Injuries and opportunity—including a huge one now with an opposing rookie quarterback starting for the first time—have pushed the Seahawks’ pass rush from preseason concern into early-season surprise.
Frank Clark was the known. Seattle’s only proven returning sack man this year is producing again, flying through the start of his contract year and in line for an extension.
The unknown has been the surprise. Quinton Jefferson thanks Cliff Avril for that.
Yes, the Cliff Avril that is retired and now co-hosting a sports-talk radio show each weekday morning on Seattle’s KJR AM. Forced out of football this past offseason by a serious neck injury, the former Pro Bowl defensive end remains a key contributor to the Seahawks, including in preparations for their first NFC West game of this season on Sunday at Arizona.
Jefferson and Clark will be attempting to hound Cardinals quarterback and first-round pick Josh Rosen in his first NFL start start like they did Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense so effectively last weekend in Seattle’s win.
Asked what the key has been to his strong first month as a starting defensive end in the NFL, Jefferson replied without hesitation: Cliff Avril.
Avril has been mentoring Jefferson in Seattle’s new, and for now improved pass rush. The Seahawks lost Avril, and before that fellow Super Bowl-champion and Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett in a trade to Philadelphia this offseason.
“I send him game film. I send him practice film,” Jefferson said of Avril. “(Friday) he came in (to Seahawks headquarters before practice) and just worked with me on how to do my rushes. He tells me my footwork needs to be better, my hands need to be better, quicker. Just little things, because those are the things that get you sacks.
“He’s been like a big brother. I look to him beyond football, about life advice, marital advice. Just everything.
“He’s been where I want to go. What better way to seek that knowledge than with somebody who’s actually done it, at a high level. Anything. He helps me with everything.”
Avril’s mentoring of Jefferson follows the pattern of departed Seahawks Pro Bowl stars still tutoring those who are replacing them in Seattle’s defense this season.
Second-year starting cornerback Shaquill Griffin said this month he remains in regular contract with Richard Sherman over techniques in coverage, even though the All-Pro is now a rival San Francisco 49er.
Starter Bradley McDougald said he is constantly getting advice from the Seahawks star he’s replacing at strong safety this season, Kam Chancellor.
For Jefferson, it’s a relief that Avril has been so willing to share, not only for Jefferson’s first two NFL seasons but this one when Avril isn’t playing anymore. Jefferson knows it’s not always like that in this non-guaranteed, what-have-you-done-lately league. In the NFL, older players are routinely pushed out for younger, cheaper replacements.
“You can run into some a-holes, you know,” Jefferson said. “I’ve heard horror stories of guys that older guys just don’t want to help them. At all. They are out there on their own—or they might even tell them wrong information.
“It was a blessing come here (to Seattle), meeting him, and maintaining that relationship. I’ve been blessed.”
Clark got his third sack in three games last weekend in the Seahawks’ first win of the season, over Dallas. Seattle sacked Prescott five times and hit him 10 other times while forcing three turnovers. Those are numbers that should always lead to a win. But Jefferson spent nearly as much time in the Cowboys’ backfield as Clark—and as Prescott—did. Jefferson often sped through and around Dallas starting right tackle La’el Collins for four hits on the QB.
He still has just one career sack, though, last season against Washington.
“It felt good to be back there. You just want to finish those plays,” Jefferson said. “I’ve been doing my film study to see how I can turn those hits into sacks.
“But it was good. We were all getting after the quarterback, with QB hits. It was fun.”
The Seahawks are seeking—perhaps even planning on—more fun Sunday. The Cardinals (0-3) are starting decided this week to see if their future is now by benching veteran quarterback Sam Bradford and starting the prized Rosen for the first time. Expect Seattle coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to blitz Rosen more than they’ve blitzed Denver’s Case Keenum, Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky and Prescott before him.
Then again, if Clark and Jefferson can repeat what they did against Dallas, the Seahawks won’t have to blitz. They could confuse and harass Rosen that way, and Seattle could thus control a key to this game.
A huge concern for the changed Seahawks defense entering this is somewhat less so at the moment. Seattle has been mostly without expected starting end Dion Jordan all spring and summer into fall because of his offseason knee surgery, then a leg stress fracture. And now a hip injury has Jordan questionable to play Sunday. He’s played in just eight games the last four seasons.
Plus, rookie end and third-round pick Rasheem Green will miss this Cardinals game with an ankle injury he got last weekend against Dallas.
Yet Seattle has eight sacks and 17 hits on quarterbacks through three games. The Seahawks generated six sacks and 14 QB hits through three games last season, when they still had Avril and Bennett starring for them.
Jefferson has been a surprising accomplice to Clark in that pressure.
“He’s played really well,” Carroll said. “This whole offseason he’s given nothing but positive signs. Through camp and the preseason and all, he’s just playing better. He’s like he’s banking on the years that he’s been with us and the experience. He’s just playing good ball.
“He’s a big, strong guy. He’s got good quicks and he can play multiple spots (including inside at tackle), as well. Playing out at defensive end, he seems like it’s really comfortable for him, so we’re really happy about that. He’s held up his end of it, for sure.”
His end of it is unique.
The Seahawks drafted Jefferson in the fifth round in 2016 out of Maryland, after trading a fourth-round pick to New England to get him. Seattle’s coaches liked his speed and athleticism for his size (6 feet 4, 291 pounds). He was then a 23-year-old married father of three. He and his wife Nadia had a 5-year old (Zoey) and 21-month-old twins, Charleigh and Quinn.
Jefferson was considered one of Pennsylvania’s top defensive-end recruits out of Woodland Hills High School in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Then he broke his jaw in a fight. That derailed his college-scholarship plans. He had to gray-shirt at the University of Maryland, delaying his entry by one football season. He spent that year humbled. How humbled? He worked at a Best Buy in suburban Pittsburgh while recovering from that broken jaw.
When he finally got to Maryland he played in nine games as a true freshman and started all 13 games for the Terrapins in 2013. But four games into 2014 he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
“I sat out almost a full year of football,” he said.
More injuries limited him to one game his rookie season. He couldn’t stay healthy into the next preseason, and by the first days of September 2017 the Seahawks waived him among their final cuts. The Los Angeles Rams claimed him onto their active roster, but he only lasted there for nine days before the Rams waived him, too. No other team claimed him that time, then he signed with Los Angeles’ practice squad.
In the middle of last season, needing pass-rush help, the Seahawks decided to bring back Jefferson, signing him to their active roster off L.A.’s practice squad. A few weeks later he got his first career sack.
In the two years spanning all that, Jefferson and his wife had a fourth child. So he and his family truly appreciate his $37,059 in weekly game checks, from his $630,000 base salary.
He almost lost some of those in December.
He charged the stands to confront a man he said had made a grotesque comment about his mother and threw beer on him from near the tunnel leading from the field near the end of a loss at Jacksonville Jefferson had been ejected for fighting in the final seconds of the game. Teammate Jarran Reed said he heard a racial slur directed at Jefferson by a fan.
The incident caused a national uproar for a couple days. The NFL chose not to suspend Jefferson.
Now, a starter and on the eve of getting a chance to ruin Rosen’s first start in a game at a division rival, Jefferson appreciates where he is. And where he’s been.
“You always reflect. You’ve always got to remember where you’ve come from,” Jefferson said. “Just always having that in the back of my mind keeps me humble and keeps me on edge, knowing that I can’t relax. Because I know where I came from.
“And I don’t want to go back there.”