Chris Clemons: Sacks, Free Agent Additions and the Seattle Seahawks’ Inconvenient Truth
It was the sixth of January, Washington, FedExField. The Washington Redskins were celebrating their first playoff appearance in some time as they did battle with the visiting Seattle Seahawks. Of course, they were celebrating until one play that would become infamous throughout the off-season. One massive injury blow to a crucial player who’s absence could potentially be pointed to as a massive reason to for his team’s exit. It was a vital loss that would help to shape the rest of the NFC Playoff Bracket.
Robert Griffin III took the ball out of the pistol formation. His first inclination was to look to his left side where Santana Moss and Josh Morgan were lined up. He quickly recognized that the secondary was playing zone coverage, while the offensive line handled the stunting pass-rush from the defensive line with ease. Griffin made a quick decision and got rid of the ball to Moss, who was very close to the first down marker. Moss was immediately tackled to the ground, the Redskins had converted the third and five into a first down…but that wasn’t what was important.
What was important was that the whistle blew and there was one player left lying on the ground in pain back in the pocket. Robert Griffin III was still standing. It was Chris Clemons who was trembling on the disgracefully bad turf in Washington. Clemons had trainers over him, possibly the same trainers who would later notify him that he had torn his ACL on that play. He had planted his foot and the knee had given way.
The Seahawks still won in Washington, but they would falter in Atlanta against the Falcons on a last second drive, something that Clemons could have helped to prevent, and very few outside of Seattle would even remember the play once the off-season began. As is natural, the off-season moved on with the Seahawks getting plenty of attention for one major trade and a handful of star additions in free agency. Star pass-rusher additions.
Although they didn’t expect to land such big name additions as Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency, their willingness to invest one-year-deals in the two talented edge-rushers tells you all you need to know about how highly they value Chris Clemons. Clemons blossomed later in his career, in fact, some would say he epitomizes John Schneider’s regime in Seattle. Clemons was the afterthought thrown into a trade between the Philadelphia Eagles and Seahawks for Daryl Tapp. At least, he was an afterthought for the Eagles.
In Seattle he soon began to realize his potential as an every-down defensive end and he played a key role in turning around the fortunes of the franchise’s transforming defensive unit. For that reason, it was worth putting him under the same scrutiny as players such as Von Miller, JJ Watt, Aldon Smith, Cameron 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.
Chris Clemons’ Overall Results
Despite missing the final game of the Seahawks’ season, there were only five defenders who played more snaps than Clemons last year and not a single one played on the defensive line. Clemons played 183 more snaps than fellow starting defensive end Red Bryant, who finished second amongst defensive linemen. Of his 917 total snaps, 334 came when the offense ran the ball and 59 saw him drop into coverage, leaving him with 524 opportunities to rush the passer.
With 12 sacks on his 524 pass-rushing snaps, Clemons finished the 2012 season with a 2.29 percent. This means that Clemons had a worse sack percentage than each of Von Miller, JJ Watt, Aldon Smith, Cameron Wake, Geno Atkins and Justin Houston. It should be noted that at least 11 players had a sack for the Seahawks’ defense last year, while Clemons’ versatility took away more opportunities for him to get sacks as he dropped into coverage relatively often.
Every single one of Clemons’ sacks came on plays when he had his hand on the ground in the position of a defensive end. He was almost exclusively on the right side for his sacks, with just one coming from a left defensive end position.
Clemons never took on a double-team for a sack and only stunted for a sack on two occasions. However, only once did he come free for a sack without beating a block, against the Carolina Panthers and only one of his sacks, against the Green Bay Packers, was a result of a play that was extended. Clemons never sacked someone when the Seahawks were playing from behind and had just three when the Seahawks were tied. Four of Clemons’ sacks came when the Seahawks had at least a two touchdown lead and two of those came when they led by 20 and 33 points respectively in a blowout against the Buffalo Bills. Most of Clemon’s sacks came in the second quarters of games, five, with no real consistency in time while he had three each in third and fourth quarters with just one in the first quarter.
