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Reloaded: Michael Bennett and the art of hand-fighting

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No one wants to think too much about XLIX, obviously, but I enjoyed writing this article about pass rush technique and hand violence. The examples are old, but the concepts are still important. This was originally published on Feb 9th, 2015. Hope you enjoy.

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In an alternate dimension, where Patriots defensive back Malcolm Butler hesitates even a half-second before breaking on Russell Wilson's pass to Ricardo Lockette at the goal line, Seattle scores the game-winning touchdown and Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett is probably Super Bowl XLIX MVP.

That didn't happen, of course. Butler made an enormous play and the Patriots won the championship. However, obscured in the craziness around the ending of that game was the huge impact Bennett made over the course of the first 59 minutes and 34 seconds. The Seahawks pass rusher collected five of Seattle's seven quarterback hits and sacks in the game, but the stats alone don't account for how well he harassed the Patriots' offensive line and quarterback Tom Brady, despite New England's effective strategy for very quick passing. Even the legend had to give it up for Bennett after taking a big hit (via NFL Turning Point).

For Seahawks fans, it comes as no surprise that Bennett would have such a huge game on such a huge stage, but somehow, he's still relatively underrated and unknown nationally. Bennett finished the 2014 season with an underwhelming 7.0 sacks, but like his role in the Super Bowl, that stat alone doesn't tell the whole story. Per Pro Football Focus' tracking, Michael Bennett's 53 quarterback hurries sat behind only J.J. Watt and Justin Houston (54). For more perspective, Bennett's total quarterback pressures (72) -- which is combined sacks, hurries and hits -- was best among 4-3 defensive ends and behind only Watt (119) and Houston (85) in the entire league.

For defensive coordinator Dan Quinn -- now the Falcons' head coach -- this is exactly what he's looking to get out of his pass rushers.

"The biggest thing for us is affecting the quarterback," Quinn said in his introductory presser in Atlanta last week. "And that may be the hits on him, the times we can move him off the spot. The third-down sacks are critical ones, 'cause that's getting off the field. For us, the biggest thing is affecting the quarterback, maybe by the way we rush, maybe by the way we pressure, maybe by the way we cover or combination of all of those. But affecting him is the No. 1 thing."

"Affecting the quarterback" looks like this, by the way:

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Bennett's statistical spot behind only Watt and Houston in terms of "affecting" the quarterback tells you what you need to know about the type of player he is.

So, how did Bennett -- a guy who ran 5.14 in the 40, went undrafted, and was then cut after his rookie training camp in Seattle back in 2009 -- become such a dominant player?

The making of a pass rusher

There are many attributes that go into making an excellent NFL pass rusher, and long speed isn't always (or never, really) a necessity. Short-area explosion, power, flexibility, energy, toughness and determination are big. The thing that sets Bennett apart from other players at his position is twofold: his ability to explode out of his stance at the snap, and maybe more importantly, his hand use. There may be better athletes, bigger, stronger or younger guys at his spot, but Bennett's ability to defeat blocks and discard offensive linemen is what makes him special.

I tend to think that the ability to time a snap and explode into the backfield is more of a talent, whereas technical hand use is an acquirable skill, so let's focus on the latter, particularly because it's one of the hallmarks for Dan Quinn as a coach.

"Coach Quinn is a fighter," former Seahawks and now-Lion Darryl Tapp said last month when it was rumored Quinn was a hot head coaching candidate. "That's the first thing I'll always remember about `DQ:' He came to Seattle my last year and he was, at that point, the best defensive line coach I ever had.

"Coach Quinn always used to show us film on boxers -- Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston and all those guys," explained Tapp. "In the offseason, we did work on our hands from MMA fighting [drills] to help us with our pass rush. And he always taught us how to be better players, to use our individual talents. A lot of coaches in this league do stuff in a cookie-cutter kind of format. Coach Quinn ... he looks at what your attributes are and what makes you individually successful."

Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator under Jim L. Mora when Michael Bennett landed in Seattle on an undrafted rookie deal. As Tapp pointed out, Quinn helped shape some of Bennett's raw talent into something he could use in the league. Bennett tore up the preseason that year, but to Seattle fans' regret, he was one of the final cuts as the team got down to 53. He landed in Tampa Bay, and, of course, went on to tear it up there before returning to Seattle after his rookie deal was up.

"Michael Bennett was an undrafted free agent my last year in Seattle, when Coach Quinn got on, and I still remember him working with Michael every day to get this guy's pass-rush ability up to where he could be a great player," said Tapp. "Bennett was able to make the team, but they had to [waive] him and Tampa Bay snatched him up, where he went and made plays. But fortunately he was able to get back to Seattle and work again with Coach Quinn, and now he's taken off."

