Solving the pass-rush issues

December 31st, 2012 | Written by Rob Staton

Seattle’s greatest need is at the three technique. No doubt what so ever. It’s absolutely crucial for this team that they find a way to create interior pressure. As good as the teams defense has been this season, they’re really only scratching the surface. There’s a lot of untapped potential – for pressure, sacks and most importantly – turnovers. For this team to keep improving even after an 11-5 regular season, they have to upgrade the three technique position.

My vote is still to pursue Randy Starks in free agency. The Dolphins have been unusually lax given that Jeff Ireland’s job is supposedly secure. They haven’t initiated any contract talks with key players such as Starks or left tackle Jake Long.

Presumably Long will be the priority. They’re not averse to big contract extensions – Cameron Wake signed a $49m deal in May. It’ll probably take an even bigger contract to re-commit to a pre-CBA #1 overall pick. Even so, Miami’s offensive line is bad enough without needing to search for another left tackle. As we saw with Mario Williams last year though, the structure of the franchise tag is making it expensive to maintain top-players drafted under the former rookie-structure. If they sign Long, it’s hard to imagine they’d be in a strong position to retain other key free agents.

Starks had an impressive year including five sacks and an interception. He’s the kind of penetrative force needed in Seattle, but he also plays the run particularly well. It’s no coincidence the Seahawks had their toughest day running the ball against the Dolphins interior of Starks and Paul Soliai. A lot of younger three-technique’s struggle to make the transition to the pro’s because by nature they’re undersized. If you’re average guard or tackle is +300lbs, a three-technique usually giving up 10-15lbs. Without the kind of unnatural power a player like Ndamukong Suh had coming into the league, a young, undersized tackle can often get engulfed. It’s no surprise that guys like Geno Atkins and Darnell Dockett play with as much attitude as they do speed.

Starks is 305lbs and has no such issues. He’s big, strong, plays with tremendous pad level and has violent hands. He’ll stunt blockers at the line and win 1vs1 battles against the run. He also has a terrific bull rush and enough explosion off the line to penetrate into the backfield. Starks also has the benefit of experience and it shows – he understands blocking schemes and adapts during games to remain effective (he had no issues against Seattle’s ZBS). He’s almost ideal for the ‘4-3 under’ – not giving anything up against the run while being able to double up on the right side with Chris Clemons to collapse the pocket. He just turned 29 so a big contract seems unlikely. If Starks hits the market, a creative two or three-year deal would make a lot of sense. The Seahawks are unlikely to be his only suitor.

Henry Melton is another option and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in Chicago. Lovie Smith has been fired and that could lead to some schematic changes – although all of Chicago’s defensive talent is suited to an orthodox 4-3 system. If he hits the market he’ll likely command a hefty salary. The question is- how much of his production is manufactured playing with elite defensive talent? Teams constantly have to deal with Julius Peppers off the edge, has Melton benefited from that? Would he be able to replicate his success in a different environment to warrant a big outlay in terms of salary?

There aren’t many high-quality three-techniques in the league. Melton is one of the best, Atkins in Cincinnati is the clear #1. If the Seahawks want to solve this problem with a veteran presence, they’ll likely have to get the cheque book out.

Of course the one thing Atkins and Melton have in common is they’re both fourth round picks. Dockett was a third round pick. It’s a position that lends itself to mid-round value. As we’ve discussed on this blog several times this season, many of the first-round defensive tackles drafted in recent years haven’t lived up to expectations. The Seahawks have been prolific in their ability to find mid-round gems in the Carroll/Schneider era. They may feel confident enough to go down this route again. They took Jaye Howard in round four last year, perhaps believing he could bring similar value and fill this role. That move hasn’t worked out so far, but they could continue the search in the same kind of range in 2013. One name to keep an eye on is Kawann Short at Purdue. He mostly disappointed this year, blowing hot and cold and struggling to dominate games. However, he has the size and unnatural speed to feature in the role. His inconsistent play could lead to a fall – he might be available in the 2nd/3rd round range. Arizona State’s Will Sutton is another mid-round option after a productive 10-sack season. His lack of size and ability versus the run is a slight concern though.

