The 2020 Seahawks have a loaded secondary. In March, they acquired quality cornerback Quinton Dunbar from the Washington Football Team for a fifth-round pick. Then there was the blockbuster trade for All-Pro strong safety Jamal Adams. Finally, Dunbar’s offseason legal saga ended. After the Broward County State Attorney’s Office declined to press charges in a May 13 alleged armed robbery case, citing insufficient evidence, he was removed from the commissioner’s exempt list.
Now? The defensive back room is so stacked that you can argue it’s the best in the NFL - the revamped back-end certainly places in the Top 5. With this talent, Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. can use some advantageous concepts that we haven’t seen of late. One of these is matchup zone.
We know Seattle’s defense wants to run 4-3 at a similar rate to 2019, where they used base personnel on 67 percent of their snaps per Sports Info Solutions. While this defies league-wide convention, it’s a smart approach against the NFC West-favorite 49ers. According to Sharp Football, San Francisco ran “base-worthy” personnel 59 percent of the time – 12, 21, 22, 23, 32. (The first number is the amount of running backs/fullbacks on the field, the second is the number of tight ends)
Running this "matchup zone" via base defense against Kyle Shanahan would be a huge positive. But what is it? Here’s a drawing of Rock 3 Buster (Rock Yuma).
The two cornerbacks match up with the two wide receivers, the Z and the X - or the flanker and the split end. Against I-formation looks like the 49ers love, this can have the corners play either side against a Pro look. On the other hand, if the offense forms a “slot," one of the corners travels with the Z receiver inside. In this match-up zone, that corner would then play a “buzz” role or the “curl-flat," an outside-underneath zone in the 3-deep, 4-under, Cover 3 defense.
The most obvious benefit to Rock 3 Buster is that it would allow Seattle to disguise whether they are in man coverage or zone coverage for the majority of snaps, while still playing base, gapped-out defense.
NFL offenses are always looking to exploit the clear coverage tells that defenses flash on each play. The 49ers’ attack is no exception, where Shanahan uses coverage indicators - be it motion, shifting, pre-snap alignment, or all three - to find the mismatch and work it. This helps his questionably "franchise" quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
By matching up with the Z and X receivers in Rock 3 Buster, Seattle would respond to a lot of the pre-snap identification work as though they were in man coverage, before running Cover 3 zone defense. This approach can of course be complimented by a man coverage that would look very similar.
Imagine the effect. What would a passer do when a cornerback running into the slot plays man one snap and then zone the next? What would a signal caller think if he sees a safety aligned over a nub tight end, but then gets zone defense as opposed to the man coverage pre-play intelligence? Offenses would get confused.
This level of disguise is missing in Seattle’s conventional nickel defenses, where they have the slot cornerback replace the strongside linebacker and align to the opposite side of the weakside linebacker. Putting five defensive backs and three cornerbacks on the field removes a lot of the potential for trickery within the Seahawks’ system. An odd amount of players is harder to balance than even. It’s one of the advantages of having just four defensive backs out there.
In order for this 4-3 base, matchup zone approach to work to its full potential, both of the cornerbacks need to be comfortable spending significant time in the slot. Last year, Tre Flowers was not that player - if anything, he’s better matching up sans-sideline with tight ends than slot wide receivers. However, the addition of the 28-year old Dunbar to Shaquill Griffin gives the Seahawks two corners who can survive when kicked inside. They can also switch sides if necessary (say the X and Z flip, for example).
It gets better. Bradley McDougald was a versatile safety who will forever be an underrated Seahawk. He was not, though, the prototypical Cover 3 box safety. Adams is. The 24-year old isn’t the soul-taking thumper that Kam Chancellor was. Chancellor’s ability to hit like a linebacker and still cover is a unicorn player that I don’t think we will see again.
Adams can still smack though. Unlike McDougald, he is at his best closer to the line of scrimmage playing inside the box. McDougald, sent the other way in the Jets deal, was a man who needed a varied diet of snaps - whereas Adams can live inside the box. He can turn back action and set an edge, but is even better at dipping and weaving past would-be blockers, as his blitzing prowess and weapon potential is testament to.
Adams can also succeed when matched-up with tight ends. In Rock 3 Buster versus I-Slot formations, this would place him in a Deep 1/3 outside zone against George Kittle. Against I-Pro looks, Adams would be able to rotate down inside to a hook over Kittle, giving him a run fit that asks him to turn-back plus placing an edge-setting SAM in front. Rock 3 Buster’s safety rotation to the solid side, the "Y" tight end, is ideal.
In man coverage, Adams can play one-on-one with Kittle or he could help the SAM in that assignment - a quasi double team. It needs to be layered up right. To make it all look the same and get this Adams versus tight end match-up, choosing to run the same under front with safety rotation again to the Y tight end makes sense. Below is Under 1 Solid (Tokyo), a viable option.
However, we may even see Seattle do this matchup zone, complimented with man coverage, from an over front too. They may prefer over front variations for stopping the 49ers’ powerful ground game. It’s the concept of disguising coverage and deploying skill-sets that I want you to take away from this, not precisely Rock 3 Buster.
We are still waiting for a possible suspension for Dunbar, where a jointly appointed disciplinary officer will decide whether the corner violated the NFL’s Conduct Policy, which reads: “An individual may be put on paid leave if formally charged with a violent crime or sexual assault, or if the NFL investigation finds sufficient credible evidence that it appears a violation of the policy has occurred.”
On July 14, The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar spoke to legal analyst Daniel Wallach, also employed by The Athletic. Wallach said credible evidence “is a fairly low bar for the imposition of discipline.”
How punishing Dunbar for an uncharged crime in the new, supposedly socially conscious NFL will look is another matter. The image-aware NFL may decide it takes an even bigger hit by choosing to punish a player who had the state of Florida decline to press charges due to insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, while Dunbar’s initial arrest for four armed robbery charges is grave, there is little precedent regarding this subject. Where the NFL has been noticeably active in punishing players for uncharged cases is violence against women.
Whatever Dunbar’s status come Week 1, he will play football in 2020. And the corner will do that on the same defense as Adams. The schematic possibilities for defeating the 49ers and winning the NFC West are endless with this kind of talent. Matchup zone should be just one effective approach.