Nearly nine months after surprising just about everyone by taking Bruce Irvin in the first round of the NFL Draft, the Seattle Seahawks are about to find out just how successful that pick was.
Don't get me wrong, Irvin had a terrific rookie season with eight sacks (a Seahawks' rookie record), as he flashed the promise of a long career as a disruptive pass rusher.
But now, in light of the knee injury Chris Clemons suffered Sunday, Irvin could be the key to Seattle's Super Bowl hopes. His added responsibility will kick in this week, when the Seahawks travel to Atlanta for a divisional-round matchup. For the Seahawks to pull the upset there and advance to the NFC title game, they'll need their pass rush to make Falcons QB Matt Ryan uncomfortable -- and any hope of doing that will start with Irvin.
He and Clemons have been a great 1-2 pass-rushing punch for the Seahawks this season. The duo combined for 19.5 sacks during the regular season, with Irvin serving as Clemons' backup and also joining him on the field, in place of Red Bryant, for plenty of passing downs.
But Clemons' presence allowed Seattle to use Irvin in specific, tailored situations -- he played 452 snaps during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus; Clemons was on the field for 892, most of the team's defensive lineman.
Can Irvin succeed, and can he hold up against the run, given full-time duties?
The Seahawks receive a bit of a break in the run-game aspect -- Atlanta is more of a passing team, as are Green Bay, Denver and New England. An eventual matchup with San Francisco, Baltimore or Houston could prove more problematic in that regard. No doubt, all of those teams would attack Irvin with the run, especially after seeing Washington have success outside the tackles in its loss to Seattle.
Still, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers will provide a test for Irvin and Seattle's run defense. Just not nearly as big a one as Matt Ryan and the Falcons' talented passing attack.
Irvin's 452 snaps work out to roughly 28 a game. Of those, just 98 (around six per game) came in run defense. The Falcons averaged about 65 snaps during their 16 regular season contests and ran it nearly 24 times per outing. In both cases, those number represent potentially big increases in Irvin's reps.
The Falcons were a middle-of-the-road team in terms of pass protection, allowing 28 sacks of Ryan this season. So, Seattle should be able to generate some pressure ... but will it be enough to disrupt the passing game?
This matchup will feature a dynamite positional battle: Seattle's corners vs. Atlanta's wide receivers. Even Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, though, will not be able to blanket Julio Jones and Roddy White for extended periods of time, meaning Seattle's pass rush must get home.
And the Seahawks also face the conundrum of what to do in passing situations, with the option of pulling Bryant for Irvin off the table. They could leave Bryant, a poor pass-rusher, on the field or (more likely) drop Greg Scruggs in on passing downs, as they did at times Sunday vs. Washington. None of the solutions appear as potent as a Clemons-Irvin tandem. So, the pressure will be on Seattle -- and Irvin, in particular -- to deliver without Clemons' dynamic presence.