The Seattle Seahawks did not play any unusual packages in the Super Bowl and did not need to bring extra blitzers to get to Peyton Mannning. They just lined up their normal four-man front against one of the best offenses in history – and smashed them in the mouth. In a recent story by Pro Football Focus the Seahawks ranked 28th of the 32 teams in blitz frequency, blitzing only 21.35 percent of the time. But when they did blitz, they brought the hurt. PFF ranked Seattle 1st in their pass-rushing productivity stat, with 19 sacks, 20 hits and 43 hurries, for a PRP of 42.7. They also ranked third in PRP without blitzing – a benefit of those coverage sacks courtesy of the legion of boom.
What makes this work is the Seahawks’ development of the LEO position, which is a rare cat indeed for Seattle – a position somewhere between linebacker and defensive end. Last year the LEO was played by Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril (who had 28 quarterback hurries each) and sometimes Bruce Irvin.
Here’s a clip of the Seahawks getting to Drew Brees from the Monday night shellacking:
The LEO is a blitzer out of the normal front seven who will draw protection away from the other side consistently enough to create opportunistic pass rush for that side. The main reaper of this opportunity last year was Michael Bennett, with 17 quarterback hits, 39 hurries and 8.5 sacks.
It is possible to play with jacked-up aggression without blitzing. In fact, in the modern NFL, blitzing is almost a sign of weakness – something a team resorts to when it can not get pressure out of its normal front. Pete Carroll cut his NFL teeth as a defensive coordinator (NY Jets 90–93/SF 49ers 95-96), so let there be no misunderstanding – the Seattle Seahawks defense is the Pete Carroll defense. The Gus Bradley/Dan Quinn transition (at defensive coordinator when Bradley got the head-coaching job for the Jacksonville Jaguars) was not only a smooth one, but Seattle’s defense actually got better.
Some years ago, Pete Carroll attended an Oakland Raiders practice and decided he liked the looks of Oakland’s bump-and-run pressure defense, with the defensive backs roughing up the opposing receivers all the way down the field. Pete Carroll actually played collegiate defensive back, but couldn’t quite make the squad for the World Football League’s Honolulu Hawaiians, because mainly (deja-vu all over again) he was considered undersized.
As the Seattle Seahawks defense has been brought up to speed under Pete Carroll’s system, the team has blitzed less each year. In Carroll’s first season (2010), the team had the highest blitzing rate of his tenure at 33 percent. Blitzing isn’t the same full-launch nuclear option it was in the seventies and eighties, when teams like the Pittsburg Steelers and the Chicago Bears ran jail-break systems like Buddy Ryan’s notorious 46 defense, whose prime objective was the absolute physical, moral and emotional devastation of whichever chump of the day was lining up under center.
Those rampaging systems are gone forever – the NFL will never allow quarterbacks to be brutalized like that again. Today’s winning systems must necessarily be more subtle but no less brutal, and Pete Carroll’s brainchild fits the mold perfectly.