The Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line is running a system based on spreading the wealth, which is making the entire team rich.
Most teams would be envious of Seattle’s defensive rotation that appears as if it’s set up to play an up-tempo offense, but instead is facing around 60 snaps a game in the NFL.
Offseason acquisitions Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are thriving at that pace. Like most of Seattle’s defensive linemen, they are playing less, yet, with equal or more effect than they had with their previous teams.
Avril, in particular, has had his snap count reduced. Against the Indianapolis Colts he was on the field for 58 percent of the defensive snaps, according to the NFL. Against the Arizona Cardinals, he played 51 percent of the snaps. He was used 80 percent of the time while he was with the Detroit Lions.
“I think it’s good to have a lot of guys,” Avril said. “It’s better than being the only rusher.”
Avril had a career-high 11 sacks in 2011 while with Detroit and 9.5 more last season. Those pass-rushing numbers were why the Seahawks signed him to a two-year, $13 million contract in the offseason.
He won’t come close to those sack numbers this season because he is playing on a defensive line
that is more about efficiency than gaudy totals for one rusher. Through six games he has three sacks.
“I’m getting used to it,” Avril said. “It’s a change for everybody on the “D” line. I understand why. We’re doing well, so what’s to complain about?”
Few others in the league use the same approach as the Seahawks. Of the top five defenses according to Football Outsiders’ advanced stats, only one other defense, the Carolina Panthers, uses a similar approach.
The Kansas City Chiefs, ranked second behind the Seahawks, used just five players on the defensive line last week in their 3-4 scheme during a 17-16 win against the Houston Texans. Nose tackle Dontari Poe played 100 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Seahawks, by contrast, used eight players who are listed as defensive linemen last week against Arizona. There is a caveat to note, however: Bruce Irvin was included, a linebacker who often lines up at defensive end.
Removing Irvin and third-stringer O’Brien Schofield, who played the fewest snaps, Seattle defensive linemen all played 40-65 percent of the snaps. Against the Indianapolis Colts, it was 31-68 percent of the snaps.
The Panthers, the third-best defense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings, used eight players on the defensive line last week. But, three of them played a higher percentage of snaps than the Seahawks’ busiest lineman, Michael Bennett.
The New York Jets had two defensive linemen on the field for at least 90 percent of their Week 7 snaps. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had three players participate in at least 80 percent of the defensive snaps last week.
“I just know you need to have rushers at the end of the game to be able to finish,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “The fresher they are the better they can play.”
Avril and others are feeling that way at midseason. They are also thinking about snap reduction in a positive light.
Avril would approach 1,000 snaps per season with the Lions. He’ll be closer to 500 by the end of this regular season if the Seahawks maintain this approach.
“At the end of the game, we are still fresh,” Avril said. “Playing 75, 80 snaps a game, toward the end, a two-minute drive, you’re blown.
“I think in the long haul, toward the end of the season, you’ll not be as beat up.”
The Seahawks aren’t just rotating players who are similar. They are able to go with big packages on early downs with Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel, Clinton McDonald and Brandon Mebane.
On third downs, they can shift to a straight-speed look, with Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett, Avril and Irvin.
In between, they mix body types and styles. No player is on field more than 70 percent of the game.
“That’s not the norm,” Bryant said. “Most fronts play longer. But, it’s just a testament to the depth we have and it’s working for us. It might not always be that way, but right now it’s perfect.”