SEATTLE — For Michael Bennett, playing New Orleans is lot more fun now that he’s a Seahawk.
The defensive lineman spent the first four years of his career with Tampa Bay, playing the Saints twice a year and losing more often than not.
But for the second time in six weeks, Bennett lit the fuse that shot the Seahawks past New Orleans, this time in the NFL playoffs as Seattle defeated New Orleans 23-15 on Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
In the regular season, in December, Bennett returned a fumble for a touchdown that started the landslide that became a 34-7 victory.
Saturday, he forced two fumbles and recovered one of them to set up Seattle’s first touchdown early in the second quarter.
While it didn’t set off a lop-sided rout, it put the Seahawks ahead 13-0 and allowed them to hunker down and play the kind of smash-mouth, conservative game that suits their style and Saturday’s stormy weather.
On the first play of the second quarter, Bennett hit Saints running back Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage, jarring the ball loose. Bennett said that as he lay on the ground the ball literally fell right into his arms.
“It happened so quick,” Bennett said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got the ball. Let’s play, man.’ I just knew we had to come out here and make big plays and be able to win this game.”
Bennett has been making plays all season, and he led Seattle with 8.5 quarterback sacks in the regular season.
“Mike has been a great addition. Shoot, he’s made plays all year,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. “To force the fumble and recover it and be part of another sack, too …”
Bennett’s signing as a free agent in March raised a few eyebrows because it came just two days after the Seahawks signed Cliff Avril, also a noted pass rusher.
Ten months later, the move looks like pure genius. Avril, who spent his first five seasons with Detroit, had eight sacks in the regular season to finish second on the team behind Bennett, and they combined to share Seattle’s only sack on Saturday.
Both of them had to accept a reduced role from their previous teams, and they both said that took some time — and humility.
Neither one is even considered a starter as the Seahawks typically begin games with a run-heavy defensive package.
“It took a while for us to figure out our roles, seven, eight weeks, honestly,” Avril said. “We had to put our pride aside. We both came from starting on different teams and playing 80, 90 percent of the snaps to 40, 50 percent. It took a while, but we’re comfortable with it and it’s best for the team.”
Bennett, whose brother, Martellus, plays tight end for Chicago, agreed.
“All of us came from different places and all of us played different positions and we all had to get adapted to it and get that cohesiveness as a group,” he said. “I think that as the year progressed, especially toward the last six games, we really have come together as a defensive line.”
Bennett also had to get used to playing a variety of positions.
Bennett plays a lot of defensive end in mixed downs, but he often moves inside on passing downs to make room for Avril and Chris Clemons to rush from the edge.
In a defensive line stable filled with role players, Bennett has emerged as the most versatile and one of the most valuable.
“Just the way he plays is so fitting for us,” Carroll said. “He has a great style to him, an unusual player that he has kind of a variety of things that he does well. Hopefully, we’re doing him right by moving him around and taking advantage of that.”
Bennett’s play almost certainly costs fellow defensive end Red Bryant some snaps, but that’s fine with Bryant.
“You can’t hide talent,” Bryant said of Bennett, who was undrafted coming out of Texas A&M. “To come into this league as a free agent, to be one of the premier D linemen in the league, is a testament to himself.
“He deserves everything he’s doing, and we’re a better football team when he’s on the field, and everybody can see that,” Bryant said. “So if I’ve got to come out for him to be on, I’ll set that road.”
Bennett is good with it, too, especially with his team one victory away from the Super Bowl.
“I just want to win. Stats don’t even count in the playoffs. All they count is the wins,” he said. “If you need to get in the way (of a blocker) for somebody else to make the play, that’s what we’ve got to do because it’s the playoffs.”
As for the fact that he’s 2-0 against New Orleans with his new team, Bennett said that isn’t hard to explain.
“We didn’t have the right personnel to beat them (in Tampa Bay), and here we’ve got the right personnel,” he said.
“Everybody’s so good, and I’m just lucky to be able to be here.”
The feeling, no doubt, is mutual.