The Seahawks played Sunday's game in Carolina without two of their top defensive lineman, Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah, which meant somebody from that unit needed to step up and make some plays.
And it was hardly a surprise that two of the players who came through with big plays were second-year defensive linemen Poona Ford and Rasheem Green, both of whom have taken big strides in 2019 after earning bigger roles this year.
In Seattle's Week 15 win over the Panthers, Green provided his team's only sack of the day, giving him a team-leading 4.0 this season, while Ford, who has been in the backfield more and more often of late, recorded a tackle for loss on Pro-Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey and tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage that was intercepted by K.J. Wright.
"Huge growth," what middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said he has seen from those two linemen. "I feel like Poona's definitely taking a step, especially as far as the intellectual side—got a lot smarter. Rasheem has matured a lot. You see them making plays. Poona making plays in the back field. Rasheem getting sacks and forced fumbles and things of that nature. I'm excited for those guys and hoping that they keep that up and take it to another level."
A big role for Ford this year was expected coming into the season. He finished last year strong, and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Ford's teammates spent the offseason and training camp raving about the undrafted nose tackle who was a starter throughout camp.
Green's role this season was a little less certain, however. A third-round pick out of USC last year, Green was a preseason standout as a rookie, but struggled to find playing time in the regular season, in no small part due to an ankle injury that kept him out of four games early in the year. He finished the season appearing in 10 games, recording 9 tackles and one sack.
"It was very frustrating," Green said. "Last year was the first time I had missed games since high school. It was kind of frustrating because I'm not used to being really hurt, and just being in that role where I'm not really playing, when I came back I still wasn't playing. It was a lot to adjust to coming to the NFL and dealing with the injury, it was kind of a setback. But I feel like I did a good job of overcoming that this past offseason."
This season, Green has played in every game, starting six of them, and in addition to his team-leading sack total, two of which have come in the past four games, he also has 20 tackles, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery he returned 36 yards to set up an eventual score, and a blocked field goal on special teams.
"He's doing great," Carroll said. "I'm just happy that he's been such a factor now. He's really playing consistently at run and pass, which is great. Forcing fumbles and being active in the backfield rushing the passer. He's playing multiple spots. He's grown into it. He's a big part of what we're doing, and I'm really fired up for him."
Earlier this season, Carroll compared Green to fellow defensive end Quinton Jefferson, noting how it can take a bit of time for defensive linemen to find their way in the NFL sometimes. And Jefferson, now a veteran starter who has been a big part of Seattle's success this season, likes what he has seen from Green in Year 2.
"He's playing great ball," Jefferson said. "You can tell he's more confident in his game. His urgency on the field, he's playing great ball. You can see his knowledge has broadened, he's starting to recognize stuff and putting himself into position to make play, so it's pretty dope… The biggest thing in this league is just getting playing time, so this year he's getting more playing time, he's healthy, he's getting more reps, and you can see him getting better and better each week."
Ford, meanwhile, has started 10 of 11 games at nose tackle, taking command of that role after playing well enough late last season for Carroll to admit that the coaching staff probably waited too long to use the undrafted rookie out of Texas. At a position where it is often more important to occupy a blocker so a linebacker can make a play than it is to pile up stats, Ford still manages to make a flashy play or two seemingly in every game, and especially of late. Three of Ford's five tackles for loss this season have come in the past five games, he had the aforementioned pass deflection that led to a turnover, and his 28 tackles this season are third most among Seahawks defensive linemen.
Ford's impressive play of late isn't a coincidence based off what linemen hear from their position coach, Clint Hurtt.
"Our coach always says, later in the season, that's when the real players show up, then that should just carry over to the playoffs," Ford said.
The Seahawks defense will be better when it has everyone available, including veterans like Ansah and Clowney, but the emergence of two second-year players has also been crucial this season.
"They both took big steps this year," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "Rasheem, as far as his attention to detail—he's focused, he's making plays in the backfield. And Poona, since he took off late last year, he never looked back. It's fun watching these guys grow into pros. They take care of the linebackers, keep guys off of us. They're doing a tremendous job."
Go behind the scenes with team photographer Rod Mar as he shares moments from the Seattle Seahawks' Week 15 game against the Carolina Panthers. Eye on the Hawks is presented by Western Washington Toyota Dealers.