Your goal is to lift the championship belt. To get there, you need to beat a series of challengers before facing the champ himself. But it is not as simple as that. Imagine stepping into the ring fight after fight with one hand tied behind your back. You take a few shots early, but learn to thrive even with this limitation. Now you get that hand back. Not only do you get it back, but it is now your strongest asset. More dangerous than ever, your path to the title match is clear. A Seattle Seahawks team that has managed to be third in the NFL in scoring (30.8 ppg) and second in yards (411.0 ypg) while going 4-1 over the last six weeks, just untied the hand that was behind their back. It is strong. It is proficient. It is Duane Brown. Alert the ring doctors. Trading punches with Seattle just got a heck of a lot more dangerous.
Fresh off a thrilling win that saw the offense pile up 41 points, 479 yards, and 9 explosive plays against the 6th-ranked Houston Texans defense (via FootballOutsiders DVOA metric), the Seahawks had every reason to feel confident about their chances to continue what has now become a four-game winning streak. Russell Wilson is on fire. He is the third-rated passer since week four (108.1), and has been nearly perfect the past two weeks. His chemistry with Paul Richardson continues to grow. The speedy receiver has quite literally risen to the occasion, becoming the first player since Golden Tate to consistently win 50/50 jump balls against opponents. One of Wilson’s best attributes is his ability to throw a catchable deep ball. He is more comfortable throwing jump balls into one-on-one coverage than he is hitting a streaking speedster in stride.
Wilson has targeted Richardson deep nine times. Five of those passes were catchable. Richardson caught every one. His ability to fill that role has been huge for Wilson and the passing game.
Doug Baldwin is the fifth-rated receiver in the NFL this year, per ProFootballFocus. Jimmy Graham and Richardson are tied for the NFL lead in touchdown receptions over the last two weeks with 3 apiece. The team appears to be finding Graham in more natural parts of the offensive flow. Tyler Lockett just had the second-best receiving day of his career with 121 yards. He was one of three Seahawks to catch passes of 50 yards or longer. That Wilson had enough time to uncork these big throws speaks to the progress made along the offensive line.
ProFootballFocus likes to point out the Seahawks offensive line is 30th in the NFL in pass block efficiency on the year. What they do not tell you is the team is 22nd in that metric over the past over the past six weeks, and 17th over the past two. There is progress being made in pass protection. Oft-maligned (including on this blog) right tackle Germain Ifedi is one of only five tackles in the NFL this year with 280+ pass block snaps without giving up a sack. He is one of only two players in that group to give up no sacks and just one quarterback hit. The other is Joe Thomas. Ifedi is still far from perfect, but the improvement is undeniable.
Rookie Ethan Pocic has stepped in and been nearly perfect in pass protection, allowing only two pressures in 66 pass snaps. That is 10th-best in the NFL since he entered the lineup two weeks ago. Oday Aboushi has been pretty good as well, ranking 21st out of 39 guards over these past two weeks. We know Justin Britt was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, and is solid in his role.
That leaves Rees Odhiambo. The second year player was a third round pick a year ago who was thrust into the starting left tackle spot after George Fant went down. He has struggled mightily. His pass blocking has been among the worst in the league for his position, and his run blocking has been worse. He ranks 72nd out of 74 qualifying tackles in pass blocking, and dead last in run blocking, per ProFootballFocus. There were some minor signs of improvement, with a solid game against the Giants, but he was whipped by Jadeveon Clowney on Sunday. Counting the preseason, Odhiambo has had nearly three months to acclimate to his starting role. It is possible something would have clicked and the arrow would have started pointing up, but the likelihood of that was low.
Still, the offense has managed to become lethal even with him in the lineup. Only the franchise record setting 2005 squad with Hall of Famers on the offensive line and an MVP in backfield had more yards through their first seven games than this Seahawks crew. They have done it with passing. Wilson is now second in NFL in passing yards per game, behind only Tom Brady.
