Seahawks Preview 2015: Offensive Line

In the first of a series of positional overviews heading into the 2015 season, we begin with one of the more maligned units on the Seattle Seahawks: the offensive line. To say the issues, both good and bad, with the line are complex is to understate. This is a unit that has ranked first in the league in rushing offense and near the bottom in pass protection. Can it possibly be that the Seahawks front can be that good at one aspect of the playbook and that bad in another? Statistically, yes. Practically, no. The unit ranks tenth in Bleacher Report’s offseason rankings of NFL offensive lines. Are they tenth because of the talent behind them in RB Marshawn Lynch and QB Russell Wilson? Would they rank even higher if the Seahawks had wide receivers that could get open more efficiently and quickly and therefore lessen the amount of quarterback pressures on Wilson? Can the new players help overcome the loss of Center Max Unger? These and other questions must be asked when grading offensive line and assistant head coach Tom Cable’s group.

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The Seahawks basically traded Unger to the New Orleans Saints for Tight End Jimmy Graham. This is a trade that a rational person would make almost every time. Graham is individually a game changing talent and Unger is an important part of a bigger piece. Centers can be drafted and traded for, developed and made into good players. Players like Graham work hard, but they are simply born with skills that most other players could never develop. Completing a trade that involved these two players was an easy decision for Seattle. What won’t be easy, though, is immediately replacing Unger’s leadership and ability to call the right line movements. In the 2014 season, Unger missed ten games due to injury. In his absence the Seahawks averaged 27 fewer total yards per game, 50 fewer rushing yards, and lost more than a yard per rushing attempt. This was not simply because he was a much better player than whoever took his place, but because he was able to get the entire unit into the correct alignment. The Saints will have a better rushing offense with him, but can the Seahawks do a better job of adjusting to not having Unger than they did last season?

Fortunately for the Seahawks the two players who took the most snaps at center when Unger was injured are both still on the team and a year wiser. Those two players are Patrick Lewis and Lemuel Jeanpierre. The Seahawks did not draft a center this year, though they did choose three offensive linemen. That could lead one to think that the Seahawks have faith in the returning players. The most likely to start is Lewis. Lewis appears to have the athleticism that Cable craves from each of his offensive linemen. The question will come with how quickly Lewis is able to read and align the rest of the unit. When asked what the most difficult aspect of playing center was, Cable responded, “Just getting used to multi-tasking. Snapping, stepping, talking. Talking, snapping, stepping. That all has to come bam, bam, bam. Bam, bam, bam for (the center) every play whereas the other positions you don’t have to do that.” A year after taking so many snaps, Lewis, or Jeanpierre if he ends up when the job in training camp, will hopefully be more aware of how quickly he needs to be ready for each play. This alone should go a long way in overcoming the loss of Unger and determining the success of the line as a whole.

The other position that will see a new full-time starter is at left guard. The new starter will be Alvin Bailey. Bailey weighed about 350 pounds last year and was simply too heavy. Again, the Seahawks want their zone-blocking scheme to be led by athletic offensive linemen. The ideal height would be around 6’4” and the weight around 300-310. These players need to be able to get up and out and move around. As Cable stated during this year’s NFL draft, “I think when you look at the history of good run players, they’re the 6’4″, 6’5″ body. Once they start getting longer and taller than that, their rear end gets a little further from the ground, and hard in terms of leverage. Yet, you can find guys that can do it once in a while, but they’re rare. I think if you look at our group, regardless of where they play, they’re all athletes. I think that’s really the best way to look at them. We don’t have a bunch of big, heavy guys, and even the ones we have that have been bigger, we found ways to get them down to where they could be more productive athletically.” Bailey seems to be aware of the fact that 350 was too much and has lost weight. He currently is down to 320 and should be able to maintain that. Bailey is a strong run blocker, like all the Seahawks linemen appear to be, but definitely needs to improve his pass protection and his hand placement when pass blocking. The positive part of Bailey taking over for James Carpenter, though, is that Bailey showed flashes last year that he could be better than Carpenter. Since he appears to be extremely motivated coming into the season, based on his offseason focus of getting in shape, this could be a breakout year for the LG.

