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The Drive: My huge bummer post about Jadeveon Clowney

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Jadeveon Clowney did not impress me. He could do what he could do, and what he did was sometimes very exciting, but the Seahawks pass rush was performing very poorly. No one owned that failure like Clowney. I feared we as fans, we as media, were anchoring ourselves to Clowney’s reputation. That we were in that mode in which excuses substituted for honest analysis.

Pressure may be production as someone said recently, but pressures and quarterback hits are not equal to sacks. Entering Week 7, Clowney was on pace for 2.5 sacks in 700 or so snaps. Good run defense, pressure but very few sacks, that’s production befitting Darryl Tapp. In fact, if we prorate Clowney’s season to date, we end up with a season very much like Tapp’s one season starting 16 games.

Clowney prorated to 16: 5 sacks, 8 tackles for a loss, 40 tackles, 19 QB hits, 2 INTs (rounding way up from 1.6), 5 forced fumbles, 5 pass defended.

Tapp at 23 in 2007: 7 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss, 49 tackles, 17 QB hits, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles, 8 passes defended.

That was Tapp’s best season, and he wasn’t a bad player by any stretch, but he was Seattle’s third best pass rusher, third best defensive lineman, and seventh best defender after Lofa Tatupu, Patrick Kerney, Julian Peterson, Brandon Mebane, Marcus Trufant and arguably Deon Grant. Seattle fielded its best defense of the Mike Holmgren era in 2007, and facing a legit contender at Lambeau, that defense turned a 14-point first quarter lead into a 22-point blowout loss. Next season, it fell apart entirely. It was good, but that one season of being good and nothing more relied on high-paid mercs nearing decline, a few on the very verge of collapse.

Which is to say: Television broadcasts distort the truth, highlighting players of name value to appeal to the lowest common denominator fan, but if Clowney were really supposed to be Seattle’s best pass rusher and one of Seattle’s best defenders, I was not impressed. This defense looked beyond repair. If the weakest link were not the secondary, it was surely the pass rush.

Re-signing Clowney in the offseason seemed like it would be a terrible blunder, should Seattle make such a commitment. As we’ve seen in Chicago, even a presumptive hall of fame defensive end like Khalil Mack struggles to provide value when he’s pinching the cap. Starting next season, Mack is schedule to account for 26 million dollars of Chicago’s cap and will cost roughly that until 2024. Too damn much, simply too damn much, and Mack is head-and-shoulders above Clowney in every measure of performance. That doesn’t even factor in that Clowney underwent microfracture knee surgery. Of which orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Stone wrote:

“The data from multiple studies in athletes shows that the repair tissue breaks down over a few years leaving the exposed bone to cause more pain. Microfracture fails because the body loses the race between durable healing and repeated injury from weight-bearing alone.”

Trading for Clowney may have been savvy. 2019 is turning into a season of contention for Seattle, and that doesn’t happen without Clowney. He may not be spectacular but he’s filling a gaping hole on a defense liable to cause trypophobia without him. Re-signing Clowney would turn that trade into an absolute disaster, I thought. And I still think, but for one thing.

Jarran Reed is back.

Maybe the coordinated pass rush of Reed and Clowney could allow Clowney to shine. Watching Clowney it’s hard not to be ambivalent. Sometimes he seems a horterada, flashy but lacking substance. I’m not one to sit agape at a TED Talk. I am Freakonomics adverse. I grew up reading Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. The separation between concept and execution is cosmic in scale. A dozen junky stats purport Clowney’s greatness, but these stats produce factoids, vaporware, humareda. Let me go ahead and flip this page of my Spanish dictionary. My attempt to tener much humos is becoming transparent.

Sometimes, Clowney looks excellent but in need of help. Seattle ranked 14th in adjusted sack rate in 2018. From that middling unit, Seattle subtracted its best pass rusher, Frank Clark, and lost six games of its second best pass rusher, Reed. Quinton Jefferson, Seattle’s third best pass rusher, has battled hip and oblique injuries most of the season. And pass rush stacks. One good pass rusher is much more easy to evade than two. Three is better, and four consistent pass rushers is a formula for an all-time upset.

LISTEN: Kenneth Arthur’s thoughts on Jadeveon Clowney’s next contract and more!

Setting aside for now the near certainty that Seattle should not re-sign Clowney, let’s briefly explore if he may break out now that he’s not alone. Let us compare instances in which Clowney recorded a quarterback hit. One in which he was alone. One with Jefferson. One with Reed, and one (if one such exists) in which he worked with both.

