Seattle Seahawks

Same issue for Seahawks after opener as in March: Where’s the pass rush coming from?

News Tribune’s Gregg Bell on what he saw, heard thought of Seahawks’ opening loss in Denver

TNT’s Gregg Bell on what he saw, thought, heard of Seahawks’ opening loss at Denver.
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TNT’s Gregg Bell on what he saw, thought, heard of Seahawks’ opening loss at Denver.

It’s been one of this team’s biggest questions, and issues, for months.

Pretty much since they traded Michael Bennett in March and fellow Pro Bowl sack man Cliff Avril had to retire this spring.

Where are the Seahawks going to find a pass rush this season?

Not in Denver. Not in their first game.

Debuting Denver quarterback Case Keenum dropped back to pass 40 times Sunday in the Broncos’ 27-24 victory at Mike High Stadium. The Seahawks put him on the ground one time.

Russell Wilson dropped to throw 39 times Sunday. Denver sacked Seattle’s QB six times.

In this passer-and-sack-the-passer league, that is a glaring reason why Seattle is 0-1 and needing answers in pressuring and protecting quarterbacks. Especially heading to Chicago to play the Bears and their All+Pro sack man Khalil Mack, the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, next Monday night.

Denver used chip blocks on defensive ends, tight ends and running backs who initially deliver shoulder blows to edge rushers on their .ways out on pass patterns. The Broncos also often sent only three men, and sometimes two, out on patterns, leaving seven or even eight Broncos to block four or five Seahawks and counting on Denver’s receivers to find openings in Seattle’s seven-man zone defense that had four new starters playing since last season.

It worked.

“It was mistakes all over the board, especially on defense,” said end Frank Clark, who had Seattle’s only sack.

“We’ve just got to do a better job. At the end spots, we’ve just got to do a better job converting on our play-actions and stuff like that, so we can get to the quarterback. At the end of the day we’ve got to give our offense, make more plays.”

The Seahawks played seven men on the defensive line as early as the game’s first series at the 5,200-foot altitude on an 87-degree day to keep the pass rush fresh. Seven defensive linemen played at least 15 snaps.

Rookie sixth-round pick Jacob Martin got six plays. Martin’s got enough speed and athleticism off the edge that he needs more than that.

Rookie third-round draft choice Rasheem Green made his NFL debut at end opposite Quinton Jefferson a few plays after Clark and Jefferson started there. The Seahawks blitzed linebacker Bobby Wagner and nickel defensive back Justin Coleman a few times, but not as much as perhaps Denver expected after Seattle’s blitzing preseason under new coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

All they got from that was a sack by Clark, in the third quarter when the Seahawks held Denver to 31 total yards, and only five quarterback hits in those 40 drop backs by Keenum.

You can do the math on how that worked out for Seattle’s pass rush.

“Yeah, they had maximum protections. They had chippers. They had seven-man protections. They left the tight ends in with play-action, stuff like that,” Clark said. “Three-step drops. Everything was quick.

“They challenged us in the middle over there. Guys at the linebacking corps, they challenged us there,” Clark said of rookie weakside linebacker Shaquem Griffin and second-year free agent Austin Calitro.

“They challenged our (pass) rush, which we have inexperience there. I think that’s what they did a good job of doing, in their protections, slowing us down that way.

“I think going into next week we need to do a better job in practice with preparing.”

But there will be the same players prepping for Chicago as did for Denver. That is, unless the Seahawks make a (costly) trade or other roster move for a pass rusher, what they have is Clark as the only proven sack man on the roster. He got his 20th in the last two seasons plus one game on Sunday, and he’s super-motivated because this is the final year of his rookie contract. He would love an extension from the Seahawks, or else will command bigger bucks in free agency in March because this league so covets pass rushers. Especially one who are just 25 years old.

This is what Clark posted on his Twitter feed last week, after Mack got his record-setting windfall from the Bears:

He did mean sacks.

Beyond Clark, the Seahawks are relying an awful lot of Jordan right now—considering the former first-round pick Miami gave up on last year just played in his fourth game in three-plus years on Sunday. He had his third knee surgery in 13 months this spring, then got the stress fracture in his leg. His practices last week were his first in nine months.

The Seahawks are developing Green, a defensive tackle at USC, into a end outside on early downs and eventually an inside rusher on passing downs, much like Bennett did for Seattle in earning Pro Bowl selections in each of the last two seasons. But Sunday showed Green has a ways to go outside perfecting end before he sees impacting time inside as a rush tackle.