The returning starters to the line are at right guard (J.R. Sweezy), left tackle (Russell Okung) and right tackle (second year player, Justin Britt). Assuming Okung can stay healthy, which admittedly is a huge assumption, these three positions should be positions of strength. Britt should continue to grow into a very good player. Sweezy seems to improve every year. And Okung (again, if he can stay healthy) is a lynchpin.

Depth will be filled with younger players. Rookies Terry Poole, Mark Glowinski , Jesse Davis and Kristjan Sokoli all showed promise in OTAs, with Glowinski being the one that coaches seemed most pleased by. Pete Carroll said, “They all move really well. They come out of their stance, and they can move and they can move well enough to be in the zone scheme and that’s a big criteria, you know. They pick things up.” Kona Schwenke could also play a role, if needed, and Jeanpierre can backup either guard spot if he does not win the center job.

The main question with the entire unit is whether they can improve in pass protection. Wilson was under pressure on 46% of his dropbacks last year, according to Pro Football Focus. That was worst in the NFL. In 2013, Wilson was under pressure 43.8% of the time, also last. In 2012, Wilson was pressured second worst. Still, the team has managed to go to two Super Bowls during this time, and win one. How can a team be so successful if they are unable to consistently stitch together a passing attack?

The fact of the matter is that the offensive line is slightly above average. They are a well coached unit with stats that look better in the rushing game because of 1) the scheme, and 2) Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. Wilson ran for 849 yards last season. No other quarterback was close. Lynch had 1306 yards rushing in 2014. Lynch averaged 2.53 yards after first contact per rush last season. That means he averaged more yards after first contact than he averaged before he got touched. Let that sink in for a moment. The fact that Lynch got more than 1300 yards rushing means the offensive line is doing their job at the snap, but most of Lynch’s yards came because he broke tackles. Many of Wilson’s yards are due to the play selection of designed runs for him, but most of his yards came because of a breakdown in pass protection. The rushing numbers for the Seahawks are inflated because of these two players and their abilities, so the team’s rushing stats look better on paper than they are practically.

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However, the opposite is true when Seattle throws the ball. As good as Wilson is, he simply holds on to the ball too long at times. This may not be totally his fault, though. The Seahawks receivers, until possibly this year, have not been a talented group. What have passed for primary targets in Seattle on another team would be second or third options. They have not had the skill to consistently separate from defensive backs. Think how many long passes the Seahawks have completed and it is quite a few. The Seahawks actually have completed passes on post routes quite a bit. The fact that they have completed so many, though, is due more to Wilson’s underrated accuracy on long throws. Rarely have the receivers been wide open. For instance, the touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse to  win the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers last year was successful because Wilson’s throw was perfect. Kearse was covered well. Obviously, if a quarterback does not run an offense based on getting the ball out quickly, or if that quarterback is unsure whether his receiver will consistently be open on a called play, he is going to hold on to the ball longer and see more pressure. This is the case with the Seahawks, and this is why the pressure numbers look so bad. With the addition of Graham and Tyler Lockett, along with Paul Richardson returning from injury and continuing the progress he showed at the end of last season, Seattle’s passing numbers should improve. (This is also assuming Chris Matthews is not actually as good as he was in the Super Bowl; otherwise, the Seahawks have a new version of Jerry Rice currently on their roster.)

Seattle is still, of course, a heavy run team, but with an improved passing attack, still having Marshawn Lynch, and a group of linemen who seemed to have solidified their positions, the offensive line will be better than it has been in the last few years. The Seahawks will make it back to playoffs again this season (barring catastrophic injuries to Wilson and Lynch) and good offensive line play will help them get there.