamentals of the game we love to watch. I think it’s important for people in my position to not be ashamed or embarassed of shortcomings, so then it can be addressed, resolved, and I’ll be able to move onto the next thing that I need to work on so that we can have the best version of Seaside Joe possible.
I’ve always said that the collective knowledge of the people who read my work on the Seahawks will always be far greater than what I could hope to learn—even if I lived 100 lifetimes—therefore many of you already know plenty of concepts that I don’t. But then there are many others, probably the majority, who feel like I often do and together we can better understand some of the terms that are thrown around with more regularity with regards to Seattle’s schemes, such as hot item tickets of late like “bear front defense" and “10 personnel”, and thankfully the NFL has given us about two months until training camp to “tackle” football fundamentals.
(“Tackle” is when man wrap man with ball and take man to ground.)
For example, I’m not the guy to say I’m an expert on the bear front defense, but you know who could? The guy who has a YouTube video that starts with, “Today we’re going to talk about the 46 Bear Defense, which was invented by my father.”
Rob Ryan has spent 12 seasons in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and he currently serves as an assistant on the Las Vegas Raiders. When he had a year off in 2020, Ryan made a handful of videos for the Girdiron YouTube channel explaining the Xs and Os of defense, including the “46 bear fronts” that were popularized by his father Buddy as defensive coordinator for the mid-eighties Chicago Bears. And more recently the scheme has been oft connected to the Seahawks since promoting Clint Hurtt to defensive coordinator in 2022.
For more on how Hurtt rose through the ranks to become Seattle’s defensive coordinator and the Vic Fangio influence, read his Origin Story from last week.
The quickest explanation for a bear front, which turns out to be extremely easy to identify, is that the defense has three defensive linemen aligned inside of the offensive tackles; basically, if you have a nose tackle on the center and a player aligned on each guard in some fashion, you have a bear front.
As explained by Rob Ryan, the term “46” does not originate from personnel alignments like you might imagine (such as 3-3-5 or 3-4, etc.) but instead because that was the number of strong safety Doug Plank, an integral component to Buddy Ryan’s defense when he was first hired by the Bears in 1978.
As a matter of fact, Buddy Ryan followed defensive coordinator Neill Armstrong from the Vikings to the Bears when Chicago hired Armstrong as their head coach in ‘78. Therefore, Ryan and Armstrong came up through the Bud Grant tree, the same Bud Grant who hired Pete Carroll in 1985 and who Carroll cites as his mentor and reason for having a career:
"I can't tell you how much I love the guy and how much I've respected him throughout my career and the opportunity that he gave me to get me back in the league—I'd been in the league one year, got fired, got thrown out of it, and he gave me a chance to come back. I don't know why he saw it, but he did. And from that point forward, the relationship that we've had has just been meaningful to me in everything that I've done. It doesn't even make sense to me. I said, 'Could this possibly be?' He said, 'Yeah, it is, it is.' Neither one of us thinks it's that big a deal, but to me it is just because it's Bud."
Buddy Ryan also spent a year at the University of the Pacific in the ‘60s, Carroll’s alma mater. (As well as Jon Gruden, Tom Flores, and Mike Martz.)
So while I wouldn’t say that Carroll has necessarily had a “close association” with the Ryans over his 30+ years as a defensive coordinator and head coach, Seattle’s recent so-called adoption of a 3-4 defense and 46 bear fronts is not as surprising as you might imagine.
If you, potentially more of an expert than me, find any of this terminology or history to be incorrect or misleading, let me know in the comments.
The reason that I say Ryan “popularized” and didn’t “invent” the bear front is because I’m pulling directly from comments that Carroll made to the media last year. Carroll notes that some version of the defense goes “way back” but that bear fronts were “brought to life” by Buddy Ryan with the Chicago Bears.
Carroll says that playing against the Bears in that era, when he was the defensive backs coach for Grant and then Jerry Burns, “changed me forever” because of how Ryan managed to expand the capabilities of what each individual player would have been expected to do. In two games against the Bears in 1985, Minnesota turned the ball over 10 times and rushed for a total of 64 yards.
In the future, we’ll get more into the Seahawks current defensive plan, including the advantages and disadvantages with Seattle’s current personnel, but for the rest of today’s Seaside Joe I want to do a very quick preview of the defensive coordinators and schemes that Carroll is facing and not just the one that he and Hurtt are running.
Plus, that will give me more time to make sure that I understand what I’m talking about and sharing with you.
