Despite the loss of Zach Miller, Seahawks tight ends emerged as a threat in Seattle’s passing game over the final half of the regular season.
RENTON — When Seahawks TE Zach Miller injured an ankle in Week Three against the Denver Broncos, he underwent surgery Sept. 23 that was supposed to allow him to return in a few weeks.
The comeback never happened. At least, it won’t this season.
With his recovery taking longer than expected, Miller had a second ankle surgery in mid-November and was put on the injured reserve list, ending his season.
Seattle’s playbook subsequently shrunk.
“We’ve not been really able to replace that,” coach Pete Carroll said earlier this week. “Zach Miller does a lot more stuff than we do now. He’s done so many things in his background that we could call on him.”
In addition to being a skilled run blocker, Miller, 29, was an above-average receiver for a tight end, hauling in 71 passes for 783 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons playing in an offense that prefers to run rather than pass. He was a Pro Bowl selection (2010) who figured to again play a pivotal role blocking for the league’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense.
The Seahawks didn’t have another tight end with Miller’s diverse skill set. But they’ve patched it together since his injury with second-year TE Luke Willson (22 catches for 362 yards and three TDs), Cooper Helfet (12/185/2) and midseason addition Tony Moeaki (8/134/1).
In early November, the Seahawks were more or less forced to sign Moeaki, who’s had numerous injuries throughout his career. Yet he’s combined with Helfet and Willson to account for 681 receiving yards. That total is higher than every wide receiver besides Doug Baldwin.
“(Moeaki) and Luke and Coop have done a nice job filling that position for us,” Carroll said. “Really, the tight end position has picked up for us in the last six weeks or seven weeks or so. That’s been nice just to add to the offense.”
Each registered a signature catch during Seattle’s six-game winning streak to close out the season.
Helfet accounted for Seattle’s lone touchdown Nov. 23 in a 19-3 win over the Cardinals with a 20-yard catch-and-score in which he leapedand somersaulted over the pylon. Facing the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, Moeaki had a 63-yard catch and near-score. QB Russell Wilson spun to escape the pass rush and found Moeaki waiting along the sideline. He was ruled down inches short of the goal line.
Willson’s moment came in Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals, when he finished with 139 receiving yards and two scores — including a game-changing, 80-yard touchdown catch.
The Carolina Panthers, the opponent Saturday in the NFC divisional round (5:15 p.m., FOX) at CenturyLink Field, will remember him for hauling in Seattle’s game-winning touchdown with 47 seconds remaining in Oct. 26′s 13-9 win at Carolina.
“When you have a veteran guy and an all-around great player like (Miller), you really have to pull his weight,” Willson said. “I feel like we’ve been able to do that.”
Moeaki apparently hurt his calf during Tuesday’s practice and sat out Wednesday and Thursday. It’s uncertain whether he’ll play Saturday.
Unger set to play
The remaining NFL teams don’t have to release their probables for this weekend’s matchups until Friday, but Thursday’s injury report confirmed that the Seahawks will welcome back C Max Unger (ankle) after he missed the final six games of the regular season.
That is significant. The Seahawks haven’t had their entire first-string offensive line together since Oct. 6, a 27-17 win over Washington. That will change Saturday, with LT Russell Okung, LG James Carpenter, Unger, RG J.R. Sweezy and RT Justin Britt all expected to play.
“He looks great,” Carroll said of Unger. “All throughout the time he was rehabbing and doing all the aerobic conditioning. He’ll be fine.”
Backup S Jeron Johnson has been ruled out with an elbow injury, but otherwise, every player with a listed injury — minus Moeaki — was a full participant in Thursday’s practice.
That group included WR Jermaine Kearse (hamstring), Helfet (ribs), RB Marshawn Lynch (back), DE Demarcus Dobbs (ankle), CB Tharold Simon (shoulder), CB Byron Maxwell (illness) and DE Michael Bennett (non-injury related).