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Grounds for optimism
Up 24-7 entering the second half, the preferred modus operandi of any team is to run the ball to help run the clock.
Not the Atlanta Falcons. Not in last week’s two-point win over the Seahawks, anyway. On their 10 running plays in the second half, four resulted in lost yardage and on six others they gained 3 or fewer yards.
What gives? Not the Seahawks’ run defense.
“I think Seattle did a great job of making adjustments at halftime,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said after that 24-7 lead became a 30-28 victory at CenturyLink Field. “They did a good job of bringing safeties down into the box against our run game … they did a good job of taking that away from us.”
Make that another good job. Entering Sunday’s game against the 3-1 New York Giants at the Meadowlands, the Seahawks have not allowed a 100-yar rusher and only two of their first four opponents have cracked triple digits – the Steelers (124) in Week 2 and the Falcons (121) last week.
In the Seahawks’ opener at San Francisco, the 49ers’ Frank Gore averaged 2.7 yards on 22 carries – compared to 4.2 yards in the 49ers’ other three games. Last week, the Falcons’ Michael Turner averaged 2.7 yards on 26 carries – compared to 5.6 yards in the Falcons’ other three games.
“We really have an identity in our base defense, and we take pride in stopping the run,” said middle linebacker David Hawthorne, the team’s leading tackler the past two seasons and one of six players with 20-plus tackles this season.
This week, it’s the Giants’ 1-2 punch of 264-pound Brandon Jacobs, who has averaged 8.3 yards against the Seahawks in his career (27 carries for 223); and Ahmad Bradshaw, who averaged 4.8 yards against all teams in his first four NFL seasons and is averaging 4.1 yards this season while leading the Giants with 228 rushing yards.
“We’ve already faced some good backs,” Hawthorne said. “These guys are just two more. Jacobs is an enforcer, and Bradshaw is smaller but he enforces just as well. So the key to stopping those guys is you’ve got to be physical, early and often. These guys, they bring a load.”
As they did in Seattle last season, when the Giants ran for 197 yards against the Seahawks. But in that game, the Seahawks played without Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane – who provide almost 650 pounds of run-stuffing power.
Both are back, so it’s no surprise that when defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is asked for the secret to the Seahawks’ success at stopping the run this season he starts with the obvious: The increased size and disruptiveness of the line.
That would be 323-pound Bryant at the five-technique end spot; 311-pound Mebane at nose tackle, after he played the three-technique position last season; 325-pound free-agent addition Alan Branch at the three-technique; and Chris Clemons at the “Leo” end spot, where the 254-pounder is an underrated player against the run.
“We’re pretty good sized up front, and I think that’s a big key,” Bradley said. “And they’re good. They take a lot of pride in defending the run.”
The front-to-back key is, of course, gap integrity – a term that gets a nod of agreement from the players, but can elicit snickers from others. It’s a funny term that has a funny way of deciding the outcome of games. Each player is responsible for a gap, and must hold his ground. If just one gap is vacated, that’s usually when the opposition breaks a long run.
“You have to be gap sound,” Hawthorne said. “It’s just being where you’re supposed to be at the right time.”
And when that doesn’t happen, it’s like Mebane put it, “If one screw is out of place, it can crumble the whole foundation.”
Mebane will get no argument from those who play behind him, and take advantage of his ability to take away a gap, at the very least; or blowup a play, at the very best.
“The key to playing good run defense is everybody being in the right spot, everybody being in the right gap, everybody doing their individual jobs well,” said cornerback Marcus Trufant, who has been among the team’s top five tacklers five times in his first eight seasons and was the leading tackler in 2004.
“All it takes is one guy not being in the right spot, whether it’s a corner on the edge or whether it be a linebacker or somebody else out of their gap. So if everybody does their job, we’ll be alright.”