What a difference a functional line makes.
Three games ago the Seahawks offense got ransacked by a swarming, blitzing defense from Arizona. Russell Wilson connected on just 14 of 32 passes for the second-lowest completion rate (43.8 percent) of his career. Seattle converted only one of eight third downs. It lost the game and any realistic hope for its third consecutive NFC West title.
Last weekend the Seahawks offense faced another swarming, blitzing defense … from Pittsburgh. Wilson hit on 21 of 30 throws for a career-high five touchdowns and 345 yards, his most in a regular-season game. Seattle converted seven of 13 third downs and won the wild shootout 39-30. It was the first time in Wilson’s four seasons as their starting quarterback the Seahawks won when the opponent scored more than 24 points.
What in the name of Walter Jones changed?
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“I think the most obvious part of this is really what’s going on up front,” coach Pete Carroll said as he began preparing the Seahawks (6-5) for the NFC North-leading Vikings (8-3) on Sunday in Minneapolis. “I think we’ve just come a long ways, and I think the pocket being so consistently solid for him makes a huge difference.
“This has been coming. This (against Pittsburgh) was their best game probably protecting the passer against a very difficult group to figure out who’s coming, who isn’t. Communication was good. Sets were really solid. Russell had a really good pocket and he really took advantage of that.”
The change up front has been season-saving.
The Seahawks were at 4-5 and careening toward a meaningless December. Wilson got sacked 31 times in the first seven games, by far the most in the NFL. Carroll’s and offensive line coach Tom Cable’s grand experiment for 2015 was failing.
Drew Nowak, the college defensive tackle they inserted as traded Max Unger’s replacement as the starting center, was out after five, frustrating games. On Tuesday the Seahawks fully admitted that mistake. They released Nowak.
Justin Britt, last season’s rookie right tackle, was struggling as the left guard. Garry Gilliam, a college tight end, was having an inconsistent debut at right tackle.
Not only were pass rushers crashing in on Wilson, the line was also struggling to get in any defender’s way long enough for Seattle’s zone running game to work consistently. Then there were the line’s myriad penalties. From false starts to drive-killing holdings, face masks, leg whips — you name it, the Seahawks’ line was getting flagged for it.
Because of all that, Seattle was in the bottom third of the NFL in extending drives on third down. It was last in the league in converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. The defense didn’t have the advantageous field position, the margin for error on the scoreboard or the in-game rest it’d had in the previous two seasons while being the league’s top-ranked unit.
The offensive line was ruining the entire season.
Now it is saving it.
Seattle has allowed six sacks combined in its last four games, 1.5 per game after allowing 4.4 sacks per contest through seven weeks. Yes, lately it’s been against Dallas (which inexplicably blitzed just nine percent of the time on Nov. 1) and a San Francisco defense that is a shell of its former, championship self. But after what they had the first seven games, the Seahawks will gladly accept those asterisks.
The better pass protection has allowed receivers time to run down the field and actually complete intermediate and deep routes. Meanwhile, Wilson has been settling inside a semi-strong pocket from which to throw, instead of having to abort pass plays with life-preserving scrambles, as before.
Opponents have been stretched vertically and horizontally to defend those longer throws instead of cramming nine guys near the line to defend Seattle’s run, as foes had previously. That’s opened more running lanes for Thomas Rawls since Marshawn Lynch was lost for the next month to abdominal surgery. Rawls rushed for a Seattle rookie-record 209 yards two weeks ago against San Francisco, and had 51 yards in the first 16 minutes last week before it became an aerial shootout.
In short, the offense is working how it’s designed to. Finally.
So how did this all change for the so-much better?
Carroll, Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell spent the team’s bye week early last month following the 13-12 slog past Dallas changing the timing of Wilson’s passes. They demanded he throw the ball more quickly, including in situations when he took off scrambling to extend plays earlier this season.
The reasoning was simple: The struggling blockers wouldn’t have to block as long for their QB.
“The rhythm, since the break we had, we’ve really tried to feature a fast rhythm and making sure he’s really got a chance to get the ball out fast to keep the pressure off of the guys up front,” Carroll said. “All of that has happened with more earnest because of how the start was.”
Cable changed centers. The coaches got alarmed late last season when Patrick Lewis, whom the team had signed off Cleveland’s practice squad in October, had issues in communication filling in for the injured Unger in a game the Seahawks won against the depleted Cardinals. That stuck in the coaches’ heads through this preseason, so they shoved Lewis down to third string and inserted the unproven Nowak to replace Unger.
Nowak had even more communication problems than Lewis did. Plus, Nowak had trouble recognizing trick defensive fronts and the array of blitzes Seattle was seeing each week. Since going back to Lewis on Oct. 18 against Carolina, the line’s calls have become quicker, cleaner and more accurate, as Lewis has better recognized the defenses.
