As good as the Seattle defense was last year, be prepared for it to look a lot different at times this year. Specifically, on passing downs, the ‘Hawks are going to be rolling out a completely different look along the front line. There may not be a more drastically re-made front group among 2011′s top-10 defensive units than this one, and considering the lack of consistent pass rush last year, that's a good thing. John Schneider and Pete Carroll set out to do one thing above all else in the draft and free agency this off-season: get faster. And that they did.
Jason Jones, Jaye Howard, Bruce Irvin and Greg Scruggs are instant speed and quickness upgrades to Alan Branch, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, and give Seattle an entirely new, additional package up front, to what they featured last year. That's not a re-made passing-down D-line. That's a brand new passing-down D-line.
Scruggs won't be playing in week 1, due to injury, but we saw this preseason how quick he is off the ball, how violent and physical he is with his hands, and that he possesses a growing array of pass-rush moves to gain consistent penetration. Jaye Howard progressed rapidly through the preseason and displayed - like Scruggs - a quick get-off, impressive use of length and hand activity to create separation and disengage, and early signs of the makings of a few new moves of his own (new, when compared to Florida tape).
Jason Jones, in preseason week 1 also showed us this same type of get-off to go with an ability to twist his long frame and knife through gaps up front. And Bruce Irvin showed better get-off than any of them, particularly in the last preseason game against Oakland. And although he's still raw in terms of knowing what to do once he reaches the edge, he has flashed some pretty special ability anytime he has focused on using his hands to move his opponent. He's probably the rawest of these four as far as developing moves, but during the regular season, you'll see him used much more creatively than he was in the preseason, and you'll see a lot more designed interior blitzes from linebackers and safeties that will certainly force the tackle into double-duty, making Irvin's job a lot easier coming off the edge.
Chris Clemons is not meant to be excluded here. He'll certainly be a regular in these packages along with Irvin, Jones and then one of Scruggs or Howard on the inside. Scruggs has the better speed of he and Howard, but Howard combines quickness with better size than Scruggs, so you'll probably see Howard in there more on assumed passing downs whereby a run is still possible.
The only member of this passing-down 4-man front that hasn't been upgraded from a speed standpoint is Clemons. But if he simply picks up where he left off last year, then he doesn't need to be any faster. There aren't many Bruce Irvins. That speed is rare. There also aren't many 11-sack ends in the league, so if it ain't broke... well, you know the saying.
Another variation you could see, could be a 4-man front of Clemons, Howard, Jones, Scruggs and then Irvin lined up as a standing OLB along-side Scruggs at the strong-side, or even with Clemons off the weak side. Or you can swap the two speed rushers, putting Irvin in the ground with Clemons standing up. Either of the latter two scenarios could essentially shut off one side of the field entirely, and force opposing QBs to lock onto the opposite side. That's good for a defense who's DBs love to crowd receivers and attack the football.
Winston Guy and/or Jeron Johnson will be added to the mix as well on pure passing downs (the "Bandit" package), whereby they'll be tasked with providing additional edge rush, or utilize their strong closing burst to threaten interior gaps on delayed blitzes or stunts.
Guy looks really natural as a rusher coming off the end, and was asked to do a lot of it in college. He exhibits good instincts and impressive flexibility to explode off the edge and turn the corner, and will eventually, if not immediately, be the preferred DPR (Designated Pass Rusher) of the safeties.
What's intriguing about all of the guys mentioned here, is that when considering Earl Thomas's ability to move up and play corner or slot, all of these "pieces" could conceivably be on the field at the same time. That's a lot of speed.
And this is really just one way to set it up. Guys like Red Bryant, Alan Branch and Clinton McDonald will certainly be factors on passing downs as well, where they can add a push/power element from the interior against less-mobile QBs who don't perform so well when flushed and need more time to set their feet. This is something you'll probably see in week one against John Skelton and the Cardinals.
To go out and completely reconstruct your passing defense up front, without having to "replace" any of the key guys who played a huge role in making the unit one of the league's top-10 in 2011, is extremely tricky.
It's rare that a team is able to significantly bolster one element of the defense without having to compensate by pulling something away from another. In this case, Seattle lost nothing in last year's strong areas of the defense - run defense and secondary - yet undoubtedly upgraded it's weakest area - the pass-rush.
To pull something like this off without disrupting team chemistry, giving up future draft picks or over-committing on contracts, is extremely tough. Not every team or front office can do it.
It takes tough negotiation in free agency, superb scouting from the player personnel department, and 100% commitment to a philosophy and plan of how to build a team. Right now, it appears the Seahawks have been highly effective in all three areas, and have managed to significantly upgrade a unit that was already one of the best in the league.
Derek has transitioned from doing league-wide NFL Draft analysis at his blog to a more focused and specific Seahawks-centric draft - free agency - pro player personnel site called "ScoutTheSeahawks." It's now up - and it's definitely a site you must bookmark. Derek also maintains a really great free agent tracker that is much more in-depth than most places because of his background doing deep scouting of NFL Draft prospects. It's updated daily.