Progressing beyond the prototypical

Posted May 3, 2012

Pete Carroll loves players with unique characteristics, and the Seahawks' third-year coach is using them in unique ways to form a defense that ranked ninth in the NFL last season and featured a trio of Pro Bowl players.

Leroy Hill admits to the occasional double take as he stepped into the Seahawks’ defensive huddle last season.

And who can blame the veteran linebacker, just look at what was surrounding him – and continues to encircle him as the team moves into Phase 2 of its offseason program: a 254-pounder who plays fast and furious at one end (Chris Clemons) and a 332-pounder who plays big and bold at the other end (Red Bryant); a similar smaller/speedier (Earl Thomas) and bigger/brasher (Kam Chancellor) tandem at safety; and 12½ feet of seemingly all arms and legs at the cornerback spots (Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman).

Each of these guys is a square peg in the round-hole expectations for the prototypical players who should line up at their positions. But each also played an important role in the Seahawks’ defense ranking ninth in the league last season – Clemons with his 11 sacks; Bryant with his two interceptions as well as his immovable-object presence against the run; Thomas, Chancellor and Browner with their overall games that landed each in the Pro Bowl; and Sherman, the third option on the left side, with his four interceptions and 17 passes defensed.

“It’s an odd-looking defense when you look at the bodies that we have out there,” Hill, who is in his eighth season with the team, said Thursday. “It’s definitely odd compared to what I’m used to.”

There is a definite method to the perceived madness of how the Seahawks play defense, and who they use to play it with: Pete Carroll.

The Seahawks’ third-year head coach was a two-time All-Pacific Coast Conference free safety at Pacific, and was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995. Before that, he was a defensive back at Marin Junior College, and also Redwood High School in Lakespur, Calif. – where he also played quarterback and wide receiver. Before he became a head coach, Carroll was a defensive coach at Iowa State, Ohio State and North Carolina State, and also has coached that side of the ball in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers.

Like most coaches, Carroll has absorbed a little from here and a little from there to develop the style of defense – and the types of players – the Seahawks are deploying.

“Our defense is a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel,” he said. “It’s just utilizing the special talents of our guys.”

Here’s a closer look at the origins of these unique positions, and the uniquely talented players who are filling them for the Seahawks:

“Leo” end – This is a hybrid of the hybrid “Elephant” position Carroll gleaned from his days as the defensive coordinator with the 49ers (1995-96). Then, the “Elephant” was Chris Dolman. Before Carroll arrived, it had been Charles Haley. Now, with the Seahawks, it’s Clemons, who has had back-to-back 11-sack seasons in his first two years with the Seahawks. Eventually, it will be first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin – a 248-pounder who will play opposite Clemons in the nickel package while honing his skills that Carroll says are perfectly suited to the spot.

“Those playing that position always have been speed-oriented, always-fast guys,” Carroll said. “We really started doing that a lot at SC, but it always depends on the athletes. So the versatility comes from all the years and background that gives us an openness to fit guys in.”

Five-technique end – When Carroll arrived in 2010, he was looking for a bigger body to play opposite the “Leo.” It was at the suggestion of then-line coach Dan Quinn that Bryant, a seldom-used tackle in his first two seasons with the club, was moved to end.

That proved to be just the beginning for Bryant, who was impressive while making eight starts that season and blossomed last season – when his resume also included blocking four kicks, making 32 tackles, hitting the QB a half dozen times and returning one of his two interceptions for a touchdown.

Safeties – Chancellor and Thomas finished 2-3 in tackles last season, which was Chancellor’s first as a starter and Thomas’ second after both were selected in the 2010 draft. While the 5-10, 202-pound Thomas is blink-and-you’ll-miss-him fast, the 6-3, 232-pound Chancellor is an obvious physical presence who also can cover (four interceptions, 12 passes defensed).

This fast-but-also-big approach is something Carroll first used when he was the defensive backs coach on Bud Grant’s staff with the Vikings (1985-89).  That’s when he had Joey Browner, a 6-2, 202-pound strong safety who was considered even bigger at the position then than Chancellor is now but still went to six Pro Bowls. At USC, Carroll had Troy Polamalu, a 5-10, 207-pound strong safety who plays bigger than he is and has been to seven Pro Bowls as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the head coach with the Patriots, Carroll also had Lawyer Milloy, another uniquely talented safety who also played for him with the Seahawks in 2010.  As the D-coordinator with the 49ers, Carroll had the tandem of Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks.

“All those guys were unique,” Carroll said. “And we played to their strengths, because we’re open to fit things in to feature what they’re really equipped to do.”

Having a third element helps Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley do just that, in what they call their “big nickel.” By adding a third safety to the mix – Milloy in 2010 and the since-departed Atari Bigby last season – it allows Thomas or Chancellor to play closer to the line, as either a nickel back or linebacker; which allows the defensive to be more unpredictable. This season, just-drafted Winston Guy has the skills to fill that vital third safety spot. 

Cornerbacks – Carroll says he does have “profiles for those guys in size, weight and speed,” but quickly adds, “If they’re unique, we’ll look harder.” Enter the 6-3 Sherman, who was a fifth-round draft choice last year and went to Stanford as a wide receiver; and the 6-4 Browner, who spent the previous four seasons in the CFL trying to just get a tryout with an NFL team.

“Sherman is a great example of that,” Carroll said. “He’s a guy I watched on film that we weren’t even thinking about much. But then I saw him playing press (coverage) and tackling, and knew him as a receiver coming out of high school, and thought, ‘Oh boy.’ ”

Carroll had another “oh boy” experience with Browner, who Carroll also knew from high school days in Southern California and then coached against while Browner was at Oregon State. Many teams figured Browner was too big and too slow to play the position in the NFL, but Carroll took a think-again approach – because he had made similar moves in his past. Like re-signing just-cut Carl Lee and moving him from safety to corner while with the Vikings, only to have what Carroll labeled “a lousy safety” become a Pro Bowl corner. He also had Eric Davis with the 49ers and Ty Law with the Patriots, who played a little safety before playing a lot of corner – and at Pro Bowl levels.

“Like Brandon, they all had their own skill sets,” Carroll said. “But they all did a lot of really good stuff.”

Another wrinkle to his fold-in-the-mold approach is Carroll’s willingness to play younger players. Thomas started as a rookie. Chancellor, Sherman and Browner were first-year starters last season – as was rookie linebacker K.J. Wright.

“That really came out of my time at SC,” said Carroll, who was basically the general manager and personnel director with the Trojans as well as head coach during a ridiculously successful nine-year run. “I realized we were recruiting all these really great kids and we needed to see what they could do.

“We forced them to play, in essence. And then we discovered if we asked them to do things they could do uniquely well, that they could elevate faster and find their confidence sooner.”

It’s an approach Carroll continues to use with the Seahawks – and with success. 

Just look at his defense. Mix in Hill and his fellow linebackers – Wright on the strong side and either just-drafted rookie Bobby Wagner or recently acquired veteran Barrett Ruud in the middle. Then add the tackle spots – with Brandon Mebane at the nose, where he led all NFC interior linemen in tackles last season; the length and leverage of 6-6 Alan Branch at the three-technique; and free-agent addition Jason Jones providing needed pass rush in the nickel.

It creates a formidable, if not familiar-formula, unit.

“As odd as it looks, it works and the scheme works,” Hill said. “It all came together last year. I’m really excited to get back to it and build upon what we had last year.”