It also showed why many questioned the Seahawks not taking a pass rusher but a running back instead with their first-round pick in this spring’s draft.

So maybe this is a case of getting what you pay for.

Barkevious Mingo was an elite edge pass rusher from LSU when Cleveland made him a first-round pick in 2013, the same year Jordan went in round one to the Dolphins. But all preseason and again in Sunday’s opener the Seahawks had Mingo as the strongside linebacker in base defense. He was covering tight ends and running backs more than rushing the quarterback.

Jefferson has one sack in three seasons since the Seahawks drafted him in the fifth round in 2016.

So the pass rush will remain a huge, damaging issue this week heading into the Chicago game. And the week after, before the home opener against Dallas. And the week after that when Seattle plays Arizona. And the week after that...

And, oh, yeah, the Seahawks’ only proven pass rusher is hurting. Clark had surgery on his wrist in June. He says he played with two broken hands last season. Sunday, after an incomplete pass by Keenum on third down in the second half, Clark was behind the play on two knees in Denver’s backfield, shaking both, pained hands.

I asked him in the locker room afterward how hurt he still is.

“Yeah, you know how it is: Football is football, and stuff,” Clark said, deflecting with a cordial grin. “Seems like it’s something every day. But at the end of the day, that’s what I’ve got the training room for. You know what I mean. I’ve got to (next) Monday to get wrist. I’ll be going into Monday physically, though, just getting back to 100. I’m not playing 100 right now, but I’m feeling good. I think that’s the most important part. There’s no lack of energy. There’s no lack of play there. ...

“It’s just the same old stuff. You know how it is, man. Just constantly going through stuff. Just trying to get better. ... We’ve got days off.”

The offensive line’s pass-protection issues from 2017, ‘16 and really ‘15 continued to begin ‘18.

Broncos linebacker Von Miller sacks Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for one of the All-Pro linebacker’s three sacks during Seattle’s loss at Denver Sunday in the season opener. David Zalubowski AP

Ifedi got beaten for one of Broncos All-Pro sack man Von Miller’s three sacks. On Miller’s second one in three plays in the first half the 2015 Super Bowl MVP looped inside the blocking Ifedi and right guard J.R. Sweezy nor any other Seahawks blocker picked him up. On the third sack by Miller, on a key third and 3 in the fourth quarter with the Seahawks trailing 27-24, Wilson saw no receiver open and extended the play by spinning and running back—directly into Miller.

“We don’t want that to happen. We want to keep Russ from getting hit all day, if we can,” center Justin Britt said. “Some things are out of our control and some things are our technique. The things that we can change and fix, we will.

“We’ll grow. Like I said, next week is another opportunity to show who we are.”

Wilson took the blame for three of those six sacks by the Broncos.

“Granted, third down, I am trying to make a play. If it’s not there, I am not trying to just give up on the play,” Wilson said. “I would definitely say probably three of those are on me, just trying to make a play and it’s not there. It’s a part of the game.”

New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer drilled Wilson all offseason and preseason on the importance of “getting the ball out on time,” that is, throwing at the end of three-, five- or seven-step drops. Fired play caller Darrell Bevell was less rigid about that, more allowing of Wilson’s improvisation scramble game that has created so many big plays for the Seahawks since Wilson got the job as a rookie in 2012.

Wilson said following getting sacked six times and hit 11 more times he isn’t abandoning his scramble game. He’s correct in pointing out his touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall that tied Sunday’s game at 17 midway through the third quarter came after he extended the play and Marshall broke off his route into the end zone.

“A lot of great things have happened when I’ve scrambled. A lot of good things have happened like the touchdown to Brandon. It was third down. It wasn’t there. I moved a little bit then boom – touchdown. You just have to play the game. I thought our line did a really good job. They made a couple plays obviously. Obviously, the first play of the game, then also in the second quarter Von made a really nice one. I take the blame for some of those for sure. It is just playing ball, trying to go for it, trying to find something and make something happen.”

It would also help if this return to the running game Carroll has been vowing for this year since it’s first days in January meant more than seven carries in 55 plays for lead back Chris Carson. It looked like 2017 again when the Seahawks, who got the lowest production from running backs in many NFL seasons last year, threw it on third and 1 in the third quarter. Wilson missed wide-open tight end Nick Vannett over his head with a throw that likely would have gained 15 yards, so Seattle punted instead of handing the ball to Carson for a first down.

“We want to be able to hand it off to the big man,” Wilson said of Carson, “and let him run the ball and do his thing.

“Hopefully, we can do that next week.”