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Bruce Irvin is going home, and hoping to get home
The you-must-be-making-this-up nature of his situation is not lost on Bruce Irvin.
On Sunday, in the Georgia Dome against the Falcons, the Seahawks’ Atlanta-born first-round draft choice will make his first NFL start in a divisional playoff game where the winner will advance to the NFC Championship game.
And if someone had been presented Irvin with this scenario a year ago? He laughed before offering, “I wouldn’t have believed them.”
But here he is, just a few days away from doing just that, as he steps in to replace Chris Clemons as the Leo end in a Seahawks defense that will be facing a Falcons passing game which features Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan throwing to Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones and the equally productive Roddy White.
“It’s a dream come true,” Irvin said in the locker room on Wednesday, when the Seahawks began practicing for Sunday’s game.
“A lot of family are going to be watching. A lot of people who know me are going to be around. So the stage is set pretty much for me. I’m just going to get out there and do what I always do – bust my butt, play hard and run to the football.”
Irvin led all NFL rookies with eight sacks during the regular season, while playing opposite Clemons in the Seahawks’ nickel line. He added a ninth in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s wild-card victory over the Washington Redskins after Clemons went down with a torn ligament and meniscus in his left knee that will require surgery.
This week, Irvin is the Leo end. Not in spot duty to give Clemons a rest. Not as “the other end” in the nickel defense. And that’s where his fairytale starts to fracture just a bit. Irvin does not understand the external handwringing that has been generated by him stepping in.
“Nothing has changed for me,” he said. “I’m six pounds lighter than Clem. Alright, I understand that. But Leo is basically an outside linebacker position. It’s outside leverage and you run backside. That’s all you do. Clem has done a great job of preparing me for situations like this. So I’m just going to go out there and it’s just another game.”
Irvin has a point. While he is now an every-down player, it’s the player or players that will play opposite him in the nickel line that should be generating the most concern. First up is fellow rookie Greg Scruggs, a seventh-round draft choice.
“It’s a new role, a bigger role, something that I haven’t been in this year,” Scruggs said. “But I am looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and basically just do what I know I can do. I’ve been sitting and waiting my time. Due to circumstances, my chance has come a lot quicker than I expected.
“So I’m going to go out there and do what I’ve been practicing to do and what I’ve been coached to do.”
It’s just that he’ll be doing on this stage. NFC divisional playoff game. A Falcons passing game that ranked No. 6 in the league during the regular season. The whole football world watching.
“The greatest thing that a lot of people have been doing around here, they just say it’s another game,” Scruggs said. “We’ve treated every week like it’s a championship week, even during the preseason. So that’s the comfort that I have.
“It’s not a deer in headlights.”
That no-worries attitude played out at FedExField after Clemons went down against the Redskins. Irvin had his sack and Clinton McDonald, the nose tackle in the nickel line, recovered a fumbled snap on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter.
“It was right on time, especially after Chris went down,” McDonald said of his fumble recovery at the Redskins’ 5-yard line that set up a field goal. “Chris is normally our big-play maker. So it was real important for the team to pick that momentum up when we didn’t have him.
“This week, we’ve got to pick it up even more. We’ve got to pick up the intensity. We’ve got to pick up the pass rush. We’ve got to be accountable for the things he normally does.”
That brings Irvin back into the equation, and at center stage, because his skills are most similar to those that have allowed Clemons to produce double-digit sacks in each of his three seasons with the Seahawks – which is why the Seahawks used the 15th pick in April’s NFL Draft to grab Irvin.
“That’s how he is,” coach Pete Carroll said when asked about not only Irvin’s speed but how he uses it. “He’s 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). He’s legit. I don’t think there’s (another end) in the league who’s faster than that. That is his factor.
“The burst that he put on to get his sack on (Redskins QB) Griffin the other night – climbing over a guy, weaving and getting through that – you had to be really fast to get there before he threw that football. It was perfectly illustrated right there.”
That closing burst Carroll mentioned always has been the most-talked-about aspect of Irvin’s game.
“Yeah, I love to run,” he said. “My most important thing is just holding down the run to get them into passing situations. Atlanta is more of a passing team. I could see (the concern) if we were playing San Fran, who love to pound the ball down your throat. Then I would be like, ‘OK, I’ve really got to buckle it down.’
“But Atlanta, I’m not saying they’re not good running the ball, but they would rather pass it than run. So I think I’ll be alright.”
So does Carroll.
“He can feel the sense of urgency,” Carroll said. “He has a consistent work ethic and has learned a tremendous amount. He’s got a lot to live up to.”
Just don’t question whether he’s up to it, at least not in front of Irvin.