Despite being 4-1 atop the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks' passing attack has been misfiring as of late. All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch and second-year signal-caller Russell Wilson have had to shoulder the load through five weeks of the season by destroying the opposition on the ground.
Heading into the sixth contest of the season, Seattle is cranking out 159 yards rushing per game. That’s the second-best mark in the NFL. Additionally, Lynch and Co. are averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 34.6 attempts per game. Only the Buffalo Bills average more rushing attempts per game.
Why have the Seahawks been forced to run the ball so much this year?
It’s simple: For the last two weeks, three starting offensive linemen have been down due to injury. Left tackle Russell Okung is currently sidelined with a nagging injury to his big toe, right tackle Breno Giacomini has a bum knee and center Max Unger has an agonizing triceps injury.
Having these three players out of the lineup has essentially made the ‘Hawks a one-dimensional team. Pass-protection issues continuously cropped up in Weeks 4 and 5. Against the Houston Texans, Week 4, the offensive line surrendered six quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits and 12 quarterback hurries. In all, that’s 20 total quarterback pressures.
Versus the Indianapolis Colts, Week 5, the Seahawks' offensive line improved, but not by much. At the end of regulation, the Colts defense registered one quarterback sack, three quarterback hits and 17 quarterback hurries. 20 quarterback pressures allowed in a two-week span is downright pathetic.
However, Seattle’s pass-protection woes will be somewhat subdued come Sunday. Terry Blount of ESPN.com believes Unger is set to return to action against the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what head coach Pete Carroll had to say about the Pro Bowl center’s return, via Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com:
He’s a huge addition to us. Because he’s grown up with the system and with Tom (Cable, the offensive line coach), he’s a tremendous captain out there on the field for all the identification, all of the signals, all of the stuff we need.
Carroll’s right. Unger’s return is a huge addition. Not only is he a tremendous captain and spokesperson for the offensive line as a whole, but he is easily one of the most dominant centers in the NFL.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Unger was the third-highest graded player at his position in 2012. Aside from his phenomenal run-blocking skills, the fifth-year pro out of Oregon does an outstanding job when it comes to keeping Wilson clean in the pocket.
On 592 pass-block snaps last season, Unger gave up a mere 14 quarterback pressures. Three of the 14 were quarterback hits, and the other 11 were quarterback hurries. Not giving up a single quarterback sack in 18 games (playoffs included) is unprecedented.
Nonetheless, statistics only tell half of the story. The other half is told when one takes the time to turn on the tape. On film, it’s evident that Unger’s nastiness, sound footwork and ability to get to the second level are his most valuable assets.
On this first play against the Detroit Lions from the 2012 season, Unger was asked to take on one of the most recognized defensive tackles in the league, Ndamukong Suh. In addition to being strong and powerful, Suh is incredibly explosive off the snap.
As Suh tried to penetrate the backfield and collapse the pocket with his abrupt pass-rush moves, Unger sealed off the A-gap. This, in turn, gave Wilson the opportunity to hit wide receiver Charly Martin on a shallow crosser that garnered four yards.
Yes, the Seahawks offense netted a measly four yards on the play, but that’s beside the point when you’re focusing on Unger’s play. To effectively stonewall a top-notch defensive tackle like Suh on a repeated basis, you have to fear no one and be as strong as an ox.
Unger proved he was as strong as an ox and his flawless technique prevailed versus an opponent who had a bigger frame than he does. Suh was singled out because of his high esteem as a professional, yet this type of play from the All-Pro center is habitual.
Week in and week out, he puts on a clinic when it comes to his craft—he’s a sound technician. Khaled Elsayed of PFF says Unger’s athleticism is put to perfect use in Seattle’s zone-blocking scheme.
Furthermore, Elsayed and the rest of the PFF staff considered Unger to be the 35th-best player in the NFL based on their top 100 players list of 2012. He ranked ahead of players like cornerback Casey Hayward, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Alfred Morris.
Even though he has gotten off to a slow start in 2013, there’s no question Wilson will be happy to have the man who makes all of his line calls back. When asked about Unger’s skill set, the 5’11” quarterback explained his appreciation for his center in great detail, per Farnsworth of Seahawks.com:
Max understands the game so well. His ability to make different calls and get the line going to the right guy, basically, and all our run fits and our passing game and all that too, as well. He’s a tremendous football player.
Based on his background in the league, the things we saw on tape and his clean bill of health, it’s safe to say Unger’s return means the Seahawks passing attack will start to regain its late-season form from a year ago.
From Week 8 on (playoffs included) last season, Wilson averaged 222.4 yards passing through the air, 1.9 touchdown passes per game and 0.3 interceptions per game. After five games this season, he’s averaging 199.4 yards through the air, 1.6 touchdown passes per game and 0.8 interceptions per game.
Undoubtedly, one should expect his numbers to shoot back up thanks in large part to Unger’s presence in the starting lineup.
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