Last year, I mused on the fact that there had been an unprecedented run of closely contested Super Bowls over the past decade. Fitting that streak came to an end yesterday.
Super Bowl XLVIII All About Seattle’s Defense
My initial expectation for the game was that Denver would not be able to cope with Seattle’s defense, headlined by their physical secondary and relentless pass rush. But apparently I over-thought it because I chose the Broncos to win the game, largely because I didn’t believe the Seahawks had enough offensive firepower.
Well, it was clear that the Seahawks defense was more than a match for the Broncos. The Broncos didn’t convert a first down until five minutes into the second quarter and were held scoreless until the final play of the third quarter. The Seahawks were able to set the tone early by winning the coin toss and electing to play defense first.
My expectation that the Seahawks offense wasn’t good enough did seem to be fairly accurate through the early going of this game. I would say that Seattle’s offense was solid, but unspectacular. For the Seahawks, 21 of their points were generated off turnovers, including a pick-six by linebacker Malcolm Smith. The other two gave them favorable field position near midfield or in Bronco territory to score points. And the Seahawks took the opening kickoff of the second half for six.
Factoring in all those points that were directly responsible by the defense or special teams, the Seahawks only scored 13 points in the game. And that touchdown was set up by an onside kick that once again gave Seattle favorable field position to start their drive. Really, the only success the Seahawks offense had that was generated on their own was a pair of drives that ended in field goals in the red zone in the first quarter.
So I feel better that at least half of my prediction came true. It was a game where field position, special teams, and defense were the deciding factors. A stark change from previous years, which was a main reason why the other half of my prediction was so wrong. I expected the Seahawks defense to have a good game, but I never expected them to stymy the Broncos as thoroughly as they did.
Absolutely nothing went right for Denver, and this game ultimately will probably become a referendum on whether defense still matters in today’s offensive-driven league. Really, it should not be a revelation that it still does. But it just shows that even still, an excellent defense can have the advantage over an excellent offense despite all the rule changes in favor of the latter.
Seattle Serves as a NFL Blueprint for Success
It’s interesting how the team that ultimately wins the Super Bowl will serve as the blueprint for what most of the other 31 NFL teams will try to do for the next year or so. Last year’s winner however in Baltimore were the rare exception as they were a team that didn’t really do anything particularly well that suggested they served as a blueprint for mimicry.
But the Seahawks are a much different story with the aforementioned pass rush and secondary. Their secondary, the “Legion of Boom,” essentially is going to make any number of tall cornerbacks a lot more money this coming May as you will see big corners probably go at least 20 picks higher than they would have otherwise.
However, what Seattle has done really shouldn’t be ground-breaking. They are the best-run organization in the league, and if other teams’ eyes are being awakened by how they do business, then I don’t know why they have been asleep at the wheel for so long in the first place.
Not only is the Seahawk style of defense very conducive to success in today’s NFL, but it is also how they manage their personnel.
The way Seahawks general manager John Schneider runs that team is what I’d call the opposite of complacency. The Seahawks have featured more roster turnover since the arrival of Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll in 2010. The Seahawks preach competition, and unlike other teams, it’s not simply lip service.
Decision to Bench Flynn for Wilson Pivotal for Seattle Success
Quarterback Russell Wilson personifies this reality better than anybody. In most NFL cities, given the amount of money the Seahawks had given Matt Flynn ($26 million over three years) in 2012, he would have been a shoe-in to start for the team. Even after Wilson outperformed Flynn in camp, most NFL teams would have been reluctant to turn the keys over to a third-round pick like Wilson. But not Seattle.
Just compare it to the Falcons’ handling of Peter Konz the past two seasons. In 2012, when Konz was struggling at right guard, did the Falcons yank him? No. Konz won the competition this past summer for the starting center job over Joe Hawley, but it essentially took the Falcons 10 weeks before they decided to move on and give Hawley a chance. All the while Konz played poorly. And the question remains whether or not the Falcons will give Konz another bid to win the starting job this year.
Even late in the season, when it was clear on tape that Harland Gunn was a better player than Konz, the Falcons were still reluctant to pull the plug on Konz. In fact, the team instead pulled the plug on Garrett Reynolds, who had played much better than Konz throughout the 2013 season.
