Brian Russell Ready for Challenge of Ex-Team

Brian Russell Ready for Challenge of Ex-Team

In 2006, the Seattle Seahawks' pass defense was a disaster. Cornerbacks Marcus Trufant, Kelly Herndon and Kelly Jennings saw their own individual limitations magnified by the inability of safeties Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin to provide reliable safety help, or even to read offenses correctly.

Boulware was so prone to biting on play fakes, leaving the man on his side on an island, that he was benched for several games in favor of utility defensive back Jordan Babineaux. Hamlin's talent and range were rendered irrelevant by his propensity for freelancing. The precise ballet that a Cover-2 secondary is required to perform for optimal effectiveness resembled unintentional performance art in Seattle's case.

It showed on the field and in the stat columns. The Seahawks finished 23rd in defensive DVOA against the pass in 2006, gave up seven yards per pass attempt, allowed 23 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions, and proved vulnerable to the deep play. In the offseason, team president Tim Ruskell shed the secondary's skin by jettisoning Hamlin, Boulware and Herndon, drafting Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson in the second round, and signing two new safeties with more savvy and experience than their predecessors - Deon Grant, formerly of the Jaguars, and Brian Russell, whose journey through the NFL has taken him to Cleveland and Seattle, making him an expert on the two teams who will face off this Sunday when the Seahawks and Browns play.

"It's going to be fun to go back," Russell told the media on Wednesday. "There are a lot of close friends on that team, but the fact is I'm a Seahawk and we need to get a win. We need to go in there and play hard. It's obviously going to be a tough game. Their offense is playing great football. [TE] Kellen [Winslow] and [QB] Derek [Anderson], everybody's playing really well. We got a big test and we're excited about it."

Russell made the transition from quarterback to safety during his junior year at San Diego State, was undrafted in 2001, and spent that season on Minnesota's practice squad. He made the Vikings' active roster in 2002, and his breakout season came in 2003, when he picked off nine passes.

Signed by Cleveland as a free agent in 2005, Russell played through 2006 with the Browns, spent the conclusion of the 2006 season on the injured reserve list after contracting a staph infection (the fourth member of the team to contract a staph infection in two years), and was signed by Seattle to supplement a secondary in transition. Now, he's ready to face the team that wanted him just a bit less.

"That's the business of it," he said. "I realized that they had some young, talented guys in the secondary and they chose to go in another direction. I had a great opportunity here. There were a couple of teams interested, but the Seahawks were the team that interested me the most and we were able to put something together quickly on my trip up here. I'm excited. We bought a home up here, my wife and I, and we really like the area. This was a team that had been winning for several years, so I'm just trying to add something, do my part to keep this team winning, to hopefully win the division and head to the playoffs."

Were the Browns ever close to re-signing him? "There was some dialogue. The business being what it is, everybody kept all options open, but I think this was the best fit for me and I took the trip up here and the Seahawks didn't even let me get back on the plane. My agent was in town as well and we found some terms real quick and it was just a great opportunity for me. In that respect, once I got on the plane to come to Seattle I think it was done and I was going to make a change at that point."

With Russell and Grant on board, the Seahawks' defense has been able to stop the bleeding. The defense currently ranks 10th in DVOA against the pass, and has allowed only five passing touchdowns against eight interceptions. Meanwhile, Cleveland's young secondary has allowed 18 scores through the air already this season. "You know what, I didn't know that stat," he said. "But I know that they have a talented group and with [Browns head coach] Romeo [Crennel], [defensive coordinator] Todd Grantham and [DBs coach] Mel Tucker coaching them, I know that they are going to be tough. I told Matt Hasselbeck that they're a physical team and they're going to challenge every throw. I haven't had a lot of time to look at what they're doing or see scheme wise. We're always concerned with who we have next week. We're trying to play good coverage over here and whatever they're doing I'm sure they're doing well."

