BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/01/2020

Thiel: Seahawks’ O-line fixes remain a mystery

Why would Seahawks throw away 60% of an O-line that helped make an 11-win season? Because Russell Wilson was sacked 99 times the past two seasons.

Russell Wilson’s knee was hurt during this sack by the Rams’ Alex Ogletree Sept. 9, 2016 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The Seahawks’ mass harvest of offensive linemen in the off-season reached a peak of 19, a collection rivaling the casting call for the Monstars roles in Space Jam. When the first two roster cuts following the draft were mid-career veterans, C Justin Britt and RG D.J. Fluker, it was plain coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were on to the larger problem.

Combined with the decision to let RT Germain Ifedi go into free agency, the Seahawks dumped 60 percent of an O-line from a team that went 11-5 and was a couple of plays short of reaching the NFC Championship.

Despite the team success, the line was trouble.

That vulnerability was why I advocated ahead of the draft that the Seahawks’ biggest priority was the O-line, not the D-line, suggesting USC’s Austin Jackson was a good choice in the first round to start at right tackle until Duane Brown, 34, was done at left tackle.

Alas, Jackson was gone at pick No. 20, seven spots ahead of Seattle. More alas, the Seahawks shockingly disregarded my advice and took two defenders, a linebacker and a rush end, with their first two picks. Part of the decision was driven by shoulder surgery for LB K.J. Wright, which had not been disclosed until Schneider was interviewed on KJR radio Thursday.

Not until the third round did the Seahawks repair the O-line, taking Damien Lewis, a right guard from LSU’s formidable national champions, whose measurables and words seem to fit the bill for a 10-year NFL starter.

I don’t,” he said, “take shit from nobody.”

A true Monstar.

Still, the off-loading of three starters from a single unit of a contender’s roster is a rare thing, clearly a shortcoming bordering on crisis. Schneider signaled intent in his pre-draft presser.

“We love our quarterback,” he said. “We want to have as many grown men in front of him as we possibly can.”

So that prompted me to try to understand what “grown” meant to Schneider, since Fluker couldn’t have been more than a biscuit short of 360 pounds.

So I took a quick look at some stats and was persuaded that Schneider’s use of “grown” must have been a euphemism for “good.”

At least when it came to protecting Russell Wilson.

In the past two seasons, Wilson had the most sacks of his career, 51 in 2018 and 48 in 2019. The latter tied for the league lead with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.

The Seahawks’ sack percentage (8.5) was fifth-worst, the yards lost (319) were ninth-most. And that was an improvement over 2018, when the sack percentage was 10.7, second-worst, and the 355 yards lost were seventh-most.

In the two playoff games, Wilson was sacked once at Philly for a seven-yard loss, and five times at Green Bay for 12 lost yards. The sack numbers and yards lost were a little misleading because Wilson was also the team’s rushing leader in both games. He ran for 45 and 64 yards, respectively, because injuries to running backs were so dire that the Seahawks were hollering for retirees and kids to come play.

The playoff games were odd anyway. The Seahawks, who lost three of their final four regular-season games, were a broken team, and barely beat a more broken team in the Eagles. That they made a game of it against the Packers in Green Bay was a final seasonal testimony to the resourcefulness of Wilson.

In fact, the whole season was that way.

You may recall that the Seahawks won 10 games by one score (eight points) or less, a feat done just one other time in the league’s first century. Nearly every time the difference was Wilson, without whom the Seahawks would have fallen through the earth’s crust to its molten core.

You may recall in training camp, Brown raised eyebrows when he said the Seahawks had the makings to become the best O-line in the game. Missed that by a tad.

Pro Football Focus rated them 25th, a familiar spot. The site reported Wilson in his pro career has faced pressure on 42 percent of his drop-backs, the only regular QB with a rate above 40 percent. In 2019, PFF said the pressure rate allowed in 2.5 seconds or less was 26.7 percent, ahead of only the woebegone Jets and Dolphins.

As most fans know, sack totals are not the exclusive province of the line. A number of his sacks are Wilson’s fault, when he hangs on to the ball too long instead of dumping off. The much-injured backs and tight ends also have responsibilities. And the offense didn’t have a reliable third receiver.

