Defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett came to Seattle to win. They didn’t come so they could be the featured pass-rusher because that wasn’t going to happen.
In fact, they both understood the dynamics of the situation: They were joining a team trying to upgrade its pass rush, yes, but one that still had options up front. That meant accepting fewer snaps for a chance at a Super Bowl.
The first step toward that payoff came in Saturday’s 23-15 win against New Orleans in an NFC Divisional Game. Bennett forced two fumbles, Avril teamed with Bennett for a sack and the pair proved to be Seattle’s best pass-rushers.
“It took seven or eight weeks, honestly, to figure out our role,” Avril said. “We had to put our pride aside.”
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Bennett played with a relentlessness that has defined his time in Seattle, especially in the last few weeks. Time and again, he came at quarterback Drew Brees and forced him to either get rid of the ball or move in the pocket.
On a key fourth-and-four near the end of the first half, with the Seahawks leading 13-0, the Saints elected to go for it from Seattle’s 29. Linebacker Bobby Wagner batted down Brees’ pass, but it happened in large part because Bennett’s pressure forced Brees to abandon the pocket.
At times against the Saints, during TV timeouts when both teams were idle on the field, Bennett stood at the line of scrimmage and started yelling at New Orleans’ offensive line as they walked to the ball.
His message: “They’re not good,” he recalled, “and we’re better than them.”
“That’s just how he is,” defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said. “Mike Bennett, he don’t care, man. That’s just how he plays. He plays hard, so hard, every game.”
The Seahawks didn’t know exactly how it would all fit together with Avril, Bennett and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel joining them. That’s what coach Pete Carroll kept saying, that it was going to take time.
The Seahawks spent much of the season tinkering with different combinations, especially on third down. But in the last month they’ve settled on a third-down pass rush that consists of Avril and Chris Clemons on the outside and Clinton McDonald and Bennett on the inside. It’s been Seattle’s most effective group and harassed Brees much of the day.
“It takes a lot of guys being unselfish, especially being on this team,” safety Earl Thomas said. “There are so many athletes and so many great players, especially on the d-line. … But that just shows how much they’ve accepted their roles. It’s all about accepting your role — and dominating.”
Carroll made it known that the team’s No. 1 priority after last season was upgrading the pass rush. The Seahawks hadn’t been able to get pressure when they truly needed it in the playoffs last season, and if they held Super Bowl aspirations, that couldn’t happen again.
This wasn’t one of the defensive line’s most dominant performances, but it was solid. And it started with Bennett and Avril generating most of the pressure on Brees.
“We needed it today,” Red Bryant said. “I felt like he and Cliff both played a hell of a game up front, and they’re both big reasons as to why we got the win.”