For the first time in years, the Seahawks saw some improvement in certain aspects of their offensive line play. Also for the first time in years, the front office made a real commitment to enhancing personnel on the line.
This just in: Personnel and performance are related. That was a memo that former team president Tim Ruskell always missed when it came to the front five.
But when Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over the team in January of 2010, the first mission for the draft was clear – get the franchise left tackle to replace Walter Jones, the greatest player in team history. A big task, but one that the man they chose seems capable of filling –if he can stay healthy. However, serious questions persist along the rest of the line. The new management team understands that you can’t gloss over half a decade of neglect in a single season.
First, to paraphrase Rick Rizzs, here are the happy (and not-so-happy) totals. In 2010, the Seahawks ranked 29th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric . ALY is a stat that assigns credit (or blame) for the success of failure of a running game based on the length of the average play. The further the back gets beyond the line of scrimmage, the more he’s likely responsible for his own success. It’s indicative of this line’s inability to run-block that the Seahawks’ ALY of 3.66 yards per play (the team’s lowest since 2006) was trumped by the 3.90 RB yards per carry (NFL rank: 23rd).
In addition, Seattle’s 29th rank in power success (percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, or goal-line plays that were converted) reflected what we already know – this offense had a real problem getting things going on anything-and-short. Teams converted these types of plays at a league average rate of 62 percent, while Seattle could manage only 48 percent.
Add to that the fact that the Seahawks ranked 11th in open field yards (rushing yards gained more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage), and the picture becomes more clear – this line has serious problems creating gaps for its backs. That’s why Carroll hired ex-Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable as assistant head coach/offensive line as quickly as possible after the season. Carroll has recommitted to a power running game. From position to position, what will Cable see when he turns on the video?
Including the postseason, first-round draft pick Russell Okung played in 12 games and missed six with various ankle injuries. He got a late start to his professional career due to injuries and contract issues. The abrupt September departure of line coach Alex Gibbs was a particular blow to an NFL greenie, but it didn’t take long for everyone to see Okung’s potential.
He was as responsible as any player for the team’s 23-20 Week 6 win over the Chicago Bears. In just his second regular-season start, Okung absolutely silenced elite defensive end Julius Peppers, displaying tremendous pass blocking on play after play, and springing key blocks on each of the Seahawks two rushing touchdowns. Later in the season, his performance against Atlanta’s John Abraham was equally impressive.
As Carroll said repeatedly during and after the season, Okung never had a time where he wasn’t playing hurt, as well as dealing with some modification of the Gibbs system that he was still trying to learn. Based on his rookie campaign, there’s little doubt that a healthy Okung is the team’s answer at left tackle. The question is, can he overcome an early injury history and benefit from Cable’s run-blocking acumen?
In Okung’s stead, swing tackle Tyler Polumbus played fairly well. He’s not a true run-blocking grinder, but he’s adept enough in pass protection and he’s good enough as a backup to avoid embarrassment.
The position that has been an enormous issue since Steve Hutchinson’s departure remains so. In 2010, the Seahawks finished dead last in Adjusted Line Yards per carry to areas marked Mid/Guard (3.05 ALY, league average), and runs marked Left Tackle (2.81 ALY; league average was 4.14 — tackle blocks are more likely to be on runs marked left end; guard blocks are generally described as “tackle” in the NFL’s five-way scoring system). Ben Hamilton and Mike Gibson alternated between starts at this position until Hamilton went on injured reserve and Gibson had to try to pick up the slack. While Gibson is a decent blocker at the second level, he lacks the pure power to consistently drive through defensive fronts. This may be Seattle’s biggest need in the draft. The lack of consistency at left guard makes Okung’s rookie performance all the more impressive.
That rank of dead last in ALY in the mid-guard area has as much to do with the center as the guard, and Chris Spencer started all 18 games at the position. Spencer’s an interesting case – from a pure athletic standpoint, he fits the model of the ideal interior linemen (Gibbs couldn’t say enough about him), but he’s never really broken through to the next level. The thought was that second-year man Max Unger may be a better center in a pure zone-blocking scheme, but we didn’t get to see that because Unger missed the season with a foot injury. With Unger coming back — his body type doesn’t really fit what Cable wants in a power guard — it may be time for Unger to get a real shot at center.
This may have been the oddest positional dysfunction on the Seahawks’ line. When Carroll and Schneider traded for Stacy Andrews, they clearly thought of him as a right tackle prospect, and given Sean Locklear’s performance through the season (we’ll get to that in a minute), Andrews’ 13 starts in a row at right guard before Gibson took over there seemed at odds with the stated goal. The 6-foot-7, 342-pound Andrews seemed uncomfortable with the position, racking up penalties at an alarming rate and missing blocks more than was acceptable. In his defense, few are the guards populating the earth who are that tall. Teams want their guards shorter so that they can get lower in their stances and explode into the pads of defenders more quickly.
Andrews is due $5.25 million in base salary in 2011 based on the contract the Seahawks inherited, and the Seahawks are not going to pay that much for a guy who became a healthy scratch down the line. Something has to change. Gibson seemed a better fit at right guard, where he could hit the second level in a hurry on pulls and sweeps and use his agility while hiding his relative lack of strength.
When the most obvious liability on the line starts 17 of 18 possible games (Polumbus started Week 4 against the Rams at right tackle), it’s a real problem. From training camp through the season, Locklear just looked off. The numbers back up the eye test – according to Football Outsiders’ game-chart metrics, he led the team with 10 blown blocks leading to quarterback sacks or hits. The Seahawks ranked 29th in ALY around right end (3.13 ALY – league average was 4.01).
This is where the decision-making became curious. If Andrews was the potential right tackle of the future, why wasn’t he seeing more time there during games when Locklear’s play was an issue? Signed to a multi-year deal by Ruskell as the eventual successor at left tackle, Locklear wound up taking a $2.2 million pay cut to stay in Seattle in 2010 in a contract re-structuring that makes him a free agent in 2011. It’s not likely he’ll be back. The question for the Seahawks is whether Andrews, another veteran tackle, or a draft pick takes that position.
Filling the needs
Carroll and Schneider must do something about their interior line, and fortunately, there are some appealing guards in the 2011 draft class. Mike Pouncey, Danny Watkins and Rodney Judson are the three names that will be heard most often. Each has the potential to slip inside to center, based on where Cable sees Unger starting. Polumbus seems to be the ideal depth tackle, but there are also some interesting options for potential right tackles. At the Senior Bowl, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod was the week’s most consistent left tackle, but he also excelled at right tackle, and the Rams will be proving the wisdom of having two elite tackles for the next half-decade.
The Seahawks are still a team much in transition on their offensive line, but one does get the feeling that, for the first time since 2005, things are on the right track. The goal is to get more pure talent up front.