Dave Boling

Dave Boling: No simple replacement for injured Seahawks tight end Zach Miller

Because of his multi-faceted excellence and the lack of proven depth behind at tight end, Zach Miller seemed one of the players that the Seattle Seahawks could least afford to lose to injury.

But a painful ankle condition sent him to surgery and he’ll be out for an indeterminate length of time.

We are making the assumption that it was painful, because Miller has been known to play through just about anything without a peep.

We didn’t know it until after he finished catching eight passes for 142 yards in the playoff game against Atlanta following the 2012 season that he had torn his plantar fascia on the third play of the game.

Miller seemed on his way to his second Pro Bowl season, not only as a devastating edge blocker, but also for games like he had against Green Bay, when he made one diving catch, and then alertly broke up a pass that would have been an interception.

How can the Seahawks do without a guy like that?

Well, let’s look back to last year at this time.

In the fourth game of the season, at Houston, the Hawks were without their three best offensive linemen, Pro Bowl players Russell Okung and Max Unger, at left tackle and center, respectively, as well as right tackle Breno Giacomini.

Unger was out only two games, but Okung missed eight and Giacomini missed seven, and had to be replaced by a seventh-round rookie, Michael Bowie.

They managed pretty well. By the time the offensive line was back to full strength, on Nov. 17 against Minnesota, the Seahawks were 9-1.

The replacement parts in the pieced-together lineup played well enough, and the schemes were jimmied effectively enough, to provide help where the matchups were most perilous.

And during that stretch, Miller was on the shelf, too, missing games at Indianapolis and home against Tennessee with a hamstring injury.

Rookie Luke Willson stepped in then, and caught two passes in each of those starts, and showed he had good speed and hands. And as the season went on, he improved at blocking, his most obvious liability.

Willson will now get the starting call in place of Miller, and should match or exceed Miller’s threat as a receiver, but will fall short of Miller as a blocker.

“I think from when I first got here, I’ve made a lot of strides,” Willson said Tuesday of his blocking. “I feel like I’ve really improved and done a pretty good job.”

He has. He’s quick enough that he gets a good angle on those plays when he’s asked to come back into the middle of the formation and pick off an unwary defensive lineman.

The player who now becomes the backup tight end is Cooper Helfet, who hasn’t caught an NFL pass and appears, at 239 pounds, less apt to be stout at the line than Willson.

So what do the Seahawks do until Miller can recover?

The passing game should suffer only in the regard that Miller will not be around to help pass protect in some schemes. Willson, who has only one catch for 1 yard this season, obviously will be more involved in the passing game.

At times in the past two seasons, the Hawks have employed backup tackle Alvin Bailey as a jumbo tight end. Bailey’s insertion likely is seen as an overt admission that a running play has been dialed up.

A little more intriguing, meanwhile, is the possible use of undrafted rookie tackle Garry Gilliam, who was a tight end at Penn State. He caught eight career passes. But now 6-foot-6 and 306 pounds, he added 30 pounds to help earn his roster spot as a left tackle prospect.

Coach Pete Carroll acknowledged the possibility of taking a look at Gilliam in that role. In contrast to Bailey, defenses would at least have to consider the possibility that Gilliam might be able to run a route and pull down a pass.

The Seahawks under Carroll have espoused the “next-man-up” philosophy when it comes to injury replacements. The expectation is that one who stays healthy will step in and get the job done.

It’s worked in the past, when guys such as Richard Sherman and Malcolm Smith went from fill-ins to stardom — an All-Pro in Sherman’s case, and Super Bowl MVP in the case of Smith.

Nobody on this roster is going to be a one-for-one replacement for Zach Miller.

But if they can be close enough, the Hawks staff can scheme around the deficit.