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Seahawks Breakdown: Where will Seattle’s pass rush come from?

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What the losses of Bennett, Avril, and Richardson mean, and who could fill the voids for the Seahawks

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The Seattle Seahawks’ defensive front will look much different this season. Michael Bennett was shipped out of town, Cliff Avril was released due to an unfortunate neck injury, and Sheldon Richardson skedaddled to Minnesota in free agency. They leave behind a pass-rushing vacuum.

The team needs to find sacks and hits and quarterback pressures from somewhere. The Seahawks finished 14th in pressure rate in 2017, pressuring opposing QBs on 30.9% of plays. Take even a minor step backwards and you’re peering at utter mediocrity, a sure-fire way to lose games in the modern era.

The Avril-Bennett pincer move was one of the most fearsome sights in the game. It sounds silly in a sport as violent as football where everyone is tough. But quarterbacks were legit intimidated by the snarling, fire-breathing, pass-rushing pair. I’m guessing Peyton Manning still gets nervous twitches every now and then just thinking about them.

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Avril and Bennett were classic pocket compressors. They didn’t necessarily need to drop the quarterback (though they often did); they simply had to make his life uncomfortable, sapping all sense of time and space as they worked to collapse the pocket outside-in.

Richardson fits that style, too. Kind of. He’s a dancing bear who made atypical plays typically. Guys his size shouldn’t move so well. Richardson does.

He can run over people, sure -- at his best he’s a down-in, down-out interior pocket compressor (trying saying that after a few drinks). But Richardson offers a little more pizzazz. A little more pop. A burst off the line paired with twinkling feet, that makes him virtually unblockable when he’s feeling it – that last part is important:

I mean, come on. That’s just stupid.

It’s hard to understate what this defense is losing. Bennett racked up 38.5 pressures a year ago, tacking on 8.5 sacks. Avril featured in only four games, though he still finished with 3.5 pressures and a sack. The previous two years, he posted all-pro caliber pressure totals: 37.5 in 2016; and 28 in 2015.

It’s not just the sheer totals, either. It’s what all three defenders offered schematically. They could all move right across the front – particularly important in an early-down, multi-gap system like Seattle’s.

Bennett made his role his own. It’s now part of the football lexicon. He can do the Bennett role. It’s the prism through which we evaluate defensive line prospects (we’ll talk about one shortly).

Bennett vacillated between two roles: As a base end; and an interior nickel-rusher.

A typical series would look something like this: He’d line-up outside on run-downs – vacillating between multiple techniques (including the now ubiquitous wide-nine look). Then, in obvious pass-rushing situations, or based on the formation, or based on the opposing linemen (who he could overpower) or simply because it was third down, he’d kick inside as an interior rusher, lining up as a three-technique.

We were even greeted to fleeting movements of one-tech goodness, when Pete Carroll and co. were feeling particularly frisky.

Guys with that skillset do not grow on trees. Replacing Bennett’s production and schematic role will likely take two, three or four players.

Seattle’s brain-trust seems to concur. It added Tom Johnson in free agency, re-signed Marcus Smith II, Dion Jordon and Barkevious Mingo, and drafted Rasheem Green, Jake Martin and Shaqueem Griffin – who will get some pass-rush snaps from his off-ball role.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the guys who could potentially fill that almighty Avril-Bennett-Richardson hole.


Let’s start with this: We know Frank Clark and Jarran Reed are really, really good.

Clark is great: he’s a speed-to-power menace with All-Pro ability. He had 28.5 pressures and 9 sacks in 2017. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him put up a 35 pressure, double-digit sack season this time around – provided his wrist injury isn’t worse than initially feared.

Reed is great, too. All that pre-draft talk (which saw him slip out of the first-round) that he was little more than a run-down defender has proven to be poppycock. Reed had 18 total pressures last year. That’s more than Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson and Mike Daniels.

Both Clark and Reed, however, will suffer from the loss of Bennett. They will have to adapt. Bennett’s gravitational pull made life easier for everyone; they saw more one-on-one matchups. Clark will have to deal with more double-teams, chip blocks, and protections siding his way. He’s good enough to handle it.

Reed may find things trickier. He’s a pocket pusher, not a get-off-and-go speed player who collapses things from the inside. A winning rep for Reed is making the quarterback’s throwing angle tougher, or not allowing that QB to step-up – thereby leading him into the waiting arms of the piranhas swooping in from the outside.

Reed is an effort rusher. Creating pressure inside works in a symbiotic relationship with those on the outside: He needs them and they need him.

Just look at this, Reed’s lone sack in 2017:

Reed got the sack, but Bennett gets the assist. The sheer panic the ex-Hawk inspires is almost comical. The Giant’s right guard (now current Seahawks OL DJ Fluker) doesn’t even want to contemplate leaving his right tackle on his own.

