The first three games of the 2013 season have been an absolute nightmare for the Seattle Seahawks' offensive line. On 102 pass plays, they’ve allowed seven quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits and 23 quarterback hurries. Which, in turn, means second-year quarterback Russell Wilson is being hurried once every 2.8 snaps.
Individually, the biggest culprits have been Paul McQuistan, Russell Okung, Max Unger and Breno Giacomini. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), those four linemen have all collected negative pass-blocking grades.
The only players to post positive pass-blocking grades are J.R. Sweezy and James Carpenter. Neither offensive guard has allowed a quarterback sack on 181 combined snaps. The Seahawks' early-season grades are surprising, since they finished the 2012 regular season with the 14th-best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL.
Aside from struggling in pass protection, Seattle’s front five have also struggled to get a consistent push up front in the run game. As it sits right now, the Seahawks are the second-worst run-blocking offensive line in the league. Based on Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) ratings, Okung is the only lineman to post a positive run-blocking grade.
The poor blocking on the ground directly reflects the team’s rushing statistics. Heading into Week 4, Seattle’s running backs have averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 109 attempts. When one takes the time to compare that to last year’s numbers, the differences are quite startling. On 536 carries in 2012, the Seahawks’ rushing attack tallied 4.8 yards per carry.
Moreover, All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch posted career highs in rushing yards and yards per attempt. Through three games this season, Lynch is averaging a measly 3.4 yards per carry and has yet to post a 100-yard rushing game.
Obviously, losing Okung for eight weeks was a huge blow, but what about the other linemen? Unger was an All-Pro selection last year, and Giacomini closed out the season with a string of top-notch performances at right tackle.
With 13 regular-season games left to play, can the Seahawks continue to win on a weekly basis with subpar offensive line play? No.
Despite having the best defense in football, the Seahawks will need to lean on their running game to close out and win tight ballgames. Furthermore, protecting Wilson will be essential if they want him to return to his late-season form from a year ago.
Without question, Wilson has had a few hiccups to start the season. However, his slow start doesn’t have anything to do with him; it’s a direct result of poor protection up front. Yes, he has a couple of interceptions that fall squarely on his shoulders, but when given proper time to throw, he looks like he did in 2012.
Moving forward, the Seahawks’ offensive line needs to step their game up, or head coach Pete Carroll will be forced to make changes. The problem is that there is not enough adequate depth to make the necessary changes. Until Okung returns, the only realistic switch would be to send McQuistan to the bench in favor of Michael Bowie.
Bowie is a big-bodied seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma State. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he played 31 snaps and only allowed one quarterback pressure. Unfortunately, the Seahawks don't square off against the Jaguars every week.
Over the course of the next three weeks, Seattle will take on the Houston Texans, the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans. The Texans, Colts and Titans all have winning records, and two of those three games are on the road. Winning on the road isn’t an easy thing to do in the NFL.
Since Coach Carroll took over in 2010, the ‘Hawks have lost 18 games (playoffs included) away from CenturyLink Field. In theory, inserting Bowie into the starting lineup is a nice thought, but it’s nothing more than a thought. When a team plays on the road, it wants an experienced tackle protecting its franchise quarterback.
Plus, McQuistan has to feel good about the comments Carroll made on 710 ESPN in Seattle (h/t Seahawks.com). “Paul played pretty well at left tackle. He was very consistent, so we survived that situation.”
However, McQuistan is going to have to play better than “pretty well” against the Texans, Colts and Titans. From Week 4 to Week 6, he will have the fine privilege of blocking Whitney Mercilus, Robert Mathis and Ropati Pitoitua. Mercilus and Mathis are edge-rushers, and Pitoitua is a defensive end.
If Mercilus and Mathis have their way with McQuistan, Wilson will be in for a couple of long afternoons. However, Seahawks fans shouldn’t start panicking just yet. Keep in mind that the organization has one of the most heralded offensive line coaches in all of football.
Tom Cable is no stranger to adversity. Since joining Seattle’s staff in 2011, Cable has had to shuffle and reshuffle the offensive line time and time again. Injuries and erratic play have caused some unrest during his two-year stint in the Pacific Northwest, but that hasn’t stopped him from rallying his troops week-in, week-out.
By successfully coaching up his unit, Cable could end up being the team’s midseason MVP.
Additionally, there’s no getting around the fact that the Seahawks won’t thrive unless the offensive line takes their play to a whole new level. Seattle’s offensive success in 2012 was predicated by sound pass protection and the ability to run the ball.
Expect that to be the case again in 2013.