Hand violence

Considering Quinn's emphasis on developing a strong punch in his linemen's hands, it's no wonder you can see him frequently don focus mitts and spar with his players in practice. It's also no surprise that when Seattle faced a deluge of injuries on the defensive line after the Divisional round win over the Panthers, the guy they signed to come in for relief had a strong resume when it comes to hand use.

Landon Cohen, who hadn't played a snap in 2014, was signed over a group of younger tryouts at least in part, I'd assume, because of his training regimen. Apart from parking cars with his valet company, Cohen's preparation for his next shot with an NFL team included "A lot of boxing and running up hills ... yoga, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu."

Cross-training in boxing, jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts become a lot more popular with NFL players over the past few years, and has been made famous by FOX superstar reporter Jay Glazer and his company MMAthletics, a joint venture with Ultimate Fighting Championship star Randy Couture.

Glazer's clients include NFL stars in Clay Matthews, Jared Allen, Patrick Willis, and a host of lesser-knowns trying to make their way in the league. One such player is Seahawks rookie defensive lineman Cassius Marsh, who was drafted (as the Seahawks explained) to play that "Michael Bennett role" of an inside-outside pass rusher.

"I've trained him for about three years," Glazer said about Marsh, when I chatted with him in Scottsdale at his Super Bowl "Glazer Palooza" Party (which benefits Jared Allen's Homes for Wounded Warriors organization). "His hands -- when you watch, his hands are real violent."

"We do a ton of violent hand fighting stuff. Look, I wouldn't teach a D-line coach how to do a swim move, so if you were trying to teach hand violence, why wouldn't you come to a fighter?"

Well said. And, to Glazer's point, teaching a swim move probably isn't as easy as it might seem. Longtime defensive line coach Bill Arnsparger gives you an idea of how technically advanced a simple pass rush move or three can be when he described the "arm over," "arm under" and "quick-arm over" techniques in his book Coaching Defensive Football.

"Arm over: This is the best technique," explained Arnsparger. "Drive off the ball hard and strike a hard blow outside on the upper arm of the blocker. Continue to drive and pull hard to turn the blocker's shoulders. When you feel the pull, throw the arm away from the pull, over the head and shoulders of the blocker. Continue to drive hard and sprint to the passer. Keep your feet moving as you throw your arm over. Ends must get the inside arm over. Tackles may go either side. The pull-down may come early or late. You must feel the leverage and make your move quickly. Keep in mind that your legs will get you to the QB. Never let up -- keep driving, and don't stop or slow down."

Oh. Uh, easy. Wait, what?

"Arm under: This is a countermove to the arm-over technique," he continued. "Everything is the same as the arm-over technique. If you are unable to get the pull-down because the opponent's arms are high or outside, continue your drive and throw your arm under the blocker's armpit and lift and bear in as you drive to the QB."

Got it.

"Quick arm over: Sprint off the ball and drive hard at the blocker," said Arnsparger. "Convince him that you are going to run over him (get close enough to step on his toes); make him commit. In one quick motion, grab or slap the outside arm and throw the other arm over quickly. Drive to the QB. This technique may be used on the outside or inside rush."

So, Glazer's comment rings true. He's not teaching defensive linemen to swim move. He's teaching something a little different -- the nuance of hand violence. Learning hand violence will only improve your swim move, your "arm over," "arm under" and "quick-arm over" techniques.

"We do a ton of wrestling, a ton of violent hand-fighting," Glazer told me of his training with Marsh. "When you see his hands, it's a ton of leverage stuff. Greco-Roman stuff, where you try to get under his hips. His hands are good, man. Violent."

I mentioned to Glazer that this seemed to be a big deal with the boxing fan, Dan Quinn.

"There's a lot of hand fighting, chopping. If you know what you're doing, your forearms can be like blades."

"Dan's talked to me a ton about it," Glazer confirmed. "Even before [the Seahawks] drafted him [Marsh], they talked to me about it.

"You're going to go there in a game, I don't want you to play a game, I want you to pick a fight. Especially the D-linemen. I want you to pick a fight against that guy's forearms. Against his arms, against his shoulders. Then, just all game long, start going after those nerves. Start trying to break their arms, and at one point, they're going to go, 'I don't want to put my hands on Cassius Marsh anymore.' That's the whole point -- just trying to pick a fight.

"I have nothing going for me -- athletically, skill, obviously height, but I am the most sadistic little nuisance when I'm in there. That's what I'm trying to teach these guys. I will impose my will on you. Wear you out. All day long, until I get what I want. And that's what I'm trying to teach these guys."

Marsh made the same points when he told John Boyle of the Everett Herald about his offseason regimen.

