One of the biggest topics surrounding the Seahawks this week is the how the team will be affected by the loss of star pass rusher Chris Clemons. Although there is a great deal of venom to be spewed on the topic of FedEx field’s substandard conditions, for me it just is what it is. Injuries happen, and truth be told the Seahawks have been remarkable healthy this year and have very little to complain about in that regard. Clemons is the first major contributor (I guess you could make an argument for Jason Jones but I think it would be a stretch) the Seahawks have lost to injury this year. A good team, a team in the last final eight vying for the Super Bowl, needs to have the depth to overcome the loss of a single player. Now one could argue that Clemons is a particularly indispensable player for Seattle because defensive end is not one of their areas of depth, but he is one player nonetheless.
The obvious option for filling the Clemons hole is putting in rookie Bruce Irvin, and that’s exactly what the Seahawks are going to do. Irvin will slot in at Clemons’s spot at Leo with question marks about his ability to hold up against the run. I thought he looked just fine after Clemons left last week but I think that’s what people call a small sample size. The fact of the matter is that Irvin is not a known quantity when it comes to run defense. Luckily he isn’t up for the biggest challenge in that department.
There is this perception that Atlanta can really run the ball and in 2012 it couldn’t be more wrong. Atlanta, a team ahead in games often that should have been running the ball more than average, was 29th in the league in rushing yards per game and tied for 31st in first downs on the ground. Tellingly they were 28th in yards per carry, led by the aging Michael Turner (3.6 ypc) and the supposedly explosive but limited Jacquizz Rodgers (3.9 ypc). To give you another perspective the Falcons had the 31st ranked Run EPA/play in the NFL at -0.10, meaning that, on average, after the Atlanta Falcons completed a running play the team was in a situation where they were likely to score a tenth of a point less than before the play was run. These aren’t you’re the Falcons of yesteryear (literally 2011) that could cram the ball down your throat.
The thing is that even if Irvin struggles against Atlanta’s fairly dismal run game Seattle can put in Scruggs on early downs and he will likely be effective in that role. Though this might open up some early-down passing opportunities for the Falcons I think that by and large some combination of Irvin-Scruggs (the more Irvin the better) can be a reasonable facsimile of Clemons. Instead what the Seahawks need to concern themselves with is who fills Irvin’s role as the second pass rusher on passing downs. This is where the Seahawks find themselves in a spot of bother, as it were. If Irvin is the only threat he can be double teamed and Matt Ryan can enjoy a clean pocket from which he can hit Roddy White and Julio Jones downfield.
This article will address two of the names that have been brought up as potential pass rushing replacements for Clemons: Free Agent Ray Edwards and the improbable Mike Morgan. It may well happen that one of these two could be the unlikely hero for the Seahawks on Sunday, an idea that was unfathomable merely days ago.
First up is the (sort of) known quantity, former Falcon Ray Edwards. Edwards is best known for a two year stretch (2009-2010) where he put up 16.5 sacks and was thought to be a complete DE worthy of a big contract. Atlanta gave him that contract, received 3.5 sacks from him in 25 games and sent him packing earlier this year. Edwards is on the radar largely because he worked out with the Seahawks earlier this year and the fact he is a recognizable name to many NFL fans, something that cannot be said for other street free agents and the internal options Seattle have. Let’s give it the classic, but never out of style, pro-con analysis.
Pros: Edwards is still relatively young at 28 and has been durable throughout his career (never having played less than 12 games in a season) suggesting that his physical skills should still be intact. He has been successful at the NFL level and has a lengthy track record with 33 sacks in his career. Edwards at 6-4 270 has the requisite size to play on any down so if Irvin struggles against the run he could also fit in there while offering more pass rush ability from the DE spot than Scruggs would have. He could be extra motivated to play against the team that recently cut him (I know that’s pure speculation but I know I would be in his shoes). Ray Edwards is also a professional boxer with a career record of 1-0, which is pretty cool.
Cons: Edwards has been extraordinarily unproductive over the last two years after signing a 5 year contract with the Falcons prior to 2011. The Falcons really aren’t in the business of releasing good players given that they are going for a Super Bowl run so releasing him was not merely a cost-cutting measure. No other team has picked up Edwards to this point.
Overall I think you could do worse than Edwards. If he was a couple of years older I wouldn’t touch him, but maybe he just wasn’t a fit in Atlanta for whatever reason. He still likely possesses the athleticism that made him effective and he can play on any down. He’s the sort of guy Seattle could catch lightning in a bottle with, which is exactly what they need.
The other option I’ll be highlighting today is virtual unknown/backup linebacker (or so we thought) Mike Morgan. Morgan is a player that Pete Carroll knows from his USC days who perhaps was kept around due to his versatility and potential to play Leo on passing downs although I must confess that Carroll speaking about that possibility this week is the first I recall hearing about it. There isn’t that much information floating around about Morgan, for understandable reasons, but I’ll do my best to whip out the virtual legal pad for another pro-con.
Pros: The man is fast (4.47 40), like Bruce Irvin fast. Morgan put up a very impressive 27 reps on the bench press in the past suggesting that he may be stronger than his raw size would suggest. Coming out of high school some pegged Morgan as a potential Dwight Freeney-like speed rushing end. Pete Carroll knows more about Morgan than we do and figures he might be worth a look.
Cons: Morgan is an utter unknown at the position/basically in general. He has been playing, and presumably practicing at LB all year. He is really small (6’3 226) to be lining up at DE, even for a passing situation and you wouldn’t even think of putting him in if there was the remotest chance the Falcons were going to run the ball. His athletic profile is like Irvin minus 20 pounds and a little bit of short are quickness so concerns we have about Bruce getting blown out wide or physically overpowered by OT’s can basically be doubled for Morgan.
You will notice that I did not include my thoughts on putting Wagner or Wright in to rush the passer because, although that has been mentioned, I don’t think it’s wise to compromise the pass coverage in that manner, especially with Atlanta having the still effective Tony Gonzalez at TE. Overall I’d rather see the Seahawks sign Edwards because I think having two pure speed guys like Irvin and Morgan could be problematic and Morgan scares me because I have no idea what he can do. However, if Pete Carroll goes with Morgan or one of the LB’s I will trust him because this season he has most certainly earned my trust. What I don’t want to see is Carroll throw Scruggs opposite Irvin on passing downs and limit the Seahawks to one pass rushing threat and, as a result, an impotent pass rush. I haven’t outlined all the options here, just two that I have heard discussed, in all likelihood Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have cooked up an alternative idea that hasn’t even occurred to us yet. That’s just the sort of guys they are.