Considering he primarily lined up as a right defensive end, it’s no surprise that he beat left tackles for 10 of his sacks. It speaks to his versatility that half of those victories versus left tackles went past the outside shoulder and the other half went past the inside shoulder. Clemons did move around a small bit, only against the Packers for sacks however, once beating John Kuhn from the right tackle side of the offense and once beating Jeff Saturday through the right guard area of the offensive line after a stunt. Clemons had his only two sacks outside of the pocket against the Packers also, with one of those plays coming on a play that Aaron Rodgers extended with his feet.
Like any effective pass-rusher, Clemons played an important role on third down, notching five sacks on third down. Four of those sacks were realistically convertible opportunities also, as the first down marker was at most eight yards away from the line of scrimmage. An incredible seven of his the veteran defensive end’s total sacks came when the distance from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker was 10 yards or more, with two of those being further than 20 yards away and one being 15 yards away.
Chris Clemons’ Method Results
Clemons has great versatility to his game as a whole and that translates through his pass-rushing skills also. He never ran over anyone or used his bulk to take a blocker out of the play, simply because there isn’t enough of him there to even try it, but he was still able to show off a variety of different moves and enough strength to withstand bigger offensive tackles who tried to knock him over.
His speed is what stands out the most on the field and it appears to be what offensive tackles are most worried about when he lines up across from them. Speed isn’t that valuable for pass-rushers if they don’t know how to properly use it. It’s better to have timing and control of your speed over short areas opposed to being able to run a very fast forty. Clemons is a great example for any young speed-rusher who is looking to get the most out of his speed. It’s not all about muscle productivity and weight. If you’re too fast or predictable in your movements offensive linemen will learn to make your strengths work against you pretty quickly.
Clemons, circled, is lined up on the right side of a four man defensive line with a tight end over him. Earl Thomas has dropped into the box, right beside Clemons. Thomas is there to cover Scott Chandler, said tight end, but it also allows Clemons to focus on the offensive tackle in the running game.
With CJ Spiller in the backfield, and it being first and 10, Clemons has to respect the run-threat and play-action when it comes to his side of the field. He is not only aware of that threat, but he sets himself up to make a play in either gap if Spiller receives the football. He does this by looking over left tackle Gordy Glenn from an upright position, while extending his arms to avoid any incoming block attempt.
This stance is perfect for playing the run at this point, but it doesn’t make for an easy transition into the backfield as a pass-rusher. His feet are in line together which prevents him from pushing off in either direction as he looks to accelerated into either gap at the side of Glenn. If he wanted to run through Glenn, he would need to get much lower and win the leverage battle to push him into the backfield.
Despite his stance, Clemons is able to explode past Cordy Glenn with his speed as Glenn over-commits up-field. Clemons’ first step is fast enough that he quickly slides away from Glenn, but he then has the acceleration and balance to fit through the gap between the offensive tackle and the center. Glenn tries to recover to knock him off course with his arms extended, but Clemons is too fast through the hole for his efforts to have any effect.
After accounting for his run responsibilities, Clemons is still able to turn a less advantageous position against a very talented, if inexperienced, offensive lineman into a clear lane to the quarterback. Once there, he makes no mistake as Ryan Fitzpatrick submits as soon as he sees him coming free up the middle.
For Clemons’ second sack, he showed off his straight up speed when left outside with Glenn on what would be considered a standard speed rush in the minds of most.
Clemons bursts off the line, but it’s when he’s a few yards down the field that he takes over the angle advantage with Glenn before dipping his shoulder to avoid being knocked over by the big tackle. From this spot, Glenn is trying to recover by pushing him past his quarterback, but Clemons is simply too quick to be stopped from turning the corner.
Often, at this point in a rush, the defender will either slip as he tries to get leverage underneath the tackle or not have the body control to make an effective play on the quarterback because of the speed he used to get to this point. Clemons doesn’t have either issue. He turns the corner perfectly, before quickly locating and attacking the football in Fitzpatrick’s grasp. Too often defensive ends will settle for the sack in this scenario, but it is too big of an opportunity for a turnover to pass up on.
