Among the many moves Howie Roseman made in the months after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII was an aggressive trade that sent a fifth-round draft pick and wide receiver Marcus Johnson to Seattle for defensive end Michael Bennett and a seventh-round draft pick. It was a head-scratcher for many reasons at the time.
Why would Seattle trade a player of Bennett’s stature, a veteran who had won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and who was so consistently productive year after year? Why would the Eagles take on a player at a position where they were already deep? How would Bennett, who carried with him a questionable reputation, fit into an established locker room with a Super Bowl culture?
Roseman and the Eagles made it clear why they wanted Bennett and how they expected him to fit in.
“He’s an outstanding pass rusher and a defensive lineman who does it all,” Roseman said shortly after the trade was made. “Michael Bennett is an established, proven player in this league and he’s going to add to what we do on defense.”
As the Eagles prepare for the NFC Wild Card playoff matchup on Sunday in Chicago (4:40 p.m., NBC), it’s now fair to ask where the Eagles would be without Michael Bennett, who has been one of the unsung stars of this postseason run. Bennett compiled nine quarterback sacks (second on the team), 51 quarterback hits/pressures, and 15 tackles for loss this season while playing 69 percent of the snaps with 10 starts. From the standpoint of defensive snaps/production, Bennett has been off the charts.
“He’s a smart player. He’s got some spider-sense to him,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Bennett on Tuesday in his weekly press conference at the NovaCare Complex. “He’s one of those guys that can feel certain plays. He’s really good. You saw a screen pass (that Bennett snuffed out against Washington). That’s nothing new. Go back to the Dallas game, he made a play on a zone read that was incredible, literally like there was some spider-sense there to know who had the ball.
“He studies really well and his technique is good. He’s a tough matchup for some guards sometimes. Again, he’s playing good football late in the season for us and we’ve needed it.”
As Schwartz notes, there is more than meets the stat sheet when it comes to Bennett. And maybe that’s why some wondered why the Eagles would risk upsetting the culture within the organization by acquiring Bennett, who no doubt is his own man. He’s cerebral, he’s opinionated, and he’s unconventional. Bennett acknowledges that he needed some time to feel at home in Philadelphia, as an Eagle, and the team probably felt the same way. Bennett wasn’t around much at all from the time he was acquired in the March trade until Training Camp started in late July, so only then did the get-to-know-you process begin in earnest.
Bennett is a strong personality and that sometimes may not play well in certain cities. Here, it’s turned out to be a terrific coupling.
“What you learn from working with Michael is that he has a certain way of doing things based on his previous success,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said. “He’s a veteran, someone who understands what it takes to be productive and work within the defense. He’s worked hard, he cares, and he’s helped our defense a great deal. He knows how to make others around him better players. Michael is a pro. He knows where he needs to be out there. He knows how to get to the football.”
While Bennett is largely judged by his sacks and hits and big plays, the little things he does so well are often noted by the coaches and his teammates. Bennett slides inside and plays from the tackle position when the Eagles are in pass-rushing situations – Brandon Graham and Chris Long line up on the edge and Fletcher Cox plays next to Bennett – so his versatility is a plus. He’s played both end positions. He is outstanding against the run and he’s heady and athletic and rarely fooled.
The best news is that Bennett does some of his best work in the postseason. In 10 previous postseason games with Seattle, Bennett registered 3.5 quarterback sacks, four forced fumbles, and 36 total tackles.
“I’ve always prided myself on being a complete football player. A defensive lineman does more than just go out there and get quarterback sacks,” Bennett said. “There are a lot of other things that go into the equation. Here, sometimes you have a chance to help another player get to the ball, and that’s just as gratifying to me. We all work together. It’s taken a little bit of time to feel totally like myself here, but I’m in a good place. I’m excited. We’re playing well as a defense. We’re coming together.
“It’s that time of the year when you have to step up with so much on the line.”
Chicago’s offense is built around the running game, but the Bears also have elements of deception – a lot of motion, funky formations, players lining up in unconventional ways. Bennett has to be disciplined when quarterback Mitchell Trubisky keeps the ball and uses his legs to run with zone-read calls and when the Bears employ a jet sweep or try to get the screen game going. As much as the defensive line wants to storm the castle on Trubisky, there also must be some element of containment on the edges. Running back Tarik Cohen is the player who moves around the formation and gets the football in creative ways.
As much as Bennett’s ability to win in the trenches is important, so is his recognition and patience.
“Michael is the kind of guy who knows everything that is going on around him,” Cox said. “He’s a thinker out there. That helps him get to the spot. He plays the game a little bit different than a lot of guys but you see how many times he makes plays and how it works for him. It’s almost like he knows what’s going to happen before it happens. He’s that kind of guy.”
As much as the game-week hype has been centered on the Bears and their fabulous front seven, the Eagles aren’t bashful about their group, either. The front four, in particular, has been a dominating force in this run to the playoffs. Bennett has 3.5 quarterback sacks and a modest 11 total tackles in those games, but the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
Michael Bennett has been one of the under-the-radar forces for the resurgent Eagles and the best, based on his playoff history, could yet be to come.