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With Cliff Avril On Injured Reserve, What’s Next For The Seahawks At Defensive End?
Before the Seahawks took on the Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum earlier this month, Michael Bennett had a message for his teammates.
For years, the Seahawks have talked about themselves as a brotherhood, eventually turning LOB into a team-inclusive acronym for “Love Our Brothers” instead of the secondary-specific “Legion of Boom.” So on any given Sunday, the concept of playing for your teammate, for the man next to you, is an important one to the Seahawks, but in that particular game, which came a week after Cliff Avril left the game with a neck injury that has since landed him on injured reserve, the notion of playing for your brother took on an even bigger meaning, especially for the defensive line.
“Mike Bennett, he talked about just playing for our brother,” defensive end Frank Clark said following that 16-10 win in Los Angeles. “That’s the thing we adopted as a team years ago, even before I came here, it was always about LOB, love our brother, playing for that guy next to you no matter what. He’s got kids, he’s got a situation going on. At the end of the day, that’s what we did.”
Clark, who was already a huge part of Seattle’s defense—he had 10 sacks last season playing behind Clark and Michael Bennett—stepped up in a big way while starting for Avril, recording two tackles for loss and a fourth-quarter sack/forced a fumble that was recovered by Sheldon Richardson to help secure a Seahawks victory.
But while the Seahawks played very well in Avril’s absence in their last game, holding a team averaging 35.5 points per game at the time to just 10 points, going forward for at least eight games and possible the entire season without a Pro Bowl defensive end is no easy task.
So what’s next for Seattle’s defense in Avril’s absence? Well for starters, Clark will continue to start and play a bigger role—he was on the field for 77 percent of the snaps against Los Angeles, a significant bump in playing time from previous games.
“It does extenuate Frank’s opportunity, he gets more play time and we’re excited for him to get as many snaps as we can,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
But on a defense that likes to rotate its linemen, making up for Avril’s absence isn’t as simple as plugging Clark into the lineup and calling it good. There’s a trickle-down effect as well. Clark was already playing half or more of the snaps in every game as a backup, so who picks up that slack? Marcus Smith, a former first-round pick who signed with Seattle this offseason, has been playing more since Avril went down, and in the Week 4 game in which Avril went down, Smith recorded a sack/forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Bobby Wagner.
“Marcus Smith really has to jump up and rotate in there, which is really good and we’re fortunate that we have him, and he’ll be able to take a lot of Cliff’s rushes and third-down stuff,” Carroll said. “We’re fortunate that he came and has worked out really well, and he’s fitting in fine.”
Beyond Smith, a couple other options at end are Quinton Jefferson, a 2016 fifth-round pick who Seattle waived before the start of the season, then re-signed following Avril’s injury; and Branden Jackson, who was promoted off Seattle’s practice squad just before the Rams game. Jefferson missed his first game back with Seattle due to a broken hand sustained in practice that week, but following surgery, he is expected to be available this weekend.
Just a day after signing off the practice squad, and two weeks after joining the Seahawks, Jackson not only was active for the Rams game, but played 21 snaps, recording two tackles. And according to ProFootballFocus.com, Jackson registered an efficient four quarterback pressures on nine pass-rush snaps.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said of Jackson’s immediate contributions. “But he has shown that in practice. He was a guy just champing at the bit, preparing for his opportunity and from that game, he has shown to take full advantage of it. Again, he’s got a really high ceiling in regards to what we are asking him to do and we can just see him getting better and better.”
After that performance, Carroll joked that Jackson, “Set the bar kind of high the first time out,” and prior to his team’s trip to New Jersey, Carroll reiterated that Jackson has been a solid addition since arriving in Seattle.
“He jumped back on to the active roster immediately and got some plays, and he did a nice job,” Carroll said. “We were really pleased with him. He had a very good week with us going into it, but then he did a nice job in the game too. We’re really pleased, so he is available.”
Jackson, who went undrafted out of Texas Tech last year and spent most of the season on Oakland’s practice squad before a late-season call-up, is glad to know coaches are noticing him for the right reasons this early in his tenure with the team.
“It’s a blessing,” Jackson said. “I work hard, and it feels good when somebody like Coach Carroll recognizes you, and even better when your peers recognize you. I’ve been on this team for about three weeks, and for the coaching staff and players to embrace me and trust me to know what I’m doing out there, and to allow me on my first time playing with them to get as many snaps as I did, it felt good. It feels like I’m heading in the right direction.”
Jackson, who appeared in three games late last season with the Raiders, said earning that promotion off the practice squad is “a feeling you can’t really describe.”
Jackson said his time on two teams’ practice squads have taught him to appreciate every opportunity that comes his way.
“I learned to treat every day as a game, and be that guy that everybody hated going against and working and grinding to get called up,” he said. “You’ve heard countless stories of people starting off where I started off and making it, so it’s a constant reminder whenever I feel like things aren’t headed in the right direction to take it up a notch and tell myself that I belong in this league, and I’ll eventually be playing on someone’s defense.”
And now, due to an unfortunate injury, Jackson is just one of several Seahawks with a chance to do more this season.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” he said. “There’s no way you can replace a guy like Cliff. We’re just hoping for the best for him, and he’s in our ear telling us, ‘next man up.’ He has never sulked since he left that game. At halftime he was in people’s ears telling them what he’s seeing out there, which is what leaders do. So it’s like he’s still there, just not on the field. It’ll be a great opportunity for a lot of us younger guys to get some reps, so we just have to make the most out of this opportunity.”Read