The defender has all of the advantage in this position, it’s the equivalent of a wide receiver catching a huge pass down the sideline and stepping out of bounds instead of looking to beat the last defender for a touchdown. It would be a good play, but not as good as it could be.
Like a few of the other pass-rushers PSR has already looked at, Clemons’ speed sets up other moves for him to make.
Against Marshal Newhouse, Clemons showed off an inside step to take advantage of Marshal Newhouse setting up for his speed rush. Clemons initially took a hard step towards Newhouse’s outside shoulder to push his weight towards the sideline, before sharply cutting inside passed his inside shoulder. At that point, Clemons has the strength and speed to get to Aaron Rodgers without a blocker close to him.
Against the better offensive tackles, such as Nate Solder, the hard step inside is less likely to work. This is when a well-timed spin move can be very effective. Spin moves are often looked down upon because so many rushers use them recklessly and it comes across as something flashy but useless as a result. However, it can be very effective effective in the right situations. Here, Clemons is able to spin Nate Solder effectively to take away his power advantage by flipping his feet and attacking his opposite shoulder.
Had Clemons attacked Solder’s outside shoulder, he would likely have been overpowered by the tackle, but because he has his feet moving forward after the spin move and Solder is trying to readjust while Clemons is already pushing his way through his opposite shoulder, he is unable to prevent the sack.
*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF
Playing predominantly right defensive end meant that Clemons matched up with some of the most athletic players in the league. Nate Solder and Jake Long are both former first round picks, while Cordy Glenn was a very highly considered rookie last season. Clemons played 17 games last year and didn’t have a sack in nine of those. Although he wasn’t sacking the quarterback consistently throughout the season, he was consistently getting pressure on the quarterback except for the playoff game in which he was injured.
Clemons finished the season with 11 quarterback hits and 37 hurries outside of his sack numbers.
During the season, he only forced three total fumbles, but attacked the football once per every three sacks that he managed. That ratio shows that he does look to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves rather than just settle for the sack on every play.
Clemons won’t have the same level of productivity during this upcoming season. He won’t be 100 percent by the first week of the season, not every player can be Adrian Peterson and especially not someone who is on the wrong side of 30. Even if Clemons stays off the PUP list, he will be doing very, very well to be back to his full effectiveness by Week 10. Instead of looking at Peterson, it makes more sense for Clemons to look at Rashard Mendenhall, who missed the first four weeks of last season after being injured in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season finale the year before.
Mendenhall may have even rushed back, because he had Achilles issues after playing just two games and never really played to the same level as he had previously. Couple those lowered expectations with the flurry of new faces looking to rack up the sacks in Seattle next year and Clemons shouldn’t need to be a leading sack artist next year. If he manages six or seven sacks in 10 or 12 games, that should be considered a very successful season next year considering the circumstances.
Clemons may not be an elite pass-rusher, but he is an outstanding individual football player who has the versatility and talent to be on the same level as those ahead of him. Had the bar not been raised so high by players such as JJ Watt, Von Miller and Cameron Wake last year, he would probably be one of the more talked about players this off-season.
Or if he somehow turned into a soon-to-be second-year quarterback who played in Washington.
It’s somewhat of an inconvenient truth for everyone who isn’t a fan of another NFC contender. The Seahawks are going to miss Chris Clemons this coming season. Bruce Irvin will miss the first four games of the season and is still relatively inexperienced. Cliff Avril isn’t close to his level as an all-around player and Michael Bennett at best won’t have his same comfort in the locker-room and in his new scheme. Clemons may not be a unique player, but there are very few like him and next to none playing at the same level. They may compensate with more bodies around him to have a better defense this year, but that doesn’t mean that they have really replaced him. You don’t replace guys like Clemons that easily….
…although, you’re not supposed to be able to find double-digit sack getters as throw-away pieces to a minor trade either. That’s just how it goes in Seattle these days it seems.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf