Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks defensive line replenishes depth, adds speed

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, center, gets hit by Michael Bennett, left, and Cliff Avril during the first half of Super Bowl XLIX in February. Avril’s later injury and his exit from the game hurt the Seahawks down the stretch.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, center, gets hit by Michael Bennett, left, and Cliff Avril during the first half of Super Bowl XLIX in February. Avril’s later injury and his exit from the game hurt the Seahawks down the stretch. The Associated Press

When linebacker K.J. Wright breaks down all that went wrong in Super Bowl 49 for the Seattle Seahawks, it all starts with the untimely injuries.

And it ends with Tom Brady exploiting a depleted Seahawks defense at the end of the game.

Arguably the most pivotal injury came late in the third quarter when defensive end Cliff Avril left with a concussion, and never returned.

After Avril’s departure, the Seahawks pass rush stalled. And Brady led the New England comeback from a 10-point deficit by completing 13 of his final 15 passes for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

New England won, 28-24.

“You clearly saw something was missing,” Wright said. “Brady was back there, and he had all day (to throw).”

Without question, among the Seahawks’ highest offseason priorities was not only replenishing depth on the defensive line, but they also wanted to restore a much faster pass rush, particularly in their nickel package.

“That’s been something we’ve been striving for,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

The model Carroll and his staff plan to adhere to for this season will be very similar to what Seattle did during its Super Bowl-winning season in 2013 by rotating linemen to keep them fresh.

Two seasons ago, six defensive linemen — Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Jordan Hill, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Clinton McDonald and Avril — played at least 500 snaps on defense, with Bennett’s 600 a team high.

Bennett’s 57.5 percent usage rate was also highest on the defensive line.

That year, the Seattle defense recorded an NFL-best 34.4 percent pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders. Seattle had 48 sacks.

“It was the rotation we had back then,” defensive end Bruce Irvin said.

Last season, Seattle wanted to use the same heavy rotation of defensive linemen, but was beset by injuries to Mebane (hamstring), Hill (calf) and rookie Cassius Marsh (broken foot).

Frankly, their replacements in Demarcus Dobbs, David King and even Landon Cohen — who was parking cars for a valet service before playing 15 snaps in the Super Bowl — were not very good.

It led to a heavy reliance on Bennett, who ended up playing on 828 defensive plays, or 84.7 percent of the defensive snaps, and Avril (714 defensive snaps, 73 percent usage rate).

Overall, quarterback pressure dipped to 25.4 percent on passing downs, according to Football Outsiders. Seattle finished with 41 sacks.

Seattle now has Hill, Marsh and Mebane back at full strength. And with the addition of rookie Frank Clark, whom the team selected with the 63rd pick out of Michigan, suddenly this rotation again looks deep and daunting.

“Pass rushers are at a premium in this league,” Seahawks safety Dion Bailey said. “And that defensive line is very, very fast. And they are actually very powerful as well. It makes our job that much easier, because you don’t have to cover (wide receivers) that long.”

Because the defense spent more than half its time in the nickel package last season, Seattle will feature a speedy pass-rushing package that will mostly include Avril at weak-side end, and Irvin — who has noticeably bulked up — at strong-side end, with Bennett and Clark inside.

Each of those guys registered a sack in the preseason.

“I feel like I was born to rush the passer,” Irvin said. “I am a defensive end at heart who was blessed to play a lot of different positions. But I am much more comfortable at defensive end, and I am looking forward to having a big season.”

Clark has turned heads with his stellar play, both inside and on the outside at defensive end.

He forced a fumble in the final exhibition game that Hill recovered for a touchdown in the 31-21 victory over Oakland at CenturyLink Stadium.

“I feel comfortable playing anywhere they need me to play,” Clark said. “I pride myself in being an athlete. I pride myself to be flexible to play multiple positions. And I just like getting to the quarterback.”

Avril, a former outside linebacker at Purdue, is 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds. He ran a 4.51-second time in the 40-yard dash in college. Irvin is also 6-3, 260 — and ran that same 40 time at West Virginia.

Bennett is 6-4, 274 — and runs a 4.7. Clark is a tad faster (4.64) and lighter (6-3, 272).

“I believe we can be the fastest defensive line in the NFL,” Clark said. “That is very noticeable. … I am a big believer in just turning on the film and watching.

“If you turn on our film and compare it to anybody else, it shows. That is a fact.”

Todd Milles: 253-597-8442


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