Sports

Help, tweaks on the way for Seahawks’ underwhelming pass rush

If Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah did their latest homework, they should be smiling.

Pete Carroll gave them and the rest of the Seahawks what the coach called “a homework assignment” Monday night: Watch their next opponent, the Cleveland Browns, play the San Francisco 49ers on television.

Now Carroll may have to spend the rest of this week convincing his men the Browns aren’t as bad as they looked in that homework.

Clowney and Ansah, the bookend stars of a Seahawks’ pass rush that has yet to break out this season, watched the 49ers sack Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield three times and hit him seven more times—just in the first half—Monday night. San Francisco ended up with four sacks and eight hits on Mayfield in a 31-3 blowout win. It kept the 49ers (4-0) a half-game ahead of Seattle (4-1) atop the NFC West.

Niners defensive lineman Nick Bosa had two sacks and five hits on Mayfield. After the game, Bosa said of the 6-foot-1 Mayfield: “I don’t know how anyone thought he’d be able to see over Arik (Armstead) and ‘Buck’ (DeForest Buckner, San Francisco’s 6-7 pass rushers). But he was panicking. Double-clutching. Rolling back and forth.

“We had him rattled, all game.”

Cleveland has allowed 16 sacks five games this season, sixth-most in the NFL.

Clowney and Ansah are both 6-5. They will be the next pass rushers coming after Mayfield, Sunday in Cleveland.

The Seahawks’ prized additions to the defensive line have one sack each through their first month with their new team. Clowney’s sack came in the first game, on one of the only times Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton held onto the ball and tried to scramble outside during his 418-yard passing day Sept. 8.

The biggest reason to believe these Seahawks are going to be a better team in November and December than they are now is the all-important pass rush should be better in November and December than it is now.

The Seahawks are winning despite being 22nd in the 32-team NFL with 10 sacks through five games. Two of those 10 sacks have come on blitzes by linebacker Mychal Kendricks, in the win at Arizona two games ago. Clowney had a game-breaking interception he returned for a touchdown in the first half of that 27-10 rout.

So the remade defensive line featuring Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowl end the Seahawks traded with Houston to get Sept. 1, and Ansah, a 2015 Pro Bowl pass rusher and Seattle’s top signing in free agency this spring, has just eight sacks on 203 opponent dropbacks through five games.

Take away Kendricks’ linebacker-blitz sacks and the Seahawks would be 28th in the NFL in getting the QB down.

“We’ve just got to finish and get sacks,” Clowney said of his defensive line Monday following Seattle’s short practice and return from three days off following the 30-29 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

“We are headed in the right direction. I think, overall, we could do a lot more than what we are doing, to make a lot more plays up front, our tackles-for-loss game.”

The difference in Seattle’s pass rush from 2018 with since-traded Frank Clark and Jarran Reed leading it to Clowney and Ansah leading it now?

Not much. It’s been less effective through five games. The Seahawks have 10 sacks and 17 hits so far this season. After five games last season, they had 10 sacks and 26 hits on quarterbacks.

“But we got wins,” Clowney said.

“I think it’s going to keep getting better and better each week, if we keep sticking together and playing together.”

Help is on the way.

This time next week, Reed will be back from his six-game suspension the NFL gave him because of an alleged domestic-violence incident in his Bellevue home. The defensive tackle is coming off a breakout season with a career-high 10 1/2 sacks last year.

Reed was allowed to practice and play through the preseason, then was forced by the terms of the suspension to go away from the team beginning Sept. 2, six days before Seattle’s opening win over the Bengals.

Reed’s return will change the Seahawks’ pass rush schematically as well as practically. Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt and coordinator Ken Norton Jr. have primarily been using four ends across the line in passing situations: Clowney and Ansah on the edges with ends Quinton Jefferson, Branden Jackson and Rasheem Green alternating at the two inside, tackle spots. At times, less so last week against the Rams, Clowney has been a stand-up tackle inside Jefferson in the pass rush. That’s a role Clowney sometimes had in Houston’s 3-4 defense during his first five seasons in the league.

When Reed returns next week, he will be inside either Clowney or Ansah as a tackle. That will be another adjustment for the new edge rushers.

Ansah just played his third game in 10 months following shoulder surgery that ended his 2018 season with Detroit and a groin injury in August.

Coaches have likened his and Ansah’s places right now to late August of a typical preseason, had they been practicing and playing some in exhibition games.

Asked Monday if Clowney is now starting to look like he would have with a full preseason with the Seahawks, Carroll said: “No. Not yet.

“I think he’s got a little bit (yet to go). It’s all the prep time in our style and what we are asking him to do—he’s rushing the passer all the time. I think he would have had just the benefit, offseason-wise, to his hands and feet and things that we do technically, you know. I think he would have been farther along.”

“We need to do better,” Carroll said.

Carroll is counting on Clowney and Ansah breaking out soon.

Of Clowney, Carroll said: “He’s a natural athlete. It comes to him. And he’s active, real active.

“The thing I really like is, he’s really active and looks like he’s going to come alive here and have a big game here, in the next couple.

“And also with Ziggy. Ziggy gives such great effort, chases the football so hard. He’s going to make more plays, too. I think those two guys, in particular, are going to be the guys that pick up.

“You can just feel it’s coming alive. I think just the combination with Zig outside and what’s going on inside, I think we’re going to be able to work together better. We’ll spot them a little better.”

That, coupled with Reed’s return, has Clowney optimistic about the pass rush for the final 11 games of the regular season.

“We are getting pressure, a lot of pressure, but we aren’t finishing, getting sacks,” he said. “We’ve got to come next week trying to get sacks, not just pressures.”

“They come in bunches, though.”

Just ask Reed. The Seahawks’ second-round pick from 2016 had three total sacks his first two seasons combined before his breakout 2018.

Asked what he knows about Reed’s game, Clowney said: “I know he had 10 1/2 sacks last year. I do know that.

“I know he’s a big body inside. And I know he knows the defense more than I do. All that adds up to a big factor. He can help the defense. He can help our team. Everybody is waiting on him to come back. He can help our team.

“Him coming back with what we already got? Can’t help but go up and keep getting better as a unit.

“And I think that’s what’s going to happen when he gets here.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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