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Improving the Pass Rush

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It's okay. I thought you had one more good year too.
It's okay. I thought you had one more good year too.

Pass rush was a hot topic as the Seahawk's 2011 season came to a close. Then Pete Carroll lit the whole subject on fire in his off-season presser, saying that increasing our pass rush ability this off-season is "a big deal." The question was barely out of the reporters when Pete burst into his response. You could almost hear yet another ADD tangent break off in his mind saying something like, FINALLY! how the heck did it take these reporters 28 minutes to ask me about pass rush? I've already gone over our pass rush situation in my mind a couple dozen hundred times since this press conference began!

In Pete's first two seasons, the pass rush has been frustratingly bad. By the traditional sack total standard we were mediocre at best and we were downright terrible by Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate standard. However, despite keeping the same defensive scheme, our pass rush short-comings in each season told a very different story.

In 2010 Chris Clemons was literally the only pass rush threat in our front seven on first and second down. That changed on third down and passing downs when Raheem Brock and Dexter Davis rotated in. Brock especially was exceptional. While Clemons was explosive, Brock was steady. They complimented each other perfectly. The QB would avoid the pressure from Clemons straight into the pressure from Brock. Those two made me believe in a three man rush with two LEOs.

In 2011 we improved our pass rush on first and second down through new starters at several key positions; Leroy Hill replaced David Hawthorne at WILL and Alan Branch replaced Brandon Mebane at 3-tech, together accounting for six more sacks from those positions. We also saw KJ Wright replace Aaron Curry at SAM. It didn't show up in the sack totals but Wright displayed a lot of promise as a pass rusher. His length, instincts, and short-area burst could help him develop into a dangerous player off the edge.

Unfortunately, our third down pass rush took a hit. Raheem Brock couldn't recapture the magic of last year and Dexter Davis was lost to IR before the season started with a hip injury. Anthony Hargrove and Clinton McDonald picked up some slack with a better interior rush in these situations but we all know that the edges are where most of the production will come from.

So where does this leave us?

It won't be very difficult to improve our pass rush this off-season. There should be improvement even without any new additions. It will be interesting to see what Dexter Davis can do in his third season and I think everyone is excited about KJ Wright. Jimmy Wilkerson is somewhat long of tooth but he looked good playing the role Hargrove filled so well before he got hurt. Malcolm Smith flashed as a blitzer in his one sack this season and we should see more of him next season.

It doesn't seem like much but it's maybe a bit of forward momentum.

Most fans (including myself) yearn for a linear improvement in pass rush. They want a dynamic 3-tech or a rush LB who makes plays in the backfield. Many even support switching to a 3-4 to get a rush LB on the field more, as Rob Staton suggested here in his article from Monday. Personally, I don't see Pete changing his base formation after decades of success with the 4-3. But I digress. My point is that Pete does not always think in such a linear fashion.

While our front office is absolutely capable of taking action necessary for such linear improvement, like drafting James Carpenter and John Moffitt with our first two picks to improve our OL, they are also capable of making mystifying moves with dramatic effects. For example, in his first off-season, Pete traded and cut two well established starters from an already very thin defense in Darryl Tapp and Deon Grant respectively. Chris Clemons and Earl Thomas are who ended up replacing them, arguably the two best players on our team.

Hawk fans forget that at this time last year there was a common sentiment that the LEO position was niche-enough where obscure pass rushers could easily be plugged in and have success. This opinion is obviously somewhat naive but what's interesting is that nothing happened this season to really disprove it. Brock got old and Davis never got a chance. There isn't anyone else to judge from.

I rambled a bit but the purpose of this post is to temper people's fervor for more pass rush. The situation needs to be addressed but not at all costs. It's similar to the QB position in that respect. Pete sees that it's an issue and recognizes it as an issue needing to be fixed. But we've come to know our front office as being very savvy drafters, so I wouldn't go expecting a ton of draft capital thrown on it. There are always other needs and who knows where "value" might take us... The off-season is so much fun.