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Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Seahawks may not have names on D, but they do have spark

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When the Seattle Seahawks play the San Francisco 49ers Thursday night, Seattle will be the team with the "other" defense.

But guess which unit is better in scoring defense? It isn't the Golden Gate guys.

The Seahawks are second in scoring defense, while the 49ers are third. San Francisco is ranked first overall in total defense, while Seattle is fourth. The 49ers are considered one of the elite run defenses, but they are ranked ninth in rushing yards per game and yards per attempt. Seattle is second in both categories.

Most know the 49ers' top players: Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Carlos Rodgers and Aldon Smith.

Name three Seahawks starters on defense.

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Anybody?

They might not be household names, but after studying the Seahawks defense on tape, there is no denying the talent.

They are fast, tackle well and have two cover corners that allow defensive coordinator Gus Bradley the freedom to do a lot of things.

One more thing: They play with a swagger. They don't back down. Not even to Tom Brady last week.

New England came into Seattle with the top-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 33 points. The Seahawks held them to 23, just six in the second half.

Why are they so good? Here's what the tape shows:

  Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is a force. He has brute strength and the lateral quickness of a man much smaller. Later here I will show two plays involving him, one of which is an amazing play from last week's game where he chased down a runner as if he were a 200-pound safety.

  Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-round pick, is a fast, smart defender who shows up a lot on tape. It helps he has Mebane and Alan Branch, two wide bodies in front of him, but he does a nice job of locating the football.

  Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman form a tough, man-cover combo. They never seem to back down. Browner is 6-foot-4 and Sherman is 6-3 and they love to get their hands on a receiver. If there's one knock, it's that they sometimes get lost in zone coverage.

  Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor make a nice, physical combo. Chancellor is the big hitter and Thomas is the better cover player, although he got beat for a touchdown by Wes Welker last week because of his aggressive nature. Those corners and safeties help Seattle rank third in yards per pass play.

  And, of course, you need pass rushers. Veteran Chris Clemons is the class of the group -- he really caused problems for the Patriots last week -- and rookie Bruce Irvin has an explosive first step with 4 ½ sacks.

Here is the first play that I pulled from the Seattle-New England game to show how good the Seahawks can be. It involved Mebane and Wagner. Mebane is in the yellow circle lined up as a cocked tackle in the "A" gap with Wagner in the red circle behind him. The play was designed to go right at Wagner. The plan was for left tackle Nate Solder (black circle) to pull around and block Wagner. The problem was that Mebane's penetration didn't allow Solder to get through and take on Wagner. That left Wagner in the hole to eat up running back Stevan Ridley.

  
 

  
 

  
 

Later in the game, Mebane put on a display with his amazing quickness. The play that follows was a run play away from Mebane (yellow circle). That meant right guard Dan Connelly needed to cut him. The problem was Mebane got off too quick, was able to avoid being cut down, and then raced down the line to tackle Ridley. It was one of the best plays I've seen a defensive tackle make since I've been watching tape. Special stuff.

  
 

  
 

  
 

  
 

No defense is perfect, and Seattle's issues are third-down defense, the secondary getting out of position when playing zone coverage and nickel corner Marcus Trufant getting picked on by opposing passers.

Aside from that, there is a lot to like. Are the Seahawks as good as the 49ers? Time will tell. But the most important number of all -- scoring defense -- says they are right now.

Film Study

1. In the past two weeks, the Texans defense hasn't looked that good. They have slipped down to eighth in the rankings after getting lit up by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers last week. So what's happened? They did lose Brian Cushing to a season-ending injury, but it's a lot more than that. For one, corner Johnathan Joseph isn't playing close to a Pro Bowl level. I think he's hurting, even if he isn't using that as an excuse. The biggest problem, though, is the front. Anybody not named J.J. Watt isn't playing up to expectations. Antonio Smith started the season fast, but has tailed some. The biggest problem is the outside rushers. In Wade Phillips' scheme, the outside rushers have to pile up sack numbers. Last year, Conner Barwin and Brooks Reed combined for 17 ½ sacks, with Barwin getting 11 ½ of those. So far this year they have 2 ½. Barwin doesn't have any yet in what is a contract year for him. Their inability to get pressure outside last week against the Packers really showed on several of Rodgers' six touchdown passes

Here are two of them.

