As we gear up for 2021 season, the Seahawks have a new method for rushing the passer. For any defense, being able to achieve consistent pressure with just four rushers is a major key to success. Seattle has made a big deal of this in past years and, thanks to the front office, their current roster is now stocked full of pass rushers.
From a scheme-perspective, the coaching staff is putting in effective work too. Beware of the cheetah.
It was second-year quarterback hunter Darrell Taylor who let the cat out of the bag. When asked about Seattle’s pass rush following the preseason opener, Taylor revealed the cheetah package.
“I know Rasheem is really good at rushing at 3-technique, you know. And when we go in our cheetah package, I know that when I’m rushing I know what he gonna do,” Taylor said.
So what exactly is cheetah? Taylor describing it as a “package” is the first clue. A package in football can be linked to a small series of plays, although it mainly refers to a specific personnel grouping deployed in a particular way that is catered to their skill-sets.
The name is a typical football coach exercise. It must sound cool, threatening, and potentially lethal. Making the descriptor illustrative via clear word association is a sensible bonus.
At LSU, Ed Orgeron-USC defensive line coach and assistant head coach under Pete Carroll from 2001 to 2004- has used a cheetah package. This technically put 1-5-5 personnel out on the field.
“We’re going to put four fast guys in there,” Orgeron said back in September 2017. “And let them go.”
With Seattle’s version of cheetah, the package appears to be more about getting the best four pass rushers on the field. If these players are fast then that’s obviously nice! However, the speedy imagery is better focused on getting to the quarterback as quick as possible.
“Well, cheetahs are fast, and that group, they better get the quarterback fast,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. explained on August 25. “So anything fast, you know cheetah was the first thing coming to mind.”
“Them four guys, you know how to pass rush,” described edge rusher Benson Mayowa. “And I think you get great quickness out there, you get great power out there, it's just a mix up.”
How is this cheetah quadruplet deployed? Via an "even" front. Carroll’s defensive strategy has often opted for an this front when rushing the passer in clear passing situations.
This is defined as the point an offense enters pure passing mode. It is therefore tweaked slightly by opposition scouting and game planning. The Seahawks must find out at what point an offense becomes pass-heavy-there is always a cut off in play-calling. Think of 2nd and 12-plus, 3rd and 4-plus, two-minute drills, and chasing a big lead type situations. From there, sure of no running threat, the defense can really tee off at the quarterback and be less conscious of their run gaps.
The Seahawks’ “even front” places two defensive ends on the field and two 3-technique defensive tackles. The 3-techniques can loosen their alignment to lining up head-up on the offensive tackle in a 4-technique look. The ends can widen their starting position too.
Carroll likes this even look because it creates one-on-one matchups across the defensive line for his rushers. The ends face a tackle, the tackles face a guard. Yes, the offense will likely slide the center to help on one side of the protection. Yet the center has a long way to travel when helping in pass protection versus one of the two 3-techniques.
Seattle can, and will, rush straight up from the look, with the rushers on the man side of the pass protection (away from the center slide) able to play pure two-way gos versus their offensive lineman.
To be more effective, the Seahawks also run games to the man side, picking and rubbing on movements to help separate against the man pass protection—like how offenses use route combinations to separate against man coverage. Or Seattle just runs double games. I wrote more about these games and explored the role of the Seahawks’ ‘game-caller’ in this article.
Finally, Seattle will "mug" or "sugar" the center, walking down a second-level defender to prevent the center from helping in pass protection and thus create one-on-ones across the board. To stay honest, the Seahawks also pressure from these mugged looks.
In the cheetah package, by placing the four best pass rushers on the field, the Seahawks can align defensive ends reduced inside. They did this with Cassius Marsh in 2016. And Michael Bennett enjoyed rushing from the interior too; his 2013 contribution at the spot is particularly notable because of how Seattle has constructed their 2021 grouping.
“You know, to us it's a mismatch,” stated Mayowa. “Putting the end on a guard. And we're supposed to win. You know, we're quicker, we're faster, the guys here are stronger so, I mean, that's what it is. That's the mindset. You know, quicker guys against slower guys.”
Norton Jr. was questioned on L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green aligning inside in the Seahawks’ cheetah package. His answer reflected the "best pass rusher" mindset that embodies Seattle’s cheetah thinking.
“Well they know we have some really good outside guys, so if they want to be on the number one cheetah, they better be good on the inside,” assessed Norton Jr. “Because there's no room for them on the outside. So they better develop themselves back there or they'll be standing next to me on the sideline.”
Pictures from training camp showed that Mayowa himself, previously thought of as strictly an outside guy, received pass rushing reps on the interior. Clearly, Seattle experimented with this cheetah package throughout practices, testing the chemistry and spacing from various groups.
In preseason games, the most common cheetah package was Alton Robinson at defensive end, L.J. Collier at 3-technique, Rasheem Green at 3-technique, and Darrell Taylor at defensive end. Here are their pass rush snap counts per Pro Football Focus: Robinson 70, Collier 67, Green 80, Taylor 53. (Note that not all of these will have arrived via the cheetah package)
Green may have earned the opportunity to get meaningful reps in the regular season. On August 24, defensive line coach Clint Hurtt highlighted Green as his standout defensive linemen of the preseason.
“Rasheem, you know, really seems to have-the light has come on," Hurtt said.
Collier, on the other hand, was a big disappointment. When on the man side of the protection, Collier’s bull-rush was ineffective and stalled even versus the lower string guards. His interior opportunity in cheetah looks to be over and his role in the 2021 defense may end up similar to Red Bryant's big end usage of 2012.
“We haven't had our starting cheetah in,” Norton Jr. shared. “We've been able to get them in the game, but it's been the different numbers and the different people playing.”
Kerry Hyder Jr. did receive some preseason snaps at 3-technique in the cheetah package. Earlier in the offseason, on June 23, Hurtt revealed that Hyder Jr was leading the Seattle’s game-caller competition. This means the veteran will be on the field for essentially all of the Seahawks’ passing downs.
Meanwhile, we can safely predict that 33-year old veteran pass rusher Carlos Dunlap, chasing a career 100-sack total, will be at one of the defensive end spots
“On the field they looked fantastic, on the practice field,” teased Norton Jr. “We haven't quite seen them in the games yet, so we're kinda waiting to see when we can get the number one cheetah in the game. That would be nice.”
A feasible first string grouping would be Carlos Dunlap at end, Kerry Hyder and Rasheem Green at the 3-technique spots, and Benson Mayowa or Darrell Taylor at the other end position. Do not rule out the upside of Poona Ford as an interior rusher either, as he has a blistering first-step quickness and rare lower half flexibility for a big defensive tackle.
One audacious grouping that Seattle also might try is putting the rushing ability of strong safety Jamal Adams at defensive end. This would allow the Seahawks to have Marquise Blair, Ugo Amadi, and Adams all on the field at the same time in what would technically be dime personnel. That’s getting carried away though and we won’t know until the first passing down of the season.
For now, we will have to wait to see who Norton Jr. unleashes when the real cheetah package is deployed against the Colts on September 12.