Michael Bennett gets to Cam Newton in the Seahawks' season-opener. (Charlotte Observer/Getty Images)
Every week, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke break down key plays from the previous week, and examine concepts you may see more often down the road.
It was an under-the-radar signing that shouldn't have been. When defensive lineman Michael Bennett signed a one-year, $4.8 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks in March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their most disruptive weapon against the pass, and Seattle head coach Pete Carroll added a perfect wingman for the subtleties in his defensive fronts. Carroll runs what he has called a "4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel," and in that personnel, he always has room for unique athletes who bring interesting attributes to the defenses he draws up.
Bennett qualifies. He was actually signed by Seattle as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M before the 2009 season, but the previous administration didn't know how to use him. And it took him a while to get up to speed with the Bucs -- he amassed just two sacks total in 2009 and 2010, ramped it up to four in 2011, and ended his Tampa Bay career with nine in 2012. Moreover, he was one of the league's best when it came to quarterback pressure. According to Pro Football Focus' game-charting metrics, Bennett ranked sixth in the league among 4-3 defensive ends in total pressures with 71 (nine sacks, 14 QB hits, and 48 hurries), which was even more impressive when you consider that he was slipping inside to play tackle on a relatively high percentage of plays.
That's carried through to the 2013 season -- in fact, Bennett's been even more disruptive for his new team, ranking second to St. Louis' Robert Quinn in PFF's Pass-Rushing Productivity metric, and amassing 2.5 sacks, three hits, and nine hurries in three games.
Needless to say, Carroll couldn't be happier about the efforts of a guy he originally projected to replace Jason Jones as a situational swing tackle.
“I thought we were going to get a good active pass rusher," Carroll said of Bennett on Monday. "He had shown versatility that he could play inside and outside, but I didn’t appreciate how constant he is effort-wise. I didn’t have that sense about him watching him on film, but he is a relentless football player. You love guys like that -- he’s going to get everything out of every play. He takes some chances. He’s a risk taker in his rushes, in his playmaking, and in the running game. He’ll make some mistakes at times, but he’s also going to make some huge plays. I think it’s the intensity that he brings; we were surprised at that. That shows up and that’s a great asset.”
The tape certainly shows it now. The first play we'll detail happened with 9:25 left in the Seahawks' 13-7 season-opening win over Carolina. The Panthers had third-and-seven at their own 23-yard line.
Seattle lines up in an interesting formation here with Bennett (72) playing left defensive end in a very wide stance. Linebacker Bobby Wagner (52) is standing up right over right guard Chris Scott. Linebacker K.J. Wright (50) is readying for a blitz, as is linebacker O'Brien Schofield (93), outside linemen Tony McDaniel (99) and Benson Mayowa (95). At the snap, Wagner occupied Scott and right tackle Byron Bell, while Bennett and Wright looped inside the A-gap to provide pressure up the middle. Schofield was doing the same. McDaniel took left tackle Jordan Gross all the way around the pocket and got the first hit on Cam Newton. Wright and Bennett also attack Newton, who is somehow able to free himself from all the pressure and load a little dump pass to fullback Mike Tolbert ... for a six-yard loss.
Bennett was handed a personal foul on the play, but he had made his point -- he was able to track down a mobile quarterback on an inside stunt much more quickly than his 6-4, 271-pound frame would seem to indicate. And if he hadn't collided with Wright as the blitz was happening, Bennett had a good shot at his first sack as a member of the Seahawks. He would have to wait one more game for that to happen.
Bennett's first Seahawks sack happened with 2:33 left in the first quarter of the Seahawks' 29-3 Week 2 win over the San Francisco 49ers. This play was less about scheme and more about effort. Seattle went with a four-man rush in their base heavy package, with Bennett, McDaniel, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, and defensive end Red Bryant from left to right. 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis got a pretty good hold on Bennett as he turned the corner, but Bennett managed to bring Colin Kaepernick to the ground after he was pulled down by Davis.
“He’s different," Carroll said of Bennett's physical attributes. "Yeah he’s a different guy. This is a classic example ... we were looking for guys with special qualities and we’re not just looking for just cookie-cutter guys. He has something really unique about him and it’s really ... it’s his tenacity, that speed, that anticipation that makes him special. He’s not the fastest guy, but he plays with great quickness. He's not 325 [pounds] or something like that, but he makes up in other ways. So that’s why you see him moving around, playing a lot of different spots because we think that we can put him in places where we can take advantage of what he’s good at. So that’s a real classic example of a guy that we’ve brought into the program and we’ve tried to adjust to what he does.”
Carroll moved Bennett around more in the Seahawks' 45-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday, and Bennett picked up one of his two sacks from a different position -- as a one-tech shade tackle between center Brad Meester and right guard Uche Nwaneri.
This sack, which came with 4:34 left in the third quarter, was a great example of scheme setting players up to do what they do best. Bennett was able to split Meester and Nwaneri because Wright slipped through the other A-gap, forcing running back Maurice Jones-Drew to lag for a second before deciding to block Wright and leave Bennett alone. Not a good move.
“He has demonstrated that he can do a lot of stuff," Carroll said. "If you looked at the difference spots he lined up [against Jacksonville], that was about everywhere that you could put a D-lineman and it’s just the way he comes off of the football and he attacks. He’s a very effective player. I think I said this morning, ‘He’s more than we thought he was.’ He’s got more variety to his game, it comes out of just the tenacity and the motor that he has. We are real excited about it. He had a great rush on the second sack that he was involved in. What a fantastic effort by him and the guys were roaring up field and he got there before the other guys.
"For years, we have been looking for an inside presence in the pass rush. I think that’s the best shot that we have right now. The other guys are doing well too, but he has really jumped out.”
And he's done so as the Seahawks have been waiting for their other pass rushers to hit the field. Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons have been dealing with injuries, and Bruce Irvin won't be back until Week 5, because he's serving a league-mandated suspension. In the interim, and for the NFL's best defense, Michael Bennett has been the best kind of difference-maker -- the kind that does more than even his coaches thought he could.