The Seahawks had better play good coverage if they want to get out of Cleveland with a win - the Browns have one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. Quarterback Derek Anderson has come out of nowhere to throw for more touchdowns than any quarterback not named Tom Brady, and the receiver trifecta of Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow is almost impossible to stop. These guys are big, fast, run precise routes, and they all have their specific strengths.

Jurevicius, as Seattle fans know, blocks like a fullback, has vice grips for hands, and will never stop until a play is whistled dead. Winslow has become one of the new hybrid tight ends - like his father, he can run a slant pattern or block a linebacker. Edwards seems to get better every week, and it's time that he's talked about in the same breath with the game's greatest receivers.

Russell said that he isn't surprised by the new aerial attack, because the Browns have developed the foundation around it. "They got a guy who can really run the ball in Jamal Lewis. The (offensive) line is playing great and I think the young guys have just started to mature and are really making some big time plays. Every play that they've made, every ball that Derek's thrown has been on the money and those guys are going up strong and catching it. They're not fluking into plays. They're going up and making plays. Those guys have the talent to do that and I think it's just coming to fruition for them. It's an offense that's hitting on all cylinders and they're going to be tough to deal with."

He knows that Edwards, in particular, will be a load to deal with. "That guy is making some tremendous plays and he's a talented guy. I played against him for two years in training camp and every day at practice, so I know how talented he is. Obviously, Derek and Braylon have some chemistry right now and they're making some great plays. He's definitely going to be one of the guys we have to deal with and if he gets going he is as tough as anybody right now.

"I think the chemistry that he has with Derek is impressive. Derek's given him a chance by putting the ball in places where Braylon can use his athletic ability, go up and attack the ball. A lot of them are jump balls or fades versus press coverage and that's probably one of Braylon's strongest points. He's going to go up and attack the football. He's a big guy that can jump and body-position you. They're rolling right now and I'm sure he is going to be tough for all the corners that have to face him the rest of the year because if you press him you know the ball is going to go over your head. If you don't press him, then you're giving him underneath stuff and that's a tough predicament."

When asked whether Edwards can reach the heights (literally) that Randy Moss has, Russell answered in the affirmative. "They're both unique and special. I think the difference with Randy is he's had a lot more years to be consistent and prove himself. But if Braylon keeps doing what he's doing, then he can be as good as anybody, or as good as he wants to be. Randy – I don't want to take anything away from Randy – he's phenomenal, amazing and I know because I was on the practice squad and had to deal with him every day. Hard to compare, but both are very, very talented. I think the sky's the limit for Braylon being that he's young and obviously Randy can still do it with what he's accomplishing out in New England."

How will Seattle's secondary attack this test? "I think you respect their talent, but we're just going to go out and challenge and try to play good, tough, physical defense. There are a lot of good receivers in this league and we've seen several of them so far, so we just have to go out and execute. They're making plays, but we have to find a way to make plays as well. You can't be worried about the other team too much. You have to go execute and realize that our secondary, our defense is capable of making plays and in order to win this game we're going to have to do that."

Russell also talked about his new responsibility with the Seahawks, and how he works in tandem with Grant. In Seattle's system, secondaries play strong and free positions. "I am playing a different role. I think we have two safeties that are able to really play well together, Deon Grant and myself. We're always on the same page. We're pretty interchangeable. We both get a chance to blitz and cover, play the deep third, play in the box. I was, for the most part, a deep part of the field safety in Cleveland, which I enjoyed while I was there, but I do enjoy being in the box, making tackles. Blitzing, I feel I get into the game a little bit more and I have gotten the opportunity to make a few more plays this way."

Expect a shootout on Sunday, but Russell believes that because of the changes Seattle's made on defense, the Seahawks might have the advantage. "I'm going to play with everything I have, with every team that I'm on and every practice and every game and I feel that should always keep me on the field. I've been playing some pretty good football out here, so I'm excited about that."


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail him here.

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