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Position Preview: Defensive Line
|Seahawks 2009 Defensive Line|
A look at the unit as the team takes a break before the start of training camp practices on July 31:
|LE||Kerney, Atkins, Miller, Bennett|
|NT||Cole, Bryant, Brown|
|RE||Jackson/Tapp, Redding, Reed|
The more the Seahawks’ coaches see of Brandon Mebane, the more they like him.
It began in 2007, after Mebane was drafted in the third round. He quickly displayed more pass-rush ability than he had shown during his college career at California – and more explosiveness and agility than anyone would expect from a bottom-heavy 314-pounder.
Last year, when Mebane moved into the starting lineup fulltime, he produced 5½ sacks to share the team lead and also had a club-high 18 quarterback hurries.
This year? New head coach (Jim Mora). New defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley). New defensive line coach (Dan Quinn). But same take on Mebane’s ability to be more than just a space-eater in the middle of the line.
That’s why the Seahawks signed nose tackle Colin Cole in free agency, and opted against re-signing Rocky Bernard.
With the 330-pound Cole now manning the nose tackle spot that Mebane played for much of the past two seasons, it has allowed Mebane to slide to the other tackle position where Bernard had been the starter since 2005.
It’s a double switch that allowed the defensive line to get bigger, younger and better.
When Kerney went down in late October last season with a shoulder injury, the Seahawks also lost their pass rush (19 sacks in the first seven games, 16 in the final nine games). That’s why the new defensive coaches are saying it’s imperative that Jackson and Tapp be more productive this season, when they’ll battle for the starting spot opposite Kerney and both will play significant roles in the rotation. The addition of Redding in a trade with the Detroit Lions for Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson gives this unit a bigger option (6-4, 292) at end against the run and also versatility because he’ll slide inside to tackle in certain situations. The addition of Cole in free agency not only provided bulk (6-1, 330) to anchor the line, it has allowed Mebane to take his size (6-1, 314) and skills to the three-technique spot. Bryant and Terrill also will get plenty of snaps in the rotation. Reed lacks prototypical size (6-1, 247), but the second of the team’s three seventh-round draft choices showed in the padless minicamp practices that he can pressure the passer.
“We knew when we installed this defense that we wanted to have a definitive nose tackle and a definitive three-technique,” said Mora, pointing out that the previous coaching staff would interchange the positions.
“We really wanted to lock in to a nose (tackle) and a three-technique.”
While Mebane had the size and ability to play the nose, the new coaches felt he was better suited to playing the three-technique spot.
Cole, the former Green Bay Packer, was brought in. Mebane was moved.
Why? “We think he can be a move effective player (there),” Mora said.
Mora then ran through a checklist of Mebane’s attributes that made the move seem like a no-brainer.
“His explosiveness off the ball. His first step. His ability to get up the field in the run game,” Mora said. “He’s got some pass-rush ability. He’ll spend less time on double-team (blocks) at that position. He can be more disruptive at that position.”
That’s asking a lot, of course, but his teammates don’t call Mebane “The Dancing Bear” just because he went to Cal.
“He’s got initial quickness,” Mora said. “He’s got quick feet. That’s what you’re looking for at that position.”
Through 22 minicamp and OTA practices, Mebane has looked the part as he grows into his new role.
“I have a lot of opportunities for one-on-one (blocking), a lot of opportunities for pass rush and just getting things started,” he said. “At first, I didn’t realize what I was blessed with. Now, as time moves on, I see that.”
Another key to Mebane’s move is the progress of a player Mora calls “Big Red.” That’s Red Bryant, a fourth-round draft choice last year, who has shown enough improvement to be Cole’s backup and also replacement in the rotation preferred by the coaches.
Nagging injuries limited Bryant to four games as a rookie, but he is developing into another player capable of drawing double-team blocks.
“He’s very determined,” Mora said. “It’s really fun to watch ‘Big Red’ because he’s very serious about this. It’s important that he become a good football player – it’s very important to him. He’s worked that way every day, and we’re demanding of him.”
At 6-4, Bryant is three inches taller than Mebane, and weighs about the same (318). But his is more above-the-belt weight, so Bryant has had to work on his strength and ability to stay low.
This is the first in a series of eight articles sizing up the Seahawks by units for the upcoming season.
“ ‘Big Red’ still has a long way to go, but I just love his attitude, I just love his passion,” Mora said. “This year, he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in. He’s strong. He understands our defense. And he’s very motivated to be a good player for us.”
Speaking of motivation, the entire defense has it in ample amounts after ranking 30th in the league last season. A XXXL-sized key to improving will be how well the ends – along with first-round draft choice Aaron Curry – can take advantage of the chaos caused by the tackles in passing situations and how free the linebackers are to flow to ball carrier against the run.
This bigger-is-better approach up front is a bit of a departure for the Seahawks, who have been labeled an undersized defense in the past because they sacrificed size for speed.
“You would like to have a defense that has tremendous speed,” Bradley said. “But also, in situations where it’s third-and-1 or third-and-3 and they’ve got to run the ball, you need to have enough guys up front that are stubborn enough to handle those situations.”
That’s why Cole was signed, and the more-you-see-him-the-more-you-like-him Mebane was moved.