You know who quietly had a fantastic game (and season)? Bruce Irvin did (and is), that's who.
After a successful rookie campaign, where he amassed eight sacks, Seattle moved Irvin from LEO to SAM and signed Cliff Avril for 2013. The snickers began to re-emerge about what a reach he was at the 15th overall selection. And, if we are being honest, we should acknowledge that Irvin really was a reach.
Look at the 10 players selected after Irvin, and many of them are quite good or well on their way. Irvin was a classic gamble on athletic talent. It's clear that even the staff felt they'd figure out what to do with him once he got to camp. Carroll talked about him initially as a pass rush specialist on par with Von Miller. When you consider Irvin's advanced age relative to experience, and his actual experience, first as a safety, and then in a somewhat quirky 3-3-5 scheme, he was a big time gamble that warranted some snickers. Irvin came to Seattle raw as hell.
Never a staff to walk away from elite athleticism though, Seattle has been patient about finding the right fit for Irvin in the scheme. Quite patient in fact, and willing to try different things. Their patience is starting to pay off.
I want to highlight three plays from the San Francisco game to illustrate aspects of his game. All three plays come from two 3rd quarter drives. Funny enough, I think the pass rush will be the last thing to really develop for Irvin.
Play 1: Irvin Stacks, Sheds, Makes Tackle
[10:05 1st and 17, C. Hyde up the middle to SF 13 for 5 yards]
The 49ers lead 7-3. A long run by Hyde is called back for a hold on Michael Bennett in the backfield and penalized half the distance to the goal. On 1st and 17 the 49ers run a standard zone run. Irvin is lined up at RDE at the top of the screen.
What you see here is basic fundamental technique. This play, much like the others, isn't special so much as it is textbook. Irvin takes on the left tackle, who is running away from him, without completely losing leverage. That allows him to stand Vernon Davis up in the hole, whom he sheds, and makes a fantastic wrap up tackle on Carlos Hyde. Up to that point, Hyde had been gashing the defense. This to me is a prime example of how a player can be valuable by being great at his assignment rather than making a "great" play.
Irvin can be overpowered at the point sometimes, particularly when facing double teams, but this season he has become a stalwart at stacking, shedding, and getting the ball carrier on the ground.
Play 2: Irvin Covers the Wheel Route
[1:47 2nd and 10, incomplete to Boldin]
On this play, from the All-22, Irvin doesn't figure directly. Kaepernick misses a wide open Boldin in the flat on nice play design. Irvin lines up at SAM with responsibility for Hyde, who is lined up in split backs with Miller. San Francisco runs a wheel route concept, the type that has given Seattle no end of trouble this season. Hyde comes out of the backfield and runs behind the streaking WR, putting Irvin in trail position.
Irvin covers the play perfectly. I think that was going to be a kind of "gotcha" play for them, sending Hyde downfield. Irvin is with him stride for stride, head turned the entire time. Kaepernick has to go to his next read. The play design is quite nice. Bringing Boldin on a cross behind the underneath zone drops was a very nice design touch. In fact, I hope we steal that for Turbin and Richardson. Kaepernick just missed the throw.
Play 3: Irvin Brings Pressure off the Edge
[3rd and 10, Kaepernick sacked for -10 yards by Jordan Hill]
On the next play Irvin lines up at RDE and comes off the edge like a bat out of hell.
What's notable about that play, particularly in comparison to 2013, is that Irvin doesn't belly out wide allowing an easy block and lots of time for the left tackle. Off the snap notice how much further upfield Irvin is than the other pass rushers in his first two steps. Scary. He threatens the LT's upfield shoulder, causing him to turn his hips parallel to the line of scrimmage.
At this point in his career, Irvin doesn't recognize when he has the LT at his mercy. Even though he's being held there a bit, a rip, a swim, or just better hand fighting would have allowed him to beat the block outright. He might also have gotten underneath the LT's pads and walked him back into the QB, a la Cliff Avril. Nevertheless, he set the edge of the pocket so tight that Kaepernick really couldn't escape. Once Hill beat his blocker Irvin drove the QB right into his waiting arms.
Starting to Blossom
Bruce Irvin came to Seattle raw but far from a pup. Unlike Golden Tate, who was a classic case of a flanker's talent in a slot receiver's body, Irvin is something a bit different. His athleticism stands out among other elite athletes at linebacker. His measurables are prototypical, not odd. His experience was always the problem. An inexperienced guy with prototypical measurables can suffer the curse of expectations, which Pete Carroll not coincidentally helped to inflate.
I'm not convinced that Irvin will ever be the Von Miller-quality pass rusher Pete Carroll described, though I certainly would not rule it out. Instead, I think Irvin may be maturing into something that is far less well appreciated but potentially just as valuable. Irvin has a shot to become a Julian Peterson do-everything-well linebacker. Rob Staton beat me to the Peterson comparison recently, and I think it is apt.
A legitimate "stat sheet stuffer" (if you will permit a Clark Kelloggism)--a player who is legitimately good at everything--is seriously difficult to find. And worse, they tend to only be celebrated when they play for Bill Belichick. Irvin is not quite there yet, but you can see him beginning to blossom into that.