On Tuesday, the Seahawks published their initial 53-man roster for the 2021 NFL season. The list featured just 22 names on defense, or 23 if you count Nick Bellore’s backup duties at linebacker. This total will rise to 24 when the team makes their acquisition of cornerback Sidney Jones via trade official. The major conclusion to be made from Seattle’s roster construction is that it confirmed what we already knew about the team's 2021 defensive system.

Coach Pete Carroll has always positioned his front seven in a 4-3 system, but with personnel that he himself has described as being more 3-4 in nature. Furthermore, with the 2021 defense looking to continue last year’s trend of early-down bear, or “stick” defensive fronts, it will be more and more 3-4. As I wrote after the first week of training camp, “This is the most 3-4 the Seahawks will have ever looked.”

STICK FRONT

The “stick” family of fronts has enabled the Seahawks to almost group together certain positions, as witnessed in practices. The roster looks light at big end. It lacks a pure, every-down 3-technique. And their edge group has been joined too. All of these measure have been taken with 2021’s base of “stick” in mind.

Here’s how you could bucket groups:

  • Outside players (a term Carroll used this offseason to describe Darrell Taylor’s role): Carlos Dunlap, Benson Mayowa, Kerry Hyder, Rasheem Green, Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson
  • Interior defensive line: Al Woods, Poona Ford, L.J. Collier, Bryan Mone

The defense still has firm 4-3 principles at its roots—like their adjustments—something I explained in my “Seahawks 2021 defensive line explained” article. (You should check this out for more detail on Seattle’s system). This is how the 2021 on-ball positions shake out:

  • LEO: Carlos Dunlap, Kerry Hyder Jr, Rasheem Green, Alton Robinson
  • DT: Al Woods, Poona Ford, Bryan Mone
  • Big End/5-tech: L.J. Collier
  • SAM: Benson Mayowa, Darrell Taylor

Alton Robinson received some preseason work at SAM linebacker, while Darrell Taylor played some LEO defensive end. The last we heard of Benson Mayowa’s position in camp, the edge rusher was playing at SAM linebacker, where he started his career in Seattle. Carroll mentioned Mayowa’s outside ‘backer experience as early as April 28 in his post-draft presser. Prior to being cut, Aldon Smith was also working at SAM too.

Poona Ford and/or Al Woods could both play in the big end role, an assignment that Jarran Reed executed in 2020. In "Stick," this typically involves playing more on the inside shoulder of the tackle (4i) rather than on the outside shoulder of the guard (3-technique), with the responsibility of closing the open side of the defense in pass situations. 

Meanwhile, free agent Geno Atkins would be more of that pure 3-technique for Seattle. Carroll sounded like Atkins would eventually sign with the Seahawks speaking with reporters last week. The team carrying three quarterbacks on their roster only makes Jake Luton feel like a suspicious place-holder.

Carroll speaking on Atkins on August 24: "He went back home, but he had a really good workout. And this guy's been around, you know, a great deal. He had some things we had to look at, some medical things we had to look at, so it took some time to get it done. But he did work out for us and looked very good. He had shoulder surgery last year that really is something he played with during the season. And was able to get that repaired, a labrum tear, so he looked pretty good. So we'll see."

Woods and Ford are capable in this 3-tech role, but they have nose tackle qualities in their game too. The other defensive tackle, Bryan Mone, is more of a nose tackle but could definitely do some 3-technique.

The SAM in Seattle is often a down-at-the-line-of-scrimmage, hammer-in-the-fit, edge-setting, rush player. For more detail on the position, read this article. The SAM drops into coverage more than the LEO, but the coverage expectations are not strenuous—as I illustrated in my Darrell Taylor coverage video. Finally, I also studied the history of Carroll’s SAM usage in this piece. The 2021 Seahawks having a nasty pass-rushing threat on this side of the defense promises countless possibilities and massive potential.

When the Seahawks move into nickel personnel, the SAM linebacker leaves the field for the nickel defensive back. Seattle does have a nickel variant of bear fronts called “falcon” where the WILL linebacker moves into an on-ball role.

FALCON FRONT

However, what the preseason showed is that the Seahawks plan to have a distinct nickel defensive line grouping in more classical 4-3 over and even fronts. If run is a threat, they will blitz and/or move their line to stay stout.

In these packages, Kerry Hyder aligned inside as a 3-technique. L.J. Collier and Rasheem Green played 3-technique and some nose tackle. It’s here where Darrell Taylor and other ‘SAM linebackers’ can stay on the field at what is technically a defensive end spot.

The MIKE and the WILL are the two off-ball linebacker positions in Seattle’s defense. The WILL rarely lines up on the line of scrimmage in Seattle’s base 4-3 personnel. This will be especially true with the 2021 plan for the defense. In a game, the MIKE and WILL will execute very similar run fit and coverage assignments as each other. There is a ton of crossover. You can therefore call both these roles “inside linebackers.”

Inside linebackers: Bobby Wagner, Jordyn Brooks, Cody Barton, Nick Bellore

Bobby Wagner is the starting MIKE linebacker, Jordyn Brooks the starting WILL, although there will be times where the pair technically switch based on game plan. For instance, it’s preferable to have Brooks in an outside gap and Wagner stacking an interior gap, plus put Brooks in the weak hook to turn and find bender or crossing routes.

Cody Barton and Nick Bellore only worked at inside linebacker in the 2021 preseason. Barton does have rookie experience as an on-ball SAM; however he is far more effectively working off-ball. Bellore is strictly an off-ball player. 

Further Analysis:

Seahawks 2021 Defensive Line Explained

First Week of Camp Gives Clarity to How Seahawks Defense Will Operate

Can Seahawks SAM LB Darrell Taylor Cover?

Cover 2 Fire Zones: Explaining the Alton Robinson Play

How Poona Ford Excels as Disruptor