For months it had been the most maligned unit in Seattle. The mayor’s office, the city council — heck, even miscreants that egg houses — seemed less reviled than the Seahawks’ offensive line.
So how in the name of Walter Jones did those same blockers become the heroes of the wild card playoff round? How did the lowest-paid line in the league revitalize Seattle’s offense and get the team to Atlanta for the NFC divisional playoffs?
Less, if any, zone blocking.
In the Seahawks’ blowout weekend win over Detroit, veteran line coach Tom Cable had his O-line plowing the Lions with straight-ahead, nothing-subtle, drive-your-guy-into-the-goal-post blocks. The Seahawks had guards pulling to block on power rushing plays, far more Pittsburgh-like than Seattle’s norm.
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“Tom really emphasized going at these guys,” rookie right guard Germain Ifedi said.
The first-round draft choice had been inconsistent for much of the regular season. But in his postseason debut, he put Detroit defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson on his back, on his heels and on the Lions’ flight home out of the playoffs.
“Not as much mirroring them coming off the ball,” Ifedi said. “We really worked this (past) week on going forward and not really side to side. We wanted to go forward.
“I thought (the Detroit game) was a good start in the playoffs. And we’re trying to build on it.”
The building needs to accelerate this week. The NFC West-champion Seahawks (11-5-1) are heading to Atlanta to face the NFC South-champion Falcons (11-5) and their league-leading offense at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta, in its second season under head coach Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, was 26th in the NFL this regular season in allowing 4.5 yards per rush.
The Falcons are 4 ½-point favorites to advance to the conference championship game on Jan. 22.
“It doesn’t matter where we go. We don’t care who we play, where it is, or any of that. We’re of that mindset,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
“They’re (the Falcons) an incredible team. I love the job that Danny’s done and all of that. They’re loaded on offense. They have an aggressive group. Really good on (special) teams. Tons of playmakers.
“It’s going to be a really difficult challenge, and, of course, playing there is always hard. But it wouldn’t matter. I don’t care who we play. It doesn’t matter when we play them or where we play them. It happens to be Atlanta. …”
Carroll was in a lot more comfortable position to say thatafter beating the Lions than he was before the kickoff — thanks to the reassuring, revitalizing play of his offensive line.
The results of going straight at Detroit at CenturyLink Field:
▪ A Seattle playoff-record 161 yards of rushing from Thomas Rawls, his most yardage since November 2015.
▪ A team total of 177 yards on a season-high 38 carries. That was Seattle’s most runs since 44 rushes on Nov. 22, 2015, against San Francisco. That was the day Rawls romped for his career-high 209 yards.
▪ The return of Russell Wilson’s play-action passing game. Doug Baldwin benefited from that with 11 catches in 12 targets for 104 yards — and a touchdown reception he stole from an even-more-open Jermaine Kearse in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Paul Richardson made three stupendous catches, including one for a touchdown on which he used only one arm while getting interfered with by a Detroit safety.
▪ The Seahawks rolling the Lions, 26-6, was their largest margin of victory in the postseason since the 43-8 wipeout of Denver in Super Bowl 48 on Feb. 2, 2014.
“We had our identity,” Rawls said. “We wanted to run the ball. We wanted to do it on the ground. We wanted to maintain our identity and stay true, and that’s exactly what we did and showed.
“We’ve been running the ball. The offensive line has been doing a great job, a tremendous job. And we know that the defense is going to hold us down and those guys did a great job.”
Baldwin appreciated the balance, the run setting up the pass, for a change. Seattle entered the playoffs having called 609 passes and 369 runs this season. That was almost opposite the 60-40 or 55-45 split the Seahawks had in favor of run over pass for the last four seasons — while in the top four in the NFL in rushing.
“It opens up everything for us. I’ve told you guys before that everything runs through our run game,” said Baldwin, who became Seattle’s all-time postseason receptions leader with 50. “When Thomas Rawls is doing that, they can’t help but put another safety in the box, and then that gives us one-on-one matchups on the outside. You saw Paul Richardson take advantage of it, Jermaine, myself. We had a lot of opportunities in the passing game because of what Thomas was doing on the ground.
“I have to give a lot of credit to our offensive line. They were doing a hell of a job (against Detroit), an unbelievable job.”
Carroll apparently wanted to keep what cured the inconsistent running game and offense to himself.
Asked if this change to more straight-ahead blocking, against Detroit’s 18th-ranked rushing defense, may better fit his offensive line, which has three first-time starters and has been seen as the anchor keeping the Seahawks from soaring, Carroll said: “We didn’t do anything different tonight. I know you think we changed the whole game plan and we changed schemes and everything. We didn’t.
“We just did really well tonight, and guys were on it. I’m hoping ... I’ve been in support of these guys for quite some time now, really the second half of the season. We’ve had a couple games that weren’t the way we wanted. But, really, go back and look at some of these numbers here for maybe six out of the last nine games or something like that, there have been a lot of runs.”
Seattle had rushed 26, 30, 22, 29, 26, 30, 27 and 25 times in the last eight games before facing Detroit. But in more of the angle, sliding blocking in Seattle’s normal zone-run schemes, the Seahawks had produced only 72, 78 and 87 yards rushing in their last three games of the regular season. Those were all against sub-.500 teams. The 87 rushing yards on New Year’s Day was against a San Francisco defense that was last in the NFL in rushing and overall defense this season.
Saturday’s game in Atlanta is a rematch of the Seahawks’ 26-24 win over the Falcons on Oct. 16 in Seattle. The Seahawks rushed for 72 yards on 27 carries that day, one of seven games in the regular season that the NFL’s 25th-ranked running game failed to average even three yards per rush.
But that was 2 ½ months ago. Back when the Seahawks blockers were doing more, as Ifedi called it, “mirroring” — and not the straight-at-’em drive blocks they did to bludgeon Detroit and get back the team’s mojo.
Will they, can they, do that again in Atlanta? Excellence has happened. Consistency, though, has been fleeting.
“These guys are growing up,” Carroll said of his offensive linemen. “They’ve been working at it. They’ve been battling all year long, and they’re kind of tired of hearing it. So, they’re feeling pretty good about it.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle