Versatility on display when it comes to D-linemen

Posted Jun 12, 2013

What positions are free-agent additions Michael Bennett and Tony McDaniel playing? How about rookies Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams? You’ll find them at any of three or four spots on the defensive line.

Forget Waldo. Where’s Red Bryant? And free-agent addition Tony McDaniel? And fifth-round draft choice Jesse Williams?

The easy – and obvious – answer: On the practice field at Virginia Mason Athletic Center during the Seahawks’ mandatory three-day minicamp. The real question, however, is: Where are they playing along the defensive line?

It depends on the situation. And personnel grouping. And down and distance.

McDaniel? The free-agent addition can be found at one of four positions – five-technique end and three-technique tackle in the base defense; either of the tackle spots in the nickel. Michael Bennett, who was with the Seahawks in 2009 and re-signed this offseason, also is a four-spot player – three-technique tackle in the nickel, his primary position; but also either end spot and three-technique tackle in the base. Jordan Hill, who was selected in the third round of April’s NFL Draft, is another “four” – either tackle spot in both the base and nickel defenses.

Williams, a fifth-round draft choice this year, is playing three positions in the base defense – five-technique end, three-technique tackle and nose tackle. Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Jaye Howard are playing two positions – one in the base, another in the nickel. And this the-more-things-you-can-do approach has carried over to Leo ends Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril. Irvin is getting some time at outside linebacker, and Clemons and Avril will when recovered from injuries. And linebacker Mike Morgan is playing some Leo end.

There is a method to what might be perceived as this shuffling madness. 

“Everybody’s got different positions to learn,” said Travis Jones, the Seahawks’ first-year defensive line coach. “You’ve got to find a way to get on the team, and the best way to do that is learn a couple different positions.”

It’s especially beneficial on game day, when the number of active D-linemen can be limited to seven or maybe eight.

“I just want guys to know two or three jobs,” said Dan Quinn, the first-year defensive coordinator. “That way when it’s time to do that, there’s not that, ‘Well, I haven’t done that before.’ That adds not only value to you as a player, but really it increases competition across the board.”

Ah, competition. It’s the largest cornerstone in coach Pete Carroll’s philosophy. When that competition can be provided by one player at multiple positions, all the better. Just ask Bryant, a little-used tackle during his first two seasons who was blossomed into a run-stuffing forced since being moved to the five-technique end spot in 2010 by Quinn when he was the D-line coach.

“It’s huge, as far as the landscape of the NFL and what teams are able to do with their pistol look and mobile quarterbacks,” Bryant said. “That’s typically how the league is evolving and you definitely want to be able to matchup personnel-wise in different situations.

“It just gives our defense more complexity when other teams are trying to detect what kind of look they’re going to get from us defensively.”

Like the offense showing two-tight end personnel in the huddle and then aligning in a spread formation – or using a player with the diverse talents of Percy Harvin as a receiver or runner – the ability of the defense to adjust without making substitutions is huge, as Bryant put it.

“What we’re doing with the linemen, moving them around and using them at more than one position,” Bryant said, “it will allow us to continue the success we’ve had in the past.”

And that is saying something, because the Seahawks’ defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL last season and ranked a franchise-best No. 4 in average yards allowed.  

This multiple-spots concept isn’t reinventing the position – or positions. McDaniel has been working primarily at the three-technique tackle spot in the base defense, but he’s also been at nose tackle and end. He played all three positions for the Miami Dolphins the past four seasons. Wherever he’s been, McDaniel has been tipping, deflecting and rejecting passes at the line of scrimmage.

“Tony keeps knocking down balls. He’s had a bunch of knockdowns already,” Carroll said after Tuesday’s practice, when McDaniel used his 6-foot-7 frame and long arms to bat two more passes.  

“He’s not too tall, but he’s tall. That’s a nice positive. He looks good playing three-technique right for us, and that’s where we want to see him. We think he can be a first- and second-down player for sure, and he looks like he can be a good accent rusher, too. We’re pleased to have him.”

McDaniel also views his length as an advantage.

“If I get my hands on a guy and lock him up, most guy’s arms aren’t as long as mine so they really can’t grab me back,” he said. “I can pretty much manhandle them and do what I want with them.”

As for playing on the move, McDaniel said, “Really, I’ve been doing it my whole career. So it’s kind of second nature to me. It doesn’t bother me. And, the more you can do the longer you stay around.”

Quinn, who was the team’s defensive line in 2009-10, returned as the coordinator in January to replace Gus Bradley – now the head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones was hired shortly after Quinn’s return to replace Todd Wash – who followed Bradley to Jacksonville. So part of the challenge facing Quinn and Jones in their first offseason together is figuring out what they have, and what each player offers.

“We’re moving guys around,” Jones said. “I kind of tell them ahead of time, ‘Hey, be alert. You might play a couple of different positions today.’ Guys are doing a good job paying attention and studying. The effort has been good.”