THE SEAHAWKS' defense, inarguably, was among the league's most effective last season, allowing a league-low (and franchise-best) 15.3 points per game and the fourth-fewest yards, 306.2. Still, when coach Pete Carroll and G.M. John Schneider broke down film and searched for areas of off-season upgrade, it didn't take long to realize that in contrast to Seattle's shutdown secondary, the pass rush was strangely inconsistent.
Seventeen teams had more sacks than the Seahawks' 36 in 2012, and in two playoff games Seattle had two takedowns, both of them coming against the Redskins after Robert Griffin III aggravated his right-knee injury. Against Atlanta, in addition to failing to bring down Falcons QB Matt Ryan even once, the Seahawks were unable to pressure him in the final 31 seconds, when the game hung in the balance, and Ryan had back-to-back completions of 22 and 19 yards to se up the decisive field goal.
The loss of sack leader Chris Clemons to a torn left ACL during the win over Washington played a huge factor in those postseason struggles, but Carroll and Schneider had long before that identified the pass rush as an area of concern, which is why they signed ends Cliff Avril (Lions) and Michael Bennett (Buccaneers) in free agency. Those additions stand out among the many reasons why Seattle, which lost no starters on offense and only two on defense, has to be considered a Super Bowl contender.
Avril, with 29 sacks over the past three seasons, is a threat off the edge, and Bennett was among the top interior pass rushers with nine takedowns in 2012. If Clemons comes back healthy (which he is expected to do) and if second-year pro Bruce Irvin makes a successful transition from end to weakside linebacker (which for someone of his athleticism shouldn't be a major problem), the Seahawks will take pressure off the secondary. In camp, Avril flashed a coy smile as he envisioned a pass-rush package that could include himself, Clemons (11½ sacks last season), Irvin (eight) and Bennett. "That's essentially four ends on the field at the same time," he said. "I'll take four defensive ends over two ends and two tackles anytime. The athleticism is going to be tremendous."
The Seahawks aren't lacking for much else. Marshawn Lynch, last season's No. 3 rusher with 1,590 yards, and dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson, who in 2012 became just the seventh rookie signal-caller to participate in a Pro Bowl, will keep the offense humming. Multipurpose weapon Percy Harvin, acquired in a trade with Minnesota, is out for at least three months following hip surgery, but there's no sense of panic—Seattle scored 34.0 points per game over the final eight weeks last season without him.
All of which is to say, one can see how it takes some nitpicking to find ways to improve. Under new coordinator Dan Quinn, the hybrid 4--3 base defense will look much the same schematically, with subtle yet significant differences aimed at putting more pressure on the quarterback. In the past Seattle's Leo (meaning hybrid end) linebacker would be the only one rushing in nickel situations. This season Quinn is free to send strongside 'backers as well, which partly explains Irvin's move to the position. "There are almost 600 snaps a year in nickel," Quinn points out. "I'd like to have more rushers available; all the [strongside linebackers] that are being trained as rushers can play ends in our nickel packages."
There are some complications. Quinn has to deal with the minutiae of moving pieces: Irvin's switch coincides with his missing valuable time while he serves a four-game suspension for a positive test for a banned substance; Clemons spent the first few weeks of training camp rehabbing instead of practicing (he's planning to be back Week 1); and Avril, who almost always played on the left side in Detroit, will be asked to play on the right.
"It's going to be different," says Avril. "Seeing the ball on my right side is normal to me. Now, playing on the right and seeing the ball on my left, my stance has to change, my thought process has to change. My right hand is stronger. These are all things I have to sharpen up in the next few months.... Football is football, though, and eventually you adjust and go out and play."
The personnel is in place. Let the third-and-longs begin.
THE CASE FOR...
Wide receiver Golden Tate
Multipurpose threat Percy Harvin is out following hip surgery, opening the door for new playmakers, and Tate has the skill set to capitalize. The 5' 10" 202-pounder has blazing speed (his 4.42 40 ranked fourth among WRs in his 2010 draft class), extraordinary hands and tenacity (Fail Mary, anyone?), and after-the-catch ability that makes him a threat to take any reception the distance, as he did in powering through four Bears defenders en route to a 14-yard TD last December. As if you needed more reason to believe, he also has the incentive that comes with a contract year. Consistency, however, has not been a staple of his game. Yet. Throughout camp he sounded more mature, more focused and better prepared to turn his potential into sustained production. The Seahawks have a dominant back in Marshawn Lynch, which is a nice, fluffy cushion for the loss of Harvin, who will be a beast in the read-option when (or if) he gets healthy. But until then, Tate will help ensure that a balanced offense keeps running at Mach 5.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
DE CHRIS CLEMONS
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED