RENTON — As a legitimate “franchise” quarterback, Russell Wilson is the Seattle Seahawks’ most valuable asset.
And, at the moment, also their most vulnerable asset.
With 27 sacks at midseason, he’s on pace to become the most sacked quarterback in Seahawks history, exceeding Dave Krieg’s 1985 mark of 52.
The Seahawks had just 40 offensive snaps in Monday’s 14-9 escape from St. Louis, and on seven of them (17.5 percent), Wilson was sacked. On 10 of them (25 percent), he was hit.
He was taken back more yards on sacks (48) than the Seahawks gained rushing (44).
The performance caused the Seahawks to plummet to 31st in the NFL in sacks-per-pass play. And Wilson is now only six sacks shy of the total (33) he absorbed his entire rookie season.
Part of this is specific to the Seahawks, playing without injured starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, but some is also symptomatic of the entire NFL, where there simply doesn’t seem to be enough high-quality offensive linemen to go around.
Other than All-Pro center Max Unger, the Seattle line is currently manned by a rookie replacement (tackle Michael Bowie), a relocated guard (Paul McQuistan at left tackle), a rehabbed left guard (James Carpenter, who has missed 18 games in 21/2 seasons), and a second-year converted defensive lineman (right guard J.R. Sweezy).
For most of them, the effort has been admirable, but the execution often unacceptable.
Some stats are so subjective they might come into question, but I’ll just toss this one out for you to chew on: Pro Football Focus offers a stat called Pass Blocking Efficiency, and of 59 NFL tackles rated, they list McQuistan at 59th, with eight sacks attributed to him. Bowie is slightly higher at 45th.
No question, Seattle managers have done a great job of stockpiling depth, and upgrading the 53-man roster.
But they’ve missed on a few linemen, and while some of the fill-ins and reserves are young and show potential, it’s hard to expect them to effectively line up and face a top pass rusher every week.
And in the contemporary NFL, every team has one. The Seahawks have faced a series of rushers – J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Robert Mathis, John Abraham, Chris Long and Robert Quinn, to name a few.
Five in that group were first-round draft picks, and Mathis was a fifth-rounder who has racked up 103 career sacks. And the Seahawks are trying to counteract them and win games with a pair of seventh-rounders on the right side and a journeyman free agent at left tackle?
The deck is stacked against offensive linemen around the league, but it becomes a further mismatch when starters go down, as is the case with Seattle.
Opposing defenses can move their best pass rushers around to stymie blocking schemes. And in passing situations, defenses substitute a full package of pass-rush specialists. You don’t see the offensive line subbing in nickel-blockers.
The damage is being seen across the league. Sacks (per drop-back) are up 12 percent (6.7 compared to 6.0 in 2012) and are at the highest rate in nine seasons.
“It’s quite a challenge because the defensive linemen in this league are so athletic and fast and big and strong offensive linemen face a tough task,” said Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, who faces the Seahawks on Sunday in Seattle.
He added that it’s short-sighted to always blame the five offensive linemen for sacks. “It’s 11 guys who have to do the little things right, whether we’re chipping with a back, whether we’re free-releasing and getting the ball to (receivers) before the rush can get to (the quarterback),” Schiano said.
Unger said that pass rushers are “some of the best athletes on the field,” but “it’s how football’s been played just something we have to deal with.”
He stressed that the job description for linemen doesn’t change: keep the quarterback clean, regardless of the opponent or who happens to be in the lineup.
“We definitely got beat (physically) here and there,” Unger said of the St. Louis game. “But it’s the (mental errors) that are killing us.”
As the player who makes the blocking calls at the line, Unger said he takes responsibility for any miscommunication.
But the culpability spreads much further, including coaches and play-callers, who have to find ways to be more efficient.
And Monday’s narrow win over St. Louis is an obvious statement that the Seahawks are going to have a hard time reaching their expectations when Wilson finishes a game with only 10 completions at the expense of seven sacks.