The Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line has its glue-guy back.
But their defensive line just lost one of its emerging, young standouts — just as he was bonding with the pass rush.
Max Unger was back at practice Tuesday, and coach Pete Carroll said his two-time Pro Bowl center looks ready to start Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against Carolina at CenturyLink Field. Unger hasn’t played in seven weeks, since he sustained a high-ankle sprain and twisted knee in the fourth quarter of Seattle’s last loss — Nov. 16 at Kansas City.
But Jordan Hill is out for Saturday — and the rest of the postseason. The second-year defensive tackle who has 5½ sacks during Seattle’s six-game winning streak went on the injured-reserve list. His season is over no matter how far the Seahawks advance.
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Hill injured his calf last weekend while working out during Seattle’s playoff bye. It’s not related to the banged knee he got during the regular-season finale against St. Louis on Dec. 28, Carroll said.
“It’s a pretty severe calf pull,” the coach said.
Hill was becoming a prime force late in games as a recent protégé of veteran end Michael Bennett. Soon after Bennett began working with Hill on technique and moves with his hands, arms and feet before practices in November, Hill went from a nonfactor to a disruptor, a big part of Seattle’s late-season dominance on defense.
Hill is 17th Seahawks player to go on injured reserve for the 2014 season. By comparison another division winner, Pittsburgh, had three.
The Seahawks filled Hill’s place on the active roster by signing safety Steven Terrell from the practice squad for the second time this season.
Unger’s return is timely, and it could prove to be the most influential development for Seattle’s offense in months. That’s how long the Seahawks have used midseason pickup Patrick Lewis then Lemuel Jeanpierre and then Lewis again at center.
A key to them moving the ball consistently against the recently rugged Panthers will be their line’s ability to diagnose where speedy middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is headed on each play, and then to block the All-Pro.
Unger is the best communicator on Seattle’s offense. When he has played this season the running game has been more consistent. The blocking assignments have been more precise. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t been chased on drop-backs quite as much.
“When Max plays our numbers are a little bit better. It actually statistically shows up. We’re running the ball a little bit better, we protect a little bit better, and everything,” Carroll said. “That’s his guidance and his experience for the other guys up there. He’s an expert at recognizing looks and calls and directing what’s going on there. So it just stands the reason that we maximize more so with him there.
“We’ll just be a little bit more accurate with stuff and the kind of experience that just takes time to get. Patrick and Lemuel, they just haven’t had the background. It’s a wonderful dimension for us that helps us just be right more. And that’s a really important thing in the game, particularly up front.”
When Unger has played the last two seasons — the center missed three games in 2013 — Wilson has had as many protection-call responsibilities because of his symbiotic relationship with Unger. They study films of defenses together at least three times each week. Unger knows what Wilson knows and sees at the line before a snap better than Lewis and Jeanpierre likely ever will.
“It’s pretty coordinated,” Unger said of his relationship with Wilson. “It has to be. … It kind of has to work both ways.”
With Unger out, it often hasn’t. Wilson spent chunks of the 10 games Unger missed, the first four from a sprained foot in October, noticeably directing his linemen with hand signals and protection calls just before the snap. At times the result was a delay-of-game penalty. Other times it was foes’ pass rushers besieging the quarterback within the first steps of Wilson’s drop back.
On Saturday, Wilson should be able to focus his eyes more on Carolina’s speedy linebackers Kuechly and Thomas Davis plus an aggressive, young defensive backfield behind them with two new rookie starters, cornerback Bené Benwikere and safety Tre Boston.
That’s Darrell Bevell’s plan, anyway.
“Max is our leader up there,” Seattle’s offensive coordinator said following Tuesday’s indoor practice. “He does a great job of just setting it, and then communicating really well with the rest of the guys that are around him.
“Since Max hasn’t been in there for quite a while that puts a little more pressure on Russell to try to make things right, make sure he hears everything — where sometimes he kind of takes it for granted that Max is getting it done for him.”
The Seahawks’ offense led the NFL in rushing this regular season at 172.6 yards per game — thanks to Marshawn Lynch’s 1,306 yards and Wilson’s improvisational running for 849 more. But its line has struggled for two seasons in pass protection and, recently with Unger out, communication.
“What it will give us is the leadership, obviously. The background. The knowledge in the system,” offensive line coach Tom Cable said. “It will give us a little more strength in there.
“Take nothing away from Patrick; he’s done fine. But it’s nice to have a guy back who’s played this much football.”
Cable gave a wry, deadpan grin when asked how challenging this season has been for him and his line. He’s had to start nine blockers at 10 spots through 16 games. He’s started four centers. Rookie right tackle Justin Britt and right guard J.R. Sweezy, a converted defensive lineman, are the only Seahawks lineman to start every game — though Sweezy was dragging a banged-up ankle through last month.
“Tough year for the injuries,” Unger said, meaning himself but representing the entire line. “(But) the bye week was huge … especially not playing the last six weeks, jumping back in there.”
How tough a season has this been for the line? Take November’s win over Oakland.
Lewis, signed in August, cut two days later and re-signed in October, started at center because Unger missed his fourth consecutive game. Unger’s initial replacement for four games, Stephen Schilling, was out with a knee injury. Unger and Schilling dressed for the Raiders game because there’s only so many injured guys the team can put as inactive. Undrafted college tight end-turned-tackle Garry Gilliam had to go in at left guard against Oakland after James Carpenter sprained his ankle in the second half. Eventually, Cable felt compelled to insert Schilling because Lewis and the line were getting overwhelmed. Schilling went on injured reserve days later.
So has it been challenging, or what?
“Yeah, you could say that. Isn’t that obvious?” Cable said playfully.
But much of that challenge might subside with Unger’s return.
“It’s just nice to have him back,” Cable said, “and have the crew back together.”