He abandons his post, vacating a lane for Reed to drive right into Eli Manning’s chest. Had the guard held his ground, Manning would have been able to step up, avoid Bennett careening around the edge, and look for an outlet downfield.

Some guys make plays simply by being on the field. Bennett was one of those dudes.

The Seahawks will attempt to replace Bennett by committee. The interior math adds up. New signing Tom Johnson – one of the league’s best kept secrets -- had 22 pressures last year in Minnesota. Sophomore Nazair Jones had 4 in his debut campaign (he was much better on tape than that number indicates). But, like Reed, neither has the leap-out-your-cleats initial spring that Bennett and Richardson so use to un-ease guards, centers and, most importantly, quarterbacks.

As good as that quartet could be, the Seahawks still need to find more production from the edges. Clark can’t do it alone.

Dion Jordan

Holy moly was Dion Jordan good in limited reps last year. Sure, it was only 147 snaps. Nothing more. But there was plenty in Jordan’s five-game flirtation to get folks excited.

On the path to being an all-time bust, the former #3 overall pick of the Dolphins might be about to unlock his potential. Jordan’s personal and professional development in just five games with the Seahawks was nothing short of unfathomable (without fathom!).

He showed things he’s never shown. Not at Oregon. Not in Miami. Nowhere.

The hop in his step was back. That ability to overwhelm an opposing tackle with sheer unadulterated athleticism, the I’m-a-better-athlete-than-you kind, was back. We haven’t seen anything like it since he was in college:

That’s the Jordan we remember: The speed-to-power merchant with unnatural spring, bulging muscles and arms so long they appear CGI’d on. When he fires off the ball, with the right leverage, and plants those long levers onto blockers, he can drive them from here to Europe. And he pairs that with sudden quickness, the kind that makes lineman play on their heels.

Jordan beats opposing tackles out of their stance, leaving them off-balance when they engage, or so tight to the line of scrimmage that he can swoop around the edge with a clear path to the quarterback.

Jordan came into the league with that fairly traditional wrap: A freak athlete who might not quite get the nuances of the game. He’s gotten by his whole life by being a better athlete. Stuff like that.

2017 was different. It wasn’t all about innate qualities. He actually, you know, tried stuff:

Did you catch that? That little dip and rip move. Cowboy’s left tackle, Byron Bell, expected Jordan to do Jordan things – bury an arm into his chest and try to run him over. He didn’t. He planted one of his long stems into the left tackles chest, keeping him at arm’s length, before using his second arm to swat away the tackle’s arm, almost with contempt.

It’s nothing major. But, like, baby steps, people!

Jordan’s adapting and learning and evolving. That’s the big thing. Seattle flexed him across the defensive front — utilizing different alignments.

He filled in as a two-gapper on the strongside of the formation, controlling the point-of-attack and working hard so others could make decisive plays.

Then he got his. Lined up on the weakside, he became the one-gap-and-go penetrator, hunting down running backs from the backside of the formation. Some plays look better suited for the Discovery Channel, not ESPN:

Last year’s defensive staff even dabbled with zone-packages that saw Jordan drop into coverage. He was more than competent, moving better than most players who typically line-up in a three-point stance (he had some experience dropping into coverage back in his college days):

It would be fun to see a little more of that sprinkled in going forward.

Jordan is healthy, too. Well, not quite physically, at least not yet. He’s currently on the PUP list, missing a crucial part of training camp he could sorely use. “Dion’s got an issue that we’re working on right now,” Carroll said after the team’s first practice. “It’s gonna be a few weeks with him.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the severity), the injury is not related to the knee surgery Jordan had in June. He can be removed from the PUP list at any time during the preseason.

More important is the state of Jordan’s mental health. After all, this is a player whose own agent described him as “looking homeless,” and “literally near death” when Jordan walked into his office for what amounted to an intervention in the summer of 2015.

Miami got to him. Jordan drank, a lot. He took drugs. He partied. He tried to cut corners to compensate – testing positive in 2014 for a substance on the league’s banned list and receiving a four-game ban. He never stopped partying throughout the suspension. He was suspended for all of 2015.

“My production was directly related to what I was doing off the field,” he told Sports Illustrated in December. “I put nothing into it. I was just showing up.”

Now he’s trying. And what would you know, it shows.

Betting on players like Jordan is tough. Top-5 picks flame out for a reason. Addicts face a constant battle to stay sober. They need a stable support system. The toing’s and throwing’s of football make that difficult. The pain makes it even tougher.

I’m rooting for Jordan. He has flashed the kind of talent that made him one of the most sought-after pass-rushers in the draft in the past 10-years. Demons and decisions doomed the early part of his career.

Players grow in increments. Most don’t develop a bunch of high skills all at once. They build from the ground up; one skill unlocks another. Jordan still has flaws. But zoom out, and he’s getting better.

I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. He racked up plenty of his highlight plays against backups. But… If Seattle can unlock an ounce of that potential – even if they get the carbon copy of the player they had for just shy of 150 snaps in 2017, with no improvement – they’ll have tapped into one of the league’s rarest commodities: A cheap, explosive, three-down lineman.

Rasheem Green

If you went into a lab to design the perfect player to fill that Bennett Role, you’d probably concoct something that looked an awful lot like like Rasheem Green. He’s a tantalizing prospect: 6-4, 270, with an 81-inch wingspan.

He compares near identically to Shawn Merriman; he ran a 4.7. He’s a shorts-and-t-shirt Hall of Famer.

Then you turn on the tape (MP4, really) and, umm, things go a little downhill.

If you watched only Green’s matchups against UCLA, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Stanford – where he squared off against future pros and non-professionals alike -- you’d be left wondering why this guy was drafted at all, let alone with a valuable Day Two pick.

He was miscast in college. USC’s staff moved Green across the defensive front, but he lined up mostly inside. He was overpowered and ill-equipped to handle that sort of close-quarters battle. Things got ugly. He was washed out against double-teams, and was routinely run-off-the-ball by players who’re among the 50 people excited for the launch of the XFL.

It will be different in Seattle. Carroll and his staff view Green as a Bennett redux: playing outside in base; inside in obvious passing situations.

“We’re going to play [Green] at 5-technique, play him at defensive end, and use him as an inside rusher as well in nickel situations… We’ll see what that brings us, but that’s the thought right now,” Pete Carroll said during a training camp press conference.

Green certainly has experience in those spots. He aligned anywhere and everywhere in college, playing every technique imaginable:

The issue is what happened once the ball was snapped.

Let’s run through the pass-rush checklist:

Does the guy he hits get rocked back upon impact?

Sometimes, I guess? That’s the issue with Green. Nothing is consistent. Not his pad-level, not his leap off-the-line. Zilch.

When everything is lined up, he is a real force. He surges out of stance, stays low, plays with powerful hands, and can forklift guys into the middle of next week (#94):

Yet those instances are rare. More often, we’re treated to a dish of frustration.

There’s not much oomph off the snap. He chops his feet before contact, meaning he can’t draw power from the ground up; he hits defenders; they don’t move:

A lot of this is down to pad-level. Green consistently comes off the ball too high. It is, frankly, lazy:

Insufficient pop is a real concern. Everything must be perfect, then you see some play strength. But Green is no natural people-mover.

Some of this can be taught. Fast. A professional strength and conditioning program will help. Technical tweaks (those dastardly, flittering feet) will have an even greater impact.

How quick are his hands?

Again, Green flashes. Sometimes he disengages so quickly, you feel like booking his ticket to the Pro Bowl now:

Other times, he gets stuck in a lineman’s belly button. Once he loses early, he’s lost. It can get super ugly:

Woof.

Another category when Green is up and down, at best. But I think he has real potential here. His length is a big benefit when he’s lined up inside – it helps mask some of the hand speed issues.

Is he stiff in the hips, or can he change direction effortlessly?

Green’s three-cone time – an agility test in which he ranked in the 48th percentile of tested defensive linemen at the combine– would suggest he’s not naturally fluid in his hips.

That’s true, but it’s also not his game: He’s a power-rusher who wins with his hands (when he does), not a dipper.

On tape, he shifts well enough when he needs to. For me, It’s more of mental blockage. He was filling a role he shouldn’t have been. He seemed a tick behind on recognizing things, rather than being an overly stiff mover.

Take this play for instance:

Green peaks inside against the run, vacating a huge hole. He’s able to disengage and snap his hips. It just comes too late.

Does he pursue the play downfield

Yes. Give Green a sight-line to the quarterback and he will hustle after him. The other effort issues – bringing your best down-in and down-out – are the concerns.

Does he keep his feet?

A subtlety that Ed Orgeron (Pete Carroll’s former defensive line coach and current LSU top-man) harps on. It shows a player’s balance, as well as his mental capacity: top players don’t spend time on the floor, they’re too busy crushing the backfield. It’s sounds odd, but focus on it some time. The best of the best rarely touch the floor.

That’s a concern for Green. He spends an inordinate amount of time on the floor. Green has to be able to stay out of the trash. That shouldn’t be as big an issue as he kicks outside, but it’s something to monitor.

And that’s the issue with evaluating Green’s college tape. It needs to be contextualized. He was put in an almost unfair spot: a talented square the USC staff squeezed into a round hole, lest they be seen taking one of their most talented players off the field.

There were games where you saw Green’s potential; when everything tied together and for a drive or two he took over. But he was maddeningly inconsistent. At 21 years old, it’s hard to imagine he will go from a net-neutral interior player in college, to a game-changing edge-rusher in a couple of months. He has a long way to go before Seattle’s staff will feel comfortable chucking him into important packages.

