Seattle Seahawks Offensive Line Could Be Fatal Flaw for Super Bowl Bid

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2015

USA Today

In re-signing Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner, after acquiring Jimmy Graham through trade, the Seattle Seahawks have defied the odds.

The franchise has retained control of all of its key defensive pieces and re-signed its starting quarterback to a huge contract extension. A few players may be disgruntled—Kam Chancellor is holding out, and Michael Bennett has made his frustrations with his deal known—but the Seahawks control their rights.

Not only have the Seahawks retained those pieces, but they've added Graham, Frank Clark and Tyler Lockett. Graham cost the team a first-round pick and starting center Max Unger, while Clark and Lockett were the team's second- and third-round picks.

Each of those players offered the Seahawks something they were lacking, but none addressed their most pressing weakness, the offensive line. One (Graham) even took a piece away from it with Unger's departure.

Therefore, while the Seahawks have retained all their key pieces from past successes, they have done so at a cost. During Wilson's career to this point, the Seahawks haven't had a strong offensive line; they've often neglected it. When they won the Super Bowl in 2013, they did so in spite of their offensive line. That unit was bad, but the current group looks set to be worse.

So much worse that it could be the sole reason they don't return to the Super Bowl for the third season in a row.

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Unger's departure took away one of only two long-term starters the unit had. Left tackle Russell Okung, who doesn't consistently play to his ability, is the only remaining starter with significant starting experience.

Right guard J.R. Sweezy is entering his fourth season but has only been a starter for the past two. Justin Britt, a second-round pick in 2014, started all 16 games of his rookie season. Alvin Bailey is just 23 and has started only five games over his first two seasons in the NFL. Lemuel Jeanpierre has just 11 starts over his four-year career.

The Seahawks have three rookies who could take the jobs of Bailey and/or Jeanpierre, but each was a late-round pick. Terry Poole was selected in the fourth round, Mark Glowinski in the fourth and Kristjan Sokoli the sixth.

None of the three rookies started the Seahawks' first preseason game of the year.

Long before that game against the Denver Broncos, the offensive line was an area of concern. Ever since Tom Cable has been the offensive line coach in Seattle, the starting unit has had questionable pass blocking. Against the Broncos, it showcased some of its worst play in a long time.

It did so while only playing for a very limited time.

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Wilson's very first dropback resulted in a sack. It was 2nd-and-8. The Seahawks spread the field with three receivers and two other eligible receivers bracketing Wilson in the shotgun. Because of the down and distance, the Broncos kept both safeties deep and got creative with their pass rush up-front.

The Broncos have two down linemen with four defenders standing up in position to attack the line of scrimmage at the snap.

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Wade Phillips sends six defenders after the quarterback at the snap. The blitz is well accounted for by the offensive line, but Britt gets beaten by Von Miller on the edge. Miller initially advances downfield and engages Britt.

Britt gets his hands on the edge-rusher but can't repel his power. Miller punches Britt backward, opening space past Britt's outside shoulder to advance downfield.

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Although the Seahawks came out with players aligned to either side of Wilson in the pocket, Britt wasn't shepherding Miller to a teammate. As soon as Miller was level with Britt, he accelerated into space unopposed.

Once in the pocket, he could attack the football in Wilson's hands from the quarterback's blind side. (Wilson was looking to his left, so his blind side was to his right on this occasion.) Miller forced a fumble the Broncos recovered.

Getting beaten by Miller for a sack is not a great indictment of an offensive lineman's ability. Getting beaten by Miller so easily is, though.

Britt barely slowed down the edge-rusher on his way to Wilson. When Miller engaged him, Miller was the more powerful player. Britt is so much bigger that he should expect to struggle against Miller's speed but not his power.

The Seahawks offensive tackle struggled a lot as a pass protector during his rookie season. Giving up this sack to Miller wasn't as much of an exception as it was a regular occurrence against lesser talents. John Boyle of Seahawks.com reported Monday that the Seahawks have been looking at potentially moving Britt to left guard.

Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable talked about Britt's comfort in different spots, per Danny Kelly of Field Gulls:

We'll see. We feel like we need to do a little more mixing and matching to kind of figure all this out. So, we're just kind of figuring it out. Garry Gilliam played really well the other night. Justin (Britt) did well, except for a play. We're just trying to get the best guys out there, so we're just mixing and matching.

