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Run, and done

Posted Oct 21, 2010

The secret to the Seahawks’ second-ranked run defense? It goes back to some tricks coach Pete Carroll and line coach Dan Quinn learned from Bill McPherson while coaching with the 49ers.


When talking about run defense, the conversation usually starts with – or at least quickly gets around to – the big boys up front.

That definitely is the case this week in trying to decipher the key, or keys, to the Seahawks’ defense ranking second the NFL against the run entering Sunday’s big game against the Arizona Cardinals in a matchup between the NFC West co-leaders at Qwest Field.

“The defensive line. It starts with them, and they’ve taken the challenge,” strong safety and leading tackler Lawyer Milloy said.

WAY BETTER THAN AVERAGE

The Seahawks rank second in the NFL in rushing defense because in their first five games they’ve generally held their opponents – and the feature back – to less-than-average performances:

Opponents
Team Avg. Yards Per Carry Avg.
49ers 91.2 4.0
vs. Seahawks 49.0 2.6
     
Broncos 67.3 2.7
vs. Seahawks 65.0 1.7
     
Chargers 116.5 4.3
vs. Seahawks 89.0 4.2
     
Rams 104.3 3.6
vs. Seahawks 88.0 3.1
     
Bears 92.3 4.0
vs. Seahawks 61.0 4.4

 

Backs
Player Avg. Yards Per Carry Avg.
Frank Gore 78.5 4.1
vs. Seahawks 38.0 2.2
     
Knowshawn Moreno 53.0 3.1
vs. Seahawks 51.0 2.1
     
Mike Tolbert 49.2 4.5
vs. Seahawks 73.0 4.3
     
Steven Jackson 84.5 4.0
vs. Seahawks 70.0 3.2
     
Matt Forte 51.8 3.9
vs. Seahawks 11.0 1.4

The secret to the Seahawks’ success in holding their first five opponents to an average of 70.4 rushing yards – and 2.9 per carry, also second-best in the league – actually has a back history. As in way back, to when coach Pete Carroll and defensive line coach Dan Quinn were with the San Francisco 49ers.

Not together. Carroll was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 1995-96, while Quinn was the D-line coach in 2003-04. But the common bond that connected their tenures was Bill McPherson, now retired after serving in a number of capacities during an influential 20-year career with the 49ers. The tricks Carroll and Quinn learned from McPherson are producing the treats the Seahawks’ run defense has been producing on a weekly basis.

“We made some scheme adjustments to the style that was here in years past, and really the style that I’ve been playing in college, and I flipped it all the way back to when I was at San Francisco,” Carroll explained. “It was the last time we’ve played this formula of defense.

“Danny Quinn has had a big role in that because of his crossover to the days when he was at San Francisco. We were both affected by a guy there – Bill McPherson, a coach that was there for us. And Mac taught us some stuff. Now we brought the expertise to at least be able to explore it.”

That exploration process began with a scavenger hunt. First, Carroll and Quinn needed an end to play the hybrid “Leo” position. That’s why the Seahawks traded for Chris Clemons, who leads the club with 4½ sacks but also tops the linemen with 18 tackles. Then they needed a larger presence at the end opposite Clemons. So Red Bryant, a seldom-used 332-pound tackle, was moved outside. The next order of business was altering Colin Cole’s role to that of a true nose tackle.

“When we hit with Red Bryant that was really a big deal. He was a big factor,” Carroll said, no pun intended. “Then Colin Cole has made that transition and he’s done a nice job of transitioning into the style of play. And getting Clem was a big factor.”

The new scheme – which features 3-4 wrinkles from a 4-3 front and uses both single- and double-gap assignments for the linemen – also called for middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and strong-side ’backer Aaron Curry to tweak their games.

“So all those guys contribute to make this scheme approach available,” Carroll said. “It was just something we know and we really like it, so we’ve been coaching the heck out of it.”

And, getting consistently better-than-average performances for their efforts. It started in the opener, when the Seahawks limited old nemesis Frank Gore to 38 yards – 40 less than his season average. It continued in Denver, when they held the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno to a yard per carry less (2.1) than his season average. The next week against San Diego, the Chargers rushed for a season-high 89 yards against the Seahawks – but it was 27 fewer than their season average. Even in the disappointing loss in St. Louis, Steven Jackson and the Rams did not reach their season averages against the Seahawks (see chart). In Sunday’s big win at Chicago, the Bears’ Matt Forte was held to 1.4-yards per carry – a week after rushing for a career-high 166 yards.

Take a bow Bill McPherson.

“We’re playing a lot of similar styles and technique that I learned during my time in San Francisco,” said Quinn, who also was a quality control coach for the 49ers in 2001-02. “Bill McPherson was just an outstanding assistant coach that not a lot of people know about. He was just an unbelievable resource for me.”

Quinn actually got a phone call from McPherson on Tuesday. Not a way-to-go shout out, but a just-checking-in call.

“He’s somebody I have tons of respect for,” Quinn said. “I can certainly remember my time there, thinking I knew a little bit about football. Then to talk to him, it’s like, ‘Oh man.’ ”

Because of the lessons learned from McPherson – and the way Carroll, Quinn, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and the other defensive assistant coaches have been able to teach it to the Seahawks’ defenders – Seattle’s run defense is earning some respect.

“Well, they’re certainly playing with a lot of energy, obviously, on defense,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said the week his club was preparing to face the Seahawks. “They’re defending the run extremely well. They are a very fast defensive football team. I’ve been impressed.”

But what has been the most impressive element of this stingy run defense?

“No. 1, the players are taking the technique and putting it out on film,” Quinn said. “That’s first and foremost.”

Milloy, meanwhile, sticks with his initial assessment that it’s the line, offering, “I’ve seen them grow in the offseason – just their mentality. And then when we got the pads on in training camp, I knew they had something special going on.”

Cole, however, spreads the credit when asked about the defense’s success against the run.

“The biggest key is setting edges,” he said. “Having two guys on the ends of the line – outside linebackers, defensive ends – that set the edge and make stuff come back inside. If they go outside, then we’ve got definite speed at the linebacker and DB positions to run anything down.

“So whatever we’ve got coming downhill, we’re able to funnel it all inside and we’ve got guys in position to make those plays.”

Told that everyone had credited the line, Cole offered, “I’m giving love to everybody. It’s a team effort. Yeah, it’s the guys up front. We make a lot of things happen. But it takes everybody. It takes 11 guys.”

No one benefits more from the disruptive and physical efforts of the interior linemen than Tatupu, who is second on the team in tackles to Milloy.

“Everybody’s got a job to do, and after you’ve done your job just get to the ball,” Tatupu said. “That’s what we’re doing. It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s not always going to be set up perfectly. But the way we’re playing, someone is going to be there.”

With the way the Seahawks’ defense has been swarming to the ball, make that several someones.

The Seahawks’ reward for all their impressive efforts against the run? Their toughest challenge yet in the Cardinals.

“This is probably the best combination we’ve seen,” Bradley said, referring to Cardinals’ tandem of Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. “And they like to pound it and pound it.”

Wells is a big, strong back (228 pounds) who runs hard. Hightower is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has an 80-yard TD run this season.

“They can really run the ball,” Tatupu said. “So we’ve got a task in front of us.”

Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks