In the Trenches: A review of Seattle’s offensive and defensive lines

The difference in the Seattle Seahawks being a playoff team and a real Super Bowl contender is dependent upon growth from both sides of the trench.

Offensively, it’s not a matter of passing more. It’s not a matter of taking the challenge flag away from a hormonal coach. It’s not a matter of being more aggressive on 4th down. It’s not a matter of giving Russell Wilson more weapons. Even if we never see these things materialize, I’m afraid the most glaring issue with Seattle’s offense remains the offensive line. Attrition has greatly impacted the group’s ability to become cohesive, an attribute we love to use when describing an offensive line in mid-season form.

Injuries happen up front for every team, but the Seahawks’ starting five have rarely been healthy and on the field together. First came Iupati’s foot/calf. Then D.J. Fluker’s hamstring. Then Duane Brown’s bicep. Most recently, Justin Britt’s knee. Not to mention, Ethan Pocic was making moderate developmental strides before being sent to Injured Reserve. The team can embrace “next man up” because now they have no other choice. Seattle did not trade for a center (or tight end) at the deadline. They felt confident with who they already had in-house, and their decision on standing pat appears to be paying off. Even if Joey Hunt and Jacob Hollister have limited ceilings, they’ve covered better than most anticipated.

Of all the things Russell Wilson is praised for, the most impressive might be that he’s maintained an MVP pace despite the limitations of his offensive line.  How is he doing it? Wilson’s footwork in a broken pocket is second-to-none. His internal clock has never been faster, and his release time indicates so. If there was ever something to criticize the future Hall of Famer for, it’s been a bad habit of holding the ball too long. He’s corrected course, and from my perspective, ascended to the highest level of the position, a level that only a handful of all-timers have achieved: The cerebral elite. Yet, he’s still a top-five athlete among current starters with arguably the best deep accuracy. He even began gaining experience as a play-caller, both in the preseason from the sideline, and most recently, on the road during headset malfunctions. With this combination, Russell obviously covers a multitude of sins. Though to be fair, so do most franchise quarterbacks. It’s commonly believed that even elite signal-callers can’t operate when pressured, so Wilson overcoming conventional understanding somehow surprises pundits still. Only time will tell if he is an anomaly or the prototype.

But I digress…

According to Football Outsiders, Seattle’s pass protection ranks 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate through Week 9. Not exactly “one of the best groups” as Duane Brown believed them to be. Not to mention their apparent strong-suit, run blocking, is ranked worse (23rd).  Per ESPN’s Pass Block Win-Rate (PBWR) metric, the Seahawks rank 27th as a team, and have no individual players that rank top-10 at their position. To add insult to injury, Tom Cable’s group over in Oakland is ranked 4th as a team with three top-10 individual performers, most notably Trent Brown, the 1st ranked tackle with a 95% PBWR. Certainly, this contributes to Derek Carr’s bounce back. Even J.R Sweezy, who Seattle chose not to re-sign, is the 8th ranked guard with a 95% PBWR.

The Seahawks’ offense has been able to overcome despite its weakest link — they rank top-10 in both yards per game and points scored — and should be given majority credit for what some feel is an illegitimate 7-2 record. With a murderer’s row of opponents slated, it’s hard to imagine them looking significantly better. Luckily, a bye week for recovery will be timely, and we’re very close to seeing the debut of Phil Haynes who has dominated 1v1 drills.

Defensively, we foresaw and continue to witness a lack of production from the defensive line. It remains to be seen if Jadeveon Clowney is a long term fit for the Seahawks; I have my doubts. Ziggy Ansah has performed below the expectations of even the most skeptical. Jarran Reed’s return has been timely, although it appears the sharp fans were wise to reserve expectations for pass rush duplication. He’ll likely need a couple weeks to return to form. Al Woods fits his role well. We’ve seen flashes from Rasheem Green and Poona Ford but the only one who seems to be outperforming expectation is the currently injured Quinton Jefferson.

Defending the run doesn’t seem to be an issue, and if pass rush is the biggest concern, the next biggest from my perspective is depth. I’ve always believed it to be the biggest unsung factor of a Super Bowl-contending defense. The current squad just doesn’t have it. I’m a supporter of Pete Carroll re-establishing “All-In” culture, but I can’t lie: Michael Bennett is exactly what this group is missing. This is what I’m most critical of the staff for in 2019. Culture reset is great, but the lack of depth is so apparent. I understand giving young guys the opportunity to develop, but Seattle would still lack veteran pass rush even if Ziggy wasn’t a complete zero. It certainly feels like the Seahawks have been playing catch-up in this area since the Malik McDowell injury.

Even acquiring Clowney felt like a stroke of good timing and fortune. If Ziggy was healthy then, would they have even stayed in communication with Houston? The outcome was heavily dictated by Clowney refusing to play for Miami. We can confidently assume the Dolphins offer (Tunsil + picks) was stronger than Seattle’s (Mingo + Martin + picks). So yes, credit John Schneider for staying in communication and closing that deal, but I fear where this defense would be had they not been so fortunate.

Clowney is the only Seahawk ranking top-10 at his position in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win-Rate (PRWR). At 27% PRWR, he ranks 5th among all edge rushers through nine weeks. Since he’s in a contract year, and pressure is more important than sacks, Clowney may cash in this offseason despite only pacing out to four quarterback takedowns. As a team, Seattle ranks 14th in PRWR at 46%. This came as a surprise to me, as a “stats first then film confirmation” type. Based on the eye test, I wouldn’t hesitate to say they’re well below league average in pass rush. Adjusted Sack Rate agrees, in which Seattle is 4.9%, ranking 31st in the NFL! For perspective, the league average is 7.2% and anything above 8% is cracking the top-10.

From a surface-level view, it seems obvious what the Seahawks are missing. The narrative has finally started to shift from blaming Brian Schottenheimer and the offensive philosophy, to poor secondary play. Or, playing Base 4-3 against offenses that predominately run 11 personnel. While this claim has been argued, I still believe pressuring the quarterback is the root cause of a secondary’s success, at least for those that are void of Pro Bowl talent or rely on man coverage.

Call me old-school — that’s fine — but Carroll’s focus on stopping the run, limiting explosive passes, and winning the turnover battle is defensive line-centric at its core. The front seven MUST stop the run to make offensives one-dimensional. From there, if they don’t have to load the box and can pressure without blitzing, they have a great opportunity to limit explosive passes because there are fewer voids to throw into. Carroll then invites “dink and dunk” yardage underneath. He knows teams can’t score that way in the red zone because there’s less space to operate with. Teams eventually must throw into traffic or run with success. Hence, “bend but don’t break.”

But they’re breaking this year.

Seattle’s defense has made outright bad quarterbacks look formidable. Should majority ownership be laid upon the secondary though? Minus a few mishaps earlier in the year, they’ve done what they’ve been asked to do, which is to keep everything in front of them. Even with musical chairs at both safety spots, and Tre Flowers going through a sophomore slump, is that really the crux of the issue? If the most important player on the field is the quarterback, it seems to me that common sense still suggests pressuring him is the key to overall defensive success. That’s not to say good secondary play can’t buy the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback. There’s certainly room to improve all around. But the elephant in the room is the Seahawks’ lack of pass rush.

It’s easier said than done, but if Seattle can improve to just league average in these areas, they will be the most conditioned to make a run. Remember, they have an MVP-caliber quarterback and a top tier head coach, both with more playoff experience than just about anyone else in the NFC.

The Seahawks’ next four games will all be in primetime against teams contending for the playoffs, three of which will be on the road and two of those being division rivals. This is the kind of stretch that will tell us how close Seattle is to their Super Bowl form.