With the outlook for the Seattle Seahawks' pass-rush sitting somewhere between iffy and downright dire two weeks into training camp, it's a good thing they have a starting trio of linebackers who excel at blitzing the way Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks do. The current circumstances along the defensive line might necessitate more of that in 2019 than Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. are accustomed to calling.
If you ask Wright, that's not much of a question.
"We’ve got to," he said. "We have to because losing Jarran, Frank’s not with us anymore, the pressure has to come from somewhere. Norton knows that. Pete knows that. We’ve got to mix it up. We can’t just do the same four-man rushes, the same blitzes. Gotta blitz on first and second down to change it up, bring different guys on third down because the pressure has to come from somewhere."
To be sure, linebackers want more blitz opportunities the same way receivers want more targets. You won't find many at either position who feel otherwise. But Wright has a point.
At the end of last season, defensive line looked as though it could be one of the Seahawks' strongest position groups heading into 2019, after Clark and Reed combined for 23.5 regular-season sacks. (Reed had 10.5, tied for fourth-most among defensive tackles, and Clark's official total went from 14 to 13 when the NFL's stat-keepers took one away).
That changed when Seattle dealt Clark to Kansas City in April amid a contract dispute. Defensive line is now the Seahawks' biggest question, an even bigger one than their young secondary with no original Legion of Boom members following Earl Thomas' departure. That might have been true even before Reed was hit with a six-game suspension before training camp, and then Collier, their first-round pick, went down with an ankle injury during the fifth practice.
Even if Collier makes it back by Week 1, recent history tells us that only so much immediate pass-rush production can be expected from the 29th overall pick. Over the past 10 seasons, only 15 rookies have produced eight sacks or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Nine of those 15 were chosen in the first half of the first round.
Ansah, signed in May to help account for Clark's missing production, began training camp on the active roster, as opposed to the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. But he has yet to begin practicing and might not be ready by Week 1, though Carroll is hopeful that he will be.
That means the defensive line for Seattle's Sept. 8 opener against Cincinnati, and possibly beyond, could look like this: Quinton Jefferson, Poona Ford, Al Woods and Cassius Marsh in base; Barkevious Mingo, Jefferson, Rasheem Green and Jacob Martin in nickel.
Several of those players would be nice complementary pieces on a good defensive line. Carroll has talked up Martin in particular as a player who should take a second-year jump. But it's a stretch to expect any of them to threaten double-digits in sacks. Marsh's career-high 5.5 last year in San Francisco were more than any of the others had in their best seasons.
So about those linebackers ...
"I think they are going to be a big part of our defensive success," Carroll said. "It we can play really good D, it’s going to be because of Bobby and K.J. and Mychal and the guys in the linebacker spot. We’re going to utilize them as much as we can to be a factor in all aspects, run and pass [defense]. Those guys are really good pass defenders, and they love coming off the edge too. We’ll plan on using those guys a lot.”
Wright had what appeared to be a strip-sack during the Seahawks' scrimmage on Saturday, when he came on a blitz up and beat running back C.J. Prosise to Paxton Lynch, but officials ruled it an incomplete pass. Kendricks, lined up on the ball in a two-point stance, had one earlier in the day when he shot off the left edge.
"He’s really sudden, and he’s sneaky with the way he finds his ways to beat the guy he’s going on," Carroll said of Kendricks as a blitzer. "He’s not a classic pass-rush guy because he doesn’t have that package. But his quickness, his strength, his tremendous flexibility to get just so darn low. He uses all of that. He’s a guy that we like bringing. Something good is going to happen when you bring him, run and pass."
Wagner's 16.5 sacks over seven seasons include a career-best five in 2013. Wright's 11.5 sacks in eight seasons include four in 2016 and none since then. Kendricks, chosen one spot ahead of Wagner in 2012 by Philadelphia, has 16 sacks in his career. He topped out at four in 2013 and '14 and had two in his first three games with Seattle last season.
The career totals for Wagner and Wright might be higher if they played in a defense more apt to blitz than Carroll's, which is built around not giving up big plays and thus likes to keep its linebackers in coverage as often as possible.
"It’s just our style," Wright said. "Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve always been a team that drops back, makes you throw it, throw the ball underneath, and we come and tackle. It’s just our philosophy. Some teams blitz all the time, and they get bit. So it’s something that we do. We find a really good balance. I believe we’re definitely going to pick it up a little more this year."
In Carroll's nine seasons in Seattle, a run that has spanned four coordinators, the Seahawks haven't finished higher than 13th in blitz percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is defined as the percentage of opponent dropbacks on which the defense sends five or more pass-rushers. The Seahawks have been 20th or lower in each of the past seven seasons and finished 28th in 2018, at 18.5%, the lowest ranking of Carroll's tenure. The league-wide range last year was 37.8% (Arizona) to 14.6% (Detroit).
"I think it’s just Pete does a great job of picking pass-rushers and picking guys like that," Wagner said. "Those guys have a great ability to get to the quarterback. Last year, Frank had, like, 14 sacks. J-Reed had 10 sacks. So when you’ve got guys like that dominating, let them go ahead and do their thing. Me and K.J., we do a great job in the pass game, so it’s like, let everybody do their thing.
"But when we get our opportunity to rush, we try to take advantage of it."
There could be more of those opportunities in 2019. The Seahawks might not have much of a choice.
"I hope so," Wagner said. "I hope they blitz us a lot. ... Just go ahead and send the linebackers a couple times. I think it could be pretty successful."