So is this the game in which this Seahawks offense gets out of its own way?
The signs are as conflicting as the recent results.
Marshawn Lynch won’t play for just the second time in his six seasons with Seattle, after the team learned of undisclosed “findings” from an MRI on his injured hamstring. So undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls will start for the NFL’s leading rusher and touchdown maker since 2011.
But the Seahawks (1-2) aren’t exactly facing the 1985 Chicago Bears on Monday night at CenturyLink Field. More like the 2015 Chicago Bears, the ones Seattle just rolled 26-0 last weekend.
The winless Detroit Lions have lost most of their teeth on defense. Huge inside presence Ndamukong Suh is now gone from its middle, gone to Miami as a $114 million free agent. Without him Detroit has sunk from first in the NFL against the run last season to tied for 20th now, allowing 112 yards rushing per game.
The Lions are tied for 27th in total defense, allowing just under 400 yards per week. They are tied for 24th in points allowed. Detroit has four sacks in three games, part of the reason their pass defense is 26th. They had 10 sacks at this point last season.
This is all grand news for Seattle’s still-inconsistent, adjusting line. It has largely kept the Seahawks’ offense “off schedule,” to use leading receiver Doug Baldwin’s term this past week.
The sexier storylines for this Monday showcase is former wide receiver Golden Tate’s return to Seattle after a 99-catch debut season last year for Detroit. Or Cliff Avril’s appreciation for being the starting defensive end with a four-year, $28.5 million contract extension from the defending two-time NFC champion Seahawks, making him a world removed from having endured the Lions’ 0-16 season of 2008 as a rookie.
Yet Seattle’s most pertinent issue — not just for this game but for its ongoing response to an 0-2 start — is how its offensive line progresses.
While last week’s win over Chicago looks good on paper, it was a 6-0 slog into the third quarter. It took NFC special team player of the month Tyler Lockett jolting them with a team-record 105-yard kickoff return for a score to get the Seahawks going.
Seattle’s line has starters in three new positions, including a center, Drew Nowak, who was a college defensive tackle. Behind it the Seahawks scored just one offensive touchdown against the Bears, who have allowed more points than anyone in the league. Seattle has just four touchdowns in 31 offensive drives this season. Baldwin pointed out his Seahawks are the NFL’s worst so far converting third downs with 3 to 6 yards to go. And with a single yard to go, the offense has been a particularly peculiar mess.
Coach Pete Carroll gathered his Seahawks this week to talk about how much the team’s former undrafted rookie free agents are contributing. Three-fifths of the O-line is among that group, including Nowak, right guard J.R. Sweezy and new right tackle Garry Gilliam.
Gilliam was the biggest surprise to make the 53-man roster in 2014, and is another of offensive line coach Tom Cable’s projects.
“I mentioned it to the players the other night when I was talking about some of our young guys that developed and how far they’ve come,” Carroll said. “And he (Gilliam) was one of the examples of a guy that just a year ago was barely holding on to making the team.
“We were holding onto him because of the potential. I think Tom and the guys did a really nice job with developing him in really quick fashion, because they knew his was physically capable and he was smart enough. He just needed to get the knack of what it’s like to play O-line in this league.
“He’s learning that.”
So is Nowak. So is Justin Britt. Last year’s rookie right tackle is now the left guard.
With all this learning going on, Russell Wilson’s been sacked 12 times in three games. Lynch has been stopped on third- and fourth-and-1, the latter time in overtime to end the opening loss at St. Louis. That’s why the Seahawks have a nagging sense of frustration through the season’s first month that they could be doing so much more.
“I’d still like to knock a couple sacks off a game. That’s still what bothers me,” Cable said, “because really of the 12 we’ve given up in three games only two, to me, are real sacks.
“It’s communication. It’s laziness, not finishing, taking the sack or not getting the ball away. Whatever it is, we are all involved. Most of those are unnecessary, in my opinion. So we all have to do better.”
The unattractive truth is this feeling may last a while — through the Lions, through next week’s test at undefeated Cincinnati and beyond. Seattle may have to continue winning with defense.