As Garry has improved, it's about finding a way to get your next best player on the field. [Britt] played left tackle in college, center in college. So he's feeling pretty comfortable.

Even if this switch improves the offensive line, the Seahawks will likely still have many issues to overcome. Those were highlighted further in Week 1 of the preseason.

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On Wilson's next dropback, Britt was dominated again by Miller. Except on this occasion he wasn't the only one. Inside of Britt, Sweezy was tasked with containing Malik Jackson. Jackson is an emerging defensive tackle and a dangerous pass-rusher.

The space created after the snap stresses Sweezy.

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Britt had a tight end lined up alongside him at the snap. That tight end didn't engage Miller at the snap, but it forced the edge-rusher to begin the play from a wider position. This allowed Miller to speed rush from a wider angle.

With Miller coming from such a wide spot, Britt hastened his drop and push wider than he typically would. This created space inside for Jackson as he positioned himself on Sweezy's outside shoulder.

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After accelerating downfield, Miller pushes Britt so powerfully that the offensive tackle spins around and falls to the ground. Meanwhile, Jackson easily brushes Sweezy off his body as he accelerates toward Wilson from an inside channel.

Both players have comfortably beaten their blockers with Wilson in their sights.

Wilson's mobility doesn't need to be celebrated or explained. On this play, he used it to step up and away from the two pass-rushers at the last moment. Although he was successful, the pressure disrupted the timing of the play and forced Wilson to run out of the pocket, where another defender closed on him.

Relying on Wilson to extend plays and evade rushers is an in-built feature of the Seahawks offense with him as the starter. Relying on him to make these kinds of plays too much is still not ideal.

These kinds of plays should be complementary to a more controlled, efficient passing attack. They shouldn't be the base of the team's success. Even Ben Roethlisberger, who has extended more plays than any quarterback of recent times, doesn't rely on those plays every drive.

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After being put under pressure for his first two dropbacks, Wilson wouldn't have expected any comfort for his first third down of the day. It was 3rd-and-5 with Wilson in the shotgun and five defenders threatening to rush the passer before the snap.

The Broncos want to be aggressive because it's third down, but that aggressiveness is ultimately what hurts them.

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Left guard Bailey is beaten immediately at the snap. His assignment, Antonio Smith, used quick hands to swim his way past Bailey. From there, he was completely clean to pursue Wilson in the pocket. A combination of Wilson's quick reaction and a stumble from the defender allowed the quarterback to escape, though.

Regardless of what Wilson did to negate the incoming rusher, Bailey was still beaten as badly as a varsity guard would against an NFL defender.

If the Broncos had been more cautious with their play call, Wilson wouldn't have had a wide-open running lane to advance into. He would have been forced to hold onto the ball and take the inevitable sack. He could have gotten rid of the ball, but Bailey was beaten so quickly his receivers had barely advanced downfield.

To finally give Wilson some space and comfort during a dropback, the Seahawks turned to play action. They ran a bootleg that sent Wilson to his left, rolling out with Graham running ahead of him four yards downfield.

Wilson was able to make a quick, uncontested throw to Graham for a first down. Fittingly, that was Wilson's only comfortable throw of the day, and his final dropback ended in a sack.

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The Seahawks were in the red zone, so the field was squashed. He didn't have a receiver who was open quickly, so he had to hold onto the ball for a moment at the top of his drop. His offensive line gave him that moment but nothing more.

No blockers were beaten quickly, but multiple linemen were pushed back into Wilson, collapsing the pocket on top of him. He had no chance of releasing the ball downfield.

The Seahawks spent a huge amount of money to retain Wilson and continue building their roster around their quarterback. However, they have neglected their offensive line in some misguided belief that Cable can turn athletes who lack talent into quality offensive linemen.

Running the ball will always be possible with Wilson and Marshawn Lynch behind them, but pass protection is going to be a major problem this year. 

Unless Wilson plays spectacularly as a passer, something he didn't do last season as he dealt with hesitation too often, their offensive line problems will prove fatal to their chances of winning the NFC.

Every roster in the NFL is flawed, and the Seahawks have more strengths than most, but the offensive line is crucial.

Winning a Super Bowl with this caliber of talent up-front could be an unconquerable mission.