He Ain't Just a Nobody
By Doug Farrar
SEATTLE — It's not always easy to track the antecedents of football's schematic conceits, but here's what we know: At some point in 1974, someone in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization proposed that defensive tackle Joe Greene should position himself at the shoulder of the center, at a 45-degree angle in order to blow through any blocks and devour any ballcarrier in his path. It may have been defensive line coach George Perles; it may have been Greene himself. Defensive coordinator Bud Carson and head coach Chuck Noll obviously had to sign off on it. But once it happened—however it happened—Greene became an even more unblockable force than he had been before. What became known as the "Stunt 4-3" allowed Greene to shred opposing offenses to bits, and a bit of defensive strategy was born.
Joe Greene uses the Stunt 4-3 to blow up a Houston Oilers' running play on Dec. 1, 1974. As the center and right guard fan out to deal with other defenders, Greene is able to hit the backfield nearly unobstructed and tackle the running back for a loss. (NFL Films)
Fast-forward to the 2013 season, where you can see several defensive tackles using the Stunt 4-3 to an efficient end. The guy who may use it the most, and with the most effectiveness, is Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. A third-round pick out of Cal in the 2007 draft, Mebane has been one of the more consistent and unheralded tackles in the league over the last few seasons. And when he angles up in the Stunt 4-3, bad things happen for Seattle's opponents. There are few more graphic examples than the New Orleans Saints' first play from scrimmage on Dec. 2, when the Seahawks beat the Saints 34-7 at Seattle's CenturyLink Field.
Four decades after Greene: As center Brian De La Puente and left guard Ben Grubbs fan out to deal with other defenders, Mebane is able to hit the backfield completely unobstructed and tackle Pierre Thomas for a four-yard loss. (NFL Game Rewind)
"Well, they didn't block me on that play," Mebane recalled. "I think they made a mistake."
The Stunt 4-3 creates mistakes from the opposition when used by the right kind of player, and it's just one of the techniques Mebane uses to reinforce his reputation as the rock of the NFL's best defense. The Seahawks finished the regular season ranked first in yards and points allowed, and first overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. And while 2013 marks just the second season in Mebane's career in which he didn't register a sack (2011 was the other), his effect on the defense has been transformative in several ways. First, he occupies double-teams as often as any nosetackle in the game, which allows all those around him to make plays. Second, his ability to stop running plays before success is among the NFL's best—per Pro Football Focus' game-charting, Mebane amassed a team-high 22 run stops on 266 run snaps. Finally, his six quarterback hits ranks fifth on the team, and his 26 quarterback hurries rank fourth. Those ahead of him are defensive ends and outside linebackers—situational pass rushers whose value lies specifically in quarterback disruption.
Mebane is the only defensive player who has survived unscathed the epic roster churn set in motion four years ago by head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Scheider. He is the only player acquired in the pre-Carroll/Schneider era to stick at his original defensive position. It's Mebane inside on the defensive line, and Max Unger at center. They are the survivors.
"When Pete came, he brought a lot of younger guys ... a lot of transitions," Mebane recently said. "It's a big change when you look at the old pictures and rosters and stuff. I didn't know—I just tried to do my job. That's it."
Quinn, who was hired as defensive line coach in 2009 and was one of the few assistants retained by Carroll the next year, recently opined that as good as Mebane's always been, he's trending up for specific technical reasons.
"He’s even stronger now," Quinn said on Dec. 19. "Brandon has always been a guy inside that had really good strength. One of the things I think that sets him apart throughout the league at defensive tackle or any specific guy at nosetackle—for a big guy, 330 pounds, he’s rarely on the ground. Inside, that’s easier said than done. So that makes sense. But, there are so many combination blocks and double-team blocks where he gets underneath people and he can get a guy knocked back. He’s really strong. I think that’s the one thing—when he can get underneath you, it’s hard to deal with it, and I think one of the things that sets him apart is his balance."
The Stunt 4-3 is one element of that, and as Carroll told me, giving Mebane that technique to use aligns with Mebane's specific attributes. Carroll said that his goal is to always adapt the style of play to the player—most unsuccessful coaches insist on reversing the process—and the angle pressure idea just seemed to fit.
"It’s really been around more than you noticed," he said. "It’s just a style of play. Some guys are better playing square-shouldered, and some guys can play cocked like that. Brandon has a good feel for that and he utilizes it really well. It’s really a style of player and our coaching is looking for what guys do well. Brandon does a really good job when he’s offset like that."
It's been around in the Seahawks' defense even before Carroll showed up. Mebane said last week that he learned it years ago from teammates Rocky Bernard and Chuck Darby, and he took it to a new level when Quinn and Carroll got hold of him.
"It just provides a good view," Mebane said simply of the technique.
The Seahawks will have their work cut out for them in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers, whose offensive line beat the daylights out of Mebane in a 13-6 win at Candlestick Park on Oct. 13, 2012. That game was notable because center Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Mike Iupati moved Mebane back over and over with double teams—it was a rare game in which Mebane was physically overwhelmed, and Frank Gore ran for 131 yards on just 16 carries. In the Dec. 8, 2013 Candlestick rematch, Gore still ran for 110 yards, but gained just two of them in the play detailed below. Again using the Stunt 4-3, Mebane was able to crash through that formidable line and hold Gore near the line of scrimmage.
Brandon Mebane uses the Stunt 4-3 to blow up a San Francisco 49ers' running play. As left guard Adam Snyder (replacing the injured Mike Iupati) pulls to the right, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis double-team tackle Tony McDaniel, and center Jonathan Goodwin is left to deal with Mebane one-on-one. Because of his angle and speed off the snap, Mebane is able to get the jump on Goodwin and hit the backfield nearly unobstructed to tackle Frank Gore after a two-yard gain. (NFL Game Rewind)
Mebane has never made a Pro Bowl. Like many of Seattle's defenders, he seems to revel in the lack of recognition he's seen at certain points through his life, using it as incentive to show the rest of the NFL what it failed to notice. Even when Carroll tried to recruit him to USC out of Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, Mebane remembers that he went to Cal instead because "I didn't have enough stars on my [profile] when he recruited me. I wasn't a big-time recruit; that's how I look at it."
Even now, when asked about his excellence, Mebane will defer.
"I don't know," he said with a wry smile, when asked if 2013 has been his best season. "What do you think? I don't think it was. I'm a nobody, man. I'm just local. That's just me, man. I ain't All-Pro, I ain't Pro Bowl. I've just been here for seven years, and I don't know nothing. I'm just an employee here, I just work here, and I don't know nothing."
And then he broke into song, "I'm Just a Nobody" by the Williams Brothers.
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I'm just a nobody ... trying to tell everybody ... about somebody ... who can save anybody ...
Around the NFL, it's fairly well known that Brandon Mebane is anything but a nobody. And if the Seahawks manage to push through San Francisco to crash the league's biggest party, it's a fair bet the rest of America will learn that soon enough.