Irvin deepens the defense

Panthers linebacker Bruce Irvin (55) rushes in against the Falcons during a game Dec. 8, 2019, in Atlanta. Irvin is now part of the Seahawks defense. Associated Press

Bruce Irvin was psyched to be back in Seattle this week.

Eight exclamation-points psyched.

The Seahawks’ first-round draft choice in 2012 won a Super Bowl on the edge of their defense in 2014. He came within a yard of winning a second title in 2015. Now, he is all the way back. He landed this week to begin work on the one-year, $5.5 million contract to which he agreed in March.

“I couldn’t ask for a better situation,” the 32-year-old Irvin said from his home in Atlanta last month.

It’s not the same Seahawks situation he left in February 2015.

At his listed position, it’s better.

After four seasons and two Super Bowls with the Seahawks from 2012-15, Irvin left Seattle, first to Oakland in 2016 on a $37 million free-agent deal, then to his hometown of Atlanta for 2018 and Carolina last year. He’s progressively become less a linebacker and more an end pass rusher on the line in longer-yardage situations. The Panthers played so much nickel defense while losing 11 games last season, Irvin was almost exclusively a rush defensive end. He got his career high in sacks.

He said he is a more “polished” player now than he was on the Seahawks’ NFL-leading defense of five and six years ago, that the game feels slower to him because he better understands its nuances and tricks.

His All-Pro linebacking partner on those Seahawks Super Bowl teams says Irvin’s return is going to enliven the 2020 season.

“It’s great. I love having Bruce back,” Bobby Wagner said.

“It’s really cool having the people that you came in with back, the people that understood what we did to kind of get to the height that we got to as a defense, to have another person to be able to share that experience. And just having another beast, man, just have another baller, another dog.

“I’ve always watched his games since he left, and he’s gotten better and better and better over the years. … It’s going to be a fun room, for sure.”

Seattle’s linebackers aren’t just going to be more fun. They will be deeper and are already better than when Irvin was last one of them 5 1/2 years ago.

Wagner is still the perennial All-Pro in the middle. Pro Bowl veteran K.J. Wright is now the team’s longest-tenured player. The Seahawks drafted Wright in 2011, one year before they surprised the NFL by selecting the supposedly one-dimensional, pass rush-only Irvin 13th overall out of West Virginia.

The Seahawks improved their 4-3 defense’s best and deepest position in April when they drafted fast tackling machine Jordyn Brooks from Texas Tech in the first round.

The selection of Brooks came a year after Seattle drafted versatile linebacker Cody Barton in the second round. Barton started two games in December as a rookie, after strongside starter Mychal Kendricks’ season-ending injury. The Seahawks also have Ben Burr-Kirvin, the former University of Washington middle linebacker. Seattle drafted him in 2019, in the fifth round.

Irvin turns 33 in November. He laughs and says he feels “old as hell.”

No matter. All these younger Seahawks linebackers mean Irvin doesn’t have to and likely won’t play his old strongside linebacker position on every down.

Seattle isn’t guaranteeing him almost all that $5.5 million they are paying him this year to cover running backs and tight ends on the defense’s flanks as an outside linebacker on early downs. He’s back to improve the Seahawks’ malfunctioning pass rush from 2019, when only Miami had fewer sacks in the NFL.

That means most of Irvin’s role will likely be on third downs and in passing situations as the situational edge rusher, on the line as the end he was last year in Carolina. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll seeks to put his players in the spots in which they excel most often. At this point in Irvin’s career, that’s as a specialized pass rusher off the edge.

Brooks led Texas Tech in tackles annually while playing outside linebacker multiple years and in the middle last season. With Kendricks gone as an unsigned free agent, the Seahawks could move Wright to the strongside for the final season of his contract and Brooks to the weakside spot that often showcases speed. The weakside linebacker often ends up as the middle man during plays that go to an offense’s strongside.

Or Brooks could go to strongside with Wright staying at his weakside spot, where he is one of the league’s best at diagnosing plays and covering backs on screens and in the flat. Either way, Seattle didn’t make Brooks their top pick to have him not play. The Seahawks have had too much of that the last few years (see: Malik McDowell and L.J. Collier).

Carroll isn’t going to reveal his plan for Brooks and the linebackers in the offseason before training camp, which is scheduled to begin July 28. Brooks hasn’t even been on the practice field for Seattle yet. The Seahawks and every NFL team have been home while their team facilities have been closed all spring by the coronavirus pandemic.

“He could, he could play outside,” Carroll said this spring of Brooks. “We played Mychal Kendricks at that spot last year, he has a lot of similar traits. Behind the line of scrimmage is exciting. To see a guy running that fast and he comes downhill at you, it’s a really good situation.

“We’re really not worried about it. at all. We love the versatility in our players. K.J. can play inside and outside. You saw Barton play inside and outside. And Bobby has really been the fixture inside. Everybody’s got flexibility.

“This is going to be something that’s really fun to figure out.”

Seattle’s pass rush is still remodeling. It is still waiting on Jadeveon Clowney to decide whether to re-sign for 2020. Depth at defensive tackle beyond re-signed Jarran Reed is a concern. Quinton Dunbar, who arrived in an offseason trade from Washington with the plan to be a new starting cornerback, is facing a trial for felony armed robbery in Florida. There may be a new nickel defensive back and more use of five defensive backs in the defense in Seattle this year, particularly if Dunbar is able to play the full season along with 2019 starting cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers.

Partly because they didn’t trust their new nickel backs after Justin Coleman left to sign with Detroit last spring, the Seahawks used base 4-3 with three linebackers more than 60 percent of the time in 2019. That was by far the most base defense in the league. And Seattle dropped from 11th in 2018 to 26th in total defense.

With all the unknowns in front and behind them, Wagner knows the linebackers are key to Seattle improving the entire defense that had been among the NFL’s top 10 for years until 2019.

“The standard is set. We want to make sure we reach that standard, and push that standard up,” he said.

“I think we are hungry. Personally, I can’t wait to get back on the field and do what we’ve always been doing.”


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