By John Boyle Herald Writer
RENTON — So often in sports, “tweener” is the worst label you can slap on an athlete.
Maybe his combination of size and athletic ability make him fall right between the ideal for a linebacker and a safety, or maybe he’s too small to be a power forward, but not quite athletic enough or a good enough shooter to be a small forward or guard.
But in the case of Seahawks’ defensive lineman Michael Bennett, being something of a tweener makes him the ideal fit in Seattle’s defense. Bennett went undrafted in 2009 in part, yes, because he fell somewhere between the spectrum of defensive end and defensive tackle.
After a brief stint with the Seahawks, who no doubt regret giving up on him so soon, Bennett caught on in Tampa Bay, and focused on being the most versatile player he could be, whether that was playing as an end or a tackle. Bennett’s breakout came in 2011 when he started 10 games and recorded four sacks and 35 solo tackles. Last year, Bennett had nine sacks, added another 34 solo tackles, forced three fumbles and made himself a sought-after free agent.
“That’s always the type of player I’ve tried to be,” Bennett said of his versatility. “My first position was learning how to play inside, I know how to play outside. They do a good job making sure I know every position and just go out and play as hard as I can.”
Bennett’s ability to play multiple positions along the defensive line could make him one of Seattle’s most important offseason acquisitions — even if he doesn’t have the league-wide name recognition of other new Seahawks like Percy Harvin, Antoine Winfield or Cliff Avril. The Seahawks will need Bennett’s skills in light of Bruce Irvin’s suspension as well as the fact that Chris Clemons is far from a sure thing to make it back for the start of the season because of a knee injury,
When the Seahawks signed Bennett, Pete Carroll talked about using him as an interior rusher in passing situations — think of the role Jason Jones played when healthy last year. However, with Clemons still recovering and Avril sitting out offseason workouts with a foot injury, Bennett has spent plenty of time working at the “Leo” defensive spot as well, and looked plenty comfortable doing it.
“It is important, because Michael is a defensive end that can play inside,” Carroll said. “He’s already moved all over the place and he’s had no trouble with it at all. We’re going to really expect him to be featured inside on third downs and nickel groups as a specialty rusher as well as everything else that he does. We’ll see when he gets in the pads how that fits together, but he does have great flexibility.
“He’s a 4-3 end in his makeup, and that means that he can play outside on the split end side, he can play on the tight end side and he also is a real quality rusher inside.”
Inside, outside, it doesn’t really matter for Bennett as long as he’s on the field chasing quarterbacks.
“I feel comfortable lining up anywhere and beating the person in front of me so I can get to the quarterback,” he said.
When the Seahawks’ line is at full strength, Bennett might spend more time in that inside pass-rusher role. That’s not because he can’t be an outside pass rusher, but with players like Clemons, Irvin and Avril, Seattle has plenty of options once everyone is back.
“There are just so many good players,” Bennett said. “You bring in Tony (McDaniel), Red (Bryant) does his thing, you’ve got Avril, Mebane, Bruce, the young guys, those new rookies are going to be pretty good D-tackles. We’ve got a lot of good players.
“That’s the scary part. We can show a big front, we can go small and be speed, we can have a mixture. This is a very good defensive line.”
The way Bennett sees it his versatility allows him to be a big guy if the Seahawks go small on passing downs, or be the speed guy when there’s more bulk on the field. In other words, he’s a tweener in the best possible sense of the word.
“I can be interchangeable in all the defenses,” Bennett said. “I like being that way.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.