Despite the qualifiers, I rest my my case regarding the line’s general futility in protecting the football savior, and the need to upgrade with youth. But I’m reluctant to put Schneider in Bad Draft Jail just yet. He still has 17 guys to sort out.

On the first of May, it seems as if Brown is a lock, draftee Lewis is likely at right guard, and free-agent signee B.J. Finney (two years, $8 million) is the leader to succeed Britt.

At right tackle, by dint of his two-year, $11 million free-agent deal, Brandon Shell is destined to open. At left guard, incumbent Mike Iupati’s oft-injured, 33-year-old body will be pushed by Phil Haynes, 24, a fourth-round pick from Wake Forest who was injured all of his rookie season.

Whether this starting five is better than the 2019 unit is anyone’s guess. We must take Schneider’s word, keeping in mind he told us in the past that J’Marcus Webb and Luke Joeckel could play too.

If the Prime Directive was again to avoid the molten core by keeping Wilson a-gile, mo-bile and hos-tile, the mystery remains. What is certain is that 11-5 was more fragile than it looked.

List of NFL’s all-time single-season QB sacks here


YourThoughts

  • coug73

    Give Russ more seasons and he will hold the all time been sacked and abused NFL, QB, record.

    • art thiel

      I think Drew Bledsoe and Randall Cunningham may have retired the trophy.

      • Husky73

        Favre was sacked 525 times. Ouch.

        • Lodowick

          Plus, Favre had 500 turnovers, the only man to break that barrier. He actually, took a loss or turned it over on more than 1,000 plays!

          • Husky73

            Bravo. Good reach.

  • Alan Harrison

    RW’s sack total will always be high because of the hit-miss (mostly hit, amazingly) nature of his trying to make a play no matter what. But not this high. Is it telling that the JS/PC draft picks on the offensive line have been peculiarly sub-par? Yes, there have been a couple of hits (Britt, Okung), but way more misses (too many to list). So, in some part, I’m actually glad they didn’t pick OL in the first round because they probably would have picked someone who ended up in the 5th round by another team because of the “we can make him a star – we’re smarter than everyone else” attitude.

    • art thiel

      It’s true RW makes himself more vulnerable than most QBs. He’s just hard to block for.

      A look around the league shows a lot of OL whiffs, partly due to the dominance of the spread offense in college and the subsequent poor OL training for the pro style.

      But it doesn’t change the fact that no QB has been under greater rush pressure than him.

      • Alan Harrison

        True. All I meant is that he’ll always be in the top 10 QBs to be sacked. Tied for #1, as he was in 2019, is squarely on the OL.

        • Bruce McDermott

          Agreed. This is why I was very dubious about PC’s insistence at the end of last year that he’d “like to have all the OL guys back.” He was either deeply in denial, or lying through his teeth, bless his heart. What they did this offseason makes the answer crystal clear.

          • art thiel

            Pete’s remark was courtesy gratitude for a group that put in work, regardless of outcome. It’s all part of the in-house political game most coaches do. No point to truth-telling at season’s end when everyone is hurting.

          • Bruce McDermott

            At the same time, he was saying he really wanted Clowney back. Does your theory hold true for that as well? If not, how do we distinguish between truth-telling and political games?

          • art thiel

            As an attorney, you should be explaining that nuance to me. :)

            In Pete-speak, he rarely throws anyone under the bus, and offers a baseline of credit (he really competed, gave us all he had, did a nice job) for almost all. He occasionally hints at dismay (there’s work to be done, we’re going to get better there) and once in a while condemns a play (can’t let that happen). Bu he almost always avoids direct public criticism of a player because it would unduly influence his potential future employers.

            So yes, he is slippery with you and me. His players respect him for it.

          • Bruce McDermott

            You forgot “he’s battlin'”. Which means “he’s not doing well, but he’s at least trying.” I think the answer to my question is that we should use our own eyes. We know he wants Clowney, because we have seen what Clowney can do. We know he doesn’t want to keep that O-Line together, because we have seen it be a steady problem for years. The point is, Pete follows a different sort of truth, which allows him to present as true things he knows are not true, in the conventional sense, in the very moment he says them.

