You can get on John Schneider for the Seattle Seahawks’ unconvincing approach to improving the pass rush and defensive line as a whole this offseason, but it’s become increasingly clear that not re-signing Jadeveon Clowney was the right move.
Clowney signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Tennessee Titans after several months of “will he or won’t he?” I certainly can think of a few Seahawks fans who were irate that the team moved on from Clowney — after all, he was the team’s best pass rusher (a low bar to clear) and didn’t have the benefit of another quality pass rusher alongside him like he did with the Houston Texans. The rate of double teams and his pass rush win rate were often cited as reasons that he was better than the basic numbers showed him to be.
Well we’re almost halfway through the 2020 NFL season and the next sack Clowney has will be his first as a Titan. Against a 1-5-1 Cincinnati Bengals team that was playing essentially nothing but backup offensive linemen, Clowney didn’t record a single tackle until the 4th quarter when the game was already lost.
He did get two pressures, though. It’s just that Joe Burrow, who has been sacked 28 times this season, was able to escape him twice.
Titans shoot Clowney free up the middle.. this wasn't even Joe Burrow's best escape from Sunday. pic.twitter.com/wji7SdaIPv— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) November 2, 2020
“Hey man, Clowney is getting pressure at least” pic.twitter.com/duDorH2dIl— Sal From Jerrrssseeeyyy (@salmanfredi) November 2, 2020
Pro Football Reference credits Clowney with nine pressures, well below the 30 he recorded last season without playing a full 16 games. Pro Football Focus gave him 16 pressures entering mid-October and presumably he now has the most pressures with no sacks. The Titans defense as a whole is 28th in pressure rate and a percentage point below the Seahawks. Their seven sacks is only better than the Jacksonville Jaguars and their hurry rate is 31st despite having a bang-on average blitz rate. Clowney is not the only under-performer on the team but he does have the third-highest cap charge on the team. Tennessee is also well on course to have the worst third down defense in NFL history.
I do not want this to be misconstrued as celebrating Clowney’s struggles elsewhere or rooting for him to fail. It actually sucks that someone with his athletic gifts and potential to be extremely fun has not lived up to expectations. I’m just pointing out that the outrage over not inking him to a new deal looks a bit silly now. This also confirms my own priors that he is not a generational talent. He has been horribly miscast as this fearsome pass rusher and it’s crazy considering the biggest play he ever made in college was a run stop. Sacks are not the be all, end all for pass rushing specialists but all of the consensus best quarterback terrorizers are able to consistently rack up at least 7-8 sacks per year. Clowney has only done that twice in seven NFL seasons.
As for why his pressure doesn’t seem to translate into sacks? There’s an article written by Steven Ruiz last month that I think explains his inability to finish a play really well.
When you really dive into his tape, which NFL teams surely did this offseason, Clowney’s biggest weakness becomes readily apparent: He’s got no bend. In other words, after beating an offensive tackle upfield, he struggles to turn the corner, which makes it much easier for the tackle to recover and block him.
Clowney’s dependency on inside moves also helps to explain that double-team rate I cited earlier. It’s not that Clowney is commanding double teams because of his pass-rush prowess; but rather, he’s running into those double teams because his successful pass rush moves take him inside toward the offensive guard. He might get those initial wins over the tackle, but there’s still traffic to navigate in order to get to the quarterback.
In theory it’s possible that if Clowney had stayed in Seattle he would’ve performed better here than what he’s shown (or failed to show) in Nashville. I’m of the opinion that the Seahawks’ lack of heavy investment into its pass rush over the offseason would’ve led to the same problem of Clowney looking “disruptive” without actually providing a meaningful end product.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks have Carlos Dunlap coming into the fold soon and he’s undeniably been a better pass rusher over his career than Clowney. At 31 his prime years are coming to an end soon but there’s nothing to suggest he’s washed up. He’s also consistently proven more durable than Clowney.
Maybe, just maybe, this may all work out alright in the end for the Seahawks. The same cannot be said for Clowney, who overestimated his worth in the free agent market and finds his value depreciating rapidly with each ineffective week.