The Seattle Seahawks were propelled to victory in Super Bowl XLVIII in large part by a pass rush that was as deep as it was talented.
However, if the team is going to make it back to the Super Bowl after what promises to be an offseason filled with tough personnel decisions, linebacker Bruce Irvin is going to have to start living up to his draft slot in a hurry.
The Seahawks were the cause of more than a few raised eyebrows when they made Irvin the 15th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. By season's end, however, the wiry defensive end from West Virginia with the 4.43-second speed had made quite an impact, notching eight sacks as a situational pass-rusher.
|Bruce Irvin 2012|
|Per Pro Football Focus|
It gave Irvin more than a little momentum as 2013 dawned, but it didn't take long for things to go awry.
Before training camp had even gotten underway, Irvin was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, a misstep that brought back memories of Irvin's troubled past.
However, while speaking with Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated in August, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll was confident that, with Irvin switching to strong-side linebacker, his athleticism and ability to rush the passer could help him become the next Von Miller:
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.
Linebackers coach Ken Norton also felt Irvin was ready for an expanded role:
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. 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.
Irvin didn't handle it well.
|Bruce Irvin 2013|
|Per Pro Football Focus|
At times, Irvin looked very much like a small defensive end trying to play linebacker, and the big plays that Irvin was drafted to generate disappeared.
As the season wore on, Irvin's playing time shrank. According to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times, by the time Super Bowl XLVIII rolled around Irvin played only 17 snaps, all of them as a "LEO" defensive end.
Carroll told Condotta the plan for 2014 is to have Irvin play both standing up and with his hand in the dirt:
[Irvin’s role is] a blend, and it will continue to be a blend of the outside backer stuff and the rush end stuff, and we are thrilled about him. He had a really good year playing linebacker and we want to continue to develop his rush ability. It took away a little bit from that (playing LEO) because he was dropping and covering people, which he did really well. But we’d like to continue to develop his rush ability as we go forward. We used him in the (Super Bowl) quite a bit (at LEO) but he was sprinkled in throughout the season.
If the Seahawks are going to travel to Glendale to defend their championship in Super Bowl XLIX, Irvin needs to accelerate his development.
That vaunted depth on defense in Seattle is about to be put to the test by the financial realities of today's NFL.
According to spotrac, the Seahawks have just under $12 million in cap space for the upcoming season, the lowest amount in the NFC West.
As ESPN's John Clayton recently told ESPN 710 Radio in Seattle, the Seahawks are expected to clear further cap room by severing ties with several veteran players, including defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant.
The team also has a number of high-profile free agents on the defensive side of the ball, including defensive lineman Michael Bennett and cornerback Walter Thurmond.
Then there's safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker (and Super Bowl MVP) Malcolm Smith, who all are entering the last year of their contracts.
And there's the matter of quarterback Russell Wilson, whose rookie deal can be re-done a year from now.
In short, the Seahawks are going to have to tighten their belts in order to keep their core players around. Bryant and Clemons are all but surely goners, and Bennett's return will likely be dictated by the offers he gets on the open market.
That means fewer bodies on the front seven and a bigger role for Irvin, whether he's ready or not.
Mind you, there's cause for some optimism. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Irvin 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013. It's also worth noting, however, that of the top 10 only James Harrison of the Cincinnati Bengals played fewer snaps.
And that's what's going to have to change. We don't yet know how the 2014 Seahawks will differ from last year's team, but it's a fair assumption that Irvin is going to need to average more than the 30 snaps a game he played last year.
The talent's there. It's not every day that 248-pound players this fast come along, and Irvin's first step is more explosive than most.
It's a first step we didn't see enough of in 2013, and one the Seahawks will need if they're going to spend next February in the desert.