Don’t tell Garry Gilliam his first start wasn’t in a real game.
Trying to block Justin Houston is as real as the new right tackle — and his Seattle Seahawks — want it to get.
“I heard he was pretty good,” Gilliam deadpanned about the Kansas City Chiefs’ three-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 2014 All-Pro pass rusher late Friday night.
“So it was going to be a steep learning curve.”
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Gilliam, a college tight end at Penn State for three years, was speaking Friday night following Seattle’s 14-13 exhibition loss that was an overall win for him. He mostly repelled Houston in his first start at right tackle of his two-year Seahawks career.
What was at stake for him and Seattle’s offense wasn’t a mere exhibition.
Gilliam’s correct. His learning curve is steep. So steep he was the only Seahawks starter to play past halftime Friday, and he stayed in way past it. He also showed his learning in a span of three plays on a drive in the second quarter.
Early in the drive Houston jab stepped inside then zoomed left past Gilliam outside almost untouched into the Seahawks’ backfield. That forced quarterback Russell Wilson to rush a throwaway pass incomplete.
But a couple plays later, in an obvious passing situation in which Houston usually dominates, second and 18 for Seattle, Gilliam turned his body and feet outside to his right. Then he stunned Houston with a violent, two-hand shiver to the outside linebacker’s chest, stopping Houston as if he’d slammed facemask-first into a cement wall.
That perfect, front-side protection afforded Wilson the time to wait for new tight end Jimmy Graham to break free down the hash mark. Wilson’ back-shoulder throw hit Graham’s hands for 21 yards and an unlikely first down to the Chiefs 24.
Gilliam did the same thing on another pass completion by Wilson that drive, which ended with Graham’s only three catches on the night and the first of Steven Hauschka’s two field goals.
The sequence showed that if this offensive line finally does settle and gives Wilson time on conventional drop backs to let Graham unleash his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame down the field, the NFL’s most productive tight end the past three seasons could revolutionize Seattle’s passing game.
That remains a huge if — not just for Gilliam but the entire starting line.
“It was just a matter of not jumping out too fast, and timing my hands out at the right time,” said Gilliam, a surprise member of last year’s team as an undrafted rookie.
“Just stick to my technique and I will be fine. ... I think I did OK. I’ve got to get a lot lower in the running game, use my feet. In the passing game I’ve got to get a lot more active with my hands.
“But, you know, for the first game out there I didn’t think it was too bad. Obviously a lot of room to grow.”
Offensive line coach Tom Cable is putting Gilliam on a crash course to accelerate that growth. He decided to play Gilliam deep into the second half while the rest of the starters on both offense and defense played only the first two quarters.
“He said I got into a groove, and he wanted to make sure I was on it. Trying to get me the most reps possible,” Gilliam said. “The more reps the better right now. All the stuff I have to work on is at game-time speed. Working on the timing of my punch. Working on my feet. Staying low. All that are game-time things.”
Gilliam was one of three new starters on Seattle’s mix-and-match line in Kansas City. Center Drew Nowak, a practice-squad guard in 2014, made his starting debut at center; veteran Lemuel Jeanpierre started last week’s exhibition opener against Denver. Justin Britt, the right tackle all last season as a rookie including in the most recent Super Bowl, started for the first time at left guard. That used to be Alvin Bailey’s job replacing departed free agent James Carpenter — until Bailey was part of the starting five that allowed Wilson to get sacked twice in as many drives and lose a fumble last week in the exhibition opener against the Broncos.
Denver finished with seven sacks against Seattle. Kansas City had just two Friday, both of backup R.J. Archer behind the third- and fourth-stringers in the final quarter.
Yet the starting offense had just 30 yards on 12 rushes, a 2.5 average. Coach Pete Carroll blamed that not on the runners but on the line not creating holes for them.
Yes, Marshawn Lynch has been on his usual August hiatus; during the Chiefs game he stood on the sideline with his arm around also-idling Richard Sherman while wearing a blinding, neon-green team sweatshirt.
But Lynch, No. 2 back Robert Turbin (six carries, four yards), Christine Michael (10 rushes, 27 yards) — heck, Gale Sayers when he was a legend at the nearby University of Kansas — would have had or did have nowhere to run behind a Seattle line that got scant push against Kansas City.
“We just didn’t get the kind of movement that we need,” Carroll said.
The coach acknowledged the Seahawks may be reaching the point of no return on their new starting five installed this past week. He said he doesn’t anticipate any more changes to the starters — yet then said competition remains at right tackle and center.
That could be because of Evan Mathis. The 33-year-old free agent and two-time Pro Bowl guard visited the Seahawks on Saturday hours after the team got back from Kansas City at about 3 a.m. Carroll said Mathis was in for “a physical.” Such examinations are usually a precursor to a signing.
If they add Mathis he would likely be the left guard. The Seahawks would then move Britt back to right tackle to compete with the rapidly learning Gilliam.
Wilson said he didn’t feel any extra urgency to settle all this and establish continuity beginning with Saturday’s exhibition at San Diego. The third of four exhibition games is the one of the starters typically play their longest as a final dress rehearsal for the regular season. Seattle’s begins Sept. 13 at St. Louis.
“What’s the ideal time (to settle the line)? I don’t know. That’s for coach to decide,” Wilson said. “I think we will just stay the course. …
“And then come game one, we will be ready to go.”