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The Seattle Times ran a poll online asking fans which position group was the top priority to address this offseason. Wide receivers were not the top vote-getter. Neither was defensive line. The infamous Seahawks offensive line earned the top spot. Not only is that farcical, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what Tom Cable requires of his lineman and the factors beyond line play that are impacting pass protection.
State of the line
Max Unger, Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy and Justin Britt are all under contract for next season. James Carpenter is a free agent, and his return is in doubt. Seattle will return, at a minimum, four of their five starters from last season. There is a greater than 90% chance that at least three of those starters will remain with the team in 2016 as well. Okung is a free agent after this year, and it is unclear how the team will handle that situation.
But let’s get back to next season. There is little-to-no chance that the Seahawks will have a different starter at LT, C, or RG. Britt could possibly get pushed at RT, but I would wager the Seahawks were very pleased with his rookie season and expect him to only get better with a full offseason. At 6’6″, sliding Britt inside to guard does not make much sense even though he is a far better run blocker than pass blocker.
Age is not a huge issue yet for this group. Unger will turn 29 this year, but centers can play well into their 30s without a major dropoff. Sweezy is just 26 and Britt will be 23 this year.
The uproar about pass protection
Russell Wilson was under pressure on 46% of his dropbacks this year, tops in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus.com. He was under pressure 43.8% of his dropbacks last year, also the highest rate in the league. He was at 39.2% in 2012, just behind Michael Vick (41.4%). Tarvaris Jackson was 3rd in the NFL in 2011 with a 38.3% rate. But a curious thing happens when you rewind to 2010. Matt Hasselbeck, in his last year in Seattle, was pressured on just 26.6% of his dropbacks, which ranked 27th in the NFL. Why the drastic change?
Three major shifts happened after that 2010 season. First, Tom Cable was hired as the offensive line coach. Pete Carroll was unhappy with the pass-heavy offense they were running in 2010 and wanted Cable to bring toughness and his track record of success in the run game. Second, personnel shifted to match Cable’s style. Gone were guys like Sean Locklear who were better pass blockers than run blockers, and in came guys like Robert Gallery, James Carpenter, Paul McQuistan, and Breno Giacomini. And third, the quarterback went from a savvy drop-back passer who had been taught by Mike Holmgren to get the ball out quickly, to a guy like Jackson whose biggest weakness is his tendency to hold the ball too long.
Jackson was 8th in the NFL in time to throw in 2011. Hasselbeck was 24th that same year in Tennessee. Wilson has taken more time to throw than any quarterback in the NFL the past three years.
Understanding and accepting this fact is crucial to deciphering how to improve pass protection. It is no different than a pitcher’s time to the plate in baseball. People who watch that sport have come to accept that a base can be stolen on the pitcher every bit as much as the catcher. Fans love Wilson so much, they often quickly rush to his defense, saying he takes so long because he is having to scramble to avoid the pressure his line is allowing. Hogwash.
Time to throw has far more to do with a quarterback’s ability to diagnose a defense, progress through his reads and be decisive with his delivery than the performance of the offensive line. There is a reason Peyton Manning is sacked so rarely no matter who his lineman are. There is a direct correlation between time to throw and percentage of dropbacks where the quarterback is under pressure.
The absolute best chance to improve the Seahawks pass protection is for Wilson to continue to grow as a passer. There is a reason Carroll has been so effusive in his praise of Wilson’s recent success in the “quick” or “rhythm” passing game. He talks about it as the “missing piece” because Wilson becomes unguardable if he can master that aspect of the position.
Upgrades are receiver will also help here, but not nearly as much as Wilson raising his precision and decisiveness.
But this is not all Wilson. I wrote last July that Cable has a blind spot when it comes to pass protection. He had never coached a line in the NFL that ranked higher than 15th in sacks allowed. He still hasn’t, as the Seahawks ranked 20th last year.
It was, however, the second time he had the #1 ranked rushing offense and seventh time he had a top ten rushing offense.
It took me two years to realize that a player who was clearly a better pass blocker was valued less by Cable than a player who was a better run blocker. That is rare in the NFL where quarterback health and safety is usually paramount. Yet, that is how guys like Carpenter and Britt get drafted. That is how Sweezy is talked about by the coaching staff as one of the best guards in the league when he ranks so poorly in pass protection.
It is highly unlikely that players on the offensive line will start getting switched out for better pass protectors. That is not what Cable chooses, and there is no sign that Carroll is pushing for a change.
The part that many fans overlook is just how good this line is at run blocking. Everyone assumes it is just Marshawn Lynch breaking a million tackles. Ask guys inside that locker room how good Unger, Sweezy, Carpenter and Britt are at run blocking. Ask how many times they get to see Sweezy pancaking a guy 10 yards down field on a Lynch run during Monday highlights.
The idea that this is poor offensive line is just not true. More important than my opinion is that of the people responsible for making that evaluation, and they are quite happy with how those guys are playing. If you are waiting for a massive overhaul of the personnel, you will be waiting a long time.