The Seahawks' offensive line is changing. Again.
Of course, the team's most criticized group had to.
Seattle's linemen are going from blocking the way it was told to, to more of the way it wants to. The way Duane Brown loves to.
"In the running schemes, we ran a lot of zone (blocking) last year, and I think we’ll continue to run some zone. But we also want to get more downhill," the 11-year veteran left tackle said this week during Seattle's organized team activities. "We’ve got a lot of big bodies up front, and you want to utilize that power. We’re also being big on pad level and playing with great leverage in order to run downhill. So power schemes, double teams, things like that I think we’ll implement."
Brown says straight-ahead, power blocking is what linemen relish.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "I love the zone scheme, as well. It gets defenses moving sideways. But when you have the ability to switch it up and run downhill when they might be expecting that and you get them on their heels and you can knock them off the ball, there’s no greater feeling for an offensive lineman.
"When you can put your guy five yards, six yards off the line of scrimmage and if you can do that repeatedly, it demoralizes a team. That’s the mentality we have going into this year."
Yes, it's more smash-mouth than sides and angles for the Seahawks now, at least in theory. The season doesn't begin for another three months.
I mean, have you see the size of new right guard D.J. Fluker?
That's A LOT to move "downhill," as Brown calls it.
So what created this new mindset, scheme, personnel (in Fluker's arrival), and, the Seahawks hope, new results up front in 2018? What's different, after years of the offensive line being Seattle's most troubling position group?
Mike Solari is here.
The line coach for the last 42 years in the NFL, college and high school football arrived in January as a crucial part of head coach Pete Carroll's sweeping overhaul of his Seahawks coaching staff and offensive system. Tom Cable had been Seattle's line coach, using the zone-blocking scheme, from 2011 until Carroll fired him Jan. 10 . Carroll also moved out seven other assistants in the aftermath of the Seahawks' first non-playoff season in six years.
Carroll hired Solari, 63, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to replace fired play caller Darrell Bevell, to get the Seahawks back to the running game this year.
Seattle's last two seasons have been a failed referendum on the vast authority and decision-making responsibility Carroll and general manager John Schneider gave Cable on scouting, evaluating, drafting, signing and developing offensive linemen. Cable had been on college campuses working out Germain Ifedi, Ethan Pocic, Terry Poole and Mark Glowinski. They are among the league-leading 17 offensive linemen the Seahawks have drafted since 2011.
Five of those 16 offensive linemen Cable hand-picked before this year's draft—nearly one-third that Seattle drafted from 2011 through '17—never started a game for the Seahawks (Poole, Garrett Scott, Kristjan Sokoli, Justin Senior, Ryan Seymour). Three others started fewer than nine games: Michael Bowie, Rees Odhiambo and Joey Hunt (Odhiambo and Hunt, 2016 draft choices, are still on the team).
Cable was also Seattle’s run-game coordinator. He mentored and meshed running backs with those blockers in a unique arrangement; most NFL offensive coordinators don’t have to share responsibilities in the running game with another assistant. Carroll this offseason eliminated that run-game coordinator role. He also got rid of Seattle's previous sharing between the O-line coach and offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer will coordinate and call everything. Solari will coach the linemen to run the plays Schottenheimer calls.
Carroll made the changes after the Seahawks plummeted from a top-five rushing offense in the NFL in 2012, ‘13, ‘14 and ‘15--when Marshawn Lynch was romping in Cable’s zone-running schemes and Seattle played in two Super Bowls--to 25th and 23rd the last two seasons. That was with injured and relatively anonymous successors to Lynch as lead runners. Take away quarterback and team-rushing leader Russell Wilson’s scramble yards he got avoiding sacks on plays that weren’t supposed to be runs, and the Seahawks would have been 32nd, dead last, in rushing offense in 2017.
Days after last season ended Carroll said his top priority for 2018 was fixing the Seahawks' running game. A month later he hired Solari and Schottenheimer, who once led the NFL's top-ranked rushing offensive with the New York Jets. Four months later, he drafted a new running back in the first round: Rashaad Penny. College football's leading rusher last year for San Diego State had 2,300 yards with 23 touchdowns in 2017. That was 22 more TDs than Seahawks running backs had last year.
Chris Carson is back from a broken leg in October as the lead runner with Penny challenging him so far in OTAs.
