Michael Bennett played nine years and reached three Pro Bowls before joining the Eagles, yet the defensive lineman believes one of his best seasons has come this year in Philadelphia. Bennett didn’t make the Pro Bowl roster – he’s not even an alternate – but he leads the Eagles with eight sacks, all of which have come since Week 4.
“I think not starting at the beginning of the season is one of the reasons I think I didn’t get a chance to be there,” Bennett said Thursday. “But, at the end of the day ... I think it’s one of the best seasons to myself. Because I just feel like there was a lot of adversity, a lot of change to me, and I think I got better as a player.”
Bennett didn’t know how much of an adjustment there would be with the trade. He needed to switch from playing on the left side to the right side. He adjusted to a different defensive scheme, with a different head coach and defensive coordinator, and new teammates. And he needed to find his spot in a defensive-line rotation different than what he was used to in Seattle, where Bennett played 85 percent of the snaps last season and started the last four years.
Bennett was not a starter to begin the season with the Eagles, and he too often found himself on the sideline when he thought he could help the defense. Bennett has played 67 percent of the defensive snaps – the percentage has grown in the second half of the season, since Derek Barnett’s injury – and he has eight sacks, 47 quarterback hits and pressures, and 12 tackles for a loss. Only the Rams’ Aaron Donald and teammate Fletcher Cox have more quarterback hits than Bennett this season.
It’s a good place to be in Week 16, but it was unclear whether this would be the story in September.
“I think I was definitely worried about that, because it was new,” Bennett said. “I hadn’t had that adversity in a while. I’d been established in the league for a long period of time, and I never had to fight for position time or stuff like that, and all the sudden, you’re out there, and it’s like, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Even though Bennett is a veteran, the transition was more pronounced because he had become used to another way.
The adjustment was not just on the field and in the locker room, but in his personal life, considering he moved his family across the country and tried to embrace a different city. He had invested in himself in Seattle, and Philadelphia offered a new experience.
“You give yourself to a team and an organization, and I think, you wonder to yourself, ‘Am I able to get to that level? Am I able to give to my teammates, to my city, the way I gave to the other?’ ” Bennett said. “To me, it was hard to find that place, that balance of moving on.”
He first tried to fit in. Then he determined he would just be himself. That made a difference. He said he embraced Philadelphia, and now it’s becoming his own. He’s excited for the possibilities if he can stay with the Eagles.
The change started taking place around Week 3 or 4. In Week 2 against Tampa Bay, Bennett played only 41 percent of the defensive snaps and was seen in a sideline dispute with defensive line coach Chris Wilson. Bennett said that came from his competitiveness – he wants to contribute and believes he can and should.
“At critical moments, I’m sitting on the sideline and I’m like, ‘I’ve got skills, I can do this, and I’m over here, put me in the game!’ ” Bennett said. “Once they started putting me in the game, things started flowing my way.”
Bennett’s first sack came in Week 4. He took over Barnett’s spot in the starting lineup in Week 8. He’s had five sacks since then. In recent weeks, he’s played through a foot injury that has kept him out of practice. Bennett missed practice again Thursday, but he is expected to play Sunday at the Linc against the Houston Texans .
Bennett said he’s learned about himself this season. He knows football players are admired by others, and there’s often discussion about adversity or adjustments.
“Then it comes your turn, and you have to swallow your own pills,” Bennett said. “Every great player in the NFL has to adjust to their situation.”
At 33 and with opportunities outside of football, Bennett is not ready to leave the game. He insisted he can remain at a high level, pointing to defensive ends such as Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney who remained productive in their mid- to late-30s. His salary will count $7 million against the cap next season, although there’s no guaranteed money. He said that if he’s not in Philadelphia, he’ll be playing football somewhere. But he wants it to be with the Eagles, where he’s finally found his way.
“It’s exciting, actually, and I think next year will be even better,” Bennett said. “I don’t even know if I’ll be here, but if I am here, the opportunity to keep working with Fletcher [Cox] and the other guys will be impressive.”