The Dirty Little Secret: Seahawks Still Showing Vulnerability in the Trenches

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

It is preseason and never a time to panic. As fans, we celebrate one of the NFL’s best arsenals of raw, yet remarkable talent. The hype about building a competent team, rich with reserves, has reached a consensus buzz among NFL prognosticators for very good reasons.

Pete Carroll intimated to Bock Huard and Danny O’Neil this past week that scouting, recruitment and selection of personnel has become so effective in Renton, that more Seahawks players placed on waivers were claimed by other teams over the past three years. In his NFC West Blog, Mike Sando verifies this, citing Seattle as the leader over the Patriots by two players during the same time frame.

After a franchise QB, arguably, the most difficult personnel acquisition for front offices is a competent offensive tackle—the coveted skill position for the new millennium following the 2006 thesis of Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side. A highly skilled and cohesive offense line (i.e. not just the left side) may be the reason the San Francisco 49ers, for example, have kept pace to lead the NFC in post-season wins over the same three year period.

And the O-line is just the half of it. The defensive line also requires, not just a persistent pass rush, but a resilient, run-resistant defensive interior. Once again the 49ers exceed most others in this capacity, especially in the context of their front 7 defensive unit. Getting high performance pass rushers and run-stoppers can be difficult as well.

This is hardly a new priority trend for Seattle. Original Seahawks head coach, Jack Patera of the Vikings "Purple People Eater’s" fame selected DT Steve Niehaus over running back Chuck Muncie in the 1976 draft with the second overall pick. Chuck Knox and Hall of Famer Mike McCormack worked feverishly to replenish the Seahawks offensive line during their era, as did Erickson, as did Holmgren. Trenches, Trenches.

The long term plan looks bright for the Seahawks line reserves as young hopefuls have emerged in outstanding ways during OTAs, camp and preseason.

However, amidst the optimism after a convincing defeat of the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm, some revelations have come to light that may temper our post-season hopes and dreams.

During a recent interview by Ian Furness on Seattle’s 950 KJR, Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar, a long time observer of everything Seahawks, applauded two of Seattle’s most proficient offensive lineman, Max Unger and Russell Okung, for a characteristic that sets them apart individually. Doug Farrar’s views on the Seahawks are sought out by many around the league, and when Farrar speaks, even E.F. Hutton listens.

"Unger understands leverage from his days at Oregon and has parlayed that into an even better understanding and a legitimate Pro Bowl career," explained Farrar, adding that Okung and defensive rookie Jordan Hill understand leverage as well. Throughout the course of the interview, Farrar reflected hopes and optimism over a list of young roster candidates on both sides of the football.

Considering their 2012 stats, Seattle managed outcomes in the running game that ranked among the NFL’s elite--a cause for projecting great things onto the current season. Not only is this a compliment to the beastly efforts of Marshawn Lynch, it is a resounding affirmation for Tom Cable and Seattle’s offensive line as a unit.

Farrar, however, is even more impressed with the San Francisco 49ers offensive line, stating that "everything revolves around it."

We all know that receiver Michael Crabtree is out for the season and that the 49ers face unique challenges offensively. Farrar recognizes that Harbaugh, if anyone, has the resources and ability to compensate with an array of 2 to 3 TE sets and by running the ball with great ball carriers. Undaunted, the inspired passing threat of Colin Kaepernick, with his "refined delivery" out of the shotgun, from the pistol or under center equals, if not exceeds his ability to run from those places. Farrar projects that the 49ers offense will strike more aggressively than many would suspect. In short, Kaepernick will be able to do his job behind "what is still the best offensive line in football."

Inquiring about deficiencies without Crabtree, Ian Furness asked Farrar to scout the Niners starting units vs Denver. Farrar reported back: "I think they’re gonna’ be OK--sorry Seahawks fans-- but I think they’re gonna’ be OK."

Including Bruce Miller, the 49ers fullback who makes blocks that are downright "concussive," Farrar says the 49ers

are so physical upfront and they will just beat you down. That is the kind of offensive philosophy that I think Pete Carroll and Tom Cable would like to have and with all due respect--outside of Okung and Unger--do not currently have the talent to implement. The Niners have the talent, they have the philosophy, they will just run your ass over and scoot back and ask for seconds and that’s exactly the way they want to do it."