The Seahawks’ offensive line went through five iterations of starting lineups last season. It has changed yet again this offseason, with Fluker and Solari.
Solari is back for his second stint with the Seahawks. Mike Holmgren hired him in 2008 to be his line coach in what became Holmgren's final season as an NFL head coach.
“It’s just a great opportunity," Solari said. "I really thank Pete and John for giving me a chance to come back. It’s just awesome. The opportunity came up, and I was excited about the possibility. This is great, it’s great to be back. A great organization, great people, excellent.”
Solari is known for teaching a hybrid system that mixes the man-on-man, straight-ahead blocking Brown loves with some zone-blocking concepts.
On the practice field during OTAs the last two weeks, no-pads practices ripe for teaching fundamentals of technique rather than the testing of physicality that will come in training camp and the season, the buzzwords for Seahawks linemen has been "straight ahead."
I tried to nail down with Solari what Brown outlined: The line coach's arrival means Seahawks blockers are going to try to drive their assigned defenders five yards off the ball straight back rather than shade at them from the side and merely try to wall them off for a second or two until the running back quickly cuts past.
Solari was too coy for clarity.
"The key thing on the blocking philosophy of Mike Solari, it’s the Seattle Seahawks. It’s fundamentals and technique," he said. "So we work hard in our individual drills to develop our technique and develop our fundamentals. We want to control the line of scrimmage, and we believe you control the line of scrimmage with fundamentals and techniques.
"The guys are working hard and it’s kind of coming together. I don’t want to over-exaggerate, because we’re not in pads, and that’s really (where you) ascend as an offensive line.”
It wasn't that Cable never had his Seahawks drive blocking straight ahead. He mixed in some, sometimes on the backside with zone blocking on front side on a given run call, at the point of attack.
I asked Solari if it fair to say what Brown said, that the Seahawks will be more straight-ahead blockers and less zone blockers now? What is Solari's preferred blocking scheme?
He stayed vague.
“It’s always a combination of things," Solari said. "You always want to take advantage of their fundamentals and technique. So, again, we just want to implement the things that we’re going to add, and so forth. So it’s just a matter of having a little bit more variety.
"But again, you still want those fundamentals and techniques. It’s still about leverage. It’s still about aiming points. It’s still about hand placement.”
And it's about the men who will be blocking and running.
Fluker was been limited during OTAs that end on Thursday. That's because of a left-knee issue he had last season when he played for Solari with the New York Giants. Carroll said the Seahawks are holding out Fluker for now, as a precaution. Seattle signed the massive Fluker this offseason to a one-year, $1.5 million contract because he's been a road grader as a run blocker for the Chargers and Giants; he's viewed as a weaker pass blocker. He's penciled in as the new starting right guard.
The remainder of Seattle's starting line for 2018 is appearing to be what it was to end 2017: Brown at left tackle, 2017 rookie second-round draft choice Pocic at left guard, Justin Britt at center and Ifedi at right tackle.
Ifedi, the team's first-round pick in 2016, struggled at right guard as a rookie then struggled mightily last season in his first NFL try at right tackle, his college position at Texas A&M. He was the league's most penalized player. He often false started before snaps to try to get outside to quicker pass rushers.
Solari said the 6-foot-5 Ifedi needs to play lower, with that leverage Brown talked about is paramount to power, drive block faster defenders. Ifedi was limited during team drills last week during OTAs but has been the first-team right guard this week.
"Germain, he’s working his way back," Solari said. "He’s a big, physical guy. It’s exciting when you have somebody like that to work with. He’s working and he’s competing, and he’s trying to get the technique and fundamentals down.
"A big man like that, the key thing is leverage, being able to bend your knees. Sometimes as a big offensive linemen, you get a little bit sloppy and rely on strength, and you don’t bend and play with leverage. This game’s about leverage. Guys are so quick, you have to have your knees bent so you can react and adjust off of movement, and things you need to do at the second level.”
Getting to another level. That's the challenge for the Seahawks' offensive line this year. It's why Solari is here.
The days of Wilson being the team's leading rusher by hundreds of yards and throwing for 4,000 yards, the team record the quarterback set last season, must end for the Seahawks to get back to the playoffs. And win again once they are there.
"We definitely want to be better in the run game to take pressure off of Russ and having to drop back a lot," Brown said. "Last year we weren’t as good as we wanted to be so we’re taking that upon our shoulders.