RENTON — It’s an assertion Seattle linebacker coach Ken Norton knows would draw a few cries of “What about me?” from other corners of the Seahawk locker room.
“They can protest it, but it doesn’t matter to me,” counters Norton. “It’s not even close.”
The statement in question? That linebacker Bruce Irvin is the best athlete on Seattle’s defense.
“If we were picking a team for a game on Turkey Day Thanksgiving against the neighborhood, the first pick would be Bruce,” Norton said. “He throws, he catches, he runs, he covers, he does the whole thing.
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“He can probably throw a ball 80 yards. He can stand right here and do a back flip. He can stand on his head and do a handstand for 40 minutes. He’s an amazing athlete.”
It was that athleticism that compelled the Seahawks to take something of a leap and draft Irvin with the 15th overall pick in the first round in 2012.
And it’s all that athleticism that is on display now to its greatest effect with Irvin healthy and feeling more comfortable than ever at strongside linebacker.
Irvin, drafted initially as a pass-rushing end, was moved to linebacker last season, but admits that the position felt more like a rental in 2013. Now, he says, it feels like a home.
“At heart I feel like I’m a D-lineman,” Irvin said. “But I play linebacker now so I get more used to it and used to it as the season goes on.”
Irvin certainly looked the part Monday night against Washington, performing so well that coaches scrapped an initial plan to have him rotate with Malcolm Smith.
Smith, the Super Bowl MVP last February, started the first three games with Irvin easing his way back after having offseason hip surgery and then missing the Denver game with an oblique injury.
“We were ready to rotate it,” coach Pete Carroll said. “But he (Irvin) was doing so well.”
The stat sheet, which shows Irvin with three tackles, doesn’t accurately indicate his impact on the 27-17 win over Washington.
As the strongside linebacker, one of Irvin’s primary responsibilities is to set the edge, which means he has to fend off blocks from the tight end and force any running play back inside. That was particularly critical against Washington running back Alfred Morris, who thrives on cutback runs.
Morris, who rarely could get to the outside, was held to 29 yards on 13 carries with Washington managing just 32 yards on 17 rushes for the game.
“His strength and his toughness really showed up,” Norton said.
So, too, did Irvin’s increasing comfort with the position. A year ago, Norton said, Irvin might have played the role with a little more hesitation, still thinking through what to do. Now, fully understanding his responsibilities, Irvin a few times was able to not only stand up to the block but also shed it and make the tackle.
Another somewhat nondescript play that also spoke volumes to Irvin’s growth at linebacker came when he turned and wheeled to cover Washington fullback Darrel Young down the sideline. With no one open, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was eventually forced to scramble.
“Last year he was just uncomfortable covering people out of the backfield and dropping into coverage,” Norton said. “Now he’s really comfortable with it.”
Irvin, reminded of the play, said there are still times he has to fight the instinct to make a beeline for the quarterback in such situations. But it’s a battle that lessens with each day.
“It’s just me knowing I’ve got responsibilities on the back end and my job is not just to go get the quarterback anymore,” Irvin said.
Irvin will still rush the quarterback some, especially in nickel packages (he played almost solely end in the first two games).
But Irvin’s more than content to leave the full-time pass rushing to others. While he initially wondered how the move to linebacker would take, he now sees it as the position he was meant to play.
“It’s a better fit,” said the 6-foot-3, 248-pounder. “Less banging. If I stayed at D-end I would have been an undersized D-end always. At linebacker, I’m a big linebacker. So I’d rather be a big backer than an undersized defensive end.”
What he no longer feels like, though, is an understudy. Along with recovering from the surgery to correct a hip injury that dated to the 2013 preseason, Irvin also spent the spring and summer camped in the film room, coming to an even greater understanding of the nuances of the position.
“Oh, no doubt,” gushes Norton. “I think it’s very apparent, his growth. The time he has had off has really been good for him. He’s been able to heal and watch and really learn.”
• Center Max Unger again sat out on Thursday, increasing the odds that Bellevue High grad Stephen Schilling could be called on to start Sunday against Dallas. Unger is dealing with a strained foot suffered Monday.
• Kam Chancellor (ankle) and Percy Harvin (thigh) also sat out. Each had been listed as full participants Wednesday.
• Irvin said he was fined $5,512 by the NFL for wearing white high tops against Washington. Seattle’s team shoe color for the game was black. “They’ve got bigger stuff to worry about than fining me for some cleats, though,” he said.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org