"Hand-fighting, [it's] not necessarily a move, just the ability to feel hands, grab hands, chop hands, leverage and feel their body," explained Marsh. "I wouldn't call them moves, necessarily, quote-unquote, but there's a lot of different things you can do when you learn MMA. How to really use your hands and how to control someone's hands, control your leverage, and use somebody's weight against them. It's definitely been an advantage for me, working with Jay, doing that MMA work."

As for emulating Bennett, whose training with Quinn was/is more boxing-centric.

"Oh yeah, I love his game," Marsh said. "It's like an advanced version of mine, I'd like to think. It's very powerful, extremely quick, great with his hands, just a relentless player."

With MMA training, Glazer explained back in 2010, "You really understand how the human body works with leverage. His hands are flying right now and really, really violent. That's the other thing, too, as much as anything, we try to get these guys to think like a fighter, to have a violent mentality. We tell our guys all the time, 'own your space.' It's about imposing your will on another man. When the game starts, picture that cage door shutting. Now, you own your space. It translates."

"We preach controlled violence," Glazer said. "There's a lot of hand fighting, chopping. If you know what you're doing, your forearms can be like blades. We teach where the nerves are, how you can chop somebody, find the nerve and hyperextend an elbow."

Applying hand violence to the game of football

Michael Bennett's technically superior hand use showed up early and often in Super Bowl XLIX, and his disruptive play was a key for the Seahawks' first defensive series.

Violent hands showed up on the second play from scrimmage (#72).

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Bennett doesn't get the sack -- Brady gets the ball out in just over two seconds -- but Bennett's vicious and lightning-quick hand usage sets up Patriots guard Ryan Wendell inside first, before shooting to his outside shoulder. Bennett gets a shot in on Brady for his effort.


Bennett's hand work showed up on the very next play when he swatted away Dan Connolly's arms to get into the backfield, then later in the drive when he again worked over Wendell to stuff a Patriots run. Later, Bennett's pressure on Brady helped to force a pick in the end zone. Those three plays were highlighted by the game broadcast below.


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The six-inch punch

The Seahawks' emphasis on hand violence was a side storyline during Super Bowl week when Carroll brought up the idea of the "six-inch punch."

The concept was made famous, originally, by Bruce Lee.

"It's a technique of striking that is used in a lot of aspects of the animal kingdom, we've found," Carroll told reporters with a straight face. "Whether it's a kangaroo or a ram head-butting, we look for that six-inch punch."

Carroll gave some context.

"I know it's a unique term and phrase that you don't know anything about," he said. "We're a shoulder-tackling football team. There's an ability to strike with your shoulder that adds an additional punch. It's not just the punch you would think with your fist. We're attacking the football all the time."

It applies to many aspects of the game, though, from tackling, to punching the football out, to defeating blocks.

"One of the biggest techniques Pete, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and our staff teach is punching the ball out with a six-inch punch," defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto told USA TODAY Sports. "We show clips of Bruce Lee striking that six-inch punch against a guy holding a cushion who goes flying."

"We'll show a kangaroo punching somebody in the face," continued Seto. "Or piranhas swarming to a piece of meat the way our defense swarms to the ball. We're just trying to create more awareness for our guys to punch the ball out quick so they play faster."

"Rocky does a great job of showing us videos every week of what other teams have done -- and other things, like ninja videos, kangaroos punching each other, rams butting heads," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner told reporters. "We don't know what's coming, then we see this kangaroo punching another kangaroo and knocking him out."

Defensive line coach Travis Jones told Kevin Clark of The Wall Street Journal that the team started incorporating these animal videos to illustrate the attacking style that they wanted the players to assume on defense.

"So if we're going to show them some videos, it will be of scorpions, piranhas, wild dogs, whatever attacks," said Jones. "We try to emphasize that."

"He's showing you a kangaroo punching another kangaroo, then all of a sudden he's showing Earl Thomas punching the ball out from an opponent," assistant coach Marquand Manuel added. "It might seem crazy that we want to show them, but if we want to show you a technique, we'll just show you this out of the animal kingdom."

If I had to guess which highlight of Earl Thomas that Manuel was referring to, I'd put my money on this one from the Seahawks' playoff win over the Panthers -- this was the first play of the game:

Of course, this six-inch punch is highly applicable in pass rush and I think Michael Bennett displays it very well in disengaging from attempted blocks.

A quick-twitch swat --

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Below, a violent jab to the shoulder, along with a quick stunt, gets Connolly out over his skies and onto the ground. The crazy thing about Bennett's hand use is that it looks effortless.


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In the end, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense executed in crunch time in scoring 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points, and got the better of the Seahawks' defense. That fact, combined with the crazy interception to end the game, overshadow everything, but it's definitely worth remembering the type of impact Bennett, his violent hand use and his six-inch punch had on the game.