Eventually, at some point during the 2013 season, the Seattle Seahawks will possess as deep a cluster of defensive ends as any team in the league. For at least the first four weeks of the season, though, that depth will be put to the test, mainly due to the four-game suspension delivered to Bruce Irvin late last week.
Irvin's absence could pile on a defensive front that likely will open the year without Chris Clemons (torn ACL) and may have to rely heavily on Michael Bennett, who continues to play through an rotator cuff injury that will require surgery somewhere down the road.
The Seahawks will be Irvin-less for games against the Panthers, 49ers, Jaguars and Texans. That Week 2 showdown with the 49ers could prove particularly important -- even at that early point in the season, dropping their home game with San Francisco might be a substantial blow for Seattle's NFC West title chances. Irvin recorded two sacks in Seattle's 16-12 win over Carolina last season, and he played significant minutes in his team's late-season romp over San Francisco.
In this special offseason edition of our Break It Down, we glance back at how Seattle utilized Irvin against Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick last season ...
Irvin's two-sack performance against Carolina in Week 5 last year (two weeks after he recorded two sacks of Aaron Rodgers) helped solidify him as one of the year's rookie surprises. He played just 20 snaps on the afternoon, almost exclusively on passing downs or as Carolina tried to rally late. Even in that limited playing time, the Panthers really had no answer for his speed.
The shot below is pre-snap on one of Irvin's two sacks. And it puts on display why the Seahawks' pass rush can be so difficult to prepare for: They mix and match almost non-stop.
A lot of the time, in Seattle's version of a 4-3, a nose tackle will line up almost directly over the center. Here, the Seahawks have spread horizontally, with Irvin (circled) and Clemons in positions more comparable to a wide-nine look. Irvin then loops back inside both tackles to get pressure on Newton.
This next shot, from the same play, helps explain why the Seahawks' coaching staff is so insistent on describing its defense as a hybrid of 4-3 and 3-4 ideas. As we saw in the above screen grab, the Seahawks lined up in a pretty traditional 4-3 look; post-snap, the setup is more reminiscent of a 3-4, with one of the tackles diving straight up the middle and Irvin swinging around to search for a gap, almost as he would if he were blitzing from a linebacker position.
It is Irvin's speed -- and, in theory, the speed of a player like Avril -- that allows the Seahawks to play with their line in such fashion.
A couple more examples of Irvin's play in that Seahawks-Panthers game. Here again, Irvin stunts inside as (in this case) Jason Jones (90) occupies Carolina's right tackle. You'll also notice Tony McDaniel (99) starts in the nose-tackle spot, in the "1-technique" between the center and guard.
But Irvin's speed also can help seal off the edge, too. It's linebacker Bobby Wagner (yellow X) that winds up with the sack of Newton on the play below, as the Carolina QB scrambles to his left. Irvin, from that "Leo" spot, rushes straight upfield here, engaging the right tackle and helping to hem in RB Jonathan Stewart.
When Irvin holds his position on the end, his speed makes it very difficult for quarterbacks to escape that direction (or for running backs to slip out on screens). Because of that, Seattle also asks him to spy speedier QBs from time to time, as we saw on occasion during a Week 16 win over San Francisco.
As should look familiar by now, Irvin loops around Jones on the play pictured below ...
... but this time, rather than take on the two blockers waiting there for him, he stops at the line of scrimmage, his eyes firmly planted on Kaepernick. His main focus is not to get into the backfield, but to make sure Kaepernick does not escape it. By helping to maintain the Seattle front, Irvin forces Kaepernick (as he did Newton) to roll to his blindside.
K.J. Wright then drops Kaepernick for a big loss.
Another look at that Irvin contain below, as tight end Vernon Davis releases out on what becomes a run play, giving Irvin a free shot into the backfield.
Rather than crash down on Kaepernick, though, Irvin stays put on the edge of the line, readying himself for a play-action rollout. Kaepernick hands it off up the middle, where two Seahawks' linebackers are waiting.
One of the dangers for the Seahawks in having Irvin out there (and a similar danger will be posed in Avril's presence, as evidenced by his play in Detroit) is that his speed rush, when he's not careful, can take him way out of plays.
Kaepernick actually made a mistake in this play below, trying to thread a short pass in to a covered receiver despite a huge running lane to his right.
That lane became available because Jones (now with Detroit) was pushed out and the 49ers simply allowed Irvin to run himself out of the play. When the Seahawks spread their defensive ends wide on the line and do not stunt back into the middle, running quarterbacks can find some openings.
Can Seattle survive minus Irvin in Weeks 1 through 4? Absolutely. Will the Seahawks feel his absence? Quite possibly, and that's especially true against a Panthers team that Irvin dominated in 2012. Avril is more than capable as a pass rusher, and he will be put to work in a lot of the same ways we saw Irvin at work here.