Bruce Irvin: Versatility, Development and Expanding a Role With the Seattle Seahawks

He still needs to spend most of his time on the practice field, but the signs are good for the Seattle Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin.

After analysing the play of Chris Clemons yesterday, now is as good a time as any to take a look at his prospective heir in Seattle, Bruce Irvin. Irvin is a 26-year-old entering his second season in the league after being a surprise first round pick last season. Although he was a surprise for the media and outside analysts, the Seahawks were delighted that he fell to them while a number of other teams were apparently unhappy that he didn’t fall to them.

His rookie season was as productive as even the most ambitious of fans could have hoped for. He didn’t start a single game, but still notched eight sacks as an important situational pass-rusher across from Clemons. Irvin was drafted out of West Virginia because of his exceptional pass-rushing ability, but developing him into an every-down defensive end was going to take time.

Because of his play in 2012, Irvin was expected to become a full-time starter sooner rather than later. When Clemons tore his ACL during the team’s playoff game against the Washington Redskins, Irvin was initially looked to as his replacement as the LEO of the defense. Since that point early in the off-season however, the arrival of a handful of big-name free agent defensive ends and Irvin’s four-game-suspension has essentially withdrawn his name from the running to replace Clemons.

For Irvin, the challenge now isn’t to replace Clemons or account for his lost production, the challenge now is to come back from his four-game-suspension and elevate his play within last year’s role. Because of the nature of today’s NFL, being a situational pass-rusher isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Irvin can dramatically impact football games without playing on every first-down because of his penchant for big plays.

That is what made him a first round pick. That is what will ultimately define his career when it comes to a close.

In order to understand just how impressive Irvin’s rookie season was, he was put under the same scrutiny as Von MillerJJ WattAldon SmithCameron Wake,Geno Atkins and Justin Houston.

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Irvin’s Overall Results

Eleven defenders played more snaps than Irvin last year. Four of those were defensive linemen, but Irvin had more pass-rushing snaps than two of those. Irvin was on the field for 533 snaps and 393 of those were spent chasing the quarterback in passing situations. Only 14 times did he drop into coverage while on the field.

Irvin had eight official sacks during the regular season last year, but he got to the quarterback 10 times  over the whole season. That gives him a sack percentage of 2.54, which is better than Chris Clemons’ 2.29 and Geno Atkins’ 2.5, but behind Cameron Wake, JJ Watt, Aldon Smith and Von Miller who all had sacks on more than three percent of their snaps, while Justin Houston had a sack on 2.8 percent of his snaps also.

Every single one of Irvin’s sacks came from a left defensive end position.

He stunted three times with a teammate before getting to the quarterback and beat a double team once, against the Arizona Cardinals late in the fourth quarter with a 58 point lead. Two of Irvin’s sacks were results of blown assignments, but he played the part of the protagonist on the rest.

Just like Chris Clemons, Irvin didn’t have a single sack when his team was playing from behind. Twice he sacked the quarterback when the Seahawks were tied with the Green Bay Packers, and six times he took the signal-caller down when the game was within one score. His final two sacks came in fourth quarters with big leads, 20 points over the Dallas Cowboys and 58 points over the Arizona Cardinals. Irvin had two more sacks in fourth quarters throughout the season, one when the Seahawks were defending a four point lead against the Carolina Panthers with 49 seconds to go and once with a seven point lead and seven minutes to go against the Washington Redskins in the playoffs. Half of his remaining sacks came in the first quarter, with one more in the second quarter and two in the third quarter.

Three times Irvin penetrated the pocket passed the offensive guard, once the left guard and twice the right guard, while all the seven others went past the right tackle. Irvin showed off his diversity as he beat the right tackles on the inside four times and outside three times. Unsurprisingly, his only two sacks outside of the pocket came against Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.

Considering his role, it makes sense that Irvin only sacked the quarterback on first down once all season, in the playoffs. Six of his sacks came on third down with an average of 8.67 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker. His three sacks on second down came with 10, 10 and 20 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first down.