For comparison purposes, this description raises the question for Seahawks fans: ‘can Russell Wilson accomplish everything Darrell Bevell’s offense calls for behind this year’s Seahawks offensive line?’

If winning the NFC West Division Title has anything to do with success throughout the playoffs, then this question will challenge us all season long. Why? Keeping in mind that Unger was not present in the San Diego preseason opener, Farrar never-the-less identifies question marks on Seattle’s offensive line:

The pass protection with the [Seattle] starters—really worrisome . . . guard is their weakest position. I’m not sure where this isn’t where the right tackle kinda’ falls off. Russell Wilson threw 25% of his passes outside the pocket last year. That wasn’t a conscious choice. OK? It was born out of necessity to a very large degree. . . . I don’t know how much you can win with consistency on offense that way.

By making reference to the declining performance of Keith Price at UW by losing faith in the Huskies’ OL in previous seasons, Farrar reminds us that your quarterback runs the risk of making decisions that take him out of the best reads possible after repeated breakdowns in protection.

I’m not saying that’s going to happen to Russell, but there are these little, sort of, measures of it, where, maybe it’s just 10 percent, you’re just kind of twitchy in the pocket and you go before you should and you miss a read that could be a touchdown. But overall pass pro? Yeah. It’s a major problem. I don’t wanna’ be alarmist and maybe Tom Cable can fix some things. Tom Cable is a great O-line coach, we all know that, but this is a problem and I’m not sure how quickly it’s gonna’ go away.

Somewhat alarmed himself, Furness said, "let me go devil’s advocate--it’s game one preseason, they played two series—still you saw enough to warrant concern?"

Farrar replied:

I saw enough last year; I saw enough in camp, sorry. . . . It’s not a disaster, but, again, we’re not talking about a team expected to go 8 and 8. We’re talking about a team that everyone believes, and rightfully so, is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Now, the Pittsburg Steelers, The Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers—you can get to the Super Bowl with a crappy offensive line, but boy--you better have everything else dialed in.

However, defensively, Seattle may not quite have everything "dialed in". The following is a quote from Fieldgulls’ own Danny Kelly, whose piece includes an interview with Vince Verhei of Pro Football Outsiders Almanac:

The dirty little secret of the 2012 Seahawks was how bad the run defense was in the second half of the season. From Week 10 on, we ranked them 26th in run defense, and then they got stampeded by Washington and Atlanta in the playoffs. If the Seahawks aren't better than that along the defensive line, then they'll have a hard time getting back to the postseason.

Not surprisingly, then, Farrar, when asked, raised similar concerns about Seattle’s defensive line:

Sigh . . . real worried about the starting front . . . I’m not worried about the coverage issues [of the front 7] you’ve got back-up linebackers in there and they’re playing pretty vanilla zone. The front – the starting front – and especially when you’ve got Mebane, Bryant and Williams – you know . . . a thousand pounds and bringin’ the lumber -- blah, blah, blah and they’re still getting’ gashed up the middle . . . same way they were against the Redskins, same way they were against the Falcons. And we all said, ’well, that’s because they’re gassed this late in the season’ and we’re supposed to be fresh now! . . . Between the guards, I would like to see more solid, consistent ability to stop the run. This defense is supposed to be predicated on that—Mebane’s great, Bryant’s great, they drafted two tackles, so they obviously understand the issue—um, that’s something they gotta’ correct--big time.

Furness interjects corroborating evidence, "the [Chargers’] run plays [against the first defensive unit] were for four, three, two and then six and nine . . . that’s just not good enough. . . "

"And I’m more concerned with that," interrupted Farrar, "than I am with one, one, one, 25, one." I ignore the 25. If you’re stopping your guy 80% of the time, I don’t care about the other 20%. It’s consistent and it’s worrisome."

Dan Quinn inherited a very good NFL defense and over time, Tom Cable has produced a remarkably improved offensive line in the larger picture, but, in terms of life in the trenches, the jury is out as to whether Seattle has the horses to match wits with the 49ers, Falcons or even the Rams this year.

With some time on their side and tons of talent along with great coaching, we look to the Seahawks lineman to get their jobs done, with both units winning the battles. Especially, we are counting on the offensive line to be up to the task of protecting Russell Wilson so he can get his job done.

Meanwhile, the dirty little secret is out, and the problems in the trenches that disrupt the pathway to postseason success must be solved--big time.

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