Way deep inside football, where fans can never go, operates a small group of prideful combatants.
You can see glimpses of them in games occasionally, but in most cases the games don’t carry the personal, hand-to-hand vehemence as when no one is around. And even the playoffs aren’t always this intense.
The Seahawks witness one of these daily jousts between a pair of elite veterans — defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and center Max Unger — who have challenged each other nearly every day they’ve shared in the league.
Hundreds of times, maybe thousands, the two have launched themselves at the other, more than 600 pounds tangling in some variation of Greco-Roman, sumo, MMA, and the rutting rituals of bighorn sheep.
When they meet in team sessions or scrimmages, there are other factors that enter in — double-teams on Mebane, or other duties that cause Unger to target defenders elsewhere. But during the daily one-on-one, pass-protection sessions, these two are alone in the spotlight.
And these are the kinds of little wars that build teams.
Between them, they’ve played 182 games. Unger has been named All-Pro, and Mebane is considered by teammates as deserving of that honor, too.
"We both know what it takes to maintain and sustain yourself in this league," Mebane said of his encounters with Unger. "We sharpen each others’ craft; we’re trying to help each other get the best at his position he can be. We hold each other accountable. We’re very mindful of that."
Mebane, now in his eighth season, has missed only five games in his career. He’s 6-foot-1, 311 pounds, with a center of gravity somewhere around the knees of the 6-5 Unger.
So it’s rarely a matter of strength versus strength, but leverage versus craft and cunning.
"Oh, yeah, exactly, it’s all about leverage," Unger said. "He’s 300-and-some pounds playing about 2 feet off the ground and going full speed. That makes it pretty tough."
The center not only has to call blocking adjustments, but also snap the ball and deal with a huge, quick-twitch player who lines up so close he can tell what the man ate for lunch.
Unger is the anchor of the offensive line, a leader-by-example on the field, and in his sixth season, he’s still the first one to hustle between sessions to get the blocking bags handed out and the line positioned.
Mebane hasn’t gotten the Pro Bowl honors, perhaps, because he’s so quietly competent. He doesn’t rack up sacks or huge tackle numbers because he is so good at the core requirement of his job — occupying two blockers and creating a stack of humanity in the middle of the line.
But trying to block him with one man is nearly impossible.
"It’s tough," Unger said. "The one-on-one drill is something you get a lot of anxiety over. It’s straight up ‘mano y mano’ and there’s a lot of room for error. You have to have perfect rep to win on offense. One of the best defensive linemen I ever have to face happens to be the guy I see in practice every day. He understands everything about the game. He’s a very, very, very good football player who is incredibly difficult to block, and most of the time, to be honest with you, I don’t."
Mebane laughed at Unger’s claim of futility, and strongly denied it.
"Ah, no, he definitely wins," Mebane said. "I’ve noticed over the years, he’s gotten craftier and craftier, which a lot of centers tend to do. With those crafty centers, you have to make sure you’re using the right technique because if you slip one time, he’s got you. It’s not even like power; it can be something really simple, he can use his hands to grab you a certain way and if you’re not using your hands right, he’ll get you."
Unger acknowledged the obvious: that talented professionals take pride in their work, and want to win every rep whether it’s in a game or in practice against a teammate.
And if he can block Mebane on Wednesday and Thursday, Sundays aren’t so daunting.
"We’re learning all the time," Mebane said. "When I do something and he counters with something new, that keeps me thinking … what if he does this, then what do I have to do to answer?"
And on game day?
"At game time, the speed is slower, really, than what it’s like going against Max every day," Mebane said. "When we were first getting into the playoffs back in the day, the games would speed up. Not anymore because of the way we prepare for games during the week."
When told the premise of this column was to explore the little, unseen duels between a couple of keystone Seahawks on either side of the line, Unger laughed and wondered if anybody would be interested.
They are, Max, if they care about the sort of things that add up to winning the big shiny trophy.
"Well," he said. "It’s hard and it can be frustrating, but it really, really keeps you sharp."