Even so, I still maintain they’d be better off trying to add a Starks or Melton for security. The maximum effectiveness of the defense is at stake here. A legitimate interior pass rush would open up so many opportunities for the LEO (Chris Clemons/Bruce Irvin). It would allow the Seahawks to keep rushing four in base defense. It would create many more turnover opportunities for a talented group of linebackers and defensive backs. As good as Seattle’s defense has been this year, it could be even better. By quite some way, too.

There are other possible ways to improve the pass rush via the draft. Jason Jones is a free agent and it’s unclear whether he’ll be retained for 2013. If the Seahawks want a bigger defensive end who can be flexible while also playing inside on nickel and passing downs, Alex Okafor at Texas could be the answer. He dominated Oregon State at the Alamo Bowl (see tape above) recording 4.5 sacks. He’s about 6-4 and 270lbs but could probably get up to the 275-280lbs range. He’s too big for a LEO, but his upper body power and quick feet could make him ideal for the Jason Jones-role.

The biggest issue with Okafor is consistency. He had 8.5 sacks for Texas during the regular season but drifted in and out of games and struggled to make a lasting impact for a disappointing defense. A lot of big-name Texas prospects have flattered to deceive and prior to the bowl game, it appeared Okafor would go down that route as well. Tony Pauline recently graded him in the 3rd/4th round range, but his performance against the Beevers increases his chances of being a day two pick.

On a slightly different note, take the chance to watch Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins against LSU tonight in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It appears he’ll be declaring for the draft and he’s a legitimate late first round option for any team looking to add a receiver:

Meanwhile USC receiver Robert Woods also confirmed he will be turning pro:

Happy New Year everyone!

33 Responses to “Solving the pass-rush issues”

  1. Turp says:

    Happy New Year Rob! Thanks for another year of great Hawks coverage.

    It was good to see a writeup on Starks. Given that he’s 29, how long of a contract do you think he will command on the market versus how long can he play that position at a high level?

    • Rob Staton says:

      I think two years with an option for an expensive third if he keeps performing. Incentive laden. I suspect it’d be attractive for Starks given the scheme an opportunity to play for a contender.

  2. MJ says:

    Good read. PR needs to be fixed like crazy. I wouldn’t mind getting aggressive in the draft and going after Rivhardson. I think he fits like a glove on this Defense and could take them to a different level.

  3. stuart says:

    Happy New Year Rob and thank you for puting so much effort into this site. I respect your opinions and look forward to reading them too.

  4. AlaskaHawk says:

    Rob – I would like to pose a question to you. Considering where we will be drafting in late first round, the top 5 or 6 DT types will already be chosen, and teams will start choosing wide receivers of which maybe only two will have been chosen before us. If the best DTs are already gone, do you think we should go for the impact playmaking receiver first round while there are still some left? Then sift through the leftover DT’s in the second round?

    • Rob Staton says:

      It really depends on who is left on the board. At this early stage the late first does look like a good area to go WR though. Lots of talent in that range. And we can’t force the DT situation even despite the big need.

  5. Michael says:

    Henry Melton tweeted the following at 9:59 this morning:

    “Can’t believe we’re not in the playoffs and my coach is gone its been a terrible 24hrs”

    New head coach could lead to an entirely new staff in Chicago. That defense is getting too old… Many of their key players will be past their physical primes at the start of next season: Urlacher (35), Briggs (32), Peppers (33), Tillman (32), Idonije (32). Not to mention their problems on offense. Do you really wanna go back to that team Henry?

    My concern over Irvin’s recent struggles is starting to grow. For all his speed, I haven’t seen him use it much this season. His get-off seems slow and he is often the last lineman (defensive or offensive) to move once the ball is snapped. My initial concern with a guy that fast was that he would always be trying to beat the tackle around the edge and not develop any other moves. Now it looks like he isn’t even trying to use his speed! Could someone please talk me off the ledge here and tell me that everything is gonna work out for Bruce?

    • Rob Staton says:

      One sack after the bye week was disappointing. Let’s hope he has an impact in the playoffs. Irvin has underwhelmed, no doubt. And that’s surely why they brought in Ray Edwards for a work out.

      • AlaskaHawk says:

        I just don’t see the energy or hard hitting called for in that position. Even his penalty for a late hit was wimpy. If Clay Mathews had delivered that hit he would have knocked that QB into next Thursday.