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Week 1 - Los Angeles Rams, DC: Raheem Morris
Morris is unique in that he was a head coach before he was a coordinator, getting promoted by the Bucs in 2009 after Tampa Bay fired mentor Jon Gruden. It was on those mid-aught Gruden coaching staffs that you will find the likes of Sean McVay, Mike Tomlin, Kyle Shanahan, Gus Bradley, Jay Gruden, Nathaniel Hackett, Rich Bisaccia, and many other current NFL assistants, including Seahawks quarterbacks coach Greg Olson.
Morris did demote defensive coordinator Jim Bates in the middle of his first season and assume those duties, but then he demoted himself in 2011 and hired Keith Millard. Everyone was fired in 2012 and Morris was hired by Mike Shanahan to be Washington’s secondary coach under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, now the head coach of the Seattle Sea Dragons in the XFL.
Haslett’s defenses have been called “aggressive” and most closely aligned with a 3-4 scheme, but Morris next spent six years with the Atlanta Falcons under former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Morris actually spent the majority of his time as an assistant on offense, but Quinn replaced himself with Morris as defensive coordinator in 2020. That didn’t go well, as Quinn was fired after an 0-5 start and replaced by Morris.
Despite a shallow and unsuccessful resume as a defensive coordinator, McVay hired Morris in that role for the Los Angeles Rams in 2021. Rather than bring his own recipe to defense—whatever that is—it seems that Morris was hired to keep doing what previous defensive coordinator Brandon Staley had orchestrated during his one year on the job, guiding L.A. to the number one defense in the league before being hired by the Chargers as head coach.
Notably, Staley replaced Clint Hurtt as Chicago’s outside linebackers coach in 2017 when Hurtt moved to Seattle. Therefore, the Seahawks should be somewhat familiar with the Rams defense, even if it is by proxy. Here is a quick explanation of how the Morris different might be slightly different than the Staley, as written by LAFB’s Nikko Buenavidez:
While the Rams’ base defense remained a 3-4 scheme, Morris has made several adjustments to better utilize the talent on the roster and create a more aggressive, attacking defense.
One of the most notable changes in the Rams’ defense under Morris has been the increased use of blitzes. Morris has not shied away from sending additional pressure, utilizing linebackers and defensive backs to create chaos in opposing backfields. This aggressive approach has led to more sacks and quarterback pressures, which in turn has resulted in a higher number of turnovers.
HOWEVER…the Rams have gotten rid of almost every starter (and most backups) on defense with the exception of Aaron Donald and will be starting over and I’m not so sure that Donald will want to see through a complete rebuild from start to finish at this stage of his career. We can’t say much about the Rams defense without knowing the strengths of the personnel and not even Morris can answer that question yet.
Week 2 - Detroit Lions, DC: Aaron Glenn
Glenn is on thin ice with a defense that has ranked 31st and 28th in points allowed over his first two seasons, as well as 32nd and 31st in net yards per pass attempt allowed. Where Glenn gets slack is the fact that he took over a unit that needed a complete overhaul when he was hired by Dan Campbell, but the Lions have since added the likes of Aidan Hutchinson, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Alex Anzalone, Kerby Joseph, Alim McNeill, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Cameron Sutton, and used relatively early draft picks on rookies Jack Campbell and Brian Branch, so expectations are finally up in Detroit.
Glenn was a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback over a 15-year career (starting out as a rookie under Carroll in the 1994 New York Jets) and then he came up as a coach under Dennis Allen on the Saints. Here’s what DetroitLions.com writer Tim Twentyman says we should expect in 2023:
There were the first eight weeks when the Lions were 1-6 and allowing an NFL-worst 32.1 points per game.
Then coming out of the bye week Glenn and his defensive coaching staff made some tweaks to the scheme, changed some personnel and allowed some guys a little more freedom within the scheme. The defense went from allowing 32.1 points per game to 20.2, which was 11th best in the league over the last 10 weeks.
Glenn is going to continue to play a gap and half scheme upfront and continue to look for ways to utilize the best of his players' abilities, much like he did with Hutchinson and Joseph in particular last season.
Answers to questions of whether the Lions are a “3-4” or a “4-3” and those types of questions have sort of moved around depending on the personnel and playing to the strengths and against the weaknesses of their players. Glenn changed things up midseason because the Lions were so bad and then they improved, and he even received a contract extension this past February. However, that will not improve his job security if Detroit’s defense is as gashed as they were against the Seahawks in a 48-45 loss last season.
