Jared Allen thought he wanted to be a Seahawk this offseason. That is, until the Super Bowl champions told the free-agent pass rusher supreme how they use their defensive linemen.
Seahawks games feature more hockey line changes on defense than football substitutions. Fresh pass rushers rotate in waves constantly, beginning in the first quarter and not ending until the team bus pulls away from the stadium following the game.
A star like Allen is used to 50-some snaps a game, more than 900 in a season. He didn’t make his fame or his cash embracing a time share. So he said “No, thanks” to the Seahawks and signed instead for $32 million with Chicago to play every down for the Bears.
Then again, Allen owns zero Super Bowl rings.
The Seahawks? They signed six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams to a $2.1 million, one-year deal and re-signed rush end O’Brien Schofield to veteran-minimum contract for one year instead this spring while remaining one of the youngest teams in the league. And they are getting along splendidly without Allen, continuing their work-share ways using eight or even nine linemen during games along the defensive front. They raised their first Super Bowl-championship banner at the top of CenturyLink Field last week.
“I think it’s the key to our success,” said Schofield, who has spent most of August and September in the opponents’ backfields.
Besides, defensive end Michael Bennett scoffs at the thought of getting exhausted in games.
“I don’t want to be on the field all the time!” Bennett bellowed. “It makes a lot more sense having all these guys in there making plays like they do.”
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn calls the rotation up front “a real advantage for us.”
The numbers say they are right. Freshness along the defensive line will likely be pivotal again Sunday, when the Seahawks (1-0) have their first road test of 2014 here against the Chargers (0-1). Not only will Seattle be rushing stationary pocket passer Philip Rivers on what is forecast to be a 90-plus-degree day at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego is starting a backup center, Rich Ohrnberger, after veteran Nick Hardwick went on injured reserve this week.
The Seahawks have won 25 of their last 30 games, including the postseason. The NFL’s top-ranked defense last season held Green Bay to 255 total yards and 16 points, and sacked Aaron Rodgers twice in a 20-point win last week over a division-champion contender.
How fresh is Seattle’s defense? The Seahawks, often using just a four-man pass rush that affords them seven defenders in pass coverage, ranked eighth in the NFL last season in sacks. They have 64 sacks in those last 30 games. Forty-four of those 64 dumps of quarterbacks — 69 percent — have come after halftime.
Beyond the sacks, Peyton Manning can tell you how pressured and harassed he was later the Super Bowl trying in vain to rally Denver from way behind the refreshed Seahawks seven months ago.
Seattle has have allowed more than 200 yards in a second half just five times in those last 30 games, and it has been outscored during the second half a grand total of two times in those 30 contests.
No wonder 25 of those have been wins, including in February’s Super Bowl.
As coach Pete Carroll pointed out, somewhat wryly, “It helps when you’re ahead in games. They have to throw it so, you know, you get to rush.
“(But) I think that’s a key indicator. We have good, hungry guys and we’re young. I’ve always believed in the rotation so that guys can stay strong — not just in that game but throughout the schedule. Maybe that’s working for us, too.”
There’s no maybes about it for the freshest Seahawks on the field each game day.
“The fact that we have guys to rotate in and the depth we have to rush the passer, to keep guys fresh, (is huge),” said Schofield, who looks reborn as a speedy pass rusher this early season. “I think it’s real important when we have teams that keep us in those nickel packages — teams like Green Bay and further on the schedule.
“I mean, that helps you tremendously.”
The Seahawks’ defensive linemen admit the competitors in them want to be on the field all the time — that is, aside from the humorous Bennett, who wants no part of feeling tired. It’s how professional athletes are wired, why they are here instead of completing the rest of their life’s work already.
But defensive line coach Travis Jones cites a moment at the start of last season’s run to the championship as the key to getting a complete buy-in on this time-sharing plan.
That moment came from 6-foot-10-inch tall legend, a NBA Hall of Famer and 11-time world champion who made a short trip in the summer of 2013 across Lake Washington from his home on Mercer Island to the Seahawks’ Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton.
“It’s for the greater good, the betterment of the team. And we had the greatest example in that: Bill Russell,” Jones said, recalling the Boston Celtics icon’s latest of several visits over the years to the Seahawks, at Carroll’s invitation. “It was tremendous. He lives just across the water. He came and talked to our team about all his success and the championships that he won. That the greatest thing he enjoyed about all that was the selflessness that he and others exhibited on that team for them to be able to win the way they did — and still have tremendous success as a player. But it’s helping the guy next to you, too.
“You have to take an ego check at the door here.”
Bruce Irvin played just 19 snaps last week, his first game following offseason hip surgery. He is part of the full game plan for Sunday, Carroll said. Some of that is to ease him back into game work — and some is to keep him fresh to chase Rivers more quickly than he’d be able to playing most or every down for four quarters.
“Oh, man, it’s very, very helpful,” Irvin said of the D-line’s rotation. “When you know you’ve got someone behind you who can come in and do just as good or maybe even better than you, it’s a great feeling.
“Like I always say, it ain’t no fun if the homies can’t get none. I live by that.”
Here’s how those “homies” get theirs.
When teams like the Packers, maybe the Chargers at times Sunday and definitely the Broncos next week at CenturyLink Field put four and five wide receivers on the field, the Seahawks stay in nickel defense with five defensive backs. They were in nickel 92 percent of the game last week.
If Quinn still wants to guard against a run threat he has a “big nickel” package that includes the run-stopping Williams and veteran defensive tackle Brandon Mebane up front. If the run threat is minimal, Quinn opts for a smaller, fast nickel set with Cliff Avril, Schofield, Irvin and other jets flying off the outside and perhaps usual end Bennett playing defensive tackle for speed inside.
Then it’s Jordan Hill, rookie Cassius Marsh and others rotating in. The Seahawks are still trying to decide the hierarchy of pass-rush specialists along the defensive line; Hill will get a more prominent role Sunday.
“Those rotations have been a big part of what we do,” Quinn said. “We have enough — eight or nine — guys who are able to go however long the drive has to take.”
Carroll said those guys have seen the Russell-inspired bigger picture of team success over individual accomplishments.
“It’s never really been that big of an issue,” the coach said. “Now a guy it’s a first time for is Kevin Williams. Kevin played 900 snaps or something last year (with Minnesota).
“But that’s the way we talked to him in recruiting him to come and he was up for it. Everybody else has really adapted well, he’s taken to it and he understood that this is the way it’s going to be.
“Most of the guys really like it because they get to really feel good about the snaps that they get. They can really go for it so we haven’t had an issue with that at all.”
Irvin, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2012 out of West Virginia, doesn’t mind coming out so much.
“I’ve been subbed out all my life. I was a situational pass rusher in college,” he said. “For other guys who have been a starter all their lives, it’s an ego thing.
“You have to put all that aside when you come here, because everybody’s good.
“Not saying guys aren’t good on other teams — but we got pretty good guys here.”