Marcus Smith II

The former Philadelphia Eagles flop re-upped with the Seahawks after showing glimpses of being a professional player in 2017. Smith played 14 games, grabbing 2.5 sacks in just 250 snaps.

His sack total inflates his overall impact, though. Smith finished the season with just four total pressures. He’s a so-so athlete. He struggles to take-on blocks. He’s better with the game in front of him, reading and reacting like an off-ball ‘backer, rather than zipping upfield and taking the game to a pass blocker.

Smith offers a different look. But Seattle is in trouble if it relies on him for pressure off-the-edge.

Jake Martin

Remember Jake Martin? Nope. That’s fine. I got you.

Martin, a sixth round pick out of Temple, has a little more friskiness than you might expect. He played as an edge for Temple, but Carroll and company are talking about Martin as an off-ball guy, with some greendog duties chucked in for good measure – rushing the passer if his man stays in to protect.

Martin was a power-rusher in college. He played a straight-line game, attacking head-on, rather than being the classic dip-and-rip player you see bending around the edge.

Like Bennett and Avril, he’s a pocket compressor when lined up outside. He wins with speed-to-power and attacking opposing tackles inside shoulders. He was at his best arcing inside on stunts and twists (#9):

He lacks the hip flexion to be a twitchy guy bending the edge at the next-level:

Still: He offers good value as a change-up in sub-packages. He excelled when kicked inside in the Owls’ speed-package, where he has the first-step quickness to wreck a play off-the-snap (#9, one-technique):

It will be interesting to see him move further off the ball. He has excellent play strength for his size, and plays (say it with me) with a good pad-level. When everything is in sync, he can bench press guys with ease.

He worked hard in the run-game. A lot of his assignments asked him to knife inside (a tactic to attack option football); he was often forced to sit out plays as the “read” man when opposing sides “optioned” him.

When he was able to get a head of steam and play in attack mode, he flashed NFL ability. Keep an eye on how he’s used.

Shaquem Griffin, Barkevious Mingo

Speaking of off-ball guys, how about Shaquem Griffin and Barkevious Mingo? Both will battle it out for reps at the Seahawks strongside spot (a subpackage role). From there, they will get a chance to do a little of everything: Cover space, cover backs/tight ends, blitz, and be involved in different free-roaming greendog designs: If your man stays in, blitz! And they’ll do it all from multiple spots on the field.

Griffin has a chance to be a stud. Mingo has improved, but isn’t an every down player (Like Smith, he prefers reading-and-reacting rather than setting the terms of engagement). Neither is the answer to the Seahawks pass-rush question in the short term.

Junior Galette

One of the most mystifying storylines of the preseason: Why is Junior Galette still unsigned?

After suffering Achilles tears in both 2015 and 2016, the former Washington rusher bounced back admirably in 2017 in a part-time role as a designated pass-rusher – playing 37% of Washington’s snaps.

Galette recorded 37 quarterback pressures on just 241 pass-rush snaps, producing an 11.9 pass-rush productivity that ranked 15th among qualifying edge defenders, per ProFootballFocus. For his role, that’s as good as it gets.

The outcome was impressive; the process even more encouraging.

Galette looked like, well, Galette! He was back to his best, bursting and euro-stepping his way into your backfield:

Oh, baby. That’s damn near unstoppable. That low-strung stance. Those springs. The swerve.

We – reasonably – assumed Galette could never get to his past level. Players don’t come back from Achilles tears. They definitely don’t come back from two.

But this guy has. And he fits what the Seahawks are looking for: A sub-rusher who can bring speed and power off the edge in obvious pass-rushing situations. Galette still has the speed to beat tackles around the edge. He has enough pop in his hands to rock their anchor. And he’s still as good as it gets at setting up the outside rush, before diving inside, embarrassing opposing lineman along the way:

Wow.

He isn’t the most natural of fits in the teams base defense. But there’s no doubt that he still has the juice to be a high-level sub-rusher. Ask him to line-up in that wide-nine, four-point, sprinter stance, and he will continue to maraud into the backfield.

Let’s be clear: This guy is on the open market! These plays are from last season. He’s 29, not some over-the-hill fella still trying to shift in his mid-30’s. And he wants to play. He missed two seasons of football. He won’t demand much money. Even if it’s a medical issue, the team could move on – I’m sure a team could figure out a non-guaranteed deal. It’s a risk-free move.

The Seahawks have the cash and the need. They should jump on Galette before he inevitably winds up in a spot like New England, while the rest of the like slaps themselves on the head and wonders why they didn’t take the plunge.

Seattle needs someone to step up in 2018. It’s best option might not even be on the roster yet.