Can pass rush become a Seahawks strength?

RENTON — Last season, quite often the Seattle Seahawks’ pass rush was Chris Clemons or bust.

Either the Seahawks’ defensive end provided quarterback pressure, or no one did. Clemons led the Seahawks last season with his second straight 11-sack season, but no else had more sacks than linebacker Leroy Hill’s four.

This season, thanks to the addition of first-round pick Bruce Irvin and the free-agent signing of Jason Jones, the Seahawks are hoping that will change. As the 2011 season progressed, it became clear Seattle had most of the pieces in place to build a young, elite defense. Despite starting several young and inexperienced players, Seattle ranked seventh in points allowed last season, and ninth in total defense. But as good as the Seahawks were defensively, their pass rush was often the one weak spot. Seattle had 33 sacks last season, which was tied for 19th in the league, and on days when teams figured out how to neutralize Clemons, the pass rush was often close to nonexistent.

With the addition of Irvin, a lighting-quick end, and Jones, a versatile interior pass rusher, the Seahawks plan on turning their pass rush from a question mark to a team strength.

“That could be deadly right there,” Jones said of Seattle’s pass-rushing options. “… If all the attention is on Clem, because he got 11 sacks last year, that will open things up for Bruce and me. … There are endless possibilities, that’s why I’m so excited.”

Jones, who spent the past four seasons in Tennessee, played mostly as a defensive end last year, and felt out of position after playing more tackle earlier in his career. This season, he will be used as an interior rusher on passing downs, but can also play end in other packages, or serve as a backup to defensive end Red Bryant. And even if playing tackle can at times mean less glory, Jones is thrilled to be back where he feels more comfortable, and knows that even if he isn’t putting up big numbers, he can make an impact.

“And the end of the day, I do want sacks, but if I’m causing havoc and somebody else is eating, then that means we’re doing our jobs,” he said. “Sacks will come, but overall we just want other teams to be scared of us and be intimidated by our pass rush.”

This is why the Seahawks took what is a perceived gamble on Irvin with the 15th overall pick in the draft when they already had a pass rusher in Clemons. And why they signed Jones, one of the top defensive tackles on the market even though they had a pair of starting tackles they still like in Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch. It is hard to understate the value of a strong pass rush in the NFL, particularly when you can create one without blitzing.

“It can help us on third down, and that’s so big in the NFL to get off (the field) on third down,” said defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “So if you get those three guys on the field. … It can just change our mentality a little bit. We’re going to bring pressure, but if you can play coverage and rush four and get pressure on, it opens up a lot of things for you.”

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is counting on the addition of Jones and Irvin to pay dividends, and believes their presence, as much as anything, could be a difference maker in 2012.

“Out of all of the aspects of our football team I’m most excited about our potential to improve there,” Carroll said. “We know that Bruce is an obvious opportunity guy that can really add to it with the great speed that he has. … But I think the really exiting element is to see what Jason Jones can bring for us. To have a guy that not only can he rush outside, but can be a very effective guy we hope on the inside will accent having terrific speed on both edges and a real elusive guy inside and with great length and reach, the combination really elevates our potential for our pass rush.”

A year ago, the big story on Seattle’s defense was the surprising secondary that, by the end of the year, was made of three first-year starters in safety Kam Chancellor and cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Browner, Chancellor and free safety Earl Thomas all played in the Pro Bowl last year. But the scary thing for the rest of the NFC is that the secondary could be much better if the pass rush makes the leap forward that the Seahawks hope it can.

“We like the guys covering in the back end, they need more help with the rush up front, and it’ll all work together,” Carroll said. “That’s the area that I hope will be a visible improvement from game one. We’re going to really lean on that and we’re really excited about that change.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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