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How Seahawks’ pass rush struggles were connected to use of base defense

The Seahawks spent the majority of the 2019 season playing their base defense. (Getty)

The Seattle Seahawks took a surprising step back on defense in 2019, and two common concerns brought up about it are how much trouble the Seahawks had getting sacks and their usage of their base defense over a nickel package.

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The Seahawks had 28 sacks, which was tied for second to last in the entire league, and while NFL teams played in nickel on defense at an average of 72.8%, Seattle did so on just 31.2% of its defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

How much are those two things connected? A pair of former NFL teammates from each side of the ball broke down what they’ve seen when they’ve gone back this offseason to watch 2019 Seahawks games.

Last week on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Bob, Dave and Moore, former Pro Bowl NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth joined the show for a segment, allowing him to catch up with former NFL linebacker Dave Wyman, who he played alongside while both were with the Denver Broncos in 1995. Schlereth, who does color commentary for NFL games on FOX and hosts a radio show on our sister station 104.3 The Fan in Denver, pointed out that the way the front of Seattle’s base defense is typically set up makes it particularly hard for defensive ends to get to the quarterback.

“The majority of what they’re in up front, the defensive end on the side of that SAM linebacker, which is K.J. Wright, is head-up with the tight end,” Schlereth pointed out. “It’s not an advantageous place to rush the passer because you have to get through the tight end, you’re going to be encumbered there, and then the tackle’s going to get to you. … From a pass-rushing standpoint, it’s really hard to get your guys in great position to rush the passer out of that base defense.”

Wyman, who serves as color commentator for Seahawks radio broadcasts, saw something else that prevented Seattle’s pass rush from being effective last year.

“When I went back through the games, the ball was coming out so fast that the best pass-rushing team in the league’s not going to get home,” Wyman said. “I’ll say this – they played defense well enough to win 12 games. I feel like they did not want to get beat over the top; that was the No. 1 priority. … They played very safe (in pass coverage). There wasn’t a lot of aggressive coverage so for that reason there were a lot of times where there just wasn’t really time to get to the quarterback, and I don’t remember seeing it that way from them in the past. Certainly not in the Legion of Boom era where they would just man up guys and play press up on the line and the ball was sometimes going to come out a lot later because everyone was covered.”

Bringing up the Legion of Boom allowed for an interesting point, as 2019 was the Seahawks’ first full year with no members from that vaunted secondary on the team after free safety Earl Thomas left in free agency for Baltimore. Schlereth then mentioned something about the free safety position that hammered home how much of an impact Thomas’ departure may have had.

“You look at when you had the Legion of Boom and you look at the position of safety in this league, and it’s funny how from a positional standpoint they evolve and the importance of guys just becomes greater,” Schlereth said. “The guy in the middle of the field that can just read and erase plays… and if you don’t have somebody in the middle of the field that can erase things it’s really hard to play some (zone coverages).”

With a secondary that didn’t feature the same Pro Bowl-caliber talent as in years past, it’s didn’t surprise Schlereth that Seattle then leaned on its base defense, which allowed defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to rely on a position of strength for the team.

“The linebackers that they have, I’m a huge fan of K.J. Wright and (Mychal) Kendricks and obviously Bobby Wagner,” Schlereth said. “They are phenomenal, and I understand why they’re like, ‘Hey man, we want to play base to nickel, because our guys are really good.'”

You can hear the full segment with Schlereth, including additional thoughts on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offensive line, in this podcast.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Bob, Dave and Moore on Twitter.

There’s an obvious problem with Hawks WRs being ranked worst in divison