SANTA CLARA, Calif. Is the fifth time Seattle’s charm?
Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers will feature the version number five of the Seahawks’ iffy, scrutinized offensive line this season.
It’s the arrangement they’ve been looking forward to most.
All the attention has rightly been on the Seahawks missing six starters from their defense. Star defensive backs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor remain out, Sherman for the season and Chancellor seemingly for at least that long. Coach Pete Carroll says to expect "some clarity" soon on what’s next for Chancellor and Pro Bowl end Cliff Avril, who is on injured reserve.
Jeremy Lane may start with newly re-acquired Byron Maxwell at cornerback Sunday against San Francisco. But Saturday the Seahawks added Lane to the injury report as questionable with a new knee injury. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan picked on Lane all Monday night in Seattle’s latest loss. The Seahawks are already missing rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a concussion Sunday. They could start nickel back Justin Coleman at cornerback if Lane can’t play, the bring Neiko Thorpe in to play corner with Coleman at nickel on passing downs.
Yet it’s the other side of the ball where the Seahawks are hoping a return proves huge.
For the last six games the Seahawks have been without Luke Joeckel at left guard. The veteran who signed to a one-year contract guaranteeing him $7 million had arthroscopic knee surgery last month. He hasn’t played since Oct. 8.
Sunday against the 49ers, Joeckel and left tackle Duane Brown will start side by side for the first time.
"I didn’t think it would take five, six weeks to get back. But with the surgery they had to clean up more than they expected," Joeckel said before the Seahawks left Renton for the Bay Area Saturday. "Now it’s just good to be back. Those first five weeks just flew by. These last five weeks that I’ve been out have been a LONG five weeks.
"It’s just good to back out there with the guys."
Best for the Seahawks he’s with Brown. Seattle traded for Brown four weeks ago, while Joeckel was recovering from surgery to fix what was still wrong with his knee. He had it reconstructed 13 months ago when he was with Jacksonville.
Brown, a three-time Pro Bowl tackle with Houston, is officially questionable to play at the 49ers. He didn’t practice again this week because of an ankle injury he got two games ago at Arizona. But Carroll said he and Joeckel, also officially questionable, will start.
That has the always-sunny coach particularly beaming. His line that has had consistent problems protecting Russell Wilson’s attempts to throw and creating running lanes for any backs may be solidifying. On the left side, anyway.
The Seahawks rank just 26th in the NFL running behind left guard (3.1 yards per rush) this season. They are 22nd running around left end (3.7 yards per run). Again, most of those yards have come from Wilson’s scrambling.
"It’s going to be a lot of fun," Joeckel said of Brown, the former Houston Texans’ mainstay who’s played opposite Brown for years inside the AFC South. "I’ve watched a lot of his film, playing in the same division as him. He’s big, strong. He’s going to make a left guard’s job easier, for sure.
"A 10-year vet, playing at a really high level each year. When we’ve got those double-team blocks, he’s a strong dude. A great run blocker. We’ve got to get jell together right, but we’ve both got the experience and I think it’s going to be an easy transition."
Seattle’s line now will have 15 seasons of NFL experience on its left side. That’s nine more years than the other three blockers starting at San Francisco have: center Justin Britt (four), right tackle Germain Ifedi (two) and likely right guard Ethan Pocic (rookie). Pocic, the second-round pick, started the first five games of his career, at left guard, while Joeckel was out.
"It will be the first chance to get him and Duane playing side by side, which will be fun and awesome to see that," Carroll said of Joeckel. "Duane didn’t get to work much but he will play, and so I am real excited to get those guys out there.
"Certainly, (Joeckel) adds experience. He has been there and the wherewithal and the background. To put those two guys next to each other and next to Justin, I just think it’s the stuff that we have been thinking about for a while and I’m hoping to see and excited.
"We are looking forward to that … that background, experience and savvy just gives those guys a real edge."
Seattle’s offense needs all the edges it can find to get back on a playoff track.
The Seahawks, so dominant in past Novembers and Decembers, fell to 1-2 this month in the home loss to Atlanta this past Monday. Line play again was a factor. Two of the nine penalties from the league’s most-flagged team came from offensive linemen holding: Pocic and—for just the eighth time in 10 seasons—Brown. Wilson’s scrambles away from pass rushers was again Seattle’s only running game; the quarterback had 86 yards rushing that way against the Falcons.
Wilson has a team-leading 376 yards on the ground this season, with 91 percent of those yards (343) coming on scrambles aborting pass plays.
He’s been sacked 26 times and hit 80 times through 10 games. The 80 hits Seattle’s line has allowed is fifth-most in the league. San Francisco has allowed the most, 82. The combined records of the only four teams permitting more hits on their quarterbacks—Arizona, Indianapolis, Cleveland and the 49ers—8-32.
Seattle’s 17th in the NFL in rushing. Take out Wilson’s yardage he’s gotten scrambles on pass plays and the Seahawks would be last in the league with 666 yards on the ground through 10 games.
So, yeah, the Seahawks could use some expertise any place on their line. It could be especially useful against the 49ers. They have the NFL’s 31st-ranked rushing defense, allowing 133.5 yards per game on the ground. San Francisco is 29th in points allowed per game (26).
A run game also would be handy on what is supposed on sloppy day in the Bay Area. Forecasters are calling for a 90-percent chance of rain, jeopardizing a notoriously shoddy grass field at Levi’s Stadium.
But who is going to run for Seattle, besides Wilson yet again?
Former 49er Mike Davis, waived by San Francisco in the spring, was the Seahawks’ surprise, new lead back last week. He looked bullish and impressive on six carries for 18 yards but even more so on two catches of screen passes for 41 yards. The screen pass has become the Seahawks’ new weapon because of all their pass-protection issues.
But Davis strained his groin midway through that loss to the Falcons. He is doubtful to play against his former Niners, though Carroll said Friday Davis was "close" to getting back and might be a game-time decision.
Thomas Rawls has practiced all week to be the lead back. He was ticked Monday at being a healthy inactive for the second time in his career, and second time in as many months.
Carroll said he expects Rawls to "play his buns off" six days after being told he wasn’t needed. Those may be some steamed buns. It may also be test of assistant head coach and run-game coordinator Tom Cable telling Rawls "don’t try so damn hard."
"He is just really high strung and psyched, a pumped-up dude," Carroll said. "And he needs to get out there and get some plays and kind of get tired a little bit and feed on back into it.
"But we love that about him. We love everything about the way he brings it. But he gets really hyped and pumped for the games, and early on, he can be a little out of control. So he just needs to get some rhythm.
"And hopefully we will get that done this week."
Joeckel has incentive to plow more running lanes than Rawls and Seattle’s backs have gotten this season. Joeckel can become a free agent again after this season. The former second-overall draft choice knows so far he has just five, inconclusive games played and just as many missed for the Seahawks. They are judging whether to retain him and his experience for 2018 and beyond.
"I’m excited to be back on the field and feel healthier than I did for sure in the beginning of the year, to show the kind of football I can play," Joeckel said.
"I know it’s a one-year deal, and there are a lot of things going on. But I’m just trying to focus on my play and just getting better, and do my best."