The Seahawks made their final cut down to 53 players on Saturday, reinforcing something that has been a talking point all offseason: the team is back to the type of depth that they had during the glorious 2013 season. However, there is one glaring hole on the defensive side of the ball and that’s the tackle spot beside Michael Bennett in pass rushing situations.
In fact, it's been a hole since an injury ended Jordan Hill's inspired 2014 season, after which Seattle didn’t get a single sack from a defensive tackle during their three game march to Super Bowl XLIX. That inconsistency continued all the way through the 2015 season, with the run-stuffing Ahtyba Rubin leading the way for defensive tackles, posting just two sacks. Meanwhile, Hill’s injury woes limited him to ten games and zero sacks.
That missing role player was evident once again this preseason, where Bennett, Frank Clark and others were looping and stunting to manufacture pressure from inside. The Seahawks missed the play of Hill, where he can line up in close at the 1-technique and use his quickness to rush down the line, like here; over pressuring the right side of the Cardinals line with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
Alternatively, Bruce Irvin and Bennett do what they do and move the quarterback off the spot and allow the powerful Hill collapsing the interior to reap the rewards.
Hill’s the best of both worlds as a defensive tackle. He has the foot speed and lateral agility of an outside guy to work anywhere along the line, while possessing the power of a Clinton McDonald to give opposing quarterbacks nowhere to climb when the edge rushers are racing around the tackles. Unfortunately for Seattle, Hill will now be unavailable to them for the near future.
Despite a near non-existent preseason, I expected Hill to make the 53-man roster, largely due to the lack of another player on the roster with his skill set. Alas this was not the case, as Hill was waived with an injury designation after suffering a hamstring injury against the Raiders in the preseason finale. Since he was not on the final 53-man roster and reverted to the injured reserve, the only way he can return to the field for Seattle (or any team, for that matter), would be for the Seahawks to reach an injury settlement with him. Whether they do or don’t, his injury leaves a hole on Seattle’s roster that needs to be filled.
Having that inside presence in the pass rush was a trademark on both of the Seahawks recent Super Bowl teams. As highlighted by Rob Staton in a pre-draft post on Adolphus Washington, the big difference in the pass rush from 2013 and 2014 to last season was lack of sacks from the inside. In 2013, it was Clinton McDonald posting 5.5 sacks while playing just 50.8% off the snaps. In Hill’s breakout 2014, he too posted 5.5 sacks, playing just 36.8% of the snaps. In 2015, there was a clear regression in the pass rush, despite Michael Bennett posting a career high in sacks. That red flag is why Rob was stating the case for interest in Washington, it’s why I wished for Sheldon Day on a near daily basis heading up to the draft, and it’s why Seattle must now find the next player in the mold of McDonald and Hill.
Coming up to week one, it’s unclear if the player that could potentially fill that hole is already inside the VMAC. On the active roster, just Quinton Jefferson and the newly claimed Garrison Smith have the style of play to fit the bill. Jefferson seemed like a hedge for Hill’s injury history when he was drafted this past April, but didn’t flash against opposing second and third string defenses as much as you would like to see from a player with his skill set. If preseason is any indication, Jefferson won’t be much of an impact player in 2016.
Smith, meanwhile, enjoyed a preseason of stuffing the box score, posting two sacks and 15 tackles while being one of Pro Football Focus’ top-graded defensive lineman. He was waived during the team’s final cuts, but is now in line to make his first career regular season appearance week one against the Dolphins. Smith’s preseason play gives reason for excitement, but his release from an already seriously depleted 49ers defensive tackle spot is cause for question.
His first sack of the preseason was nothing to write home about. Good initial burst to knife between the left tackle and guard, but after that it’s all motor and want-to that gets him to Paxton Lynch.
The second sack is again nice initial burst, getting past the guard’s inside shoulder and from there it’s just bearing down on the helpless Chargers quarterback.
One reason for optimism around Smith is this; neither of his sacks had you thinking Aaron Donald, but both came because he worked his ass off when it got ugly. That’s the kind of attitude and play you need from a defensive tackle that will largely be playing the role of thankless janitor to Bennett, Avril and the other edge rushers.
Jefferson and Smith will get the first opportunities to replace Hill, but there’s two other interesting names, both of which are on the practice squad. The first, Tylor Harris, is a rookie that was with the team in the offseason before being brought back prior to the start of preseason, where he ghosted through en route to the practice squad. The second, Justin Hamilton, had a more complicated transition to the practice squad, arriving there after initially making the 53-man roster only to be released to make room for the aforementioned Garrison Smith.
Hamilton started brightly against the Chiefs in week one of the preseason, then was a non-factor over the next two weeks before seeing a fair amount of snaps in the preseason’s final week in Oakland. It was against the Raiders where he made his one and only play in the backfield, a four-yard sack of Connor Cook. Although coaches film isn’t made available for preseason games, it looks like Hamilton is lined up wider than Hill usually is, almost head-up over the left guard.
The common trend in Hamilton, Smith and Jefferson’s play in preseason is simple; motor. It’s what got Smith both of his sacks, it’s what got Hamilton his lone sack, and it’s what will eventually find one of them on the field in key passing situations alongside Michael Bennett. None of the names mentioned can replace Jordan Hill in natural ability and athleticism, but one of them will have the opportunity to be a key member of Seattle’s sub packages. Smith and Jefferson will get the first kick at the can against Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and I like Smith’s chances of making the most of his opportunity.