Help needed: Detroit is rookie pass rusher Boye Mafe’s shot at every-down Seahawks role

Boye Mafe has been at Penn State as an opponent. That means 106,000 Nittany Lions people were screaming at him.

He’s played at Wisconsin. That’s the college place they call “MadTown.”

Yet the Seahawks’ rookie linebacker from the University of Minnesota had never been in noise like he experienced during his first NFL game this month at Lumen Field.

“That was other-worldly,” Mafe said this week.

His first pro game was amid the roaring boos and three-plus hours of bedlam in Seattle’s season-opening home win over Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos Sept. 12.

Hours after the game, he still couldn’t hear.

“My ears were ringing,” Mafe said, flashing his warm smile.

“After the game I got home. My parents were trying to talk to me. I was like, ‘What’d you say?’

“I really couldn’t hear after that game. Nothing like that, ever before.”

One month into his new football life, the 23-year-old self-described “small kid from Minnesota” is going to get more chances to make his own noise in the Seahawks’ defense.

Coach Pete Carroll says Mafe has played his way into more snaps on Seattle’s struggling defense. Expect the second-round draft choice to play more on earlier downs trying to fix to a porous run defense Sunday when the Seahawks (1-2) play at the run-heavy Detroit Lions (1-2).

Mafe played 19 snaps last weekend in Seattle’s 27-23 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons last weekend.

Meant to be a pass rusher first, Mafe did what multiple Seahawks have not so far this season: he set the edge against the run. He beat blocks. He got into the backfield.

“Yeah, he did do well against the run game. He played the edge really well,” Carroll said. “We are looking to continue to add for him. He’s looked like he has played strong. He’s been active, and he’s made a few plays in every game he’s been in.

“We need to keep going with him and keep the rotation going. I don’t think that we’ve found the exact rotation for us yet, but we are working on it.”

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) passes over Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe (53) in the fourth quarter of an NFL game on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle.
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) passes over Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe (53) in the fourth quarter of an NFL game on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle.

Boye Mafe, Darryl Johnson get their shots

Mafe and recently signed Darryl Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound waiver claim from Carolina Aug. 31, are poised to be two of the changes Carroll and coordinator Clint Hurtt will try to solve their problems in run fits and stopping teams from controlling and winning games on the ground. San Francisco romped over the Seahawks for 189 yards on 45 runs two weeks ago. Last weekend, the Falcons averaged just under 6 yards per carry while rushing for 179 yards on Seattle.

The Seahawks are allowing 157 yards rushing per game. Only winless Houston has been worse against the run in the NFL this season.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Darryl Johnson (40) works through drills prior to the start of an NFL game on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Darryl Johnson (40) works through drills prior to the start of an NFL game on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle.

Detroit is third in the NFL in rushing, averaging 170 yards per game. The Lions’ lead running back D’Andre Swift, with a wowing average of 8.6 yards per carry, missed practices this week and is iffy to play Sunday. He has ankle and shoulder injuries coming out of Detroit’s loss late at Minnesota last weekend.

No matter who runs for the Lions, the Seahawks have to improve at what Hurtt says is the fundamental task for any defense: stopping the run.

“Really, this game is about the ability to strike blocks, defeat blocks so you can get off and make tackles,” Hurtt said. “That pertains to everybody — whether you are a D-lineman, edge player, off the ball back, or safety. That’s what this game has always been about, no matter what era you talk about playing in.

“So, that’s the area that we need to do better.”

One of the Seahawks primary issues in slowing down running games has been on the edges of the defense. Darrell Taylor, the team’s second-round pick in 2020 because of his pass rushing, and (to a lesser extent) opposite outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu have been out of position. They’ve also been blocked out of plays or unable to set and hold the edge rushing lane they are assigned on most running plays. That’s created freeway-wide lanes between Seattle’s three interior defensive linemen and the sideline for ball carriers to zoom through, often untouched.

Mafe set that edge while playing just one-third of the defensive snaps against Atlanta.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks (56) and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe (53) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) in the second quarter of an NFL game at Lumen Field in Seattle, Wash. on Sept. 25, 2022.
Seattle Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks (56) and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe (53) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) in the second quarter of an NFL game at Lumen Field in Seattle, Wash. on Sept. 25, 2022.

Not a situational pass rusher anymore

It’s not the role the Seahawks envisioned for him this debut season.

Carroll said during the preseason last month Mafe was on track to be a situational pass rusher on third downs, to maximize his best skills the teams saw from him when he was at Minnesota. Carroll and Hurtt figured the 6-4, 261-pound Mafe would take this season to learn the entire defense, get stronger and become more of an every-down linebacker next season.

They need him now.

“He needs to play more,” Hurtt said.

So far, Mafe has shown he can play the run as well as rush the quarterback on passing downs. With Taylor next to invisible through three games, Mafe is about to take some if not many of the starter’s playing time beginning in Detroit.

Mafe said the emphasis on stopping the run is part of his pedigree, if not his highlight films.

“The Big Ten is known for running the ball. It’s something we pride ourselves on,” the native of Golden Valley, Minnesota, said. “Run defense is what’s the backbone of a team, honestly. It’s something I pride myself on, and in the Big Ten is something we pride ourselves on.

“For me...base block is a base block. Reach block is a reach block. There just may be a more talented guy doing it (here in the NFL). That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed.”

Boye Mafe from the University of Minnesota, here at this winter’s Senior Bowl showcase for NFL scouts, is among the intriguing edge rushers in a draft full of coveted pass-rush specialists.
Boye Mafe from the University of Minnesota, here at this winter’s Senior Bowl showcase for NFL scouts, is among the intriguing edge rushers in a draft full of coveted pass-rush specialists.

Mafe has played 19, 23 and 19 snaps in his first three Seahawks games. He says he is “slowly, but surely” progressing in the defense.

He’s already internalized one of Hurtt’s primary messages the former line coach emphasizes daily: personal accountability.

“Just finding ways to do my job better,” Mafe said, “and to keep improving so Coach can keep trusting me, trusting in my ability to play.”

The Seahawks’ trust in Mafe is rising, to the point they say he’s ready for an expanded role.

“With Mafe, we are learning as we go,” Carroll said. “We don’t have enough reps with him where he has been challenged. But what we have seen, he’s done well, and he has not had negative, bad-type of plays in those situations, either.

“We are trying to bring him along so a few weeks from now, he’s really got it nailed and he can utilize the physical stuff that he’s got.”