RENTON, Wash. – There’s never a good time to be thin on the defensive line. This, however, may be a particularly bad time for the Seahawks to be missing one key defensive lineman, and possibly two when they face the San Francisco 49ers, owners of one of football’s best offensive lines and most potent rushing attacks.
Defensive lineman Jason Jones, one of Seattle’s key free-agent signings this past offseason, was placed on injured reserve Thursday. Jones, while not a starter, played frequently, mostly in passing situations, and was a valuable interior pass rusher. He had knee surgery in the offseason and was limited throughout training camp, but never missed time because of his knee this season, though he did miss two games with an ankle injury. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday that Jones had a sore knee coming out of last weekend’s game, but did not indicate it was a serious injury.
Jones’ absence could be compounded if defensive tackle Alan Branch can’t play after suffering an ankle injury in Sunday’s win, though that seems less likely after Branch returned to practice Thursday after sitting out a day earlier.
Rookie Greg Scruggs is the likely candidate to take over Jones’ pass-rushing role, but things would get more complicated in the event that Branch were to be out or even limited by his ankle injury. Clinton McDonald, who normally plays in pass-rushing situations, could take over for Branch in the base defense, or Scruggs could see some time in that role. The Seahawks could also work rookie Jaye Howard into that rotation, or even undrafted rookie Hebron Fangupo, who was signed off the practice squad to fill Jones’ roster spot.
“We get a chance to take a look at some of the younger guys now,” said Seattle’s ever-optimistic defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “Mac has played well through the year, and Jaye, now we’re taking a look at him, and (Fangupo), we saw some good things in practice with him. Some of those guys may have an opportunity now.”
One young player who the Seahawks have been high on this season is Scruggs, a seventh-round pick out of Louisville who has carved out a role in the defensive line rotation thanks to his athleticism and versatility.
“He’s got some good quickness off the ball,” Bradley said. “He’s got some strength. He can play multiple positions, he’ll play head up on the center, he’ll play a three-technique, he can play on the edge. That’s really what you’re looking for, guys who have versatility and can play multiple positions. That’s why he’s so valuable.”
With Jones out, Scruggs’ hopes to show his value now more than ever.
“I prepare for it, I prepare to play every game, and my biggest thing has just been waiting for the opportunity, and it’s come,” said Scruggs, who has two sacks this season. “So now I have to apply everything I’ve been doing and been training hard and work hard for, and that’s to go out and put our team in the best position to win.”
Bradley said the next step for Scruggs is to turn the impressive flashes into consistently good play. Scruggs admits that consistency has been an issue for him going back to college, and if ever there was a time to show up on a big stage, it will be Sunday night against the 49ers.
“One of the biggest knocks on me was that I always had the potential in college to be a first-round pick, but when big games came around, it was almost as if it was a slump, so I’ve been fighting that my whole life,” he said. “This opportunity to go out and really show that I can play on the big stage, and I can play under pressure – it takes a lot of preparation, and there are going to be nerves – but once the game settles down, once the dust kind of settles, it will just be playing football, doing what got me to the NFL.”
And whoever is playing Sunday, whether Branch is healthy or Seattle is replacing him with a rotation of inexperienced players, everyone on the D-line will have their hands full. The 49ers rank second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 162.9 yards per game. When these teams met in October the 49ers rushed for 175, the beginning of a bad stretch for Seattle’s defense against the run.
Heading into that game, the Seahawks were holding opponents to just 3.3 yards per carry in their first six games, the second-best total in the NFL. Starting with that loss in San Francisco, the Seahawks have allowed opponents to average 5.3 yards per carry, the highest average in the league.
A big factor in that negative trend has been big plays by opposing running backs such as San Francisco’s Frank Gore, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (who, to be fair, has been torching everyone), and Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller.
The good news for Seattle’s defense is that is it still limiting opponents in the most important statistic – scoring. But stopping those explosive running plays will be a top priority against the 49ers.
“We know we’ve given up some big plays, it’s still a work in progress,” Bradley said. “That still is our No. 1 emphasis after getting the ball.”