But when Irvin was set up outside the tackle and had to face blocks, his lack of an inside counter often stymied his efforts. The Seahawks were not put off.
"We didn't want to get too cute with this,” general manager John Schneider said after he and head coach Pete Carroll made the pick. “We obviously viewed him as the best pass rusher in the draft. Trying to add that to our team, add to the team speed. There was a certain area we thought we could get to and then we talked about going back again and then we decided to go ahead and lock it down. We had this guy rated as one of the top players in the draft."
Irvin led all rookie pass rushers with 8.0 sacks, adding 12 quarterback hits and 18 hurries for good measure. But he was often bottled up as a defensive end for the same reasons he faced in college – he could not sustain straight-on power against tackles, and his inside counter was a work in progress. Because of this, his speed was negated unless he was able to beat his man off the edge, or he stunted inside through a gap. This was especially apparent through Seattle’s two-game playoff run, and against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, Irvin may as well have been invisible.
Carroll and his coaches then looked to switch things up. Going back to his time as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996, Carroll developed the idea of the LEO end, a variable pass rusher who performed as a hybrid of the traditional 4-3 end and the 3-4 outside linebacker. Even before then, when he was the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator from 1990 to 1993 and head coach in 1994, Carroll had some interesting ideas about how pass rushers could get home.
CBS Sports and NFL.com analyst Pat Kirwan, who worked with Carroll in New York, recently wrote about the “spinner” role, and how Irvin might benefit from it.
How will they get the four best rushers on the field considering only one (Michael Bennett) is really suited for the inside over a guard? Look for Cliff Avril at left end, Bennett inside over the center or a guard, Chris Clemons at the right end and Bruce Irvin playing the "spinner" role. The "spinner" stands up and moves during the snap count, meaning he could rush from anywhere.
Most NFL teams know Pete Carroll has run this scheme before, [and] one head coach is taking special notice: "That Seattle spinner package will be a major problem for teams visiting Seattle," the coach said. "The O-line has to constantly communicate about where the spinner is and where he might cross the line of scrimmage. It won't be easy up in that stadium and it's going to put a lot of stress on the offensive line."
In other words, the Seahawks would like Bruce Irvin to be Von Miller. Since the Denver Broncos selected Miller with the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, Miller has become one of the most productive quarterback disruptors in the league. In 2012, he amassed 18.5 sacks, which was impressive enough, but he also put up 12 QB hits and an astonishing 41 quarterback hurries. Miller is the fastest player off the edge in the NFL, he’s developed a killer inside counter, his footwork is superlative, and he’s even developed a nice bull rush … but that’s not the only reason he’s so effective against opposing offensive lines. The Broncos have also turned him into a “moveable chess piece,” and he can rush the passer from any gap. Miller’s two sacks against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 of the 2012 season showed how you can hit multiple positions from one side.
I recently asked Carroll about the Irvin/Miller comparison, and he said that he and Schneider absolutely saw it that way.
“Very similar,” Carroll told me. “If you go back and look at their numbers and the kind of athletes those two guys are. Their size, weight, and speed coming out, they are very similar. It was a guy… when we were looking at Bruce. I looked at him to make sure that we could project him properly and I thought that they were really similar in their make-up.”
The next step, of course, is to make Irvin an every-down player, and linebackers coach Ken Norton told me that the decision to take Irvin’s hand off the ground some of the time speaks to this.
“Last year, we didn't want to give him too much, too soon, but he's matured, and when you have a guy with that much explosion and speed, you want him on the field all the time,” Norton said. “So now, it's not just third down; he's with me on first and second down. He's such a terrific athlete -- he can do so many things, and he makes it look so easy, and we can really exploit that. We're trying to put a little more on his plate, and we'll see how he handles it.”
One of the things Irvin will have to handle if he’s to be a player of Miller’s caliber is pass coverage, because it’s the most undersold aspect of Miller’s play. He’s great in the flat and to the seam when covering underneath, especially when he fakes a rush look and then drops back – either in a zone blitz or in a straight drop. This play against the New England Patriots in Week 5 last year is a great example.
“After watching him for a year, he showed tremendous versatility," Carroll told me about Irvin's ability to potentially present the entire package. "We were wondering if he would be able to move around a little bit and he’s doing it really well. He’s had no problem. He had a really good off season, he’s studied and he did really well on the OTAs, and he looks really comfortable. It allows us to still use him as an outside rusher, just like we had done before. Use him in coverage sometimes, and try to put him in position to really take advantage of his overall ability. So we are really excited about this transition. It’s just a matter of growing and encompassing more responsibility, and he’s doing that really well.”
And from a pure rush perspective, getting his hand off the ground will allow Irvin to read gaps, almost like a running back would. When I made that comparison, Norton remarked with a laugh that it’s a pretty similar mindset.
“Yes! Linebackers are like running backs behind the [other] line. Most of the great linebackers are former running backs -- elusive and fast.
“When you take your hand off the ground, what's the biggest difference? Well, you can see more. When your hand is down, your head is down, and you can't see as much. Now that you're standing up, there's a whole new world out there! There's a whole offense to see.”
It will be a new perspective for Bruce Irvin, and he’ll have to hit the ground running. One way in which Irvin and Miller are already similar – they are each set to serve four-game suspensions to start the 2013 regular season as a result of violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Miller’s already got his game together, but Irvin’s still figuring it out.
Watching him in Seattle’s 2013 training camp has been fairly revelatory, however. He is more versatile, can effectively shoot off the snap in varied positions, and is able to use his upper-body strength in ways he didn’t before. On one scrimmage play, he gave Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung a strong rip move to keep him inside, and then turned the corner to the quarterback with the cartoonish speed that we’ve already seen. At times like these, the idea that Irvin could be one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers sounds like a lot more than the same old spin.