How Much of an Impact Can Bruce Irvin Make in His Return vs. the Colts?

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterOctober 5, 2013

Sep 16, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin (51) celebrates after sacking Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) (not pictured during the 2nd half at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Dallas 27-7. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

After last year’s disappointing performance in the playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks knew their No. 1 focus during the offseason would be to upgrade their anemic pass rush. 

Getting after the quarterback wasn’t always a challenge for Seattle’s defense, but things changed in a hurry when defensive end Chris Clemons suffered a torn ACL versus the Washington Redskins

Despite having a monster rookie season, defensive end Bruce Irvin failed to generate a consistent pass rush on his own. Without Clemons, Irvin turned in the worst single-game performance of his young career. On 25 pass-rush snaps, he recorded one measly quarterback hurry.

With Clemons’ status for the 2013 season opener in doubt, general manager John Schneider spent big in free agency by adding two of the biggest names on the open market. Fans and media members alike viewed defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett as sensational gets for the Seahawks.

Through four games, both players have seemingly lived up to their high-dollar contracts. On 194 combined pass-rush attempts, Avril and Bennett have managed to tally 4.5 quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits and 20 quarterback hurries.

Furthermore, Bennett has established himself as the second-best pass-rushing 4-3 end in the league, while Avril has established himself as the third-best, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

The 10 best pass rushing 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus
The 10 best pass rushing 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus

With two of the most potent pass-rushers in the league, it’s hard to imagine how the Seahawks pass rush could become more formidable than it already is. However, it’s evident that the best is yet to come, thanks in large part to Clemons’ improving health and Irvin’s return from his four-game suspension

As important as Clemons’ health is, we have already seen what he can do on a limited basis over the course of the last two games. We have not seen anything from Irvin. The second-year pro out of West Virginia has been secluded from the organization ever since the team’s final preseason game.

During his suspension, he wasn’t allowed to practice, attend team meetings or step foot inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. Being away from his teammates and the coaching staff had to have been tough for Irvin. But he told the media that he did his best to stay in football shape amidst his hiatus, via the Associated Press.

Aside from staying in shape, one has to believe Irvin was knee-deep in the defensive playbook. Why? Because he will no longer be rushing the passer full time as a defensive end—head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn decided it would be best to move him to outside linebacker.

Yet, Irvin won’t be viewed as a traditional outside linebacker. He will be relegated part-time to Carroll’s baby, the LEO end position and outside linebacker. If you’re not familiar with the LEO end position, the LEO is a hybrid pass-rusher who is a mix of a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker.

In addition to getting after the quarterback, the LEO’s job is to confuse the opposing team’s offensive linemen. He does this sometimes by standing up and moving all around prior to the ball being snapped. It puts stress on the offensive line because it has to regularly communicate where the hybrid rusher is on the field.

Despite the position switch, Irvin will still have to use a lot of the same techniques he used in 2012 to put pressure on the quarterback. Let’s go to the tape from his rookie season and examine how much of an impact he can make this Sunday in Indianapolis. 

NFL Game Rewind
NFL Game Rewind

On this second-quarter play against the Carolina Panthers, Irvin is lined up as the left defensive end. The Seahawks defense only rushed four on this play, but it generated pressure by running a designed inside stunt on the left side of the line.

NFL Game Rewind
NFL Game Rewind

As soon as left defensive tackle Jason Jones occupied the right tackle and the right guard, Irvin turned on the jets and swooped to the inside. His speed allowed him to get by the right guard with ease. This, in turn, meant the only thing left to do was chase down quarterback Cam Newton from behind.

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Lo and behold, Irvin chased Newton down and recorded the sack for a 13-yard loss.

The fact that Jones was able to occupy two offensive linemen on the play was crucial. Yet this play would have never ended the way it did without Irvin’s speed. His 4.5-second speed single-handedly dictated the end result. 

NFL Game Rewind
NFL Game Rewind

This second play hones in on Irvin’s power-rush move and his hand usage.

Versus the Green Bay Packers Week 3, the Seahawks defense deployed a 3-2-6 look to counter the Packers “11 personnel” grouping. Irvin was lined up as the left defensive end, and his primary matchup was right tackle Bryan Bulaga.

NFL Game Rewind
NFL Game Rewind

The moment Irvin made contact with Bulaga, it was over for the first-round offensive lineman.

Irvin’s hand usage on the play was as good as it gets. He got up under Bulaga’s helmet and used his brute strength to knock the right tackle's center of gravity off. After the power move, he beelined back to the inside and dropped quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a three-yard loss.

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Irvin is far from the perfect player; he has his faults just like every other player in the NFL does. Yet, it’s apparent that he is a blue-chip prospect. His size, speed, hand usage and power will make him a controlling force in Week 5.

However, the key to his success against the Colts will be consistency. As a rookie, there were times where he would disappear, and you wouldn’t even notice he was on the field. Yes, it is hard to come into the NFL and make your presence felt on every play—I get that. But part of the evolution process is becoming a more consistent player on a per-snap basis. 

Nonetheless, when one takes the time to watch his rookie tape just as we did, the arrow for Irvin is pointing up. You know he is raring to go after sitting out the first four games of the season. The good thing is on Sunday, all of the skills he used as a defensive end will directly translate to the outside linebacker position.

His seamless transition will be on full display. 

Also, don’t expect Irvin to only play from the stand-up position from here on out. Without a doubt, he will see plenty of snaps at outside linebacker, but it’s a good bet he will still see some action at the LEO position as well.

Here’s how Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports envisions Irvin’s role on passing downs: 

Look for Cliff Avril at left end, Bennett inside over the center or a guard, 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.

With this weekend's game in Indy fast approaching, it will be interesting to see how and where Irvin lines up. Moreover, it will be intriguing to see how many snaps he plays. Regardless of the number of snaps, Irvin’s impact on the game will be substantial whether it shows up in the box score or not.