I’m of the opinion that the most important aspect of a defense is its secondary. If you would’ve asked me this five years ago, I would’ve given you a different answer, but after seeing what this secondary is capable of – after witnessing the football genius that is the Legion of Boom – I’m convinced that as long as you’ve got a top-notch secondary, you can fake it everywhere else and at least have a passable defensive effort.
Now, obviously, the secondary’s job is made a lot more difficult if you’re not getting pressure on the quarterback. The two phases really do go hand in hand. The quicker you’re able to make the quarterback throw the ball, the less time your corners and linebackers have to cover their receivers and tight ends. Of course, on the flipside, the longer you’re able to hang with those receivers, the better chance your line has of eventually getting home. And, of course, if you’re able to generate that pressure with only four guys (and if you’re able to keep the rushing attack at bay), that means you’ve got seven guys out covering the rest of the field (with, at best, five receivers to throw to).
If I had to choose one over the other – an elite secondary with a pedestrian line, or an elite line with a pedestrian secondary – I’m choosing the elite secondary every time. That’s all there is to it.
In 2013, the Seahawks were blessed like they’ve never been blessed before. This defense was the best we’ve ever seen in franchise history. Better than 2005, better than 1984. Better than most defenses in the history of the NFL! The 2013 defense had the aforementioned Legion of Boom in all of its glory – a unit that will go down in history as probably the greatest secondary ever. And, they also had a D-Line that did more than its share of the damage (saying nothing of our linebacking corps, which is as fast and underrated as it gets).
The Seahawks have been more or less blessed on the defensive line for as far back as I can remember. Jacob Green, Joe Nash, and Jeff Bryant took care of business in the 80s. Cortez Kennedy, Michael Sinclair, Rufus Porter, and a young Sam Adams held down the 90s. Rocky Bernard and a bunch of hired guns – John Randle, Patrick Kerney for a season, and Grant Wistrom for a few games in his three years here – did the lion’s share of the work in the 2000’s. But, by the time Holmgren’s tenure ended, there was a real deficiency in the D-Line. A lot of those Holmgren teams were lucky to have one guy who could effectively get pressure on the quarterback. By the time Pete Carroll took over, though, the cupboard was bare. He immediately went out and traded for Chris Clemons to be our starting LEO defensive end (and primary pass rusher), and that’s who we had for a while.
Knowing the importance of an effective defensive line – and knowing that we already had the secondary on lockdown with L.O.B. – in the offseason prior to the 2013 season, the Seahawks went out and picked up Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. We’ve talked about it a million times, but it’s no less amazing how we got those guys at the prices we paid. With Clemons coming off of an ACL tear in the playoffs the previous season, the pass rush was a real concern, and we needed as many guys as we could get. Had the Seahawks JUST gotten one or the other of the Avril/Bennett duo, I think the fans would’ve been happy. But, we managed to get both, and a whole new day in Seahawks football came to light.
Because in 2013, we had guys coming from everywhere. Avril and Bennett, of course. But, Chris Clemons also came back and played the bulk of the year. Bruce Irvin was converted to a strong-side linebacker for another element. Bobby Wagner didn’t rush a lot, but when he did he seemed to always wreak havoc. Clinton McDonald was a revelation on the interior. Tony McDaniel was another free agent signing who was a manimal at times. Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant were their usual massive, immovable selves. When you put them all together, I’m sorry to say, it’s probably the best defensive line rotation we’re ever going to see ’round these parts. Every man had a role, and every man played his role to the hilt. And, without a clear weak link, we were able to rotate guys constantly to keep them fresh not only during games, but throughout the season. They were just as disruptive in Game 19 as they were in Game 1. Simply amazing.
As all good things do, of course, this incarnation of the defensive line had to come to an end. Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were let go for obvious cap-related reasons (and for not-so-obvious age-related reasons). Clinton McDonald found more money elsewhere. That’s two key pass rushers and three key guys against the run, playing for other teams. In their places … we don’t know yet. Michael Bennett is back long-term, and Tony McDaniel is back shorter-term. But, there are still a couple openings to fill.
As has been the case in this free agency period, the Seahawks are seemingly tied to just about everyone. I wouldn’t think the Seahawks are finished adding to this roster, but it’s pretty clear – with Jared Allen coming off the board – there aren’t a lot of major upgrade options out there on the free market. I can’t imagine there’s a guy left who’s worthy of a major long-term extension. You’ve got a couple of over-30 types in Will Smith (who missed all of 2013) and Shaun Phillips, and you’ve got Anthony Spencer, who’s never been all that great and ALSO missed most of 2013. These guys can and should be had for a small fraction of what it would’ve taken to get Jared Allen (and for good reason, because they’re not as good, nor as reliably healthy).
So, maybe the Seahawks grab one (or more) of these guys, or maybe they get someone else we’ve never heard of. OR, maybe they stand pat and look to draft some linemen. Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get in 2014.
Well, if that’s the case, I would direct you not to the 2013 Seahawks, but the 2012 Seahawks. Remember that team? The one without Avril and Bennett? The one that was pretty much just Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin (whenever he wasn’t getting lost in the shuffle for long stretches of season)? That defense was built a lot like this hypothetical 2014 defense is shaping up to look like, and they did all right for themselves. Number 1 in scoring defense, number 4 in total yards. 11-5 record overall and 30 seconds away from the NFC Championship Game and a possible Super Bowl appearance. WITHOUT Bennett and Avril, that defense was pretty fucking good.
I would argue that, on paper, this 2014 defensive line as it sits right now is superior to the one in 2012 that did so well on its own. And you KNOW we’re not actually done, but if we were, I don’t think there’s all that much to worry about.
When you look at that 2013 defensive line, you saw Clemons, Avril, and Bennett all working together to destroy opposing offensive lines. Well, we lost Clemons, but the other two are still here. I would argue that Clemons is due to start declining any time now (if he hasn’t already, considering his diminished output in 2013 as he recovered from ACL surgery). I would also argue that, when we traded for Clemons, he was a relative unknown in the NFL. When he came to Seattle and started playing within our system, THAT’S when he broke out as an 11-sack-a-year guy. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think the Seahawks saw in Clemons the type of guy who fit their LEO defensive end quite well. That braintrust didn’t automatically start drinking Stupid Juice once they won the Super Bowl. They can find another relative unknown to replace their last relative unknown and be just fine. They haven’t done that yet because they thought they’d take some fliers out on guys like Jared Allen and Co. Why not? If you can get a proven stud for a fraction of his worth, why wouldn’t you at least try? It didn’t work out this year, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck. It just means the guy we DO bring in will be far less heralded (yet, I’m sure, no less effective).
So, in conclusion, I want you to remember two things: if this is it for the Seahawks’ defensive line, we’re still in very good shape. But, since this is likely NOT it for the Seahawks’ defensive line, just remember who’s running the show. The Seahawks will be fine in 2014. The only thing that can stop us is a slew of injuries at key positions (and even then, you have to think the depth we’ve still got will be enough to carry us through).