Luckily enough, Clowney has recorded all of his hits against quarterbacks who are all above average at avoiding sacks. Matt Schaub ranks best, at 5.1% for his career, but he’s also the worst and oldest of the group. Jared Goff rates second at 5.8%, Andy Dalton has been sacked on 6% of all dropbacks, and Jimmy Garoppolo, whose read resembles a mole deciphering Aramaic, is sacked on 6.6% of all dropbacks. None of them bleed sacks like DeShaun Watson and none of them erase sacks like Drew Brees.

Here we see Clowney more or less alone.

Branden Jackson, who has 3.5 career sacks and 7 career quarterback hits, mans one end spot. Poona Ford and Al Woods are playing defensive tackle. Both are run stoppers with limited or very limited pass rushing ability. Cincy will block with four. Giovani Bernard does not chip. A holding call has made it 2nd and 14. Bengals are down 4 with about 8 left in the 4th.

This is roughly the state of things when the Bengals’ receivers are exiting their breaks and about to look for the ball. All but one receiver is running a very short route.

Woods and Ford have both lost ground. Jackson will eventually get a little push from the front side. And Clowney, attempting an inside move, has collided with Ford. This is the pocket one finds in a pair of JNCO jeans: roomy enough for meth pipe and clown makeup.

Dalton clutches and clutches and clutches. All routes are in a state of improvisation now. Yet only Jackson is providing any kind of pass rush.

Woods, Ford and Clowney are still at or behind the original line of scrimmage. Finally Dalton and his age depleted 4.87 40 wheels make a break for it. Behold one of Clowney’s three sacks.

There’s a lot to consider. Clowney is matched against Andre Smith. Smith is a below average pass blocker for a right tackle, and arguably a complete liability pass blocking as a left tackle. In fact, he held Jackson during the previous play, which led to the 2nd and 14, but that was a run.

The down and distance, plus the fact that Cincy’s trailing in the fourth quarter, increases the chance of a sack. The play call made it less likely but the play breaks down. Dalton began to scramble in earnest after about three seconds. At that point, Clowney had still made no progress. It was his first game after a lengthy holdout, but he did play in 61% of defensive snaps.

The stall out by Ford doesn’t help. Clowney choosing to go inside causes the two to collide, but Clowney in no way helps Ford either. Each pass rush is equally futile. Clowney’s ability to run quickly in a straight line allows him to stop Dalton from turning the corner, which helps. Only, not much, and if I were to be a stickler, it’s not a sack. It’s a tackle for a loss against a middle-aged quarterback running to run. Coverage contributes, Jackson contributes, and Clowney gets a freebie sack of little value.

I realize now that another of Clowney’s three sacks came against Schaub when the Falcons were at the Seattle 42 with 0:04 left in the half. That occurred as the clock was turning 0:00 and looked to all the world like this:

But Clowney was credited with three other quarterback hits. Let’s find one when he shared the field with Reed.

This one’s a screen pass.

2ND & 5 AT SEA 19(04:04)

(4:04) (Shotgun) M.Schaub pass incomplete short left [J.Clowney].

Jackson was much closer to Schaub as Schaub more or less threw it away and Clowney’s hit was borderline illegal because it was so late. That doesn’t help.

This play is a bit convoluted.

1ST & 10 AT ATL 10(05:08)

(5:08) M.Schaub pass deep right to J.Jones to ATL 35 for 25 yards (M.Kendricks) [J.Clowney].

Seahawks rush 5 against 7 blockers. Atlanta runs a PA, 7-step drop and Clowney’s hit arrives split seconds after Schaub has passed toward Julio Jones for 25. It’s a good example of how pressures =/= sacks and the confounding variables created by competing play designs. Clowney performs well but little benefiting Seattle.

Let’s run with this one:

1ST & 10 AT ATL 14(02:41)

(2:41) (Shotgun) M.Schaub pass short right to J.Jones pushed ob at ATL 25 for 11 yards (Sq.Griffin) [J.Clowney]. Penalty on SEA-J.Taylor, Defensive Holding, declined.

Clowney and Reed are playing defensive tackle. That might be a better spot for Clowney, who’s skill set looks best matched to inside linebacker to me.

He whups Falcons right guard Jamon Brown. Brown is a very low-level starter who’s played for three teams in five seasons. No other pass rusher makes any kind of dent.

Front-side pressure in a spacious pocket doesn’t amount to much, though. And while Clowney’s separation from his blocker is very quick, the overall rush is not. By syncing up two camera angles, we can see that Jones is out of his break while Clowney is still closing.