      • kevin mullen says:

        Maybe it’s his conditioning? Also lack of separation moves seems like the biggest glare, he really doesn’t use more than two moves from get off. Never really see him stunt either, or is it just scheme?

        Either way, if we did land Starks, all the better for drafting offensive threat in first, maybe a 2nd round 3tech DT?

    • A. Simmons says:

      Players learn the game at a different rate. Golden Tate is an example of this. Bruce Irvin may be another one. This is his first year in the NFL. He only now started making money to enhance his conditioning and get the coaching he needs to take advantage of his athletic speed. He wasn’t coached up much in college either. Pete knew Irvin would be a project, which is why they signed Clemons to a solid deal.

      Just as Pete did with Golden, Irvin was not drafted for what he is right now. He was drafted for what he will become. Pete will make sure Irvin gets the work in the offseason to improve. You can draft more polished players than Irvin. They might have had more of an impact this year. What you can’t draft is players with Irvin’s athletic ability. That’s what we paid for. It may not show up this year as often as we want. Once Pete gets Irvin more work on coverage, more time in the weight room and with a nutritionist, and more time learning the position, we’ll see positive returns more than likely. Just like with Golden.

      That’s one thing I like about Pete. He’s not going to give up on players too early. He understands player development is not the same for each player. Sometimes you have guys that develop fast like Russell Wilson, Okung, or Wagner. Sometimes you have guys that develop slow like Golden Tate or Max Unger (Remember when Unger looked overpowered?). Irvin and Carpenter may well fall into the slow development category. Both have shown a lot of promise. Heck, Irvin still does lead all rookies in sacks with the fewest snaps played. Right now the guy is a third down specialist playing 20 snaps a game. I’d like to see what he does when he is playing the Leo for a full game.

      • AlaskaHawk says:

        I agree with your hopes that Irvin and Carpenter will improve. But we have to keep in mind that PC started from ground zero and built a team up. And that team is now at an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. So it is now harder to make the team. It requires physical ability, mental agility, toughness, and staying off the injury list.

        While we can carry a player for awhile, with 7-10 new draft players a year, plus rotation on the practice squad, there will be players you know that are dropped. Statistically speaking even the first rounders about 40% aren’t in the game after 5 years. It drops after that till when you get to the fifth round it is a slim chance of playing.

        So what I’m trying to say is, if someone is injured year after year, they probably will get dumped after 2-3 years. And if someone isn’t putting forth maximum effort or not getting results that are excellent for their position, they will be replaced.

        Irvin has had plenty of time for conditioning and learning moves. He started the season okay (though half his sacks were unblocked rushes) and then he has faded in the last half of the season. He needs to show more energy and get a mean junk yard dog mentality. He need to think like he’s been starving for 7 days, and that QB is holding a big juicy steak in his hand, he has to get it at all costs, he needs that steak or he will die! Now go and get it.

        I hope he can get that attittude because if he doesn’t there are plenty of players next year who will have that attitude.

  6. Clayton says:

    Is the lack of a three tech the reason for Bruce Irvin’s lack of production? I noticed he was much more productive when Jason Jones was in. So maybe in solving the pass rush issue, maybe the three tech is the silver bullet. Maybe what we’re seeing is the same effect of the 49ers not having Justin Smith. Aldon Smith can’t get a sack without him.

    • Rob Staton says:

      It will certainly help both Irvin and Clemons to get more interior rush. I think part of Irvin’s problem is he’s doing too much to try and get to the passer. Taking long angles, trying things that maybe worked in college that haven’t in the pro’s. There’s every chance he’ll build off the experience in year one and come back stronger. But as the #15 overall pick and having already turned 25, he has a responsibility to become of a constant feature.

      • AlaskaHawk says:

        I think they would be better off letting Irvin roam around behind the line and attack from different angles. In the meantime put a heavier DE in his place. Someone that will fight to hold his position and pass rush with strength instead of speed.

  7. Rob Staton says:

    For what it’s worth – DeAndre Hopkins was sensational tonight against LSU. Definite first round pick.

    • Wes says:

      I am literally salivating at the thought of an offseason in which we sign Starks and draft Hopkins. Make it happen Rob!