“Just more consistency,” Cable said of the difference with Lewis.
Carroll said Monday: “We thought he might have been struggling a little bit with the communications and all that. We wondered if that was going to be an issue going into this year. And that’s not an issue. That’s an area that he’s really improved at, and we have a lot of confidence in him.
“The guys are playing with confidence, because it all starts right there up front, in the middle.”
Rawls and 34-year-old fellow backup running back Fred Jackson have at times excelled at pass blocking.
On Sunday, Rawls picked up Steelers rookie pass-rush specialist Bud Dupree on a blitz off Seattle’s right edge. That allowed Wilson the time to find Kearse for the 9-yard touchdown that put the Seahawks in front 26-21 early in the zany fourth quarter. On third and 10 with just over 2 minutes left, Jackson lowered his shoulders to thwart blitzing linebacker Jarvis Jones, who outweighs Jackson by 30 pounds. That gave Wilson the time to see Baldwin breaking free left to right across the middle for the wide receiver’s 80-yard catch and run that clinched the win.
“We always stick it all on the offensive line, and it isn’t,” Carroll said.
“Those guys are both good blockers, and we expect them to pick up stuff properly and be physical when they have to.”
It’s been true since September: The Seahawks are only going to go as far as their offensive line does — or does not — lead them.
Right now, it’s led them back into possession of the NFC’s final playoff spot. Five games remaining in this uneven regular season.
“We’ve been fighting each week to just get a little bit better,” said veteran left tackle Russell Okung, who could become a free agent next spring.
“Patrick Lewis and the young guys are playing really well. You can kind of see, everything looks more cohesive. Everything is flowing a lot better. And we’ve had success, whether we’re running it or we’re passing in the air.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
Seahawks’ next opponent
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-3)
10 a.m. Sunday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Line: Pick ’em.
Against the Seahawks: Seahawks lead the series 8-5, dating to the first meeting in Seattle’s inaugural season of 1976 at old Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington, Minnesota. The Seahawks haven’t played in Minnesota since Nov. 22, 2009, a 35-9 loss in which Brett Favre threw four touchdown passes for the Vikings to Matt Hasselbeck’s one interception. Seattle has won the last two meetings, both at home, in 2012 and ’13.
What to know: The Vikings are the surprise leaders by a game over Green Bay in the NFC North. … They have the No. 1 rushing offense in the league behind Adrian Peterson’s 1,164 yards. Peterson, back off an NFL suspension last year, is just 72 yards rushing of his pace of 2012 when he finished a 2,000-yard rushing season and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. … Peterson gained 158 yards on 29 carries in last week’s win at Atlanta despite facing nine- and 10-man fronts designed to stop him. … Minnesota rushed for 191 yards against the Falcons. Atlanta hadn’t allowed more than 87 yards to any of 10 foes before the Vikings trampled that defense. … Peterson needs 35 yards to pass Steven Jackson for 17th on the league’s all-time rushing list. He’s already passed O.J. Simpson and John Riggins. … For all the running they do, the Vikings have lost only four fumbles. … Teddy Bridgewater has thrown eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 319 attempts. That’s six fewer passes than Russell Wilson’s thrown. Minnesota is 31st and Seattle is 32nd in the league in passing attempts. … The Vikings are 31st in passing yards per game (186.8), and have allowed the eighth-most sacks (31, six fewer than Seattle’s absorbed). … Minnesota is tied for 24th in scoring (21 points per game) … The defense is second in points allowed (17.6 per game) and fourth in yards passing allowed (223.5). The Vikings are 20th against the run (110.6 yards allowed). … But they get off the field on third downs and deny touchdowns the majority of the time in the red zone. Minnesota is allowing a third-down conversion rate of just 34 percent, sixth-best in the league. Its rate of touchdowns allowed in the red zone is third-best (43 percent). … This is the Vikings final season playing on the campus of the University of Minnesota before they get their new, roofed stadium. U.S. Bank Stadium will host the 2018 Super Bowl and the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.
Quotable: “It’s really who we are. And I’m not going to apologize for that.” — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to Minnesota media about his team being so run-dominant, with more rush attempts than passing that is so rare this NFL era.
FROM MALFUNTIONING TO FULLY FUNCTIONAL
Seahawks offense Games 1-7 Games 8-11
Sacks allowed per game 4.4 1.5
Third-down conversions 36-97 (37%) 21-47 (45%)
Red-zone TD rate 5, in 15 (33%) 8, in 12 (67%)
Points per game 22 28.3
Net passing yards per game 214 257
Record 3-4 3-1