“We knew that they were not going to be a finished product at the start of this game, starting the season off,” Carroll said of his new offensive linemen. “But we do like their approach and their toughness and the mentality about learning and the discipline that they’re trying to generate in their play. They’ve got all the right stuff to make up a good group, so it’s just time. This is a very difficult aspect of our game. Offensive line stuff is the most complicated, and they’re just working through it.”
“I don’t think we’re going to know for another four, five weeks, maybe the half way point of the season. We can be better. We’ll just get better. … We just have to get it smoothed out, evened out, and I think it’s going to come here as we continue to work.”
Cable remains bullish on this line, calling it his most athletic and potentially best of his six seasons with Seattle. He’s particularly excited about how Gilliam and Nowak will only get better each week.
“The ceiling is extremely high for both of them,” Cable said. “I see continued improvement by Drew in all three games. The last game was his best outing … he is just doing nothing but getting better.
“Garry was a little inconsistent last week, but, again, we have a plan each week to improve on two or three things. … It’s about discipline for him. Things are rather easy for him because of his skill set.”
Gilliam said he got lazy with his footwork and fundamentals last week against Chicago, after a standout game driving back Packers off the edge at Green Bay.
“I’ve learned that a lot of times if I get beat it’s my own fault,” Gilliam said. “A lot of times it’s not what the defense is doing, it’s just me getting lax with my technique or just kind of messing something up. Sometimes you will see my greenness of not having a lot of experience, not sticking to my technique.”
Nuances such as those have kept the Seahawks offense in neutral this season. And with Lynch hurting, even the winless Lions may not accelerate Seattle as much as you may think it should.
“It takes time. It doesn’t happen automatically,” Carroll said. “We don’t like that we have to wait for these guys. But it’s the natural process and we have to go through it.”
DETROIT LIONS (0-3) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (1-2)
Monday, 5:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: ESPN; Ch. 6/16; Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM
The series: Seattle leads the series 7-5. The Seahawks have won three of the last four meetings — though the Lions won the last matchup, 28-24, on Oct. 28, 2012, at Detroit. The Lions haven’t won in Seattle since Sept. 12, 1999, at the Kingdome, on a day Charlie Batch out-passed the Seahawks’ Jon Kitna. The series dates to Seattle’s expansion season of 1976.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Step, kick – and punish: Seattle’s defensive backs have talked recently about their “step-kick” technique of stepping into opposing receivers to jam them at the line and then kicking their legs for a drop step to run along pass routes. The Lions are last in the NFL in rushing offense and are coping with an iffy line by having battered Matthew Stafford throw more quickly to shorter routes; he’s gotten the ball out faster than anyone in the NFC this season. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Cary Williams jumping all over Calvin Johnson’s and Golden Tate’s many short routes risks a home-run ball deep. But that seems to be a Seattle risk worth taking with the state of Detroit’s offense.
Life without Suh: When the stuffing tackle left for Miami’s megabucks in free agency this spring, he apparently took Detroit’s No. 1 rushing from last season with him. The Lions are 20th now against the run. Even with Marshawn Lynch (hamstring) out for only the second game in six seasons for Seattle, the Seahawks vow to stay with who they are. That’s power running early to set up everything else. Be it Thomas Rawls, Fred Jackson, Derrick Coleman as the ball carrier.
Resting Lynch: Yes, he’s the foundation upon which the Seahawks have built their offense and collective, smashing persona. But no matter how bullish he is and indestructible he’s been, why risk the league’s leading rusher and touchdown maker in this game even if he can play through his hurt hamstring? That’s why Lynch is sitting this one out. Not that the winless Lions are as bad as Chicago, but Seattle plays at undefeated Cincinnati next week and has 12 games left to catch 3-0 Arizona again in the NFC West. The Seahawks will need Lynch and his hamstring more in November and December — and perhaps January — than they do Monday night.
The pick: Seahawks 27-9. The get-well part of the schedule continues with the line still trying to put it all together, Russell Wilson getting harassed and the offense just getting by. This team remains dependent on a defense that will further batter the beaten-up Stafford.