Michael Bennett has been in so many backfields lately that he’s had to come up with impromptu sack dances.
Even when they aren’t sacks.
On Thursday night in Santa Clara, California, the Seahawks’ attention-grabbing defensive end was chasing Colin Kaepernick. Again. Bennett ran through a 49ers lineman like he wasn’t there, then ran after their endangered quarterback across the end zone. Kaepernick was fortunate to throw away the ball with Bennett in his face, trying to pounce for a possible safety.
Bennett then kissed his biceps, a celebration that Kaepernick used to do — back when he was making plays and the 49ers were good. Bennett then took a bow to the fans behind the south end zone. More boos, on top of the ones already directed at the malfunctioning home team, rained onto Bennett and Kaepernick.
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“Ah, you know what?” Bennett said of his alternate celebrations after his career-high 3½ sacks, three tackles for losses and four quarterback hits highlighted Seattle’s 20-3 domination of San Francisco, which improved the Seahawks to 3-4 heading into their next game at Dallas. “They’ve been on people for doing ‘the pump’ for sexually explicit things. So as a good teammate, I try to stay away from it.”
So the biceps kiss shouldn’t run afoul of the NFL. Or of Pele Bennett.
“No, not at all,” said Mike, who turns 30 next month. “I figure, I’ve got great muscles, so why not show my wife?”
Wait, she doesn’t already know?
“She knows,” Bennett said, nodding knowingly. “Just a reminder.”
Bennett is reminding the league why he spent the spring and summer loudly complaining to anyone with ears that he deserved more than the $6 million he’s earning this year from the $28.5 million, four-year contract extension he signed before last season.
Bennett entered Sunday’s games tied with Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap for the NFL lead with 6½ sacks. That’s 2½ sacks off his career high for a season, which was set in 2012, his final season with Tampa Bay before Seattle signed him as a restricted free agent.
Meanwhile, there is a Seahawks end who has been even better and more consistent than Bennett this season.
Cliff Avril may be the most valuable player so far on a Seahawks defense that has had problems in pass coverage and needed every one of his many pressures on opposing quarterbacks.
It’s just that you don’t hear much about — or from — Avril. He’s on the opposite end from Bennett in more ways than just on Seattle’s line.
Avril is understated and calm, and often wows with speed and strength instead of flash.
In other words, he’s everything Bennett is not.
“He’s always been great at what he does,” Bennett said. “He’s one of the best players in the NFL.”
Avril has spent most of the season in opposing backfields, ending drives with third-down tackles and pressures. Against Carolina two games ago, he sliced through to ruin two Panthers running plays on third-and-1. Against San Francisco, Avril had 1½ of Seattle’s season-high six sacks.
He and Bennett were the main reasons that bullish rookie runner Carlos Hyde gained only 40 yards on 11 carries, and why the 49ers managed just 142 total yards. It was their lowest total in eight years.
Avril had three QB hits and asserted himself on the game’s first drive, chasing Kaepernick into a throw that Reggie Bush dropped on third-and-7, leading to the first of San Francisco’s nine punts.
Later, on a third-and-15, Kaepernick dropped off a short pass to Bush over the middle. Avril quickly dumped him.
He and Bennett combined to sack Kaepernick at the beginning of a possession late in the first half after Seattle took a 17-0 lead. Bennett got another sack on the next play.
Any thought of a 49ers’ comeback in the second half ended on their first drive. Avril ruined that, too. On third-and-3, he nailed Hyde in the backfield and forced a fumble that San Francisco recovered for a 2-yard loss, forcing another punt.
Avril, 29, has had an eventful past 18 months. He and Dantia married a year and a half ago. He signed an extension in December, at the end of his second Seattle season, that was identical to Bennett’s: $28.5 million over four years. He and his wife had their second son born this month. So he enjoyed his time off from football, following the win at San Francisco, with a rare October weekend at home with his family.
Avril’s speed and strength can overwhelm offensive tackles, and he often pushes or even throws running backs who try to help block him into their quarterback. Yet when he gets to the QB, he doesn’t do hip shimmies or suggestive dances that draw the NFL’s attention. The stomp away and fist punch he delivered before celebrating with teammates following his shared sack with Bennett on Kaepernick on Thursday is an example of his understated celebrations. And value.
Bennett’s quickness off the snap often stuns tackles, and even more so guards, when he lines up inside as a rush tackle on many third downs. That quickness can get him in trouble with wrong guesses of quarterbacks’ snap counts.
Aaron Rodgers of the Packers exploited multiple offside fouls by Bennett at Green Bay in Week Two for big, “free” plays on passes downfield that the quarterback otherwise might not have thrown.
But the Seahawks are willing to live with that. Bennett’s big plays have had a reviving effect on the defense.
We’ll all find out soon if revives Seattle’s season.
Avril says he thinks the way the Seahawks defense played at San Francisco is the key to the rest of the season.
“It’s awesome to just finish,” he said in the locker room at Santa Clara. “We’ve got to continue to just keep doing that. Keep putting full games together, and I think we’ll like what we come out with at the end of the season.”
Bennett joined Russell Wilson in addressing the Seahawks after their 27-23 home loss to Carolina dropped them to 2-4. They gave a simple message to their teammates: Believe.
Bennett gave one more message to his defense, about “chopping wood.”
“It’s about, just keep choppin’ till the tree falls,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just keep chopping, hitting that wood, and eventually the tree will fall.
“That’s what we’ve got to do as a team, just keep chopping away and just keep grindin’.”
SUNDAY: Seattle (3-4) at Dallas (2-4), 1:25 p.m., Ch. 13, 710-AM, 97.3-FM