Method Analysis

Timestamp Players Beat Speed Bull Combination Move?
DAL, Q4 07:46 Doug Free No No No Inside Step
GB, Q1 11:04 Bryan Bulaga No No Speed to Bull No
GB, Q1 02:52 Bryan Bulaga No No No Punched Shoulder
CAR, Q2 08:11 Garry Williams Yes No No No
CAR, Q4 00:49 Aminu Silatolu Yes No No No
MIN, Q3 11:13 None No No No No
NYJ, Q1 04:02 Austin Howard Yes No No No
NYJ, Q3 02:16 None No No No No
ARI, Q4 00:56 Adam Snyder, Rich Ohrnberger Yes No No Shed
WAS, Q4 07:03 Josh Morgan,
Darrel Young
No No No Shed, Inside Step

Irvin was 6’3 and roughly 250 lbs during his rookie season. He used his size and length on a regular basis last year, but he also had that quick step and acceleration to beat offensive linemen with his speed and his speed alone. This is what made Irvin so attractive to NFL teams last off-season, he is almost the perfect build for an edge-rusher because he has the physical traits to explode with and the perfect size to use his strength without letting offensive linemen control him with their reach.

Irvin didn’t bull-rush anyone straight up during the season, but his setup before exploding through Bryan Bulaga was as impressive as any bull-rush you will see.

Irvin Bulaga

Irvin uses all of his physical tools to set up this sack, but he also shows off perfect timing and excellent hand usage. At the snap, he is much quicker than Bulaga, which means that they are level with each other down the field very quickly. In this scenario, if Bulaga is level with his feet perpendicular to the sideline as they are at the second stop above, then he is very vulnerable to Irvin’s strength. Bulaga has no base beneath him, while Irvin’s feet are moving forward towards the quarterback. Without a proper base beneath him, it is easy for Irvin to knock him off stride.

Irvin does this by attacking his neck with his hand, using his reach to get his arms into Bulaga’s chest before driving him backwards with his strength. As the red circles show, when Irvin is pushing Bulaga with his hand, the offensive tackle’s feet are too close together and facing the wrong way. It’s impossible for Bulaga to plant his feet and anchor Irvin’s impending bull-rush from this position.

From here, Irvin gets into Bulaga’s chest and angles sharply towards Aaron Rodgers, running right through Bulaga as he does. Bulaga is already falling backwards at this point, while Irvin is just building up to full steam.

Sack Rodgers

At the top of the rush, Irvin uses his arms and position advantage to knock Bulaga away. Bulaga has no chance here and immediately falls onto his back when Irvin cuts back inside to sack Aaron Rodgers, who had been forced to climb the pocket because of the two edge-rushers pushing down the field.

This is a deadly move for offensive tackles to handle. Irvin’s size and strength makes him a formidable bull-rusher, even if he doesn’t use it with great success all that often. When combined with his ability to get outside of offensive tackles and beat them around the edge, there is nothing that can be taken for granted when battling the emerging superstar.

Swing Sack

While he didn’t use a straight-up bull-rush at any point during the season, his strength did permeate through his play. Not to harp on Bulaga, but Irvin beat him with his strength again soon after his first sack. Again he came downfield initially, before punching Bulaga’s shoulder to create a seam passed his inside shoulder. Irvin attacked the seam and even though Bulaga latched onto him, he was able to hold him off while chasing down Rodgers in the pocket.

Bulaga is one of the most talented right tackles in the NFL, so beating him repeatedly is a very positive sign for Irvin.

Irvin is capable of beating offensive tackles outside with his speed, but his most impressive feat comes when he motions inside. Getting back to his build, Irvin has the perfect size to shoot through gaps in the offensive line without being knocked off balance by bigger interior offensive linemen. Against the Carolina Panthers, he showed that off on two stunt plays.

Stunt Start

This is the setup of the stunt. Irvin initially lines up as a left defensive end, before cutting across the field towards the center. He stunts behind the first defensive tackle without hesitation, but stalls for a split second to allow the furthest off defensive tackle to come across and occupy the left guard. At that point, Irvin looks to attack the space that is widening between the left guard and the left tackle.

Irvin Speed Stunt

With his acceleration, Irvin is able to shoot through the gap before the offensive lineman can get level with him. This puts him in another scenario where he is further down the field than his opponent and his opponent is forced to desperately try to knock him away at the last second.

Of course this doesn’t work and Irvin is able to attack the football in Cam Newton’s grasp to force a fumble.

