RENTON — The first time the Jacksonville Jaguars faced a third down against the Seahawks on Sunday, the play was a rather nondescript short pass that failed to pick up the first down.
The official game stats listed the play as: C. Henne pass short right to A. Sanders to JAX 27 for 5 yards.
Another more meaningful way to describe that play, however, might be to call it a preview of the pass rush the Seahawks were dreaming of when they signed Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in the offseason.
In Pete Carroll’s first two years as Seattle’s coach, the Seahawks’ pass rush consisted mostly of Chris Clemons and little else; that’s why Bruce Irvin was the team’s first-round pick last year. Yet even with Irvin providing eight sacks last season, and Clemons turning in another strong year with 111/2 sacks, Carroll singled out upgrading the pass rush the team’s biggest offseason priority.
That led to the signing of Bennett and Avril. However, because Irvin is still serving a four-game suspension, and Clemons missed the first two games while recovering from knee surgery, Avril and Bennett weren’t luxury additions as much as they were desperately-needed parts of the defensive line. With Clemons back on the field Sunday, fans saw for the first time what Seattle’s pass rush could look like moving forward.
When Jacksonville faced third and long, Seattle’s defensive line, from left to right, was often Avril, Bennett, O’Brien Schofield and Clemons— essentially four defensive ends, though Bennett has the size to play the interior line as well. When Irvin returns, expect to see him in a role similar to the one Schofield played Sunday.
“That’s what we’re shooting for is to get those guys out there,” Carroll said. “We want to see all of the fast guys out there and see where we could best situate them, and we’re learning. OB had a really nice rush, standing up on the guard you know and got clean coming through.”
Perhaps no single player has been more important to Seattle’s defensive line early this season than Bennett, who has the versatility to play as an inside rusher or at either end position.
“He has demonstrated that he can do a lot of stuff,” Carroll said, “If you looked at the different spots he lined up (Sunday), that was about everywhere that you could put a D-lineman and it’s just the way he comes off of the football and he attacks. He’s a very effective player. He’s more than we thought he was. He’s got more variety to his game, it comes out of just the tenacity and the motor that he has. We’re real excited about it.”
Carroll has been looking for an interior pass rusher like Bennett for a while. The Seahawks hoped they had found that player when they signed Jason Jones last year, and he was effective when healthy, but a knee injury derailed his season. Bennett has so far looked not only like that interior rusher, but he also has played significant snaps at end, which has been particularly important with Clemons and Avril limited by injuries.
“For years, we’ve been looking for an inside presence in the pass rush,” Carroll said of Bennett. “I think that’s the best shot that we have right now. That’s not to mention the other guys are doing well, too, but he has really jumped out.”
In New York, the Giants have used similar all-defensive-end front they call the NASCAR package, and while the Seahawks don’t yet have a catch name for that look — “The fast guys?” Carroll said — they have big hopes for what that kind of speed can do in passing situations.
“We know that the fast guys are going to benefit from all of the activity we can get inside,” Carroll said. “The more attention that we can get them to focus on three inside guys, the space has worked to our advantage. Avril and Clem, they were good and steady, and we will continue to work with those combinations. We like to keep mixing those around.”
With Clemons just getting back, and with Irvin still serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, and with Avril limited by injuries for much of camp, the Seahawks are just starting to figure out how this will all play out. Carroll said he thinks it could take seven or eight weeks for this new-look pass rush to hit its stride, but what he does know is that if his defense stays relatively healthy, he’ll have a much-improved pass rush as the season goes on to add to a stout run defense and one of the league’s best secondaries.
“I feel like we’re just getting started,” Carroll said of the pass rush. “It really feels like we’re just warming up to what we can do. This is a unique group, because we don’t have real big guys. We’re a very fast group and a couple of weeks from now we’re going to be flying, we’re going to be really fast when Bruce comes back.
“When we put all of that together, we’re going to be in a mode still trying to find our way right now for a while. I don’t feel like we have it nailed yet, but it’s exciting, it’s fun for us, we like it, and we want to pressure and want to keep the heat on the quarterback primarily. That’s the number one thing we need to do up front.”
Through three games, the Seahawks have eight sacks, a middle-of-the-road total, but they’ve been getting better pressure than that number indicates, and those sack totals should start to improve with Clemons back and Irvin one game from returning. Already the Seahawks have allowed the fewest points, yards, passing yards and passing touchdowns in the NFL, and if the pass rush is about to take a step forward, things could really get tough for teams when they have to throw the ball against Seattle.
“That’s the biggest thing, not only having two guys but having five, six different guys who can get after the quarterback,” Clemons said. “Coach and (general manager John Schneider) are doing a great job of getting great guys getting those guys in. It’s almost that time. Once Bruce gets back, we’re going to have a chance to get after it.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.