After taking large strides in 2018, many anticipated the Seahawks’ offensive line to be an above-average unit heading into 2019. I believed the group would debut in mid-season form. After all, four of five starters would return. Replacing J.R. Sweezy with Mike Iupati felt like a lateral move at worst, the latter being a Mike Solari guy. In his first year, Solari had to implement his scheme, language, and all that comes with such a transition. Which is why frustration is somewhat justified entering his second season. Picking up where he and the line left off was the expectation but, after two weeks, a measure of concern is warranted. However, we should exercise restraint from hitting the panic button.
Per Pro Football Focus, Seattle ranks dead last in pass blocking through two weeks. Football Outsiders grades them slightly better, but still as a bottom three unit. After facing the new-look Bengals, Pete Carroll admitted it was harder to game plan with limited information. Certainly, the Bengals 5-2 defensive front presented problems, but untimely penalties mixed with 3rd & extremely long scenarios killed drives.
Minus kneel-downs, the Seahawks ran 49 total plays against Cincinnati, a low number considering they averaged 60 per game in 2018. Not to mention, Seattle merely earned twelve first downs over the entire game (including two via flag)! Football guys refer to this as being unable to “stay on schedule”, while analytics folks would focus on the limited amount of pass attempts in conjunction with Chris Carson’s target share. In my opinion, there was a slight overreaction to this. Schottenheimer wants to get Carson more involved in the passing game, but not at the expense of downfield targets to Tyler Lockett and (their new shiny toy) DK Metcalf. They’ve simply turned Mike Davis’ workload over to Carson and Penny. Yes, versus the Bengals, Carson’s seven targets stood out because Wilson only attempted twenty passes. From my perspective, they felt mostly like outlets for Russell who was under constant pressure with limited time for explosive passing. That would come back down to earth the following week.
Against Pittsburgh, Carroll and Schotty knew this offensive line would face frequent blitzes. Yes, the Steelers were going to get theirs, and Solari’s group (D.J. Fluker and Germain Ifedi) yielded another four sacks. Unlike the Bengals game though, Seattle would make the necessary adjustments at halftime. Schottenheimer called perhaps his best half of ball since joining the Seahawks, and the offensive line kept Wilson upright.
Much like Week 1, I anticipate most to overreact once again. Because Seattle had success passing quickly, some may assume that it’s here to stay. Others will feel these two weeks are just an example of Seattle playing to the level of their opponent. The reality is, Seattle knew Pittsburgh’s defensive tendencies and exploited that. It just so happened that they wouldn’t need four seconds of pass protection to accomplish what they desired. They invited a certain amount of pressure knowing it would open short to intermediate target depth. Obviously, that’s not always going to be optimal against every defense. The Seahawks knew exactly what to expect versus Mike Tomlin, which was not the case against Zac Taylor.
If we hone in on the second half (shown below), we clearly see the impact of Russell’s time-to-release. Not only did that favor the Seahawks in regard to the defense they were facing but it also provided a bit of relief to the offensive line who didn’t have to maintain their blocks as long. Duane Brown is still great. Iupati was better than we anticipated. Justin Britt is still Mr. Consistent, though Fluker had a rough game in pass protection. Germain Ifedi’s discipline may be regressing though, and that’s something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
As much as we welcome more early-down passing, we know this team isn’t firing on all cylinders without a consistent ground attack. We know the Seahawks aren’t going to shy away from it. Say what you want about the value of running backs, but we can all agree that run blocking matters, especially to Pete Carroll who worked feverishly to correct what he and Tom Cable left behind. Seattle’s deficiency in this area has been the most uncharacteristic mark of these two games. If we reference PFF’s grading system again, we see Seattle ranked 16th in run blocking, while Football Outsiders have them at 28th, a much larger discrepancy of opinion certainly weighted by their respective values. With only two games played, sample size is a large variable. But even the eyeball test displays the same dreary ground production. It’s the primary reason Carroll would be losing sleep despite a 2-0 record.
For a moment, forget explosive runs, rushing yards and even yards per carry. From purely a game script perspective, being able to set up more 3rd & < 7 scenarios will bring back play call variety and flexibility. I know that’s not what some folks want to hear because trendy offenses aim to bypass 3rd down altogether. We know how this offense generally operates though. Running and high percentage throws until they get to midfield. Then, take explosive shots. It’s less about establishing the run to set up play action and more about striking once they’ve mitigated most of the risk that comes within the battle of field position.
We can say that time of possession is more a symptom of winning rather than root cause. Yet, we know this offense is not “complete” without the culmination of an effective running game. The Seahawks value pace of play. They value being the more physical team. Call it foolish egotism, but doesn’t some of that come with the territory of being a competitor? Even Carroll described his lackluster running against the Bengals as “arrogant.” In the very same press conference, he stated they felt “in control.” So, what is that?
Well, when Seattle is winning their smaller battles, they feel in control, even if they’re down on the scoreboard. Time of possession, net turnovers, 3rd down, etc. They’re all miniature games within the actual game, and Seattle bested Pittsburgh in the aforementioned. So, can we actually say they didn’t force their ideal win condition just because they passed more? They morphed to exploit not a strength or weakness of Pittsburgh. Rather, a tendency. Fans have been screaming for in-game adaptation and they got it.
With the Saints coming to town, one of the bigger matchups to keep in your peripheral is Cameron Jordan versus Ifedi. Cam presents a bit different package than T.J. Watt did but will give Germain fits nonetheless. Per nflpenalties, Ifedi accounts for 22% of the Seahawks’ total flags so far in 2019; talk about smaller battles. If I’m the Saints, he’s the guy I’m picking on. Staying disciplined against this Pro Bowler will be paramount for Seattle to sustain drives and for Ifedi to lay that first brick towards securing his bag.
Overall, football games are very hard to prepare for and win. Seahawks fans should feel fortunate rooting for a team that can win as they simultaneously iron out the wrinkles.