These combinations of moves are not things that every pass-rusher in the NFL can do. In fact, not even every good pass-rusher in the NFL can do what Irvin does on some of these plays. Most good pass-rushers have one overwhelming strength that they play to and build their repertoire of moves off of. Much like Justin Houston, Irvin doesn’t have a single trait that is significantly greater than the other aspects of his play. That is what will allow him to be special if he can reach his potential.

Of course with a young, productive pass-rusher who has no track record of success in the NFL, it’s just as important to understand who he is beating as how he is beating them:

Names Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Doug Free 674 6 -4.2
Bryan Bulaga 388 4 -0.6
Garry Williams 357 1 -3.9
Aminu Silatolu 516 4 -11.4
Austin Howard 591 10 -5.1
Adam Snyder 560 4 -8.1
Rich Ohrnberger 208 1 -1.6
Josh Morgan 1 0 0.5
Darrel Young 34 0 1.9
Total 3,359 30 -32.9
Average 373.22 3.33 3.66

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

There is no way around it, the players that Irvin beat for sacks last season were not playing well. However, even though that is the case, there are some talented players in this unit with Doug Free and Bryan Bulaga in particular having played well in previous years and Austin Howard showing well at times last year.

Playing on the left side of the defensive line also allowed Irvin to avoid the premiere left tackles in the league.

Timestamp Quarterback Players Beat Attacks Ball? Time Elapsed Yards
DAL, Q4 07:46 Tony Romo Doug Free No 2.8 4
GB, Q1 11:04 Aaron Rodgers Bryan Bulaga Yes 2.8 3
GB, Q1 02:52 Aaron Rodgers Bryan Bulaga No 3.9 6
CAR, Q2 08:11 Cam Newton Garry Williams No 4.3 13
CAR, Q4 00:49 Cam Newton Aminu Silatolu Yes 3.2 8
MIN, Q3 11:13 Christian Ponder None No 2.9 8
NYJ, Q1 04:02 Mark Sanchez Austin Howard No 2.6 9
NYJ, Q3 02:16 Mark Sanchez None No 2.2 6
ARI, Q4 00:56 Ryan Lindley Adam Snyder, Rich Ohrnberger Yes 2.2 11
WAS, Q4 07:03 Robert Griffin III Josh Morgan, Darrel Young No 5.7 12
Total N/A 10 3 32.6 80
Average N/A 1 .3 3.26 8

Irvin was only one hundreth of a second slower to the quarterback than Clemons was on average. Clemons had a 3.25 average, while only JJ Watt, 3.16, and Cameron Wake, 3.01, were quicker than Irvin’s 3.26 on average of those who were studied.

Verdict

Unfortunately an ill-timed suspension will take away Irvin’s opportunity to replace Clemons in the short-term, but as a sheer pass-rusher for the long-term, he should be more than a viable replacement for the Seahawks’ star pass-rusher. Irvin appears to have it all physically, much like Aldon Smith in the same division, but Smith was further along in his development last year so it’s difficult to compare the two.

If you want to compare Smith and Irvin, you must go back and look at Smith’s first season in the league when the duo filled similar roles. However, if you just want to compare their pass-rushing abilities, it appears that Irvin is much further along technically than Smith was even last season. Smith played more snaps and benefited from more ‘gift’ sacks, which is the main reason why Irvin wasn’t as productive.

That said, Irvin still needs to prove that he can match Smith in other aspects of the game. He is learning from one of the most versatile and well-rounded defensive linemen in the league in Clemons, but he needs to prove himself in terms of holding scheme discipline and standing up in run support. If he can’t do that, he may ultimately fail to reach his full potential and be limited to a role similar to that of Antwan Barnes. A very strong pass-rusher, but a situational player who can’t play every down.

Irvin is lucky that he plays in this era of the NFL. As a situational pass-rusher, he can have a long, successful career. That appears to be his floor. His ceiling? His ceiling is very hard to determine based solely on last year. He has huge potential, but we need to see the longevity and development that guys like JJ Watt and Von Miller showed in their second seasons.

He may only play in 12 games next year(not considering a potential playoff berth), but Irvin should still be expected to take massive strides and become a key player for the Seahawks. That is in spite of the new additions to the team’s front seven.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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