For the Seahawks' defense, it was common knowledge going into the 2011 offseason that the Achilles heel of an otherwise exceptional unit was a pronounced inability to collapse the pocket on opposing quarterbacks, or provide consistent pressure outside of the machine-like Chris Clemons’ 11 sacks and 24 QB hits. Those numbers are even more astounding when our next highest totals from the front seven were 4 sacks and 5 hits from Leroy Hill. And consider further that outside of Clemons, the defensive line proper contributed very little, totaling only 4 sacks and 11 QB hits between them.
Certainly fans are expecting better results this year from a retooled unit that has added potential playmakers in Jason Jones, Greg Scruggs, and Jaye Howard to compliment the existing group of Bryant, Mebane, Branch, Clemons, and McDonald. All three have shown throughout this preseason a much greater potential to get pressure up front next to Mebane than Alan Branch ever did in 2011. That’s certainly not a knock on a Branch, who played very well for most of the season when healthy, chipping in 3 sacks and 4 hits himself. But I think most would agree that Branch is more of a lineman-absorbing black hole at the point of attack than a true pass rusher. We should all be pretty excited about the interior rush this year. I think it’s seen a significant upgrade in, if not the quality of personnel (that has yet to be proven on the field), then at the very least the versatility of the personnel.
Of course, there's one lineman I haven't mentioned yet.Barring a last minute meteor strike, on Sunday afternoon our new #51 will make his debut on the field in a meaningful game for the Seahawks. Bruce Irvin represents the first early round commitment through the draft by the Seahawks to a pass rusher since, well, really Lawrence Jackson in 2008. Historically the Hawks have been pretty low percentage on pass rushers (remember Lamar King? No? Well, I’m not surprised…) Our draft history for the last two decades on the defensive line tells a story mostly of players who never translated their potential to NFL production (Jackson, King, Baraka Atkins, Anton Palepoi), and players who just couldn’t stay healthy (Marcus Tubbs was actually really good); those narratives casting a long shadow beneath which can be unearthed the names of a few positive contributors (Leroy Hill, Sam Adams, Daryl Tapp).
And certainly as fans it feels like it’s been a long time since the Hawks had a effective, let alone fearsome, pass rush. We know the Hawks need a second edge rusher the way Mariners fans know they need a couple of above average hitters. It's the difference between "mediocre" and "good", or the difference between "good" and "great". I might even go as far back to the 50 sack team of that magical 2005 season before designating Seahawk pass rush as "elite". And any talking head will tell you that these days, the NFL is a passing league. To win games - to win championships - you need to be able to stop the pass. To rattle QBs named Brady, Rodgers, or Brees, not Skelton or Hanie. To collapse pockets, tip balls and close passing lanes. To strip careless quarterbacks, and blow up running backs pressed into pass protection.
On Sunday, we hope Bruce Irvin will do all of those things. He may do some of those things. He may also do none of those things. We don’t know what Game Time Bruce Irvin will look like. We know what Preseason Bruce Irvin looked like: he looked like a young edge rusher playing in a vanilla defensive alignment who had a tendency to get blocked out of plays or swallowed up by offensive tackles twice the size of those he faced while playing against the likes of Marshall, Norfolk State, and Bowling Green. Preseason Bruce Irvin struggled to make an impact on the field or in the stat book. Game Time Bruce Irvin may struggle as well.
Expectations may not weigh heavily on Bruce Irvin. I don’t know the man, and he seems like a smart, hardworking, and passionate football player. But I have expectations for Bruce Irvin, and you probably do too. Or maybe you’re completely Zen about the latest Hawks first rounder. Despite the pundit mockery of the "reach", the conflicting reports that he was the highest rated pass rusher on many a team’s board, the articles and blog posts about his preseason struggles to adjust to the speed and strength of the NFL game, the knowledge that the Hawks badly need an edge rusher to compliment Clemons - maybe through all that noise you feel we’ve seen the worst case scenario for a defensive first rounder with high expectations (shipped to the Raiders for a conditional pick).
Even so, somewhere in the life of your Seahawk fandom, there’s someone like me: someone who’s going to panic a little bit if Irvin looks ineffective the first couple games. Someone who will mutter under his breath every time a single shove from the right tackle knocks Irvin off his line and sends him careening well past the quarterback. Someone who booed boisterously at the television when the pick was announced.
8 sacks. Demarcus Ware is the second fastest man to 100 sacks in the history of the NFL behind only the legendary Reggie White. Demarcus Ware had 8 sacks his rookie year, finishing tied for 24th in the league. Mario Williams had 4.5 in his first season, playing nearly every down for a pretty bad Texans team that left their defense on the field a lot, and caused the media to loudly question the sanity of Houston GM Charley Casserly for choosing Williams over the much-hyped Reggie Bush. A bitter pill made even more unpalatable as Texas state hero Vince Young finished the season on an absolute tear for rival Tennessee.
Jason Pierre Paul is an elite end now, but it was only a two seasons ago that he notched only 4.5 sacks of his own rushing situationally for an extremely talented Giants defensive line that practically demanded double teams at multiple positions. The very good Trent Cole notched only 5 his inaugural campaign. Jason Babin had 4. Chris Clemons tallied only 2 his first season of extensive playing time, and you and I both know that man can get after the quarterback. Even rookies that have elite seasons tend to struggle at first. It took Elvis Dumervil six games to notch his first sack. It took Von Miller three. Dwight Freeney took three.
Ware, Williams, JPP, Cole, Freeney - if Irvin struggles (and if we’re being honest, he probably will, at least at first) remember those names. Remember that no player is truly the sum of their first 60 minutes in the league. And remember the weight of expectation is only as heavy as we allow it to be. Take a deep breath, Twelves.
It's Game Time.
*All stats from Advanced NFL Stats and NFL.com