Will the Seahawks' Offensive Line Problems Lead to a Wasted Season?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 17, 2015

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 11:  Carlos Dunlap #96 of the Cincinnati Bengals sacks Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter of the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 11, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson plays with an improvising, creative style that leads to risk-taking.

Often, the Seahawks offense benefits from the rewards tied to those risks, as Wilson’s whirling ways frequently end in remarkable throws while on the run after he spins to dodge a pass-rusher (or three).

However, that approach leaves a diminutive quarterback (Wilson is 5’11” and 206 lbs) exposed to more punishment. That is fine to an extent and a reality the Seahawks have come to accept. They view sacks as a sort of payment, knowing the price of doing business with a quarterback who can avoid plenty of them while operating brilliantly outside of the pocket.

But how much, exactly, is too much? I’m not sure what the definitive number is there, or if one exists. Here’s what I do know: This ends badly without an immediate course correction…

Highest all-time single-season sacks taken
QuarterbackSacks
David Carr (2002)76
Randall Cunningham (1986)72
Russell Wilson (current pace in 2015)70
David Carr (2005)68
Jon Kitna (2006)63
Source: Pro Football Reference

After five games, Wilson has already been sacked 22 times, setting a painful pace that could approach David Carr’s single-season record.

Sure, paces are projections, and projections can change, though this one is based on a sample size stretching for over a quarter of the 2015 season. Even if there’s an improvement in Seattle's offensive line play, Wilson still seems destined to join a very select and not-at-all privileged handful of punished passers.

Scrolling a little further down the list of quarterbacks who are healing their black and blue bodies even in retirement, only eight have been sacked 60-plus times in a season since 1969. Wilson is currently averaging 4.4 sacks taken per game. If his offensive line lowers its sieve imitation to, say, a somewhat more respectable 3.5 sacks allowed each week, Wilson would still join that 60-plus sack group.

Even though Wilson has experienced a high weekly sack volume and regular rhythm-disrupting pressure throughout his career, it’s never been on this level.

Russell Wilson's sacks taken by season
YearTotal sacksAverage sacks/game
2014422.6
2013442.8
2012332.1
Source: NFL.com

If Wilson’s current pace doesn’t change, he’ll match his previous career-high single-season sack total during the Seahawks’ 10th game of 2015.

He’s still managing to average 7.9 yards per throw despite the onslaught of hungry pass-rushers, which is the ultimate statement you need about Wilson’s unique ability to evade and conquer.

Picking one example to highlight the peak of his pocket awareness isn’t an easy task. But turning the following play into a 34-yard gain feels like a fine choice:

Credit: NFL GamePass

That snapshot of Wilson in full slippery mode comes from Week 4 against the Detroit Lions when Seattle was facing a 3rd-and-12. The protection in front of him disintegrated on an obvious passing down, leaving the 26-year-old to shake one pass-rusher off his back, juke around another and then launch a throw to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse just before getting absolutely decked.

Eventually, common-sense dots are connected easily when pressure is relentless. Wilson can’t always navigate his way through constant chaos, and the chances of something awful happening increase when he’s left vulnerable.

Against the Lions, those negative odds played out in the form of two fourth-quarter fumbles by Wilson, one of which was returned for a touchdown that brought Detroit to within a field goal of Seattle's lead. And of the four times he was sacked by the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5, two came in the fourth quarter and overtime when the Seahawks punted on five straight possessions.

Prior to 2015, there was bending by the Seahawks offensive line, but breaking was limited, with Wilson still given an opportunity to function. Now, he’s facing pressure on a whopping 45.6 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and as a result, Seattle is fielding the league’s No. 26 passing offense.

Tight end Jimmy Graham has been the most notable victim. Trading for a premier player at that position cost Seahawks general manager John Schneider his 2015 first-round pick and center Max Unger. 

Before coming to Seattle, Graham was known as a towering and versatile mismatch creator who could stretch the seam while also winning battles for jump balls on the outside. That’s how he averaged 1,099 receiving yards per year between 2011 and 2014 with the New Orleans Saints.

