RENTON, Wash. – The sting of a season-ending loss was barely 24 hours old when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked how his team could improve if it was going to take another step forward from a 2012 campaign that saw them fall just short of a berth in the NFC Championship game.
Carroll could have said his team needed another weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson, or an improved offensive line, but instead he said one of the league’s best defenses had to get better.
“We need another pass rusher, we really do,” Carroll said the day after his team lost to Atlanta in the divisional round of the playoffs while playing without an injured Chris Clemons.
Two months later, the Seahawks put their money where Carroll’s mouth was, signing not one but two of the top pass rushers available in free agency, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
And now, a year after seeing their season end in large part because their defense was unable generate pressure against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the Seahawks will host their playoff opener against New Orleans as the NFC’s No. 1 seed in large part because of the effect an improved pass rush has had on a very good defense.
Yes the “Legion of Boom” secondary is playing at an incredibly high level, with three players deservedly earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, but those defensive backs will be the first to tell you that an improved pass rush played a big role in the Seahawks having the league’s top pass defense both in terms of yards allowed (172.0 per game) and interceptions (28).
“It makes my job a lot easier,” safety Earl Thomas said of the pass rush. “Sometimes I take three or four backpedals and sack, or he’s running for his life. It makes my reads easier and I can be more aggressive. All that works hand in hand, that’s why we’re all tied on a string, and these guys have been great this season. They need a little bit more respect, but that’s just how the league is.”
Last season, the Seahawks’ 36 sacks were tied for 18th most in the NFL, and those were a bit uneven. The Seahawks had eight sacks in one half against Green Bay early in the year, then had only eight in the final six games of the regular season. Seattle had two sacks in its playoff opener, one of which came when quarterback Robert Griffin III blew out his knee, and none in Atlanta while playing without Clemons, who also tore his ACL in the Washington game.
With Clemons back from offseason surgery, and with the addition of Avril and Bennett, the Seahawks pass rush has taken a huge step forward. Clemons’ numbers are actually down significantly with 4 1/2 sacks, but that isn’t because he is playing poorly, but rather because the addition of Bennett (8 1/2 sacks), Avril (8), the improved play of defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (5 1/2) and the knack middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (5) has shown on delayed blitzes, it has been harder for any one individual to pile up numbers. This year, Seattle’s 44 sacks are tied for eighth most in the NFL, and the Seahawks have not been held without a sack in a single game this year.
“I think it’s been a significant difference,” Carroll said. “The pass defense numbers show that, and everybody has helped out. All of the guys that have come in have helped and they’ve helped the other guys play better. So it’s interesting to see how it does tie together. We’ve been playing pretty much the same coverage principles, but when the rush picked up, our numbers went down in terms of our opponent’s production. So it’s been a big factor.”
In their Week 13 win over New Orleans, the Seahawks sacked Drew Brees only once, but it was arguably the most important play of the game. Facing third-and-5 and trailing by only a field goal early in the game, Brees dropped back to pass, but was hit by Avril, who also knocked the ball loose and into Bennett’s hands. Bennett returned the fumble 22 yards for a TD.
Next to Thomas and Richard Sherman, Bennett might be Seattle’s most valuable defensive player this season yet it is Seattle’s vaunted secondary that gets most of the accolades, with Thomas, Sherman and Chancellor earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
WR Percy Harvin and TE Luke Willson have participated in practice for the Seattle Seahawks, raising the possibility of each playing on Saturday.