That’s because the Falcons have a vested interest in Konz, who was a second-round pick in 2012, and thus they have shown they are willing to afford him every opportunity to succeed even if he doesn’t deserve it.
Imagine if the Seahawks had done the same with Flynn in 2012 at quarterback. Maybe instead of starting that year 4-4 with Wilson, they would have been 1-7. And the narrative of this team would be a lot different today than it is, and more than likely they wouldn’t currently have a Lombardi Trophy to carry back to their trophy case in Seattle.
Foundation of Seahawk Defense Laid Along Defensive Line
The aspects of their defensive success however aren’t so unique. The Seahawks have simply built a defense that most teams should strive to be building. They have invested significantly in their pass rush over the years with drafting players like Bruce Irvin in the first round, and signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett this past offseason. They also have developed solid late-round picks with five of their defensive starters on Sunday being third-day draft selections, including Smith, who earned MVP honors.
Defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald were acquired via trade. Clemons was traded with a fourth-round pick from the Philadelphia Eagles for Darryl Tapp. Tapp has since been cut by the Eagles and currently is a backup with the Washington Redskins. He has started just three games and recorded 7 sacks over the past four seasons since being traded from the Seahawks. Clemons, on the other hand, has started 59 games and recorded 38 sacks. Both figures would be higher if not for an inopportune ACL tear last January that limited him through the early part of 2013.
McDonald was traded from the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of training camp in 2011 for cornerback Kelly Jennings, and proved to be a solid rotational player the past few years. In fact, I suggested that the Falcons make a move to pick up McDonald before the start of this season to replace Peria Jerry.
Also worth considering is that eight of Seattle’s 11 defensive starters on Sunday were added to the roster in 2010 or 2011, the first two years of the Schneider-Carroll Era.
Compare that to the Falcons, who on opening day of this past year, only four of their defensive starters were additions made in the first two years in which Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith were on the job: Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Jerry, and William Moore.
The Seahawks prioritized building up their defense and found early success doing so, which obviously just paid off in the biggest game of the year.
Hopefully the Falcons are taking notes. And it probably starts with their pass rush.
Falcons Should Mimic Seahawks With Emphasis on Pass Rush
Instead of just hoping that Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Massaquoi, and/or Kroy Biermann make strides, the Falcons need to devote a significant number of resources towards bolstering their pass rush.
If that means going out and signing a big-time free agent like Bennett, Greg Hardy, or someone else, then so be it. If that means using their top pick on an edge rusher like Khalil Mack or Jadeveon Clowney in addition to that signing, then more power to them.
But the Seahawks knew their defense is built around their ability to pressure the quarterback, which really makes that secondary even better. They were able to beat the Broncos thanks largely to that pressure with Avril having a field day against Orlando Franklin, causing both of Peyton Manning’s first-half interceptions.
It’s one of the reasons why I think ultimately the Falcons may use their top draft pick on an offensive tackle because hopefully they can build up their pass rush in free agency by spending what cap space they do have in that area. It’s a deep group of free agent defensive linemen that will become available this offseason. Bennett played under new defensive line coach Bryan Cox in Tampa Bay for a year before moving onto Seattle this past offseason. A reunion of the two would be a great start to the offseason for the Falcons.
The Falcons don’t necessarily even need to go on a spending spree. They could go after relatively cheap free agents like edge rushers Marcus Benard and Phillip Hunt, or defensive tackle Chris Baker. All three have previous experience with either Cox or defensive coordinator Mike Nolan coaching them. Would any be the final solutions to the Falcons pass rush problems? No, but they would be three smart, relatively cheap additions that could bolster competition a la the Seahawks. A competition between Benard, Hunt, and/or Massaquoi would likely breed an edge rusher that should be an upgrade over Osi Umenyiora. Baker is a clear upgrade over Jerry, and gave the Falcons offensive line fits when they squared off against him in Week 15.
The Falcons have plenty of options outside these, but one of which is not sitting idly by and hoping that they land their pass-rush savior in the draft.
Big Corners Could Help Stop Jimmy Graham
The Falcons can take a page from the Seahawks secondary by adding some much-needed size. The Falcons had an opportunity during their week in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl to get a look at several, as organizers of that all-star game took special care to bring in a number of bigger corners to the event.
The Seahawks have been able to stall a number of top tight ends, thanks in part due to the size and length of their corners. It’s really not that complicated to have figured out that the best strategy to slowing down the dynamic tight ends in today’s NFL is by using bigger corners. These tight ends create matchup problems because they are too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties. Cornerbacks are a team’s best cover man, and thus have the capacity to stick with these athletic tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas. And if you can find someone that is big enough that the size difference won’t be a major disadvantage, then you’re sitting pretty. It’s not as if this is a reality that snuck up on the Falcons. Robert McClain was one of the few Falcon defenders that managed to stick with Graham in the Falcons win over the Saints in 2012. McClain isn’t very big, standing at just over 5’9″. It wouldn’t be a far leap to think that getting someone a few inches taller could lead to better results.
One player that the Falcons could look for before the draft that fits that description is Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. With the writing on the wall that Asante Samuel will get the axe this offseason, the Falcons would be smart to sign a veteran to solidify their depth and be insurance in case Robert Alford suffers some growing pains in his first year. Tillman is a physical corner that is one of a handful of guys in the past few years that has been able to outmuscle the likes of Julio Jones (alongside Champ Bailey and Aqib Talib).
Other potential options this offseason would be Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook, New York Jets Antonio Cromartie (if he’s released), and New England Patriots Aqib Talib. All three players have red flags in terms of their character, which normally would be a no-fly zone for the Falcons. But perhaps if the Falcons are taking a page from Seattle and trying to breed a highly competitive locker room and team on the field, those issues could be mitigated with the dangling carrot that the best player wins.
What character (as well as durability) issues mean that when it comes to signing or drafting players, you limit the amount of guaranteed money you’re on the hook for. But it should not be prohibit teams from targeting those guys. That’s a lesson the Falcons haven’t quite grasped yet.
Complacency Has Ruled Falcons Since 2008
I don’t want it to seem like I believe that Seattle has done everything right while Atlanta has done everything wrong. That is simply not the case, and the reality is that when a team wins a Super Bowl, it seemingly has the profound ability to white-wash any of their mistakes they have made over the years as trivial. And Seattle made plenty of mistakes along the way.
But there are a lot of lessons that the Seahawks can teach the Falcons brass, particularly when it comes to team-building. And most of them are relatively simple fixes that are pretty straight-forward changes like not being complacent and doing the minimum necessary.
An example of that is the Falcons signing Osi Umenyiora last offseason, and thinking that along with selecting a raw fourth-round pick in Malliciah Goodman would be enough to upgrade their pass rush from the previous year. Instead, the Falcons should do what they did in 2008 when they added a bunch of free agents along their defensive line to bolster competition. That year the team brought in Rashad Moore, Kindal Moorehead, Kroy Biermann, and Simon Fraser to compete for jobs in training camp. Outside Biermann, none really turned into much for the Falcons. Obviously the goal now ould be to find greater success, but the Falcons could easily do something similar with a number of low-level signings this offseason like those I mentioned previously involving Benard, Hunt, and/or Baker.
Ultimately, that has been the problem with the Falcons over recent years. Early in the Dimitroff-Smith Era, they were trying to change the culture and really turn over the roster from the previous regime. This obviously led to initial team success, but I think the team got complacent as time went by and just assumed that the players they had already brought in were going to be good enough to carry the day. The thought process behind the Julio Jones trade, where the Falcons spurned the Patriots-derived draft strategy of collecting draft picks in favor of one bold move, exemplifies this shift in philosophy.
The years since have seemed more about doing the absolute minimum to get over the hump as opposed to that sort of initial “revolutionary” attitude. The Falcons front office needs to return to their roots. Instead of approaching things as a playoff team trying to get that last push to being a Super Bowl team, they need to see it as a losing team that is trying to make the playoffs. Taking such an approach should be a lot easier given the team is coming off a 4-12 season. That’s the approach they had when they made their most gains, and that’s where they need to return to.