I sat with the rest of the coaching staff in the office at a high school practice when a tall, dark man came into the room and introduced himself as a scout for the West Virginia Mountaineers. He was there to watch practice and catch a glimpse of one of the school’s offensive linemen.
Prior to heading out to practice, he briefly discussed the Mountaineers squad and was quickly asked by one of the defensive coaches about a defensive end named Bruce Irvin. Irvin had just came off an eye-popping 14-sack season in his first year at West Virginia and he was ready to be unleashed once again for the 2011 campaign. The scout, smiling ear-to-ear, said the team was going to “widen” Irvin in their 30 front and have him wreak havoc as a speed rusher off the edge. His senior season would result in a dip to eight sacks from the 14 in his junior year because of teams altering their pass protections in his direction, but he was still applying pressure.
Months later, one of the biggest shocks in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft was the fifteenth overall selection made by the Seattle Seahawks, who selected Irvin. A dynamic yet troubled athlete, Irvin had shockingly gone from little experience (two years) at a high level of collegiate play to being a first-round NFL draft choice. But it all made sense to the Seahawks, who run a 4-3 Under front.
The 4-3 Under front, as explained by Pete Carroll at a coaching clinic, has a weak-side pass rusher (right “DE” on image above) known as the “Elephant” or in Carroll’s terminology, “Leo“. This defender is a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker that aligns away from the strength of the formation, typically defined by the tight end, and is strictly a C gap (outside the tackle) run defender that’s also simply asked to raise hell off the edge.
That’s what Irvin does best.
And if there’s one thing quality coaches do, it’s finding the strengths of a player and plugging him into the correct scheme to maximize his success. Irvin excels at getting around the edge and applying pressure on quarterbacks. He has surprising strength, which can be fascinatingly on display when he’s administering a bulrush with his 6’2″, 245-pound frame on a massive, heavy-legged pass blocker on the edge.
But he also has good stop-start ability which enables him to transition from an outside speed rush to an inside move, which if developed and done with consistency can be very deadly.
The outside speed rush, at the moment, is his go-to move. He hasn’t developed many pass rush moves that can be used with consistency, but he can develop them. If he can establish a counter move off of his go-to speed rush, he can be a terror off the edge for the Seahawks because in my opinion, all you really need are two moves: the aforementioned go-to, and counter moves.
However, in the meantime, Irvin’s speed rush has proven to be very deadly. If this is his only move, why is it so successful? Because of his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and his ability to dip his shoulder.
Take for instance his quickness against the Maryland right tackle in the image below.
The right tackle hasn’t even executed his kick-slide to get into his set before Irvin’s already crossed the line of scrimmage after getting up from his stance. This is problematic for the blocker because he’s at a disadvantage and is forced to open his hips up, which distorts his footwork and potentially causes him to be unbalanced while turning to ride Irvin wide of the pocket. However, he’s still not quick enough to adjust, and Irvin now has a clear path into the backfield and to the quarterback.
Irvin now dips his shoulder, creating a leverage advantage in his favor, and he takes a shorter path to the quarterback.
The play results in a sack and stops the offense from extending the drive and potentially getting seven points. Instead, they are forced to settle for three, which is a significant aspect of defensive red zone efficiency. This blistering speed off the edge that Irvin possesses is going to cause problems for pass blockers at the NFL level as well; the question simply is, how effective will Irvin be?
If Irvin develops a go-to and counter move, he could potentially be a dangerous “Leo” in Carroll’s 4-3 Under front.