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Seahawks 2012: Defensive line

Posted Jul 17, 2012

Bruce Irvin and Jason Jones were added in the draft and free agency with an eye to upgrading a pass rush that was the only real blemish for the Seahawks’ first line of defense during the 2011 season.

After all the good things the line did for the Seahawks’ ninth-ranked defense last season, coach Pete Carroll made it a priority to upgrade the unit’s one not-so-good area.

The Seahawks generated just 33 sacks in 2011, their second-lowest total in the past nine seasons. A closer look, however, really shows just what was missing. While Leo end Chris Clemons led the team with 11 sacks – for the second time in his two seasons with the Seahawks – the rest of the linemen combined for 10.

What’s a coach to do? Sign pass-rushing tackle Jason Jones in free agency and then select pass-rushing end Bruce Irvin in the first round of the NFL Draft.

“We just see the increase in athletic ability upfront with the addition of those two,” said Todd Wash, who is in his second season as coach of the D-line. “So you add them to what Clem already brings and we’re going to be not only big but also fast, to hopefully increase our ability to get to the quarterback.”

Upgrading the pass rush will only enhance all the other things the line already does so well.

In his first full season as the XXXL-sized end opposite Clemons, Red Bryant proved to be a run-stuffing force and also used his long-limbed 6-foot-4, 335-pound body to intercept two passes and block a club-record four kicks on special teams. In his first full season as the nose tackle, Brandon Mebane produced more tackles (56) than any interior linemen in the NFC. Mebane was able to slide over to the nose because Alan Branch was signed in free agency to fill the three-technique tackle spot.

“Obviously, Red played very well for us last year,” Wash said. “Now that he’s into the system a little bit more, we can hammer the technique on a couple of issue plays for us that showed up consistently. Once Red gets all that and fine-tunes where he plays with consistent technique play after play, he’s even going to be more of an impact.”

As for Mebane, Wash said, “A lot of teams don’t have an impact player at nose guard. We feel we have a true impact player on first and second downs.”

Mebane produced 5.5 sacks in 2008, his second season with the club, while playing as the three-technique tackle. Wash said he also expects to use the 6-1, 311-pound Mebane at his old position this season as part of the tackle rotation.

“We look forward to seeing that,” Wash said. “Obviously he’s big enough to play the nose, but he’s also quick enough and penetrates well enough to slide over. So we feel our starting nose guard can also be a real good three-technique. We’re very fortunate with that.”

Branch’s contributions (34 tackles and three sacks) were more difficult to detect, unless you looked very closely at the disruption he created – and continues to create.

“Alan Branch brings another dimension to the defense,” Bryant said. “He’s big, but he’s very athletic. For a guy that big, he actually does a great job of penetrating. He eats up a lot of blocks. We know on this defense what he brings.”

Now it’s up to the rest of the linemen to bring it once training camp opens, so they can secure spots in this already good unit that is only getting better. And versatility will be vital. As it is with the 6-5, 276-pound Jones, who can play either end as well as the three-technique tackle spot; Mebane; and the 6-6, 325-pound Branch, who also will see time at end this season.

“We’ve got some quality depth,” Wash said. “We’ve got a good balance between first- and second-down players and also a good group of guys who can come in and rush the passer on third downs. So we’re very excited about that.

“It’s going to be a great battle for our guys to see exactly who gets that eighth, ninth, 10th spot that we keep on the roster. I look forward to watching it.”

With that said, here’s a closer look at the unit:

Defensive linemen on the 90-man roster: 13

Defensive linemen carried on the 53-man roster: nine last season, 10 in 2010

Incumbent starters: DE Red Bryant, NT Brandon Mebane, DT Alan Branch, DE Chris Clemons

Incumbent backups: DT Clinton McDonald, DT Pep Levingston

On injured reserve at the end of last season: DE Dexter Davis (15 games)

On the practice squad: DE Pierre Allen

Veteran signed in free agency: DT-DE Jason Jones

Draft choices: DE Bruce Irvin, DT Jaye Howard, DE Greg Scruggs

Rookie free agent: DE Cordarro Law

Outlook: Clemons skipped the offseason program, OTA practices and even the mandatory minicamp. But the coaches are expecting him to be at training camp – with or without a contract extension. The rest of the starting unit is set with Bryant, Mebane and Branch; as is most of the nickel line with Irvin and Jones joining Clemons. That’s six of the roster spots Wash talked about, so McDonald, Levingston, Davis and Allen will be looking to hold off Howard, Scruggs and Law.

Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks