SEATTLE -- It was the biggest question facing the Seahawks’ rebuilt defense, even bigger than the one surrounding what remained of their Legion of Boom secondary: Where would the pass-rush come from without Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril?
Frank Clark was an obvious candidate.
Jarran Reed was not.
Reed’s 10.5 sacks -- which included two in the Seahawks' win over the Arizona Cardinals in their regular-season finale on Sunday – offered one of the biggest surprises of the year for the playoff-bound Seahawks.
“What a great performance for the whole season for him,” coach Pete Carroll said of Reed. “... I don’t think we’ve ever had a defensive tackle that had 10 sacks … and Frank has just played great the whole year. He had a fantastic season.”
All 10.5 of Reeds sacks came on plays in which he lined up as a defensive tackle. According to ESPN charting, that ties him with Fletcher Cox for the fourth-most sacks out of that alignment (defensive tackle or nose tackle) this season behind Aaron Donald’s 19.5, Chris Jones’ 14.5 and DeForest Buckner’s 11.
With Clark’s career-best 14 sacks, he and Reed combined for 24.5. According to the Seahawks, that’s the most by a pair of Seattle pass-rushers in the same season since Michael McCrary and Michael Sinclair combined for 26.5 in 1996. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, the only other duo in franchise history to produce more was Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green, who combined for 27.5 in 1984.
When the Seahawks traded Bennett to Philadelphia and released Avril this offseason, they moved on from two of the best pass-rushers in franchise history. Bennett is seventh on the team’s all-time sack list with 39 and Avril is 10th with 34.5. But in their five seasons together in Seattle, their highest combined sack total was 19 in 2015.
The point is: Clark and Reed have given the Seahawks some serious pass-rushing production.
It wasn’t hard to see this could be coming for Clark. Actually, it was almost expected of him. He had already started to emerge as one of the league’s up-and-coming edge-rushers with 19 sacks over his last two seasons, and he was now in his first full year as a starter in place of Avril.
Clark's 14 sacks are sixth-most in the league, and his 700 defensive snaps are fewer than all five of the players ahead of him, according to ESPN charting. It’s why the 2015 second-round pick is on his way to cashing in, be it through a franchise tag or a multi-year extension with his rookie deal set to expire.
“He is a factor every time we rush the passer,” Carroll said. “You can tell by the way [opponents] are trying to take care of him.”
But this type of season seemed to come out of nowhere for Reed, who had always been considered primarily a run-stopper. Jim Nagy, who now directs the Senior Bowl, scouted Reed while he was with the Seahawks and called him “the best run-stuffer I’ve seen in a long time” after Seattle chose him in the second round in 2016. Nagy saw some pass-rush potential when he watched film and observed Reed’s athleticism during the pre-draft process, but that potential rarely translated into sacks in college.
Reed had only two of them during his two seasons at Alabama. Over his first two NFL seasons, he had a total of three.
So what’s gotten into him?
Maybe his sack spike is a product of being on the field a lot more. Data from Pro Football Reference has Reed playing about 80 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps this season, a massive jump from 44 percent and 56 percent, respectively, in his first two seasons. More playing time obviously means more opportunities to rush the passer.
Maybe that part of Reed's game just bloomed late. He played in an Alabama defense that prioritized stopping the run, not asking its defensive tackles to penetrate up field.
Maybe he’s extra motivated now that he can sniff a big pay day of his own as he nears eligibility for an extension, having played the requisite three seasons.
Whatever the reason, the Seahawks could use more of the same from Reed and Clark in the playoffs.
“Just seeing my boy, him being able to take on the challenge under the duress of us not having all that we had, it’s just great to see,” Clark said of Reed. “It just shows us young guys what our ceiling really is.”