By John Boyle Herald Columnist
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Tony McDaniel wasn’t sure what to make of his new situation last summer.
McDaniel had signed with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, potentially to take over a starting job at defensive tackle, but when he started taking place in preseason workouts, McDaniel wasn’t sure if Pete Carroll and his defensive coaching staff had a plan in mind for him and the rest of the defensive line.
“When I first got here in OTAs, they were kind of mixing and matching us, giving us different roles,” McDaniel said, laughing at his early impression of Seattle’s defense. “So I was kind of wondering how this was all going to work out. But it’s worked out great.”
The truth is, Carroll wasn’t sure how his defensive line was going to look as his team prepared for the 2013 season. It wasn’t that the Seahawks feared their line was going to be problem — an already solid group added pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency — it was just that nobody was quite sure how it would all fit together.
Following a draft in which his team added two rookie linemen to an already crowded group, Carroll said: “We have a lot of versatility and we have to figure out how it fits together. But this is not something we worry about, this is something we can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Hopefully we can keep a big rotation going, keep guys healthy and keep them fast and playing at a high level. If we’re doing that then we’re on the right track. There is a variety of guys, and we love that. So we’ll fit them together as we move forward.”
Nine months later, things have played out pretty much exactly as Carroll laid out that day, minus injuries to those two rookies, Jesse Williams and Jordan Hill. The Seahawks have kept the rest of the group healthy, they have kept a big rotation and they have played at a very high level. And in a game where so much attention will be paid to the matchup of Peyton Manning vs. Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the group that could actually make the greatest impact on Super Bowl XLVIII is the defensive line that has been overshadowed all year by those star defensive backs.
“They’re incredibly underrated,” cornerback Richard Sherman said of Seattle’s defenisve linemen. “It’s almost sad how much they’re underrated. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t all play starters snaps because there’s so many of them. But the effect that Michael Bennett and Brandon Mebane and Big Red Bryant and Cliff Avril, Tony McDaniel, Clint McDonald — I could go on and on and on — have had on our team and our ability to win games is tremendous. They’re making plays week in and week out that have helped us win games.”
“They definitely don’t get the credit they deserve,” safety Earl Thomas added. “They’re a great front and they make our jobs a lot easier.”
As Sherman notes, the line probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves because they rotate players so frequently. While some teams have linemen who might play 80 to 90-percent of the snaps, something Chris Clemons had done in the past, the Seahawks rarely have a lineman play more two thirds of a game.
Bennett and Avril were considered the two top pass rushers on the free-agent market, and were starters on their former teams. In Seattle, neither is a starter, though both play frequently, and both have been among the most impactful players on Seattle’s defense, combining for 16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in the regular season, and three sacks and four forced fumbles in the playoffs.
You want a good example of how deep and talented Seattle’s defensive line has been this season? Avril and Bennett, those two non-starters, they ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks ago combining to sack Drew Brees.
Yet as deep as Seattle’s defensive line is, and as much of a benefit that could be Sunday when those linemen will be playing with healthier bodies than is normal for the 19th game of the year, it was hardly a sure thing that this was going to work. Egos could have gotten in the way had Avril or Bennett felt slighted by their reduced roles, or had Clemons been put off by the drop in production that came this year thanks to an improved group around him.
“Those guys sacrificed so much to come here,” Clemons said of Avril and Bennett. “To be starters on their prior teams and come here and say, ‘I’m going to be a role player’ — that’s the way we look at it, any of us can start. A lot of guys checked their egos to go out and be able to perform with guys they’ve never played with. I just think it’s great.”
While Seattle’s vaunted secondary will play a huge role in determining the Spuer Bowl’s outcome, what makes the defensive line so important Sunday is one of the underrated elements of Denver’s offense with Manning leading the show. Manning never has been known as a mobile quarterback, and now he’s 37 and has had multiple neck surgeries, yet he was sacked just 18 times this season.
“You just got to beat your man faster,” Bennett said matter-of-factly.
But it’s not as easy as that. Manning has an incredible knack for getting the ball out in time, something that developed over a long career. So even if Seattle’s pass rushers are doing a decent job, odds are Manning usually will throw it quick enough anyway. But with so many different pass-rush options, the Seahawks might be able to present challenges the Broncos haven’t yet seen this year — when the Seahawks have Avril, Bennett, McDonald and Clemons on the field together in passing situations, that’s 26.5 combined sacks lined up across from Manning and his line. And if Avril can get one of his signature strip sacks, if Bennett can recover, do a little dance, and help the offense set up a score, that could be just as impactful as anything the “Legion of Boom” or anyone on Seattle’s offense could do Sunday.
Whether it was Carroll on draft weekend or a McDaniel in OTAs, there was plenty of uncertainty about how his rotation would come together. Now, with the Seahawks playing in the Super Bowl, that uncertainty has turned into one of Seattle’s biggest strengths.
“We had to figure it out, and figure out how they could fit together and how we could mesh the different personalities and styles of play, and that’s what we’ve done,” Carroll said. “Early in the year, as we just rotated, we just were gathering information. I thought mid-year, it really took us before we really figured out what we thought was the best way to utilize our guys. They’ve all played, they’ve shared reps, nobody’s overworked, nobody’s overloaded at this time. We’re very fresh and ready to go. We’re very fortunate that we’re this late in the season and feel like that. So, it’s worked out quite well.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.