In much of life, you can learn the easy way or the hard way. On an NFL offensive line, you pretty much just learn the hard way.
Seattle Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy certainly did almost four seasons ago in his first professional start.
“I’ve tried to delete it from my memory,” he said this week. “It was very interesting. Unfortunately it was against Arizona, who runs all kinds of different blitzes and pressures and whatnot. Luckily I had some older guys who looked after me, but I still didn’t play very well. But it was a great learning experience, and I’m really not sure that I’d be the same player I am today if I didn’t experience that.”
Hard way or not, Sweezy learned. And as he prepares for his 49th professional start Sunday against the St. Louis Rams at CenturyLink Field, he has not only self-confidence, but the confidence of his teammates and his coach.
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“I think he’s accomplished a tremendous amount,” coach Pete Carroll said. “… He got killed in that first game, but he started his first game ever. He’s been a tremendous teammate on this team. He’s been so tough and so determined to do the right thing and give you what he’s got every single day.”
The transition from college to pro is seldom easy. But it was tougher still for Sweezy, who shifted not only from the ACC to the NFL but from the defensive line to offensive line.
In 35 games and 20 starts at North Carolina State, he made 86 tackles and recorded 11 sacks. Blocking wasn’t part of the job description, but that’s what the Seahawks asked him to do when they selected him in the seventh round of the 2012 draft.
“I like the scouting staff figured out that he was a potential guy, along with (offensive line coach Tom Cable’s) evaluation,” Carroll said. “The commitment to him, to make the transition, finding a guy that was willing to do that, and then all of the things that followed.”
What followed were three starts as a rookie, including that trying one against the Cardinals. What also followed was improvement, as Sweezy moved into the starting lineup in 2013 and has stayed there, including all 14 games this season.
That includes another game that Sweezy and the offensive line could use as a hard learning experience: the season-opening loss at St. Louis, when the Rams sacked quarterback Russell Wilson six times and stuffed running back Marshawn Lynch on a fourth-and-1 in overtime to end the game.
“They have a great defensive front,” Sweezy said. “They’ve got a few guys banged up and out for the year, and it’s made them change a few things and maybe not play the exact defense they would like to play with all their guys healthy. But they’ve still got guys in there who are playmakers.”
One of those is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who this week was selected to the second Pro Bowl of his two-year professional career.
“He’s real good, in my opinion one of the best defensive linemen in our league,” Sweezy said. “If we stick to what we do, and stick to our game plan and play the way that we’re capable of, we’re going to be just fine.”
Some of that confidence comes from experience. Sweezy admits that when he looked in the mirror in 2012, he saw a guy in positional limbo. Now there is no confusion: He sees an offensive lineman whose only regret is that he didn’t make the switch earlier.
And just as he has progressed personally, he also can look to the game video to see how far the Seahawks’ offensive line has come from that 0-1 start to this week, when they’ll take the field knowing they’re playoff bound regardless of results over the final two weeks.
Somewhere along the line, Sweezy also has switched from offensive line student to teacher.
“He’s helped me a lot,” second-year right tackle Garry Gilliam said. “We’ve kind of learned how to speak to each other and work our combos together and learn how to play next to each other. He’s a huge help to me. He’s been playing in the NFL a lot longer than I have, so I’ve picked up a lot of stuff from him.”
Whenever Sweezy’s fourth NFL season comes to an end, he will become a free agent. He already has seen enough professionally to take nothing for granted, but he hopes things work out to where he will remain in Seattle.
“Oh, of course, God willing,” he said. “Unfortunately sometimes those things are out of my hands. This is the first time I’ve thought about it in months. I’m just playing football and having fun doing it.”