The first picture below shows Rodgers throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson. You can see that Watt (blue circle) was being doubled and left tackle Marshall Newhouse handled Barwin (red circle).

  
 

The second picture is Rodgers' throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to James Jones. It doesn't look like much, but Rodgers had all day to throw and actually looked to the middle at Nelson before coming off of him to find Jones. That took time, and he had a ton of it.

  
 

2. When I see a game-winning touchdown pass, I love to go back and study the play. That's what I did with Russell Wilson's 49-yard throw to Sidney Rice to beat the Patriots last week. It was actually a very simple throw for Wilson to make because of the design of the play. It was a run-fake to the left and a roll to the right. But give Wilson credit, he made the throw as he moved to his right. He did the smart thing and set his feet and Seattle won the game because of it. Here's a look.

  
 

  
 

  
 

On the play, Rice (yellow circle) was lined up wide right and Devin McCourty (blue circle) appeared to be in man coverage on him with safety Tavon Wilson (red circle) over the top. But McCourty was in zone coverage and actually released him to Wilson. As Rice got past McCourty, he made a quick move to the outside, which Wilson bit on, and then Rice snapped his route to the post past Wilson, who had turned outside. By that time, Rice had him and easily gathered in the pass for a touchdown.

3. I am really impressed with a lot of the players on the Dolphins defense. We know Cameron Wake, one of the outside pass rushers, is a star. But the secret to the Dolphins defensive success is inside with tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. They are two strong powerful men who can move. Starks is playing at a really high level, and Soliai isn't far behind. There was one play from last week's game with St. Louis that really impressed me about Starks. It was a Steven Jackson inside run to the left side directly at Starks, who shed left guard Quinn Ojinnaka and forced Jackson to try and cut back to the right side. But when he did, Jared Odrick was there and dumped him for a 3-yard loss.

4. One of the more improved players this season is Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley. I thought he really played well in the second half of last season, but he is even better now. Fairly looks heavier than last year but still has great quickness. If you want to see him in action, take a look at a third-quarter run from last week's game against the Eagles. He whipped center Dallas Reynolds and dumped LeSean McCoy for a 5-yard loss. It was power. It was quickness. It was everything you want from an inside player. Later, he beat a double team to string out a sweep and eventually force McCoy out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. Fairley got a half a sack in overtime, but it was his speed on a stunt that enabled the Lions to dump Michael Vick. Ndamukong Suh is being pushed as the best tackle on the Lions roster. Suh did save the game when he batted down Vick's third-down pass with 2:41 left in regulation because Jeremy Maclin was wide open for a first down and a lot more. Those two have a chance to really become the best inside tandem in the league.

5. John Abraham can still rush the passer. He had three sacks last week against the Raiders. Abraham played both right and left end and got two of his sacks off the left side, and one on the right side. The Falcons often move Abraham to the left when the right tackle is a weak spot to take advantage of his speed. The Raiders had backup Willie Smith starting and Abraham abused him. On his first sack, Abraham, standing up, exploded up the field and came underneath Smith to drop Carson Palmer for a 9-yard loss. On his second sack, he was lined up as a down right end and exploded past Jared Veldheer, a pretty good tackle, to hit Palmer from the backside. That forced a fumble that Ray Edwards picked up and returned to the Oakland 2. His third sack was a cheap one. He got pressure up the field against Smith, which forced Palmer to step up, and he was knocked down by No. 67, who was pushed back into him. Abraham came back around and touched Palmer to get credit for the sack. Even if that one was cheap, Abraham showed against the Raiders that he can still get to the quarterback.

6. Why did the Cowboys run it better against the Ravens than in weeks past? One reason was the play of center Phil Costa. Not normally known for his ability to move people off the line, he did a heck of a job creating cracks for the Cowboys backs to get through. He handled the nose tackles for much of the game and did a good job coming off combo blocks when needed to get out on the linebackers. There were several times he buckled the knees of Ray Lewis when he got out on him. Costa was playing for the first time since injuring his back in the opener against the Giants. If he can continue to play like that, the Cowboys will finally be able to run the ball consistently inside.

