Regardless of where he plays, Michael Bennett makes plays

How is 274-pound Michael Bennett able to take on much larger blockers and still generate big plays for the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense? It’s all about leverage, and also a little bit of freedom.

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Michael Bennett gets the credit he deserves from those who matter most – his teammates and coaches.

"Mike is playing lights out," defensive end Cliff Avril said before Wednesday's practice, when the Seahawks continued to prepare for Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers at CenturyLink Field.

"He's just causing havoc out there."

Offered coach Pete Carroll, "He's brought us a real style of play. This is a classic guy that we would talk about, that he's got a uniqueness about him. We've tried to place him to amplify that. He can play end and he can play tackle. He can rush from anywhere on the field.

"He's been a really instrumental player for us in the last couple of years. Without him we would not be the same."

It's just that word of Bennett's impact on a defense that has led the NFL in average points and yards allowed in the two seasons since his return from a four-season exile in Tampa has been slow to spread. He is an alternate to the Pro Bowl this season, but deserves even more.

"I think everybody just started realizing it now," Bennett said. "But it feels good though to get some recognition now. But the most important recognition is being a champion, and it makes me feel special to know my teammates appreciate me."

Bennett has impressive statistics: a team-leading seven sacks; 19 QB hits, one behind Avril; and 39 tackles, tied for sixth on the team but tops among the linemen.

But it's how Bennett collected those numbers during the regular season that is even more impressive. He plays the five-technique end position in the base defense and then slides inside to the three-technique tackle spot in the nickel line – despite weighing 274 pounds.

Last season, Bennett rotated with since-departed Red Bryant in the base defense and did most of his damage in the nickel – team-highs in sacks (8.5) and QB hits (25), as well as 31 tackles.

How is Bennett able to get the best of blockers who outweigh him by 44 pounds (Green Bay Packers' guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton); 57 pounds (San Francisco 49ers' guard Mike Iupati); and even 66 pounds (New York Giants' guard John Jerry)?

"It's just good technique," Bennett said. "I just use my technique and I just know how to leverage my body. I have to do that with my size so I can stay lower than them. And the low man usually wins in football."

Bennett honed his leverage skills at Texas A&M under defensive line coach Stan Egger.

"When I was in college, my coach always started everybody inside, even if you played outside," Bennett said. "You learn how to do everything and you can play every position."

And Bennett obviously has learned those lessons well. He signed with the Seahawks as a rookie free agent in 2010 and made the 53-man roster. But he was claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers in mid-October and spent the next 3½ seasons in Tampa. But when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2013, the Seahawks jumped at re-signing him because of his versatility, productivity, durability and that ability to play multiple positions. And Bennett was just as eager to return to Seattle.

"He's an extraordinarily savvy player," Carroll said when asked what allows the undersized Bennett to slide to tackle and still make big plays. "He senses what's going on. He has a kind of feel for plays and blocking schemes that allows him to take advantage of getting in the crease and avoiding and slipping a block, crossing a down block. Things that you take years to teach players, he's got a real knack for that."

And when even all that isn't enough, Bennett also has shown he can make plays while on the ground with another player on top of him. 

Because of his unique ability to flip these perceived mismatches in his favor, Bennett is given certain liberties.

"We allow him to have some freedom to do those things, because otherwise you'd restrict him and he'd be a 280-pound guy who might be getting knocked around," Carroll explained. "But he gives you problems because he just doesn't give you a good target. That's because of his awareness, and he's got terrific quickness, too, to do that."

Freedom? That seems to contradict the defensive philosophy the Carroll and coordinator Dan Quinn preach. But then Bennett is walking, talking, tackling, sacking contradiction.

"We know that Mike's going to slip some blocks at times," Carroll said. "He's going to take the opportunity to penetrate. He had a great one (in Week 17 against the St. Louis Rams). He hit the (ball carrier) in the backfield early in the game when he released on a play. He sensed the play was going away and he took a shot within his gap control.

"So we allow him to do those things. Some guys we wouldn't trust to do it at the right time. Mike has great sense about how to maximize those opportunities."

As Avril views it, "Mike plays very reckless, in a sense. And it works for him, because he knows how to use his leverage and angles and different things guys his size shouldn't be able to do against some of the O-linemen he faces."

As a result, more people are actually starting to notice all the things Bennett does for the best defense in the league.

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