I won’t go so far as to say Clowney does anything wrong. He looks very good blowing through Brown and squaring up and leveling Schaub, but Schaub throws an accurate pass caught by Jones for 11 yards.

Something seems to be missing. Clowney somehow seems to be excelling without positively contributing to the outcome of the play. Or contributing minimally, because had Clowney not rushed Schaub at all, had he not been on the field, it isn’t any kind of stretch to say Schaub likely would have targeted Jones. Clowney did not arrive before Jones was open. He did not much affect the accuracy of the pass.

Here’s Clowney and Jefferson:

1ST & 5 AT SF 46(12:38)

(12:38) J.Garoppolo pass incomplete short left to M.Goodwin [J.Clowney].

Clowney again arrives front side. He’s very fast to separate from his blocker but pretty slow to actually close on the quarterback. His pressure probably accounts for Garoppolo throwing high.

I won’t win any friends pointing this out but Clowney was facing Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey was returning from a knee injury, is in his second season, and has allowed 11.5 sacks in 22 games which is a very high rate for a right tackle. How high? Germain Ifedi allowed 12 in his first two seasons comprising 29 games. But it’s another truly dominant display of separating from the blocker.

Let’s see if I can hound out a snap in which all of Seattle’s pass rushers are on the field.

2ND & 6 AT SEA 37(10:56)

(10:56) (Shotgun) J.Garoppolo sacked at SEA 42 for -5 yards (sack split by P.Ford and J.Reed).

This, ultimately, represents what I hope will happen. Clowney kills it from the blindside, where his quickness is most deadly. Ford and Reed create interior rush which is cashed in when Clowney flushes Garoppolo, and Jefferson does yeoman’s work.

We get this kind of 34 look with Clowney and Mychal Kendricks working as OLBs.

Clowney makes short work of Joe Staley.

Staley, I hate to point out, is very possibly in deep decline. This was the first game since Week 2 for the 35-year old. He’s now out indefinitely with a broken finger.

Jefferson, the rightmost defensive lineman, is doing a very job of containing Garoppolo. He’s got depth and decent command of his blocker. Reed and Ford have run a game which for whatever reason has freed Ford. And Clowney, our star, is attempting to turn the angle to flush Garoppolo. One might argue that he doesn’t because after a small step into the pocket, we get this result:

Garoppolo free and Clowney grounded. Probably a quarterback with better pocket presence would settle down in this revised pocket and attempt a pass. It’s not that small, which is plainly clear from the broadcast angle.

Seattle’s down to three pass rushers too. Clowney is only just to his feet as Ford begins to sack Garoppolo. And, truth be told, Garoppolo like Dalton runs himself into this sack.

But while none of Clowney, Jefferson or Reed are elite or even complete pass rushers, they do seem to function well in conjunction here. Reed is able to push a double team. Those three yards of push Reed and Ford are able to create is a significant difference from what Woods and Ford were able to create against Dalton. Jefferson closes off the right and narrows the pocket. And Clowney, though he cannot turn the corner, and though he ends up on the turf, provides the inciting pressure which makes the sack possible.

I won’t lie. I was hoping to offer much better news. Clowney’s evisceration of Staley which ultimately led to Clowney falling attempting to turn the corner strikes me as damningly quintessential. A lack of limberness would go a long way to explaining how Clowney can be so quick and so capable of separating from blockers and yet record so few sacks. If Clowney is doomed to such an incomplete skill set, a defensive tackle who could readily separate and provide interior pressure would mitigate some of Clowney’s limitations, but I haven’t seen Reed doing that. Maybe he still can. Maybe this group will gel. Maybe Seattle will be a little more creative with how it rushes Clowney, because Chris Clemons he is not.

To me Clemons represents the very apex of John Schneider and Pete Carroll’s ability to evaluate talent. They saw what no one else saw. Seattle traded a productive player who had no greater peak to reach, was anatomically limited to be good but never great, Darryl Tapp, for Clemons. I was crazy wrong in my evaluation of that trade and thank all that is good for it. Clemons came into his own. He was limber, explosive and a perfect match for the LEO concept. Seattle won a Super Bowl because of such bold guesses.

It may be that Clowney represents the very opposite end of the spectrum. A player with an exceptional reputation, who can be hyped in 15 different ways, and who has more than a few specious metrics to support him, that just doesn’t seem to be cutting it as the Seahawks primary pass rusher. Or maybe he needs help. From Reed, from Jefferson, and maybe from a secondary which is allowing quarterbacks under duress to find open receivers. Nothing’s certain. Except that through 10 games Clowney has two sacks of minimal value and one which he may have stolen from Reed.