Pre-Super Bowl Fun Facts
The key to Pete Carroll’s offense in Seattle is the running game. Marshawn Lynch (+24.8) was the sixth-leading rusher in the NFL this season, finishing with 1,257 yards. Only Adrian Peterson had a higher elusive rating than Lynch and after forcing seven missed tackles in the NFC Championship Game. He now has 95 for the season. Lynch rushed for 109 yards against San Francisco, including a 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that tied the game.
But the amazing thing about the success of the Seattle run game is just how poor the offensive line is as a collective unit. The top five linemen in total snaps for Seattle this season all graded out negatively in run blocking. So how did we get here, and how does this bode for the Super Bowl?
In January 2010, Carroll was hired to be the head coach for the Seahawks. A week later, John Schneider was brought in to work on contracts and the salary cap, while collaborating with Carroll on personnel. Basically, Schneider would scout the players and Carroll would decide roster moves. They immediately set out to shore up the offensive line, using their first round pick in 2010, No. 6 overall, on eventual LT Russell Okung. In 2011 they did it again, using their first round pick, No. 25 overall, on eventual LG James Carpenter.
Coming into this season, Carpenter missed all of spring workouts due to knee surgery, but surprised many when he showed up to training camp in what some were calling the “best shape” of his career. However, the injury-plagued lineman suffered a foot injury in camp that would cost him over two weeks of practice. This was to the benefit of Paul McQuistan, whose roster spot was being questioned. Scheduled to count $3 million against the cap, McQuistan survived by taking over the left guard position during Carpenter’s absence and subsequently making the final roster.
After watching all of this transpire, PFF’s Neil Hornsby adjusted his rankings of the Seahawks’ starting lineup, giving preseason grades of “below average” to three of the Seattle starters on the offensive line. The other two offensive line starters were given preseason grades in the “blue chip” range. Those two were Okung and C Max Unger. Last season Unger graded out as the No. 3 center in the NFL. He was a first team All-Pro and triggered an escalator in his contract that raised his salary to $4.9 million for this season. Unger’s excellent run blocking and Okung’s superior pass blocking were to be the pillars that this line was built around.
But all three of the other starters were coming off of negative 2012 grades, including RT Breno Giacomini, who was among the worst at his position in pass blocking efficiency. Seattle spent much of their leftover quarterback money on upgrading positions up and down the roster but seemed to be hoping that the line would improve after another year of playing together.
But they were not able to play together because in Week 2 Okung was carted off of the field with a partially torn plantar plate in his toe. He was placed on injured reserve/designated for return and wasn’t eligible to play again until Week 11. During his time away, McQuistan replaced him at left tackle.
Meanwhile on the other side of the line, Giacomini underwent a knee procedure and missed Weeks 4 through 10. He was replaced by rookie Michael Bowie.
So when Unger suffered an arm injury and missed Week 4, it resulted in disaster for the Seahawks and their protection schemes, as they were without three of their projected starters. The Houston defense recorded seven sacks, four quarterback hits and 20 quarterback hurries in that game. But Seattle kept winning. They scored 23 points against the Texans that week, making them a perfect 4-0.
Unger missed two other games during the season including Week 10, which he missed with a concussion, so in Week 11 when Unger (-5.1) Okung (-0.2) and Giacomini (-2.6) returned to the lineup, Seattle had their projected starting offensive line together for the first time since Week 2. McQuistan (-25.0) was moved back to left guard and for the next four games, he and Carpenter (-11.6) rotated, with one playing more snaps than the other one week and then sitting for more snaps the next week.
But all of that changed in Week 16 when Bowie (the former fill-in at right tackle) started at left guard. Bowie (+4.0), who hadn’t played since Week 10, played every snap against Arizona. He had a pretty solid game against the Cardinals, especially in pass blocking. However, it appeared as if the start was a one-week experiment as Bowie went back to the bench in the regular season finale. But to everyone’s surprise Bowie was back in the lineup in the Divisional round of the playoffs, taking all 60 of the snaps in the victory over New Orleans.
But Bowie wasn’t as sharp against the Saints as he was against the Cardinals. He graded out with his worst run blocking game of the season and ended up on the sidelines for the NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks went back to their rotation with McQuistan playing 34 snaps and Carpenter playing 31 snaps.
During the first half, San Francisco’s front seven was pretty much unblockable. So in the second half the Seahawks tried another strategy. Rookie free agent offensive lineman Alvin Bailey (+2.2), who didn’t play a single snap against the Saints, played as a blocking tight end (basically, he was a sixth offensive lineman) to slow down San Francisco’s front seven. With Bailey in the game, Lynch, who had rushed for 33 yards on 12 first-half carries, ran for 11 yards and then five before breaking out for that 40-yard touchdown run.
San Francisco ended the game with four sacks, eight quarterback hits and nine quarterback hurries. Okung gave up his third sack of the season when he got caught trying to help McQuistan and allowed NaVorro Bowman to go in for the sack. Okung also had major problems trying to stop ROLB Aldon Smith, who ended up with seven sacks/hits/hurries and two stops.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Seattle line because in the Super Bowl they get to face off with Broncos NT Terrance Knighton (+31.9). Knighton has graded out a top-10 defensive tackle all season and was the best player on the field in the AFC Championship game. It was Knighton’s second-highest graded game of the season, and he finished with a sack, three stops, four tackles (two solo) – two of which were for a loss and a hurry.
One of those tackles for loss was a key sack at the end of the third quarter. Down by 17 and on the Broncos’ 29, New England did not attempt a field goal, instead deciding to go for it on fourth-and-three. The Broncos called a timeout to discuss their options and when they took the field, Knighton was lined up opposite Patriots LG Logan Mankins (+12.0). Knighton pushed by Mankins with a two-handed power move and sacked Tom Brady for a 10-yard loss.
But Knighton isn’t the only one bringing heat from the right side. The AFC Championship was the sixth game in a row that RE Robert Ayers (+13.3) has graded out in the green. He had four quarterback hurries and a stop against New England and beat Patriots LT Nate Solder (+28.6) for a sack.
Danny Trevathan (+9.6) is also coming from the right as he plays the WILL for the Broncos. And while he isn’t a sack artist, Trevathan has 126 tackles for the season, and is averaging four stops over his last five games.
The Seahawks have overcome injuries and sketchy play from their offensive line to advance to the Super Bowl. They even seem to have caught a break since the game is being played outdoors, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Now the last time the Seahawks had two weeks to practice, Bowie “won” the right to start at left guard by out-performing the others during practice. With another two weeks of competition will he be able to do it again or will we see more of Bailey at tight end/sixth lineman? Bailey played 17 snaps against the 49ers with 14 of them as a run blocker. The Seahawks probably can’t afford to be that obvious in the Super Bowl if they decide to go that route.
Ashe started his writing career at the now-defunct CNNSI in Atlanta. He moved on to CNN Domestic where he joined his first fantasy football league. He writes about sports and politics when he isn’t checking the waiver wire.