          • art thiel

            How Carroll talks around direct truths publicly is also how some parents talk to their children, how some spouses talk to one another, and how some bosses talk to employees. It’s not really a different sort of truth. It’s a way to navigate a moment that we hope leads to a greater good, or at least not make things worse. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that Carroll is doing what is done by some other coaches and many other people.

            Yes, trust your eyes. Also know that your eyes can’t see whether a guy is playing through a serious hurt (not an injury) or just learned the day before that a close relative was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

          • Bruce McDermott

            That’s very charitable of you, Art, as someone not always kind to the sports establishment. The reality is that Pete simply lies from time to time–again, in that he knows what he is nominally presenting as true is not at all true. There is no possible other conclusion, really, when you compare the statement that “we want to keep the OL together” with the subsequent systematic rejection of that same OL throughout this offseason. Apparently, he and the media have an understanding in that regard, and, also apparently, this “greater good” notion is widespread in his profession. But it is a cautionary tale for those whose charge it is not merely to report what is said, but also what is likely true. In my opinion, especially with the Seahawks, the media has often erred on the side of credulousness more than it should, and that is a testament to Pete’s political abilities.

          • art thiel

            The difficulty in the NFL is that, with some exceptions, it is a closed loop. Owners, players (and their union), agents and all the broadcast media partners share the goal of keeping the golden goose happy. The other sports leagues do the same. We see occasional reality with Deflategate, DV cases, Aaron Hernandez, etc, but relatively few fall into the spotlight.

            Of course, Carroll lies, as do his contemporaries, but until someone in the loop presents contrary evidence to media and the public, separating truth from fiction is harder. It is not a place where public truth has much purchase.

            To your example: If Carroll had derided his OL to your satisfaction in pursuit of truth, I’d feel an obligation to write a column saying what a foolish decision it was to undercut players’ values before the marketplace opens.

          • Husky73

            There was no more plain spoken coach than Chuck Knox.

          • Lodowick

            You have to play the hand your dealt. America. 2020.

        • art thiel

          Right. Imagine the seasonal outcome if he had been sacked 40 times instead of 48.

  • Husky73

    Tremendous research (where do you get the time?) and superior writing. I shall say it again…..Boswell, Lupica and Thiel.

    • art thiel

      Cheap flattery will get you everywhere.

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! After a couple of years, maybe Coach Solari was finally consulted about what he’d prefer in a line, and Christmas for him came early – As you said, who knows?! I was originally surprised to see Britt gone, but in retrospect, Fluker followed Solari from NY, which is more of a surprise to see gone. Still, glad to see where their emphasis is. Sure would be awesome to see what Russell can do when he’s not running for his life.

    • art thiel

      As I wrote, Wilson brings some of it on himself by his over-eagerness to get something out of every play when a throwaway is the better choice. But that critique feels a little like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

  • 1coolguy

    The all too familiar O-line stats you recite Art are frankly disgusting – a complete failure by JS and PC – They are DAMNED lucky they have Wilson back there to save the team, every game. Could you imagine if Brady or Peyton Manning had to line up behind these stiffs? Regardless of their ability to move in the pocket and shuffle and their quick release, THERE IS NEVER SUCH THING AS A “POCKET” for Wilson to throw from.
    The guy would be the G.O.A.T. if he had a damned pocket, but no, for some reason JS can’t get that concept the through his head
    Frankly I’m amazed in one sense that Wilson resigned with the Hawks, as for most of his career, the O-line has been a joke and he and the team have suffered. If not for their league-leading defense for those years, getting the ball back for RW and keeping the score down, the Hawks would have been miserable to watch.
    Maybe Brown will say this year he expects them to have a lousy O-line, which surely will rank them in the top 5, haha.

    • art thiel

      PC puts a premium on road graders for the run game, hence Fluker, who wasn’t a good pass blocker. They also missed Dissly, who is a stout protector. And the reason they drafted Dee Jay Dallas was because he was rated the draft’s best RB pass-blocker. But the evidence of a career pressure rate of 42 percent on Wilson drop-backs verifies what you’ve said.

      • jafabian

        They’d make Wilson’s job a little easier if they’d use a fullback. They’ve been going with a one back offense since they released Marcel Reese. A fullback would provide extra protection. I’m surprised that they rarely use a FB considering what an integral and successful part of the offense Michael Robinson was.

  • woofer

    In terms of an Achilles’ heel the chronic weak spot in the Hawks’ talent evaluation process in the Carroll/Schneider era has been the offensive line. They find hidden gems for the defensive backfield and linebacker slots but typically whiff on the O-line. So that’s why the current makeover is scary. They have no history of building surprisingly good offensive lines out of castoffs and spare parts. The easy part is saying that the current crew is below par. You don’t need to be a genius to do that. The hard trick is replacing them with something better. History suggests that the chances of improving on someone like Fluker with a marginal free agent or mid-round rookie are pretty slight.

    The wild card here is Solari, who provides a major coaching upgrade. If his expertise has in fact been incorporated into the O-line personnel selection process, that would offer a reason for optimism. But if it is just more Schneider and Carroll chasing rainbows, then the new crew will likely disappoint.

    • art thiel

      Good assessment. The best O-line move in recent years was the mid-season trade for the ready-made Brown, who cost draft treasure but was worth it. I think Lewis’s college performance suggests he is a quality long-termer.

  • Tman

    Do the Seahawks have a credible backup for Mr. Wilson?

    If not, can the organization resolve its conflict with the concepts of Freedom of speech and right to seek redress of grievance long enough to give a top tier quarterback who said nothing..simply took a knee, the time to create an offense deep enough Mr Wilson no longer has to play every down?

    • art thiel

      From a pure football perspective, I think the passage of time has ended Kap’s chances. And this off-season will be so difficult, if and when practice resumes, that Carroll will want to devote zero time to defending his decision and embracing controversy.

      • Husky73

        Kap detonated his chances last year by cancelling his tryout. Whatever shot he had was gone.

    • Husky73

      Well, they just signed Anthony Gordon.

  • jafabian

    The Seahawks drafts under the Schneider-Carroll regime have usually gone defense first with offensive linemen being selected later or signed as UDFA’s with some exceptions. Of that number few O-linemen have developed into a solid contributor. The same can be said of their O-Line free agent pickups over the years as well. Wilson has dropped a step in his elusiveness and IMO the referees don’t do nearly enough to protect him. Defenses seem to be aware of that as well. Not that I want to see a player ejected but the line needs players with a “I don’t take no ****” mentality as well as skills. This draft seemed a little more offense orientated than in the past. I’m hoping the Hawks carry 3 QB’s with Anthony Gordon as the 3rd QB. If they try to sneak him onto the practice squad they won’t be fooling anyone. Love to see Geno return. IMO if he can’t be a starter somewhere else he might as well.

    • art thiel

      The Seahawks can’t get around their spotty OL development. And you’re right about RW losing some speed and quickness. It was inevitable. The difficulty for the Seahawks is paying top dollar for a QB and a MLB. I’m not saying they were wrong — they were wise to do so — but the margin for error shrinks in both salary cap management and talent level.

      I suspect that Smith will be invited to to return, given the high quality of currently unemployed QBs that make Smith’s desire to be given a chance to start somewhere almost nil.

  • 1coolguy

    One play I suggest that is LONG overdue in RW’s playbook, given the sad OL over the years: Throw it out of bounds! After this many years he knows when he’s going to, yes again, get murdered, and he has plenty of arm to get the ball out of bounds. So let’s take the sack numbers of 51 and 48 and make it easy at 50.
    Let’s say he gets smart and heaves it, duck imitation and all, 50% of the time. An average loss of 10 yards on each sack saves the team 250 yards over the season, but more importantly about 1.5 sacks per game or 15 yards. If those are on critical downs, those are very valuable yards, often drive-stopping.
    Ok Art, have at it!