In 2014, Graham had a poor season by his high standards, mostly due to a nagging shoulder injury. But his 889 yards that year easily trumps the 652-yard pace he’s set now.

Jimmy Graham after five games
YearReceptionsYards
201434376
201521204
Source: NFL.com

At the root of the Seahawks' offensive line struggles is a lack of continuity.

Unger was injured for much of 2014, appearing in only six games. But the two-time Pro Bowler is one of the best pass-blocking centers in the league when healthy. In 2013, his nine pressures allowed ranked second among the 30 centers who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF.

Now, his replacement, Drew Nowak, has already matched those nine pressures allowed, and he’s needed only five games to get there while ranking 24th in that category.

The real creaky barn door has been right tackle Garry Gilliam. When guard James Carpenter left as a free agent, Justin Britt moved to the inside, and Gilliam eventually became the new tackle assigned to protect Wilson's right. He’s failed in that mission repeatedly.

Gilliam is an undrafted free agent who transitioned from tight end to tackle while at Penn State. He’s another project that Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable has taken on, and his early development in a starting role has been filled with staggering.

There are 103 offensive linemen who have taken at least one snap at tackle already in 2015. Gilliam is tied for 97th among them after allowing 19 pressures, per PFF. One of his most glaring whiffs came during a Week 3 win over the Chicago Bears when Wilson was somehow sacked four times even when the Seahawks cruised to a 26-0 victory.

In the third quarter, Gilliam squared off with Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who recorded 7.5 sacks for the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 even while playing a limited role (he was on the field for only 48.8 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, per PFF).

The high degree of difficulty for Gilliam was about as clear as the impending doom.

Wilson was in shotgun on second down, and McPhee charged forward. After two bouncing steps, he planted hard with his right foot.

Credit: NFL GamePass

That’s the moment when Gilliam had to engage and at least slow McPhee’s progress. He didn’t need to do much as Wilson’s mobility allows him to work wonders with the smallest window of opportunity.

Gilliam just needed to impede McPhee slightly. Or rather, he needed to do the absolute minimum: lay a single finger on the pass-rusher before McPhee penetrated the pocket.

In the literal definition of the word, Gilliam made contact. But in this case, the football definition meant forcibly slowing McPhee with strength, the proper technique to maintain a solid blocking base and ideal timing.

Gilliam left all of those boxes unchecked.

Credit: NFL GamePass

Gilliam may be the weakest link, but there are gushing leaks elsewhere along Seattle’s offensive line. Among guards, Britt and J.R. Sweezy are ranked 90th and 97th respectively in pressures allowed, per PFF.

Even left tackle Russell Okung, a Pro Bowler and the sixth overall pick in 2010, has struggled while giving up 12 quarterback hurries already. At this point in 2014, he had allowed only six hurries, per PFF.

It’s as if there’s a viral blocking disease of some kind spreading throughout those five large men. Wilson can only avoid that plague for so long with his scrambling and borderline miracle tosses while on the run. Even if he excels in that environment, asking him to consistently weave through a fiery pit of pocket-collapsing hell is a recipe for destruction, not success.

The Seahawks still have a defense that will keep games close and a top-ranked rushing offense averaging 142.4 yards per game. Those two elements should, at minimum, continue giving the two-time defending NFC champions opportunities to win games.

However, closing out wins will be a challenge without Wilson able to stand, scan the field for even a second or two and comfortably fire away. The Seahawks have logged only seven offensive touchdowns heading into Week 6 and have been outscored 42-24 in the final quarter, with 18 of those fourth-quarter points coming in one game (Week 1).

The hope with Seattle’s offensive line is that over time, the unit will grow together, and familiarity should lead to improved play.

But a 2-3 team already two games back in its division doesn’t have the luxury of time. Wilson’s protection needs to take a leap forward now, saving him from a historical hammering this season.

Without that jump, 2015 could spiral quickly in Seattle, a city where winning and playoff football have become habit.