RENTON, Wash. — Adding Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line has paid big dividends.
The odd part is neither lineman is really serving the roles expected when Seattle general manager John Schneider signed the free agents in the offseason. They’ve been part of a deep defensive line rotation that has kept players fresh throughout the season. Along the way, Seattle has figured out surprising ways to use its two acquisitions.
The results might mean fewer snaps and less gaudy numbers for everyone involved, but it’s a group that knows how to work together and is rested heading into Sunday’s NFC championship game against San Francisco.
“I feel like if I was playing 80 or 90 percent of the snaps my body would definitely be beat up a little bit more than it is right now,” Avril said. “I’m not playing as much on the first downs so again I think that helps out with the body feeling fresh this late in the season.”
Seattle’s defensive line is an unusual mix that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has meshed together to find workable combinations. There’s the run-stuffing crew consisting of Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel that has helped Seattle create a run defense that allowed 101.6 yards rushing per game during the season.
Then there is the pass rush crew of Avril, Bennett, Clinton McDonald and Chris Clemons that raised Seattle’s sack total from 36 during the 2012 regular season to 44 this season.
That amount of depth has led to constant rotations throughout the season and less wear on everyone.
“The pass defense numbers show that and everybody has helped out,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “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.”
Avril and Bennett have been the two biggest contributors to those pass rush numbers. Bennett led Seattle in the regular season with 8½ sacks and Avril was right behind him with eight. Bennett’s versatility turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the Seahawks and something they had been seeking in recent seasons. Bennett started the season playing defensive end while Clemons was still recovering from offseason knee surgery. But what the Seahawks discovered was his ability to be a menacing presence as a pass rusher from the defensive tackle spot.
With Clemons and McDonald — who has proved a bargain with 5½ sacks after re-signing with Seattle following Week 1 — Seattle finally got the interior pressure Carroll has wanted to go with the outside pass rush.
The task for Avril, Bennett and their teammates this week is among the most difficult they’ve faced this season: trying to get constant pressure on Colin Kaepernick, all the while trying to contain him so he doesn’t escape and make a big play with his legs. Seattle sacked Kaepernick five times total in two games this season, but he still rushed for 87 yards in the first game and 31 in the second.
“For us up front it’s getting after the quarterback,” Avril said. “You know he’s mobile, so some of the pass rushes that you would use against let’s say a Drew Brees, you can’t use because he’ll take off and run.”