RENTON – At the end of last season, Pete Carroll delivered an autopsy of the freshly completed campaign. His report was filled with positives but included a glaring weakness.
“We need another pass rusher,” Carroll said. “We really do … We need a couple of guys.”
It was a statement made out of necessity, not choice. In the playoffs against Atlanta, without defensive end Chris Clemons, the Seahawks couldn’t pressure quarterback Matt Ryan. On the final two plays, with Atlanta needing only a field goal, Seattle was forced to blitz.
It didn’t work, and Atlanta won.
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That scenario is a distant memory from the pass rush Seattle will roll out against St. Louis’ backup quarterback Kellen Clemens on Monday night. Bolstered by offseason reinforcements Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel and O’Brien Schofield, the Seahawks feature one of the league’s most successful pass rushes, not to mention one of the deepest.
“This team has an embarrassment of riches,” said former scout Louis Riddick, who now works for ESPN. “They have nine guys on the defensive line that could start if you were building a team from scratch.”
Or, as safety Earl Thomas put it after hearing Carroll’s desire to add a couple pass rushers, “We got more than a couple.”
The Seahawks came at Arizona in waves Thursday, and they did so predominantly rushing only four linemen. Seattle still pressured quarterback Carson Palmer 57 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. On one play, McDaniel simply threw an Arizona guard aside before sacking Palmer. On another, Clemons drove the left tackle straight into Palmer before Bennett tripped him for the sack.
“This is the best front I’ve seen as far as rushing ability,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock gushed during the broadcast.
Later, he added, “I think Seattle is the most dominant defensive front in the entire NFL.”
Yet not everyone left the game completely enthralled. Carroll said the pass rush could be better, perhaps a little prodding for a group that managed seven sacks.
There are many ways to judge a pass rush, and by nearly any of them, Seattle has measured up.
Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard tracks the pressure defenses create, and the Seahawks have ranked near the top of his list all season. Pro Football Focus rates Seattle the best pass-rushing team in the NFL. The Seahawks rank fourth in the league with 23 sacks; they had 33 all of last season.
Thomas, Seattle’s ballhawking free safety, has another measure.
“Sometimes last game I took three backpedals and the ball was already coming out,” he said. “That’s crazy, man. I always try to feel the tempo of the game, and when I start feeling how much pressure they’re putting on the quarterback, now I’m going on the quarterback’s first look.
“That’s how quick the game can change. That’s crazy.”
In other words, Seattle’s secondary is covering receivers for less time than before. It also means that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn isn’t forced to blitz to create pressure. Now he can blitz to try to fool an opposing offense.
Two of Seattle’s sacks against the Cardinals came on blitzes from linebackers K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith. Neither player was blocked.
“When you want to blitz now,” Riddick said, “it’s not obvious that you’re going to do it.”
The other benefit of the defensive line’s pressure is obvious: It allows the Seahawks to drop additional players in coverage instead of sending them on blitzes.
“Just think about it,” Wright said. “If you can play man-to-man, you can have guys underneath and you can have two high safeties. For instance, if you blitz guys you might be in zero coverage (no help from safeties) or have just one high safety. You have more help as far as coverage ability now.”
A big part of having a good pass rush is forcing teams into passing situations. Seattle held the Cardinals to just 1.7 yards per carry, and by the second half Arizona pretty much gave up on the run.
Palmer dropped back to pass on 35 consecutive plays, and Seattle’s defensive line smelled blood.
“They make offenses one-dimensional,” Thomas said. “And when we know the pass is coming, we’re able to get in our best coverages. We’re able to put guys in their best position to have success.”
That led to this exchange in the Seattle locker room the other day between members of an appreciative secondary:
Thomas: “We made a lot of adjustments on the sideline. We knew it was starting to turn into a 7-on-7 game in the second half. Man, how many DBs did we have in?”
Byron Maxwell: “Five or six.”
Walter Thurmond: “Nah, it wasn’t five DBs. We had seven DBs on the field. No linebackers.”
Thomas: “And when we rush four, we still get pressure like we’re blitzing.”
The defensive line is so deep, in fact, that Carroll said he expects guys to grumble about playing time. It’s the culmination of an effort by Carroll and general manager John Schneider to swiftly fix the weakness of a defense that was still one of the NFL’s best last season.
“It’s definitely what we were hoping to do,” Carroll said, “but how far it takes us, we don’t know. We’ll see.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org