If you saw even a fraction of the Seahawks' loss yesterday in Kansas City you saw how much Seattle's defense misses Brandon Mebane, who went on injured reserve with a torn hamstring last week. Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs tromped through where Mebane used to stuff blockers and running lanes en route to 190 yards rushing. That is by far the most Seattle's previously No.-1 rushing defense has allowed this season.
For the game story from Kansas City that's in today's News Tribune I focused first on where this loss leaves the Seahawks' quest to defend their Super Bowl title in this season's playoffs. I also detaied Mebane's absence, and fill-in Kevin Williams' scoffing at my question to him after the game about how he thought the run defense was with him in there instead of Mebane. And I detauiled what was the game's glarin turning point: Max Unger getting hurt.
The Seahawks were rumbling toward the go-ahead touchdown with 9 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They had first and goal at the Chiefs' 9-yard line, down 24-20.
Then the latest injury in a season packed full of them U-turned Seattle's day, and maybe its season.
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Unger got his legs and feet tangled in a pile at the end of Marshawn Lynch's 5-yard run to Unger's left. The rest of Unger's 6-foot-5, 305-pound body bent back painfully and awkwardly while his feet were stuck to the ground under bodies, wrecking his knee and ankle. The two-time Pro Bowl center fell face first onto Arrowhead Stadium's nearly frozen turf in obvious pain. The injury looked so bad Seahawks trainers rushed off the sideline and sprinted to Unger in the center of the field. The center eventually rolled onto his back and grabbed his face mask with both hands as if to endure the pain.
He had at least a high-ankle sprain and a "twisted" knee, in the words of coach Pete Carroll immediately following the game; I'm expecting to find out more today at 3 p.m. when Carroll has his day-after press conference back in Renton (if these flight delays out of Kansas City before dawn this morning permit me to, that is).
Unger's injury forced in fourth-string center Patrick Lewis, whom Seattle has signed, cut and brought back this season. Lewis had to try to anchor a running game that up to then had romped for 200 yards on Sunday -- and 550 over the last seven quarters plus 6 minutes since Unger had returned from a sprained foot two games ago against the New York Giants.
Lewis, and thus the Seahawks, could not do it.
I detailed in the sidebar story yesterday how Seattle failed not once, not twice but thrice on fourth down in the final 7:11. The first attempt came two plays after Unger went out. Lynch ran for only 2 of the needed 4 yards while trying to cut to the right off Lewis. I'm thinking if Unger is in there play caller Darrell Bevell tries to run Lynch behind Unger on fourth down, too.
But we all know about "if."
Without Unger, Bevell went with a three-wide receiver formation of Doug Baldwin in the left slot, with Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson on each flank. Quarterback Russell Wilson didn't look or step anywhere but at Baldwin running a straight route into the left side of the end zone. Wilson took a one-step drop and threw the ball far over Baldwin as the Seahawks' leading receiver got shoved somewhat off his path in the back by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. Baldwin screamed for a pass-interference foul that wasn't egregious but I've seen officials call in other such situations. He didn't get it, and Seattle didn't get the go-ahead score.
On the next drive after the Chiefs' first three-and-out of the game, Unger's injury forced Wilson to do something I didn't see him do any other time on Sunday. He had to walk from left to right to each of the five offensive linemen before the snap to make the protection call Unger had been making, Afterward Lewis confirmed to me that's what his quarterback was doing. The fill-in center added that "with all the noise and everything" Wilson needed to be sure "we were on all the same page."
It's clear now how well Unger keeps the Seahawks' offensive line "on the same page."
By the time Wilson personally informed each lineman of the protection plan before the snap the play clock was expiring. It was the day’s only delay-of-game penalty.
Instead of second and 5 at the Kansas City 40 Seattle had second and 10 with 5 minutes left down 24-20. Why was that a big deal? Lynch ran up the middle for only 2 yards behind Lewis. Then Wilson’s 7-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse on a slant came up 1 yard short, instead of being a first down had the delay foul not happened.
On fourth and 1 from the Chiefs 36 and 3:38 remaining, Lynch tried to run behind Lewis and fill-in left guard Alvin Bailey. Three Chiefs swallowed Lynch. The Seahawks turned the ball over on downs for the second time in 4 minutes inside Chiefs territory.
When I asked Carroll after the game how Unger's injury affected the offense and thus the end of this loss, Carroll said only: "I don't know. We didn't change any calls."
Here's how it affected the game:
These are Seattle’s offensive production with and without Unger Sunday:
PLAYS YARDS /YDS PER PLAY YDS RUSH/PER RUSH POINTS
Before he got hurt with 9 minutes left: 56 345 / 6.2 200 / 5.8 20
After his high-ankle sprain: 15 27 / 1.8 4 / 1.3 0
So now what? Who plays center for the Seahawks (6-4) this Sunday when Arizona (9-1) comes to CenturyLink Field with a chance to bury the defending Super Bowl champions' division-title and playoff hopes?
There are no other options on the roster right now beyond Lewis, no one who has even practiced let alone played center for the Seahawks. Stephen Schilling went on injured-reserve with a knee injury last week, when Seattle needed his roster spot and was thinking Unger was back for the final seven games, anyway. So much for that. Drew Nowak is on the practice squad, but ... Drew Nowak?
Last season's backup to Unger, Lemuel Jeanpierre, is a free agent. The Seahawks released in September after a neck injury. But I am getting conflicting word on the terms of his injury settlement and when they allow him to possibly re-sign with Seattle; such settlements include a specified time that a player cannot re-sign with the same team that settled with him. That timeframe changes from agreement to agreement and is tied into how much money an injury-settlement player receivers. I've heard Jeanpierre's agreement with the Seahawks specifies the team cannot bring him back until after this week's game. I've also heard the team could bring him back now. I am trying to get the straight scoop on that.
If it is Lewis who starts Sunday against the Cardinals, well, yesterday's finish shows the Seahawks have some adjusting, improving -- and smoke-and-mirrors -- to do if they want to keep their offense from going nowhere. And to keep their playoff hopes alive.