Future wedding bells stoking Michael Bennett’s transformation

Posted Sep 25, 2013

Michael Bennett might not look the part shuffling through the locker room, but the versatile defensive lineman has played a valuable role as a relentless pass-rusher during the Seahawks’ 3-0 start.

On Monday, Pete Carroll was effusive in his praise of the way Michael Bennett has played in the Seahawks’ first three games.

On Wednesday, the team’s fourth-year coach continued to beat the Bennett drum because of the defensive lineman’s versatility, relentlessness and high-rev motor.

“We saw him as a guy who could have a special role for us – a makeup of guys that we didn’t have because of he’s kind of slippery and sneaky fast,” Carroll said of Bennett, who was signed in free agency in March – actually re-signed because he entered the NFL in 2009 as a rookie free agent with the Seahawks.

“So he’s just been intense and more physical than we could picture. So we’re really pleased with it.”

Intense? Relentless? Tenacious?

Those aren’t the words that come to mind when you see Bennett shuffling through the locker room or down a hallway at Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Laid back. Mellow. Just chillin’. Now those are tags that fit the 6-foot-4, 274-pound Bennett off the field.

How does that sleepy-eyed shuffler with the old-school beard become the whirling ball of butcher knives that has produced a team-high 2.5 sacks and made plays that defy explanation in the first three games for the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense?

“I’ve got three daughters, so I just try to feed them every day,” Bennett said in the locker room when asked how he flips the intensity switch once on the field. “It’s motivation. I’ve got three weddings to pay for, so that’s all I think about, that’s all I care about.

“I’ve got three of them, three weddings coming. So I just try to play as hard as I can.”

Bennett’s return to the Seahawks does seem to be a marriage made in pass-rush heaven, at least as far as Carroll is concerned.

Carroll has been preoccupied with improving the Seahawks’ pass rush since he arrived in 2010. That’s why the club made the trade with the Philadelphia Eagles that offseason to acquire Leo end Chris Clemons, who responded with 33.5 sacks the past three seasons. That’s why the club used its first-round draft choice last year on Bruce Irvin, who led all NFL rookies with eight sacks. That’s why Cliff Avril and Bennett were signed in free agency this offseason.

But it’s Bennett who is providing even more than was anticipated, in large part because of his ability to play multiple positions. Versatile? He lined up at five different spots along the defensive line in Sunday’s 42-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars – end and three-technique tackle in the base defense; Leo end and three-technique tackle in the nickel line; and even nose tackle in the latest wrinkle involving the nickel line.

“I always played multiple positions since I’ve been playing football – inside, outside – so I’m used to doing that,” said Bennett, who seems less impressed with his efforts than everyone else. “It’s just going out there, chasing the man with the ball and trying to get him down.”

It’s how Bennett has been able to get to the ball carrier that continues to elicit praise from his coaches and teammates. In the home opener against the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, Bennett sacked Colin Kaepernick while on the ground with a 323-pound lineman on top of him; and also split a double-team block with a move than was as powerful as it was explosive to drop Frank Gore for a 2-yard loss. Against the Jaguars, Bennett put on a clinic in relentless pass-rushing to collect 1.5 sacks and also hit QB Chad Henne on two other occasions.

Asked about that on-his-stomach/lineman-on-his-back sack, Bennett cracked the slightest of smiles and offered, “It’s those three weddings. I was thinking about those three weddings and I was trying to get to the quarterback.”

All this from a player who has been considered a ’tweener his entire career. You know, too small to play inside, not quick enough to play outside.

“I think I’ve been criticized my whole career, people doubting whether I could play which position,” he said. “But every year I’ve improved in every statistical category there is, so I just work on that every year and just try to get better and better every year.”

The proof is in those improving stats: 21 tackles and one sack in 2010, his first full season in Tampa after the Buccaneers claimed him off waivers when the Seahawks released him October; 47 tackles and four sacks in 2011; and 41 tackles and nine sacks last season.

This season? Entering Sunday’s game against the Texans in Houston, he’s on pace to register 37 tackles and eight sacks. But it also appears that he’s just begun to get his bearings with the Seahawks.

“He’s more than what we thought he was,” is the way Carroll put it on Monday.

Which brings us back to Bennett’s transformation from off-field cruiser to on-field bruiser. Defensive end Red Bryant has seen it before, because he and Bennett also played together at Texas A&M and during Bennett’s rookie-season stint with the Seahawks.

“He’s always been that way. He was like that in college,” Bryant said. “He’s got a great personality away from the football field but on the football field he’s the best player out there.”

Bryant is another of those gentle giants off the field who can be a giant pain to deal with on the field. How do they flip that switch?

“It’s just in you,” said Bryant, who grew up in Jasper, Texas, while Bennett was growing up in Alief, Texas. “His upbringing was a lot like mine. He had a lot of obstacles he had to overcome and I just think his utopia is being on the football field competing. That’s when that other side of him just exudes. He exemplifies that every time he takes the field.

“Mike Bennett, he’s really one of a kind.”

While the Seahawks have been the immediate beneficiaries, the winners in the long run will be his three daughters.