Since being acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, hybrid defensive end Chris Clemons has shown he can generate pressure on the quarterback – but also that he can be an every-down player.
For Chris Clemons, it’s all about opportunities. Those he didn’t get, and those he is now getting.
The hybrid defensive end who was acquired in a trade this offseason to play the “Leo” spot in coach Pete Carroll’s defense is returning to the scene of his pass-rushing prime when the Seahawks close their preseason on Thursday night by playing the Raiders in Oakland. Clemons had a career-high eight sacks while playing for the Silver and Black in 2007.
But the real kicker to his tale of opportunism might be that the primetime portion of Clemons’ career is just beginning.
He had two sacks in Saturday night’s game against the Vikings in Minnesota, giving him three in as many preseason games – or half the Seahawks’ total.
“With Chris, it’s always been about opportunities and being able to have people put the confidence in him to be put him in the position to make plays,” general manager John Schneider said. “And he’s taking advantage of it right now.”
That’s because Clemons has waited so long for an opportunity like this. Even when he got those eight sacks for the Raiders, Clemons was a situational pass-rusher. The past two seasons, while struggling with his even-more limited role with the Philadelphia Eagles, Clemons collected only seven sacks.
“The way I looked it, I wasn’t getting an opportunity in Philly to be able to be productive,” said Clemons, who entered the league in 2003 as a rookie free agent for the Washington Redskins – only to spend that first season on injured reserve after tearing a knee ligament and most of his second season on the practice squad.
“So when coach (Andy) Reid called and told me I was being traded out here, and when I talked to coach Carroll and he told me I had an opportunity to come out here and start, I immediately went from, ‘I’ve got to go out to the West Coast’ to ‘Man, I’ve got an opportunity.’ Throughout my years in the league, it’s been hard to really get an opportunity to start.”
When Carroll arrived in January, he needed a defensive end quick enough and tenacious enough to pressure the quarterback but also stout enough to hold up against the run to fill the “Leo” role that Carroll has adopted from his days as an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers.
When the Philadelphia Eagles called Schneider in March to inquire about defensive end Darryl Tapp, the Seahawks’ second-round draft choice in 2006, Clemons came to Seattle – along with a fourth-round draft choice the Seahawks used to select defensive end E.J. Wilson.
“We knew we were playing that hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker, which some people call ‘Elephant’ and these guys call ‘Leo,’ ” Schneider said. “Actually, Philadelphia came up with the idea of trading Clemons for Tapp. We thought Clemons could do a lot of same things and play in the same situations, and if we were able to acquire a draft choice that would have been excellent to go along with it.”
Clemons stepped into the “Leo” role at the team’s first minicamp and his solid play has only continued through the rest of the spring workouts, training camp and now the preseason.
“Chris has had great work with us and he’s shown the kind of speed (needed to play that position),” Carroll said. “He’s the best guy getting off the ball, and has been all through camp and the OTAs and showed up in the games.
“He’s been very consistent and we’re really pleased about it.”
Somewhat lost in the joy of Clemons’ sacks has been the fact that he also can play the run. Against the Vikings, he dropped Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson for a 1-yard loss – in addition to his fumble-forcing sack of Brett Favre in the first quarter and a 13-yard sack of backup Tarvaris Jackson in the third quarter.
“People always have that thought about me not being able to play the run,” he said. “I’ve always been able to play the run pretty well, regardless of whether I was playing linebacker or playing defensive end. It’s just a misconception that people always think, ‘Well, he’s supposed to get to the quarterback, he’s supposed to get to the quarterback. So he doesn’t play the run.’
“But that’s not the truth. So I don’t really worry what people might think about that.”
As Schneider put it, “Chris is a good football player, period. He has done a really nice job. I’m excited about him.”
But it’s the sacks that everyone wants to talk about, because generating better pressure on the opposing quarterback has been an offseason-long goal after the Seahawks had just 28 sacks last season.
Just what does it feel like to get a sack – especially when the sackee is a future Hall of Fame QB? The question gives Clemons more problems than the blockers he has beat to collect his trio of preseason sacks.
“I really don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “To me, it’s just playing football. That’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s a hard thing to do, but that’s part of your job – something you’re supposed to do.”
Other pass-rushers go all cerebral in describing the elation and overwhelming satisfaction that comes with taking the quarterback to the turf. Not Clemons.
“It’s a feeling of going in the right direction,” he said, referring to the bigger-picture definition of right direction. “Unless you’re consistent with it, it’s something that you feel lucky that you got. It’s hard to get a sack in this league.
“You may go 100 plays and get only one sack. So it’s a feeling of being right.”
But to Clemons, it’s not even the ultimate feeling on the field.
“A lot of times, getting pressure on the quarterback is more exciting than getting a sack,” he said.
Like the play in the opener against the Tennessee Titans, when Clemons pressured Vince Young into throwing an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by cornerback Josh Wilson.
“But,” he added, “you’re always happy when you get that sack.”
In trying to generate more sacks, the Seahawks have burned through a litany of defensive end tandems since Michael Sinclair and Phillip Daniels were the starters from 1997-99 – and the last duo to do it for three consecutive seasons. There was Sinclair and Lamar King (2000-01), the first draft choice of the Mike Holmgren era; King and Antonio Cochran (2002); Cochran and Chike Okeafor (2003); Okeafor and Grant Wistrom (2004); Bryce Fisher and Wistrom (2005-06); Patrick Kerney and Tapp (2007); Tapp and Lawrence Jackson (2008); and Kearny and Jackson (2009).
Now, they have the most diverse tandem yet in the 254-pound Clemons and the 332-pound Red Bryant, a former defensive tackle who was moved to the five-technique spot opposite Clemons this spring.
When people look at Bryant, they see a run-stuffer’s body. But his most impressive plays continue to be those where he darts down the line to make tackles on plays going away from him.
“Red is a big guy, but he’s also got speed,” Clemons said. “People are always going to have their conceptions of what they think a guy is because of his body type or because of his size. But it all boils down to what’s inside of a person.
“It’s not a matter of what a guy is, it’s a matter of what he’s trying to become.”
Especially when given an opportunity to do it. Finally.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder since the day I came into the NFL, but I love being the underdog,” Clemons said. “It was always what people say you can’t do. Then you go out and defy those odds, and then it’s, ‘Well, he can’t do this now’ and ‘He can’t do that now.’
“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody but myself. And that’s who I challenge each and every day – myself.”