Week 3 - Carolina Panthers, DC: Ejiro Evero
Speaking of Jon Gruden, Sean McVay, and Raheem Morris, Evero was also on those mid-aught Bucs staffs and then he worked as an offensive assistant for Jim Harbaugh on the Seattle-rivalry 49ers in the early 2010s. Evero was then hired by McVay as safeties coach for the Rams in 2017, promoted to defensive passing game coordinator when L.A. won the Super Bowl in 2021, and hired by Hackett as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2022. Sean Payton opted to let Evero go despite ranking seventh in points per drive allowed (despite not getting any help from the Broncos offense) and he was picked up by Frank Reich to rejuvenate a talented Panthers defense.
Here’s what Charlotte Observer had to say about Evero’s defense:
Evero will bring a 3-4 base defensive scheme with him to Charlotte, and Reich embraced that decision because of his belief in Evero.
“The reason why we decided to go with it was because of Ejiro,” Reich said. “I was hiring the man, not the scheme. I was hiring the man, I was hiring the leader. That’s what I was hiring. It wasn’t as much about the scheme — he could coach any scheme he wanted — he’s going to be good at it. That was my take on that.”
Evero believes the odd-man front, while only used on a fraction of the defensive plays, gives the defense an advantage. Unlike with four-man fronts, the 3-4 look allows Evero to disguise a fourth potential pass rusher.
“You don’t know where that extra rusher is coming from,” Evero said. “It’s that extra level that the offense has to grow through to figure out what you’re doing.”
Evero takes over a defense that has used recent first round picks on Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jaycee Horn, and last year Carolina was able to hold the Seahawks to 16 first downs and 46 rushing yards, each of which was their third-worst performance of the season. He should be no less than an upgrade to Phil Snow, the DC who was fired alongside Matt Rhule midseason.
Week 4 - New York Giants, DC: Don “Wink” Martindale
First and foremost, I have to address how odd it is to have a nickname that is literally just a famous person’s name. The original Wink Martindale was a DJ and game show host who you may associate with one thing or another that you remember from childhood but I can’t say that I know him from anything other than being in the American pop culture ether. Still, every time someone brings up “Wink Martindale” in football today, I get maybe 2% confused. “Is that the original Wink Martindale?” No. Different people, the second getting his nickname simply because of the first guy.
That would be like if Clint Hurtt’s nickname was “William” or “John”.
Now back to the football version of Wink Martindale, entering his second year as the Giants defensive coordinator after he was let go by the Ravens after a four-year stint in that role and 10 years in total under John Harbaugh. Any time you are associated with Baltimore’s defense, it’s a good thing, but the unit fell apart and ranked 32nd in passing yards allowed in 2021.
Brian Daboll hired Martindale to rebuild the Giants defense in 2022, but they actually ranked much lower in DVOA (dropping from 18th to 29th) and I’m not sure that his somewhat restored reputation is yet earned. New York won a playoff game, which helps (he was interviewed by the Colts for their head coaching position), but the Giants will be leaning heavily on their defense to advance deeper in the postseason this year. As such, they’ve recently spent first round picks on Dexter Lawrence, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and rookie cornerback Deonte Banks, and they’ve been adding parts like Leonard Williams, Bobby Okereke, Adoree’ Jackson, A’Shawn Robinson, and Azeez Ojulari.
One of Martindale’s most important players from last season, defensive back Julian Love, is now on the Seahawks.
A major reason for the defense's success is their ability to utilize an abundance of defensive backs at any time during the game.
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is known as an attacking style, 30-front defensive coordinator, but the truth is that the defense resembles more of a 40-front. Over 80 percent of the snaps only have two legitimate defensive linemen on the field. The other two positions on the line are occupied by outside linebackers/ edge rushers.
They play with two linebackers, but only one linebacker routinely sees over 80 percent of the snaps. That means the defense is primarily lined up in a nickel (five defensive backs), and they play dime (six defensive backs) more often than others around the league.
But the Giants ranked 32nd in run defense DVOA last season and 31st in yards per carry allowed. They allowed 268 rushing yards to the Eagles in the playoffs, which came after giving up 253 and 135 rushing yards in their two regular season games against Philadelphia. Will the additions of Okereke and Robinson properly address that shortcoming? I expect Seattle to look to run the ball heavily against New York, though that wasn’t their strength in the Seahawks 27-13 win over the Giants in 2022.
Week 5 - BYE
Since this episode is going on long already, I’ll cut it off here and we’ll pick up the rest of the season in a future Seaside Joe. So make sure you are subscribed to not miss it, share with friends, let me know what I got wrong, and consider joining our premium club to help support and get bonus Seahawks content!
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