By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — The sting of a season-ending loss was barely 24 hours old when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked how his team could improve if it was going to take another step forward from a 2012 campaign that saw them fall just short of a berth in the NFC Championship game.
Carroll could have said his team needed another weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson, or an improved offensive line, but instead he said one of the league’s best defenses had to get better.
“We need another pass rusher, we really do,” Carroll said the day after his team lost to Atlanta in the 2012 divisional round of the playoffs while playing without an injured Chris Clemons.
Two months later, the Seahawks put their money where Carroll’s mouth was, signing not one but two of the top pass rushers available in free agency, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
And now, a year after seeing their season end in large part because their defense was unable generate pressure against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the Seahawks will host their playoff opener against New Orleans as the NFC’s No. 1 seed in large part because of the effect an improved pass rush has had on what was already a very good defense.
Yes the “Legion of Boom” secondary is playing at an incredibly high level, with three players deservedly earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Yet those defensive backs will be the first to tell you that an improved pass rush played a big role in the Seahawks having the league’s top pass defense both in terms of yards allowed (172.0 per game) and interceptions (28).
“It makes my job a lot easier,” safety Earl Thomas said of the pass rush. “Sometimes I take three or four backpedals and sack, or (the opposing quarterback is) running for his life. It makes my reads easier and I can be more aggressive. All that works hand and hand, that’s why we’re all tied on a string, and these guys have been great this season. They need a little bit more respect, but that’s just how the league is. I love these guys and they make my job a lot easier.”
Last season, the Seahawks’ 36 sacks were tied for 18th most in the NFL, and those were a bit uneven. The Seahawks had eight sacks in one half against Green Bay early in the year, then had only eight in the final six games of the regular season. Seattle had two sacks in its playoff opener, one of which came when quarterback Robert Griffin III blew out his knee, and none in Atlanta while playing without Clemons, who, like Griffin, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Washington game.
With Clemons back from offseason surgery, and with the addition of Avril and Bennett, the Seahawks pass rush has taken a huge step forward. Clemons’ numbers are actually down significantly with 4.5 sacks, but that isn’t because he is playing poorly. Rather Clemons diminished numbers are because more Seahawks got involved in the sack attack this season.
With the addition of Bennett (8.5 sacks), Avril (8.0), the improved play of defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (5.5) and the knack middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (5.0) has shown on delayed blitzes, it has been harder for any one individual to pile up numbers. This year, Seattle’s 44 sacks are tied for eighth most in the NFL, and the Seahawks have not been held without a sack in a single game this year.
“I think it’s been a significant difference,” Carroll said. “The pass defense numbers show that, and everybody has helped out. All of the guys that have come in have helped and they’ve helped the other guys play better. So it’s interesting to see how it does tie together. We’ve been playing pretty much the same coverage principles, but when the rush picked, our numbers went down in terms of our opponent’s production. So it’s been a big factor.”
In their Week 13 victory over New Orleans, the Seahawks sacked Drew Brees only once, but it was arguably the most important play of the game. Facing third-and-5 and trailing by just a field goal early in the game, Brees dropped back to pass, but was hit by Avril, who also knocked the ball loose and into Bennett’s hands. Bennett returned the fumble 22 yards into the end zone, did a somewhat provocative dance, as he is wont to do after making big plays, and from there the blowout was on.
The impact the Bennett and Avril have made was hardly a given. Sure they both had impressive resumes — Avril had 29 sacks in his previous three seasons with Detroit, and Bennett, who started his career in Seattle in 2009, was coming off a nine-sack season in Tampa Bay. However, both were put in different roles in Seattle.
After being starters and something close to every-down players with their previous teams, Avril and Bennett are both technically subs with Seattle, though they play significantly in a rotation with ends Red Bryant and Clemons. Bennett also found himself playing multiple positions with his new team, playing both as an edge rusher and an interior rusher in passing situations.
“Our roles have changed compared to what they were on previous teams,” said Avril, who leads Seattle with five forced fumbles. “We’re playing a little bit less. But the goal was to get pass rushers in, and we pass rush, so we’re enjoying the ride.
“Initially it was hard. It was definitely hard not being on the field as much. It was hard just not playing as much as you’re used to playing. You go from playing 80, 90 percent of the snaps to 40, 50 percent, but we all make sacrifices, everybody is playing less on the D-line.”
And ultimately that rotation has paid dividends, especially as the season wears on and Seattle’s linemen have fresh legs having played fewer snaps than they might have in years past.
“I think that’s what makes us unique,” Bennett said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are so cohesive as a group, we can just interchange and make plays. As the season goes on, we’ve learned how to feed off each other and learn to make plays off each other, and I think that’s what’s making us a good defense.”
Next to Thomas and Richard Sherman, Bennett might be Seattle’s most valuable defensive player this season — though a case also could be made for defensive tackle Brandon Mebane — yet it is Seattle’s vaunted secondary that gets most of the accolades, with Thomas, Sherman and Chancellor earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
But what Carroll and his players understand is that for Seattle’s defense to reach this level, for the secondary to play at such an incredibly high level, the Seahawks first had to make a concerted effort to make life tougher on opposing quarterbacks. That’s what they did last offseason, and the results have been obvious all season.
“That plays a lot into it,” Chancellor said. “Those guys get after the quarterback, they fly around, their motors go until the whistle blows, and that plays a big factor. The quarterback gets under duress and throws the ball up in the air, or the receivers’ timing gets off.
“A lot of credit goes to those guys. I wish some of those guys would have gotten the Pro Bowl accolades, because they deserve it.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.