    • Ely says:

      Deffinately won’t last to the 2nd round! Very impressed by Hopkins. LSU knew it was coming to him and couldn’t do anything about it. Makes it even more impressive with Watkins out of the game first play. I think he elevated himself into the mid first. Hope he’ll be an option but I don’t see him making it past the top 20-25. If he runs a fast 40 forget about it.

      • Rob Staton says:

        I think he’ll run a 4.45-4.50. I’m going to do a bigger article on Hopkins tomorrow. He’s eerily similar to Roddy White who was the #27 overall pick.

      • Attyla the Hawk says:

        I had stated earlier that I thought we were a team that looked for receivers that made their QB look good. I think Hopkins can be considered firmly in that prospect type. He displayed a wide variety of quality receiving skills/instincts. He is definitely a skilled technician of the position and probably will be regarded highly.

        Once you start picking in the 20s, talent typically begins to slip based on the runs on talent as the draft unfolds. It’s entirely conceivable that more than one player that we regard as 1st round grade that we like will end up slipping to us. Hopkins is a solid 20-40 range player.

    • Michael says:

      Wow. Great game from Hopkins! (and just a great game to watch)

      I am so grateful right now that we have this FO. They have shown a consistent ability to upgrade the talent level and address team needs through free agency, the draft and even trades. Everything is coming together in such a way that if they can put together another sucessful off-season in all of these phases they could push this team into the upper upper echelon of the league.

      Rob, a few quick questions:

      The FO has said that they, “would love to draft a QB every year” Tajh Boyd looked pretty good throwing the ball, and he would certainly be a better fit schematically than Matt Flynn. Could he be a developmental target in the late rounds if he came out this year? How late could you get him?

      Hypothetically, if we signed Starks or Melton, would that take the 3-tech’s in this draft off the board? What if Richardson or some other great value somehow falls to us? Is there room in this scheme for 2 of those guys? would you have to take Mebane off the field on passing downs? How would you work them both in?

      Hopkins and Wheaton are both on the board, if you’re the Seahawks who are you taking?

      Thanks Rob! Happy new year!

      • Rob Staton says:

        I think Boyd will return to Clemson and play his senior year. If he declares, he must have information that a team is willing to take him earlier than I suspect. Right now I’d take him in the R3-4 range as an above average backup QB with some upside and value. He’d be a nice fit behind Wilson.

        If they sign Starks or Melton, I think it becomes very unlikely you draft a DT in round one. It’s unlikely Lotulelei and Richardson fall into range. Williams could be there, but I hate going into a draft putting your eggs in one basket – which is why I’d rather address this major issue in free agency. I think if you do address it, you look elsewhere because there’s going to be fantastic value in the late first round this year.

        I take Hopkins over Wheaton… but I’m still a big fan of Markus Wheaton/

  8. David says:

    a few things

    I watched some of the game tonight (Clemson and LSU) and both teams played well but man Boyd and Hopkins played great

    i would love to get Hopkins, hes got nice size and looks like he could put on a few more LBS on his frame (205), to be honest i kept getting him mixed up with WR’s in this draft due to the amount of time spent on them this year, so i didnt know he was 6’2, i figured he was sub 6′, but hes def someone im hoping the hawks have their eyes on.

    i am also wondering on what your thought on Boyd are, not as a starter but a backup for Wilson? im not saying spend a early pick on him, but if hes theres in the mid to later rounds maybe take a shot, he shows mobility (i know 28 rushes for 25 yds is hardly a good example) which is what pete and john look for, hes not RG3 speed or anything but he showed some good footwork tonight.

    Matt Flynn is gonna be an expensive back up so i see them trading him for the best pick possible, that being a 5th rounder or worse, i dont see him on the team especially with I believe ET and Kam up for contract isnt that right? and since Josh Johnson was signed by the Browns earlier this week it leaves out the one guy i thought theyd take a flyer on.

    I know i wrote alot but what do you think?

    happy New year Rob and Kip

    • Rob Staton says:

      I suspect Boyd will return to Clemson and play one more year with Sammy Watkins. His tape earlier this season was inconsistent and in some cases poor. However, would I consider him as a backup? Absolutely. He’s not a guy I’d want to invest my reputation on as an early pick, but he is a guy who can hold the fort in case of an injury and win you a game. I’d have no issues spending a R3-4 pick on the guy for that purpose. And today he had the game of his life.

