Pete Carroll completed his usual mid-week press conference. Everyone waited for Richard Sherman, who usually follows the coach to the podium.
But on this Wednesday two weeks ago, Bradley Sowell walked into the main auditorium of Seahawks headquarters. He, not Sherman, unexpectedly took the spot behind the microphones and lectern.
The rarity represented the Seahawks’ most encouraging development over their first four games.
Sowell is an offensive lineman. Their unexpected starter at left tackle, in fact.
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Sure, he is an engaging interview. He has interesting anecdotes — such as a great golf game for any man, especially one 6 feet 7 and 309 pounds. But before this season began, the idea Seattle would thrust one of its blockers onto a stage for questioning in front of rolling cameras airing live online would have been almost cruel. Why would the team shine any more light on its most scrutinized, problematic position?
The offensive line was going to cause as much angst and embarrassment for Seattle as the 2016 presidential election is for America.
OK, not that much.
But Seattle’s linemen were likely to be the problem this season, not subjects of team promotion.
Yet through this past weekend’s bye, the Seahawks can cite specific examples of how their line with new starters in four of the five positions is not sabotaging the season — but is a reason Seattle is 3-1.
“The offensive line is exciting to see,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “They’re really talented. They move well. They’re strong.
“Those guys are really solid. They are making great calls. Their protection calls are great. I’m changing the calls and they’re getting it just right.”
Not all the time, of course. As every Pacific Northwesterner feared, Wilson got hurt behind the iffy line. The QB got what it believed to be a high-ankle sprain in his right leg Sept. 11 when Ndamukong Suh sped past right tackle Garry Gilliam in the third quarter of the opener. Wilson’s immobility the following week at Los Angeles is a big reason the Seahawks scored their fewest points in a game in five years in a 9-3 loss to the Rams. Wilson then got a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sept. 25. The ankle kept him from getting around San Francisco’s Eli Harold on a sack he normally would have avoided.
But Wilson didn’t get ruined. Neither did that line.
Wilson played through the injuries. The line provided a pocket from which he threw for his first 300-yard day of the season Oct. 2 in the 27-17 win over the Jets.
Seattle allowed 31 sacks in its first seven games with more experienced starters to begin last season. It is on pace to allow 16 in its first seven games this season.
Justin Britt is starting at center for the first time, his third position in three seasons. Sowell, an expected backup, is starting at left tackle for the first time since he was with Arizona four years ago. Second-year man Mark Glowinski is debuting as the starting left guard. Germain Ifedi, the rookie first-round draft choice, missed the first three games with his own high-ankle sprain before debuting against the Jets. He was the team’s most impressive and nasty blocker this preseason.
“We still have a game out there that we wish we would have gotten, but we’re coming around,” coach Pete Carroll said at the quarter mark of this regular season. “We’re moving forward and moving in a good direction.”
Carroll’s main reason for saying that? The pass protection — especially for a quarterback that’s been unable to move away from trouble.
“At this time last year, which isn’t a great marker, this time last year we gave up (16) sacks. We’re at nine right now,” Carroll said.
“And kind of coincidentally we were at six sacks on the other side of the ball and we’ve got 12 now (Seattle’s defense has the league’s fifth-highest sack rate).
“There’s a number of things when you compare that way that come out. That’s something that’s been a concern.”
To say the least.
Carroll then threw a quick jab at those many doubters of the line.
“We’re off to a better start maybe than you guys or anybody thought,” the coach said last week, “and we’re going to get better, I hope, moving forward.”
The line still has to be more consistent in its run blocking. Not by blowing guys off the ball — Seattle’s zone-blocking schemes don’t require that — but by simply creating more run lanes.
Last season at this time, with Marshawn Lynch having missed the first of the 10 games he ended up being out with injuries, Seattle was averaging 128 yards rushing per game with Thomas Rawls on its way to finishing third in the league. This season, Rawls has been out with a cracked fibula after his broken ankle in December. Christine Michael is basically the running game all by himself; Wilson’s injuries have cut his rushing yards from 158 after four games last season to just 28 yards now.
The Seahawks are averaging 93 yards on the ground per game. That’s 21st in the 32-team NFL. Michael is making decisive cuts, but he’s often had to avoid defenders that have been in the backfield as soon as he’s gotten handoffs. And if he doesn’t get more help, he’s likely to get hurt, too.
Despite having no more legs to injure, Wilson’s passing is 159 yards ahead of this time last year, when he ended up the first Seahawk to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. He’s thrown the same amount of touchdowns (five) than he had after four games last season, with four fewer interceptions (just one).
But Wilson’s passing game has worked from the pocket when teams like the Jets and 49ers have stacked defenders near the line to stop the run. For Wilson to keep throwing like this, the running game needs to get going. Wilson’s health will help that immensely; he had more than 500 yards rushing last season, but is on a pace skewed by the injuries for just 112 yards rushing this season.
The line needs to stop foes from getting into the backfield before the lanes that are the basis for the zone-running scheme can even appear. Having Ifedi back and J’Marcus Webb out of there as the fill-in right guard will help. Immensely. And Rawls needs to get healthy next month for this running game to be at full capability.
The defense doesn’t need to change a thing. It’s been exactly what it’s been for the last 4 1/4 seasons: at times dominant and generally averse to allowing points. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril at ends, Bobby Wagner at middle linebacker and Richard Sherman shutting down a third of the field in the secondary are why Seattle is allowing 13.5 points per game — third in the league. That’s four points fewer than its average allowed last season, when the Seahawks became the first team to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed since the 1950s Cleveland Browns.
“I think we’re seeing the consistency on our defense that we really can count on,” Carroll said.
It’s vital to the Seahawks’ chances in January that they don’t give away any more games in October. The Seahawks host Atlanta next Sunday before going on the road for three of their next four. Seattle goes to Arizona, which despite starting 2-3 remains Seattle’s biggest threat in the NFC and should have concussed Carson Palmer back by Oct. 23. The Seahawks’ last game of October is at New Orleans, where the Saints still don’t have a defense. After a Monday night home game against Buffalo, the Seahawks are at Tom Brady and New England in a Sunday night showcase Nov. 13.
The Seahawks will have Wilson not fully healthy, yet as healthy as he’s been since the opening game. The bye also helped heal wide receiver and Pro Bowl kick returner Tyler Lockett’s sprained knee, top wide receiver Doug Baldwin’s sore knee and back, tight end Jimmy Graham’s surgically repaired knee, third-down running back C.J. Prosise’s broken hand and rookie tight end Nick Vannett’s high-ankle sprain.
Carroll last week said “we have a chance” to be the best of his seven Seahawks teams. That includes the two that went to the Super Bowl — and the one that won it three seasons ago.
“I’m pretty fired up about our team right now,” Carroll said.
If Wilson can continue throwing like this while injured and if the defense continues playing like this — “the best defense in the NFL,” Bennett keeps saying — perhaps that improving offensive line will do what it did later last season: fix itself.