Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks turn to Luke Willson, in-house tight ends following Zach Miller’s ankle surgery

The Seattle Seahawks are so happy with the house they’ve built to win and now defend a Super Bowl, they are going to stay inside it to replace a key injured starter.

Seattle is not going to sign a replacement tight end among the many they’ve tried out since starter and 2010 Pro Bowl tight end Zach Miller had ankle surgery last week.

Coach Pete Carroll said following Monday’s practice that it’s going to be Luke Willson as the starting tight end, Cooper Helfet behind him and tackle Alvin Bailey as a potential third “tight end” on running downs for Seattle’s next few games. Even rookie tackle Garry Gilliam, a tight end until his senior season at Penn State in 2013, may get time at the position.

All this is while Miller mends following surgery during last week’s bye to clean out what Carroll said were bone spurs and “loose bodies” in the valuable veteran blocker and receiver’s ankle.

Carroll said following the Seahawks’ indoor practice Monday afternoon at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center that the team likes their in-house options at tight end better than signing a new one before this Monday’s game at Washington.

“We’ve looked hard. Had a lot of guys in here. Worked out a lot of people,” Carroll said. “We’d like to stay with our people — all of the banking on communication in the system that’s been working for us, all of that.

“So we’re going to get it fixed right here.”

Miller has been hurting for a while, the coach said. The Seahawks decided to get it fixed last week during their bye so Miller would miss one less game than he would have by undergoing surgery at any other point in the season.

“We are going to give him a couple weeks, then go week-to-week and see how he does,” Carroll said.

The team does not expect this to be a long-term recovery and so will not place Miller on season-ending injured reserve.

Miller made the Pro Bowl while with Oakland in 2010, when Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable was the Raiders’ head coach. He has been executing Cable’s zone-blocking schemes for the last seven years, since Miller was a rookie and Cable was Oakland’s line coach.

Even though Miller’s recovery time sounds like it could have been worse, this is still a major loss to the Seahawks’ offense for any length of time. Miller has six catches through three games this season after 38 and 33 receptions the previous two seasons. But the Seahawks value him as much or more for his run and pass blocking as for his receiving. He’s been helping rookie right tackle Justin Britt on some pass blocking. He’s been a lead blocker for runs by Marshawn Lynch. He knows Cable’s blocking system better than anyone.

“Zach does a ton of things,” Carroll said. “He was with Tom for all those years, and that background has really helped us a lot, all those little things that he knows how to do. Finesse-kind of situations, motioning and being in the backfield as a fullback as well as a normal tight end, and also we’ve moved him outside. … A great, tough competitor, too. So we are missing a lot with Zach.”

Willson, the team’s fifth-round draft choice in 2013 from Rice, is primarily a pass catcher, so the Seahawks will be taking a hit in their edge blocking.

“He’s obviously going to play a ton now,” Carroll said. “It’s really a great opportunity for him to step up. He’s improved in every area.

“This is a lot to ask of him, though. This is the first time he will have this kind of duty. It’s his turn to step up.”

Carroll said Helfet will be an integral part of the offense while Miller is out. Seattle signed the former undrafted free agent from Duke in 2012. He missed much of August into mid-September with a knee injury but has been back fully participating for a couple weeks.

Miller missed two days of practice in the week before the Denver game on Sept. 21. Carroll said at the end of that week Miller had improved and was ready for the Broncos game, which he proved to be. He played 71 of the offense’s 78 snaps and finished with two catches for 12 yards.

Miller, 28, has six receptions for 74 yards through three games this season, about on pace to equal the 33 and 38 catches he had in the 2013 and ’12 seasons.

Seattle signed Miller in August 2011 as a free agent, and he restructured that contract before this season. He has a base salary of $900,000 for 2014, with per-game bonuses of $900,000 in a deal that is more cap friendly for the Seahawks (2-1).

The next two games do not appear to be Seattle’s sternest tests to the flanks of their offensive line.

Their biggest threat off the edge next Monday in Washington (1-3) is outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. He played in the Redskins’ 45-14 loss last week to the New York Giants with a hard cast on his left hand to protect ligament damage from a dislocated middle finger. Orakpo had two tackles in that game, and has a half of a sack in four games this season. He had 10 sacks in 15 games last season.

The Seahawks host Dallas the following week, Oct. 12. The Cowboys (3-1) have five sacks through four games, tied for sixth-fewest in the league. They are 24th in the NFL for yards allowed, giving up an average of 380 per game.

EXTRA POINTS: Carroll thought S Kam Chancellor, who had his own ankle issues that bothered him most noticeably in the loss at San Diego Sept. 14, looked great in practice Monday. … The coach said CB Tharold Simon may return to practice in two weeks. He had knee surgery early this month. At one time the Seahawks were thinking the second-year man from LSU, who missed last season with foot injuries, would replace Jeremy Lane (groin) as the nickel back. That was before newly acquired Marcus Burley impressed them. … Lane is on the injured-reserve list with a designation to return after eight weeks. He remains on track to be back for the Nov. 9 game against the Giants. Each team gets only one such IR-to-return designation per season, which is why Seattle will carry 52 available players on its 53-man roster in these next few weeks while Miller recovers from his surgery.

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