Seahawk quarterbacks were sacked seven times on Friday. Fans have been rightfully curious about the state of the offensive line, and what they saw in that first game churned more stomachs around the Puget Sound than Red Mill Burger. Some are asking for reassurance that the line can be saved. Others, are telling everyone to stop worrying about a preseason game. There are a few undeniable truths that should help everyone reach a more balanced view on just how troublesome this offensive line might be.
Appreciate the run game
Offensive lines have two primary jobs: create space for the running game and protect the quarterback in the passing game. The part that has fans upset about the Seahawks line is the pass protection. It would be unwise to only consider one half of the equation when judging the line.
Seattle has ranked in the top four in rushing yards in each of the last three seasons. The line deserves credit for some of that accomplishment. Marshawn Lynch is often cited as being the primary reason for the rushing success, but the keep in mind the team ranked 21st in the NFL in rushing yards in 2011 and 31st in 2010. Lynch was present for both of those years. Russell Wilson’s legs definitely contribute to that total, but pointing to Wilson’s rushing yards as evidence against the line is just as misplaced as pointing to the sacks and saying they are all the fault of the line.
Marshawn Lynch was present when Seattle ranked 31st and 21st in rushing yards in 2010 and 2011, respectively
Wilson gets a lot of his rushing yards via designed runs like the read option. The line should get acknowledged for doing their job there.
The valid concern around the running game is that the team’s highest-rated run blocker, via ProFootballFocus.com, was traded this offseason. Max Unger ranked 4th among centers in run block rating last season, and was 3rd in that rating in 2012. No other member of the Seahawks offensive line has ranked higher than 16th since 2010.
There was not nearly enough opportunity to judge the performances of Lemuel Jeanpierre and Alvin Bailey as run blockers in this first preseason game. We have a good sample size for Justin Britt, J.R. Sweezy, Russell Okung, Lynch and Wilson when it comes to the running game, as well as Cable, so it is hard to imagine a total collapse in this key aspect of Seattle’s game plan.
Consider the full picture on pass protection
Cable sets the tone as the line coach. He is a great teacher, as evidenced by his ability to turn defensive lineman into starting guards and his ability to cross-train lineman across a variety of positions. He exudes toughness, and demands it from his players. He knows how to run the football.
He also has a blind spot when it comes to pass protection. Take a look at how his teams have ranked both in rushing yards and in sack percentage.
Cable has never coached an NFL line that ranked higher than 25th in sack percentage. His teams average rank in that category since 2006 is about 29th in the league. For those curious, the Seahawks sack rate was 5.87% (14th overall) in 2010, the year before Cable joined Seattle as the line coach. That track record spans different quarterbacks, lineman, and teams.
Expecting that to change now is foolish. As noted above, though, he knows how to coach the run game. A full six of his nine teams have finished in the top six in rushing yards. The glass half-full takeaway here is that Seattle’s sack rate and ranking has been abysmal through the last three seasons, and it has not kept them from reaching the Super Bowl twice.
Wilson plays a part
Most fans see a quarterback get sacked and point at the line. That is often fair, but it is only part of the picture. Wilson contributes significantly to the pass protection problems. He is consistently near the bottom of the league’s quarterbacks in time to throw and likes to bail out of the pocket a lot, both make life exceedingly difficult for lineman to do their job.
Some people will try to argue that Wilson’s terrible time to throw numbers are due to his line being so bad at pass protection. The evidence does not support that perspective. Consider that Tarvaris Jackson had to endure a line worse than any Wilson has played with, including Robert Gallery at guard and rookies John Moffit (RG) and James Carpenter (RT) forming a turnstile on the right side. Jackson still got rid of the ball considerably faster than Wilson and ranked far higher in that category than Wilson ever has.
A more valid indicator of line play contributing to pass protection problems is the total number of sacks that occurred in under 2.5 seconds. Those indicate a jail break situation that leaves the quarterback with no time to succeed. Only four quarterbacks have have been sacked as many times as Jackson was (9) in those situations since 2011.
Wilson’s ability to avoid pressure contributes to lowering his sack number in those quick pressure situations, but not to the point of explaining the full difference between his and Jackson’s number.
The encouraging sign here is that the percentage of Wilson’s throws happening in less than 2.5 seconds is increasing each year. He has now eclipsed where Jackson was in 2011. Peyton Manning is the master of this. He led the NFL last year, as usual, by throwing 70% of his passes in 2.5 seconds or less. That is why he can change teams, change lines, and change line coaches, and still be sacked less than almost any other quarterback in the league.
Wilson has made steady progress in throwing a higher percentage of his passes in less than 2.5 seconds
Wilson has better receiving targets than ever this season. Jimmy Graham represents a safety net that will hopefully encourage Wilson to throw more quick passes. Seattle’s best chance to decrease pass pressure is to throw the ball sooner. Cable is not going to change his stripes.
Lineman have a tendency to get hurt. They play in the trenches and can be twisted up in any number of ways. That is why Seattle tends to keep 10 lineman on their 53-man roster. It is also why Cable cross-trains all his lineman to be able to cover at least a couple different positions.
The backups got the majority of the reps on Friday. A few of them played truly bad football. One hard part about line play is that one weak link can make the whole unit look incompetent. Jesse Davis, for example, does not belong on this roster. He allowed consecutive pressures on his first series, the second resulting in a sack. Garry Gilliam, on the other hand, did pretty darn well in pass protection.
If Britt were to go down with an injury, it probably would be a guy like Gilliam filling in. It definitely would not be Davis. Similarly, Mark Glowinski played a decent game, especially for his first as a pro, and should only get better as he gains confidence and experience. That gives the team a quality backup at guard.
Patrick Lewis has started games at center for the team. He is not challenging for the starting spot at this point, but the team knows it can win games with him in there. The fact that Cable has both Drew Nowak and Lemuel Jeanpierre ahead of Lewis should offer some comfort in knowing he sees two players clearly better than a guy who started for the team last year.
Terry Poole and Kona Schwenke are two others who could grow into quality depth before camp exits.
Overall threat level: LIGHT YELLOW
Three-fifths of the offensive line that made it to the Super Bowl last year is still here. Two players who started 10 games for the team last year at center are still here. The team went 8-2 in games started by Jeanpierre or Lewis at center. Left guard is a question mark, but so was the guy who occupied it last year.
James Carpenter was the 47th ranked guard in the NFL last year, according to PFF. That is the level guys like Bailey and Glowinski and Keavon Milton need to compete with.
Britt was the worst right tackle in the NFL in pass protection last year. It did not stop the team from winning. A lot. J.R. Sweezy has struggled in pass protection since his rookie year. The team wins anyway. Unger had one of his worst seasons in 2013 when the team won a Super Bowl, so stellar center play is not strictly necessary.
The rest of this preseason is about finding answers to the questions of who will be the starters at center and left guard, and about developing some depth behind them. Kansas City is next up and features a fearsome pass rush. It represents a terrific opportunity for these coaches and players to take a meaningful step forward.
There are four more weeks until Seattle plays its first regular season game. The game to watch will be August 29th in San Diego. Seeing the starters go into the third quarter, and the depth chart more solidified will give us far more insight into where this line stands.
My assessment for now is that this group has a lower ceiling without a guy like Unger around, but they should not stand in the way of winning.