  9. Jeff says:

    Thanks for all the great work!

  10. kenny says:

    What about Margus Hunt in the Jason Jones role, also do you think either Hunt or Okafor can gain 20 lbs to maybe become the full-time 3 tech. Hunt has better size as far as I am aware and looks like a physical freak who is being talked about like a third round pick so far. Maybe he stays low key and we can take him in the second? In that case I would love for us to grab Hopkins in the first if we could.

    • Attyla the Hawk says:

      Hunt has ridiculous size. He is however still quite raw. He can at times just completely destroy whoever is attempting to block him. He can also seemingly disappear for entire games. If I had to surmise, it’s probably a function of skill of the opponent. He plays very upright and erect still which is a disappointment for me. Because I tracked him closely last year and hoped to see him improve on that aspect in 2012.

      Additionally, he frequently will kind of quit on a play if it looks like he’s not going to be in on the action. He would be the guy standing there flatfooted when Marshawn breaks out of 3 guys’ arms and breaks a long TD run. He does NOT play to the whistle with regularity. I don’t think it’s laziness, but I do think it shows a lack of just mean streak. He’s a physical guy and he’s not soft. But he’s no Giacomini either.

      Someone is going to take him around between 50 and 100. He has been a dark horse/sleeper prospect since before the season started and he’s been on people’s radar all season long. No chance he becomes a low key guy.

      The combine is going to go nuts for him. And given the lack of on field product this year overall — the combine and senior bowls are going to have a more than pronounced impact on who gets drafted where. I can see Hunt going late round 2 for a team that would consider him at round three but doesn’t think he’ll last to the end of the third.

      He will probably be the Dontari Poe of the 2013 combine. As well he should being an Estonian Olympic athlete. He is a giant of a man and very fluid and athletic. The underwear olympics should really showcase his physical gifts.

      I personally like him as a prospect. He has just an innate ability to slither his way through creases, and the brute physical strength to break through once he gains an advantage. He is the career record holder for blocked kicks and it’s no fluke. It’s a function that highlights this natural ability.

      His pad level sucks, but if he were to correct that, he would be simply unblockable. Even when he loses leverage badly, he doesn’t get completely blown up. He is just that strong.

      He is kind of the complete opposite of how I regard Jesse Williams. Hunt has a ridiculous upside. Really, at 295 lbs., he could be the Red Bryant that can actually rush a passer and still set the edge. But he’s not that guy when his name is called. He’ll have to develop.

  11. AlaskaHawk says:

    I was just looking at Dan Kajdan draft on SB nation. He has 10 DT and DE being chosen before our draft pick, but only 1 wide receiver of the board. It looks like we could have our choice of wide receivers in the first round, and get the 16-20 defensive linemen off the board in the second round. Too bad we don’t have two first round picks!

  12. AlaskaHawk says:

    Check out south carolina’s Clowney for 2014. He just hit a running back so hard that his helmet landed 10 foot behind him, then acooped up the fumble.

  13. Vin says:

    First off, thanks Rob for all the hardwork and great articles in 2012. This is my favorite Hawks site. As far as the subject goes, I agree 100% that the pass rush has to improve if this team is to take the next step to being perenial contender. I also frequent FGs and there’s an article stating that we fans may be overreacting to our supposed pass rush problem. I’m of the opinion that what works for our D now won’t necessarily work in the future and that we have to improve the areas that appear mediocre. I’m not looking for more sacks, but would like more pressure. Nothing frustrates me more with this defense than having a 3rd and long and the opposing O converting. 3rd & long is suppose to play to our strength. I’ve not studied up on the defense that PC and Bradley employ, but I always wondered why we didn’t run a traditional 4-3, like the giants or bears. Like you always say, our pass rush & sacks have one source –Clemmons. I’m hopeful the PR 3tech will make Clemmons Irvin & even the LBs that much better. Keep up the great work!

  14. [...] how likely this is given Seattle’s extreme need to improve their pass rush on base defense. I’ve ‘banged on’ about why I think upgrading the three-technique is the teams grea…, but I’ve also been hesitant to mock the position to the Seahawks in round [...]