Most news outlets will get this wrong. They will tell you the Seahawks were doomed and their offense was horrible. They will tell you Duane Brown is the savior to turn it all around. The facts do not support that narrative. Even without Brown, the Seahawks offense appears to be in its best stretch of play since the second half of 2015. The only team to keep them under 425 yards in the past five games was the Los Angeles Rams. That defense ranks 3rd in the NFL per DVOA. Oh, and the offense still managed to score enough points to win on the road.
The addition of Brown is more akin to nitrus in the fuel line. You get to replace the worst offensive lineman in the NFL this year with one who has never ranked outside of the top ten tackles and has been to more Pro Bowls than any Seahawks lineman that has played under Pete Carroll. Max Unger was a two-time Pro Bowler. Russell Okung made it once. Brown has been there three times, most recently in 2014. Wilson has only made three Pro Bowls. The position that was manned by your worst player on offense is now occupied by your best offensive linemen, and possibly your third best player on that side of the ball.
He is equally adept at pass blocking and run blocking. Let’s start with the impact of his pass blocking. Seattle had to get creative with Odhiambo and that meant leaving extra players in to block or requiring guys to chip Odhiambo’s opponent on their way out to routes.
Every player you keep in to block is a player who the defense does not need to defend. Aaron Rodgers has famously told his coaches that he does not want players kept in to help pass block because he much prefers extra guys available as receiving targets. The players this effects the most are receiving threats at running back and tight ends. Players like J.D. McKissic, C.J. Prosise, and Jimmy Graham, have all had to help Odhiambo do his job. Even then, he struggled.
A solid left tackle like Brown allows those players to focus on their jobs, and threaten the defense. Alternatively, it allows the coaching staff to pick another guy on the line to assist should the matchup call for it. They knew that Odhiambo would need help every game and on a decent chunk of the snaps. What happens when Ifedi runs into a tough matchup? Or one of the guards? They could always pull a second guy out of the pass patterns to stay in and block, which they have done, but that is putting extreme stress on the few receivers available to get open. And now those receivers have to get open against more defenders in the secondary. The math gets tough.
They used to talk about how you could basically put the guys facing Walter Jones in a paper bag, and set them aside. He was so good that he would remove that piece from the chessboard. Even the greats like Julius Peppers were overmatched. Brown is not in that category, but the Seahawks can assume that he will handle his business in every game and on every snap. That means they can scheme to help their other linemen if the situation demands it. More often, it is going to mean more players in pass patterns, more options for Wilson, and more play options for Darrell Bevell. Remember, this offense just passed for over 450 yards and 4 touchdowns against the 7th-ranked pass defense in the NFL. They only face two teams the rest of the year who are better at defending the pass (Rams, Jaguars), and five of their opponents rank 20th or worse.
That is just passing. Brown is arguably the best run blocker on the team. Seattle has been successful on just 27% of their runs behind left tackle and 17% of their runs around left end. That is atrocious. League average is 44% and 42%, respectively according to SharpFootballStats. The Texans were at 47% success running behind left tackle last year, and 50% when running around Brown’s left side. There are different players and schemes, but if the Seahawks can even jump up to league average on runs to the left, that would represent a massive step forward.
He also becomes the elder statesmen on what had been the youngest line in the league. Britt has been the leader, and Brown will surely respect that, but he has wisdom to share. That can only help Pocic develop as he plays alongside him. It may also help Ifedi with some tackle tips.
It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff does when Luke Joeckel returns from surgery. Pocic has been the better pass blocker so far, but he has a long way to go in the run game. More likely, Joeckel slides back in at left guard, and Pocic either returns to his swing backup spot or he challenges Aboushi at right guard. The team likes Aboushi’s experience next to Ifedi, but Pocic is the better player. A lineup of Brown, Joeckel, Britt, Pocic, and Ifedi would represent the best pass blocking crew this team may have fielded during the Tom Cable era. There are no glaring weaknesses there.
For now, one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL over the past six weeks just got significantly better. Seattle opponents who once licked their chops at the chance to face this offensive line are going to find the sledding far tougher. Teams may need to rely on finding ways to beat the Seahawks defense in order to keep up with this offense. Few teams are capable of that. The bell is about to ring, and the Seahawks are itching to fight.