7. Steven Jackson has been a warrior as a running back for the Rams. But I get the feeling that the team is moving more toward rookie Daryl Richardson. And to be frank, it's probably the right move. Richardson has the speed that Jackson does not. We saw that last week on his 44-yard run against the Dolphins. Richardson took a toss off the right side and quickly cut it up behind pulling right tackle Wayne Hunter, who knocked linebacker Koa Misi on his butt. Richardson exploded through the hole to turn what probably should have been a short gain into the long run. Dolphins safety Reshad Jones did run him down, but it's that initial burst that seems to separate him from Jackson.

8. In the weeks leading up to last week's game with the Texans, the Packers receivers had real problems beating man coverage. That, in turn, led to Rodgers holding the ball. But against the Texans, they won the one-on-one matchups. And that was a big reason why Rodgers was able to shred a good defense. Nelson was the one guy who seemed to be truly having problems with the man coverage. But he beat Joseph on the Packers first drive in man coverage and seemed to build off of that. Nelson has to play tougher. When he does, he wins. When he lets the corner get his hands on him at the line, he has problems. The Packers clearly need Greg Jennings back in the lineup. But at least for a night the receivers won against man coverage versus the Texans.

9. How did the Giants run the ball so well against the 49ers? Couple of things stood out. One was the play of the left side of the Giants line, especially guard Kevin Boothe. He had some really nice blocks on Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to help spring Ahmad Bradshaw. The other thing I saw was that Willis was the second best inside linebacker on his team Sunday. Bowman was better. Willis seemed to be blocked a lot and out of position. He was crushed in the hole a couple of times by fullback Henry Hynoski. But the Giants line was the big reason for the success. They were especially physical in the second half.

10. The Tampa Bay linebackers played horrible football in 2011. That's not the case anymore. With the addition of rookie Lavonte David on the outside, and the improvement of Mason Foster in the middle, the Bucs have the speed now to run down plays. They looked especially fast last week against the Chiefs and Jamaal Charles. David had a really nice play against Charles when he run-blitzed and dropped him for a 5-yard loss. It was that kind of play that really showed off David's speed. David was one of my favorite guys coming out of the draft last year and he's playing as well as I expected. Throw in rookie safety Mark Barron and third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is having his best season, and the Bucs have some nice pieces. It's too bad end Adrian Clayborn is out for the year with a torn ACL.

Hot Tub

1. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: He showed all those thinking he was a problem that isn't the case. Rodgers threw six TD passes.

2. Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw: He had some timely runs and he ran hard and tough. The Giants needs more of that.

3. Bills S Jairus Byrd: He had two picks against the Cardinals and actually looked like the player he was last season.

4. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant: Yes, he should have caught the 2-point pass to tie it, but he was damn good the rest of the day against the Ravens.

5. Dolphins DE Olivier Vernon: He had two sacks and really showed some speed off the edge. He needs to play more.

Cold Tub

1. 49ers QB Alex Smith: He threw three picks and looked unsure of himself against the Giants.

2. Texans RB Arian Foster: He seemed to be trying to bounce too much the other night against the Packers. He didn't cut with the same decisiveness.

3. Eagles T Demetress Bell: He really struggled against the Lions as they got after Mike Vick.

4. Steelers CB Ike Taylor: He had a rough go of it against the Titans. The Steelers can't afford that when they are missing key players.

5. Texans CB Johnathan Joseph: He is said to be hurting, but he won't use that as an excuse, so neither will I. He hasn't played well the past two weeks.

Three and Outs

Three things I love about Ray Lewis

1. Passion for the game.

2. Historical perspective he provides (knows where he stands).

3. The speed he once had to chase down runners.

Three things I don't love about Ray Lewis

1. He gets a free pass from most in the media, even though his skills have eroded.

2. His pregame speeches have become contrived.

3. He can't take on fullbacks anymore in the hole.

Three players who need to pick it up quickly

1. Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert: It would help if the team let him do more, but if he doesn't get it going there will be big changes in Jacksonville.

2. Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams: He is averaging 3.6 per rush. That's not close to being market value for his contract.

3. Eagles DE Trent Cole: He had double-digit sacks each of the past two seasons and three of the past four, but has just 1 ½ sacks this season.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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