Not long after the Seahawks re-signed both K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll gushed about the potential of a linebacker trio of Bobby Wagner, Wright and Kendricks, and he said the play was to play all three together even though Wright and Kendricks had played the same weakside linebacker spot in 2018.
But even though Carroll called that linebacker trio "one of the aspects of our team I'm most excited about," what wasn't known when he said that in March was just how often all three of those players would be on the field at the same time.
In today's pass-happy NFL, nickel defense has become the new norm for most of teams, with a fifth defensive back taking the place of a linebacker. Last year, for example, Seattle's nickel corner Justin Coleman played 67.8 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference, and played more than 70 percent of the snaps in nine of 16 games. Essentially, Seattle's fifth defensive back was more of a starter than strongside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, regardless of who was on the field for the first snap of the game.
This season, however, the Seahawks are leaning heavily on their base defense of four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs. Granted we're only talking a two-game sample size here, and things can change from week to week, but in Seattle's opener, the Seahawks used Ugo Amadi as their nickel for 27 percent of the snaps, with Akeem King getting on the field for one play when Amadi briefly left with an injury. Seattle's linebackers meanwhile, played almost the entire game, with Wagner playing all 75 defensive snaps at middle linebacker, as usual, while Wright, the weakside linebacker played 91 percent of the snaps and Kendricks, who moved to strongside linebacker this season, played 89 percent.
The Seahawks played a bit more nickel last week, with Jamar Taylor playing 34 percent of the snaps as the primary nickel—King also played two snaps and Amadi played one—but they were again very base-heavy, with Wagner playing every snap, Wright playing 95 percent and Kendricks playing 68 percent.
A big reason why the Seahawks are playing so much base is that, as Carroll has been saying since March, they really like their linebackers, so it's a way to keep some of their top players on the field.
"It's just good quality guys, quality guys who the coaches trust, guys who can execute their jobs," Wright said. "Kendricks is just as fast as any nickel. If you just run a 40, he'll probably be just a little bit behind (a cornerback), he's just as fast. We've got really good chemistry with one another, and it has been fun I guess kind of shifting how the league has been, going against the trend, so to say. It's been working and we're just having fun with it."
Said Carroll, "We like these guys on the field. Mychal Kendricks is such a good guy in space coming off the edge. He's effective, a good tackler in open field, good coverage guy to add in with Bobby and K.J. We feel comfortable with those guys playing and we can do a lot of stuff with them."
Another reason for keeping linebackers on the field more often is that it helps the Seahawks accomplish one of their main defensive goals, which is to stop the run. The Seahawks expected Cincinnati to try to run the ball in Week 1 given Joe Mixon's success, and perhaps because they saw so many base looks, the Bengals all but abandoned the run, rushing for 34 yards on 14 carries. Last week the Steelers managed 81 yards on 16 carries, but 23 of those yards came on one play.
As Carroll put it prior to the start of the season, the priority on defense has "always been to stop the run first. Always. That's where we begin, and the next aspect of it is making sure they can't score easily (on big pass plays)… If people can run the football, it's too easy."
And for teams that usually look to run when opposing defenses put lighter personnel on the field, Seattle's commitment to playing base defense can cause some issues.
"That creates problems for you when you're trying to look at your sub run-game plan, and how you're going to attack it if you don't know that you're getting a sub defense," Saints coach Sean Payton said on a conference call. "You see that a lot of times from some of the 3-4 teams, but we're seeing it now in Seattle's first two games."
Said Wright, "I think it's a big advantage, you've got big guys out there. Usually what teams do was they would make us go small, then run the ball on us. The beauty of it is you've got the big guys out there, you're not going to be able to run against us—you shouldn't be able to run against us. We saw it in the first two weeks, we did pretty solid against the run, and we've definitely got to continue that this week with (Saints running back Alvin Kamara) in the backfield."
Of course, for a base-heavy defense to work, the linebackers know it's on them to take care of their responsibilities in the passing game. While the Seahawks gave up a lot of passing yards in Week 1, a lot of that had to due with a conservative game plan against an unknown opponent—the Bengals had an almost entirely new coaching staff, making them difficult to plan for in Week 1—that saw the Seahawks content to give up a lot of short completions; less acceptable were a few big ones for touchdowns. And last week the Seahawks limited Pittsburgh to 180 passing yards, including holding starter Ben Roethlisberger to a stat line of 8 for 15 for 75 yards before he left the game with an injury.
"The more linebackers, the merrier in my opinion," Wagner said. "I think we kind of force teams where, when they see base they want to come out and try to pass the ball, but when you're dropping your hooks and drop in your zones, they tend to check it down to those intermediate routes, and you got pretty big bodies to come make the tackles. I think it's fun. It just adds another dynamic to our defense. We've got a lot of different personnel that we can play. Last year, we had a lot of DBs and we showed that we could do really, really well with that. This year, we have a lot of linebackers and showed we can do really well with that as well."
Wright knows it's on him and his fellow linebackers to show coaches that the Seahawks can have success, even against pass-first offenses, if this trend is going to continue, and he thinks they have the ability to get that job done.
"We've got to get it done," Wright said. "We've got to get it done. Because we know as soon as they start passing, we're going to have to go to new personnel. So we understand what's at stake, the DBs understand how we've all got to tie this thing together, everybody's got to do their job and make it work, because it is new, but I believe it's going to be just fine."