Why Seattle’s offensive line is now an unavoidable problem

With no Marshawn Lynch and an injured Russell Wilson, Seattle's offensive line is a bigger problem now than ever before.

| 9 months ago
Seahawks offensive line

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Why Seattle’s offensive line is now an unavoidable problem

You can win in today’s NFL with a bad offensive line, but it’s not easy, and the approach tends to be unsustainable long-term. The Seahawks have bucked that trend better than perhaps anybody, but the lack of quality O-line performance in the trenches is finally starting to catch up with them.

For years, the combination of Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson, and the read-option looks the Seahawks ran on offense could offset—in a huge way—the negative impact the line was having. This season, Lynch is now retired, Wilson has been banged up early and isn’t the same mobile threat, and the line itself may have gotten worse over the offseason, which is something that seemed impossible given the unit’s 2015 campaign.

The Seahawks’ line ranked 30th in the NFL eight months ago coming off the 2015 season. They had at least one viable NFL starter in LT Russell Okung, but he departed for Denver this past offseason, and Seattle entered the season ranked dead last on paper in PFF’s 2016 preseason O-line rankings.

The Seahawks have taken players that have been proven failures elsewhere in the league and inserted them into the starting lineup, expecting that they can be revived because they fit the correct physical profile. Through two games, at least, none of them have. The team has the lowest-ranked pass-blocking unit in the game, and the third-lowest run blocking. The line alone has surrendered 33 total pressures across two games, on pace for 264 this season, which would be 67 more than they allowed a year ago.

Seattle runners are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry; more concerning is that they are averaging 2.7 of that after contact. The line is buying them an average of just 0.4 yards, or a little over 14 inches per carry before they are hit by a defender.

The beauty about the Seattle O-line being this bad is that you don’t even have to get out of the first quarter against the Rams to see pretty much everything wrong with it on display across just those snaps.

The Rams have one of the better defensive lines in the game, and arguably the best defensive interior player in the NFL, or at least the one in the best form right now. This was a tough test, but the Seahawks are a team that expects to contend for the Super Bowl, so they need to be able to hold up against the top teams in the league.

So what’s wrong with the Seahawks? The offensive line! Let’s count the ways:

1. Failure to work as a unit.

Seattle likes to run a lot of zone concepts in the running game. This season, 82.5 percent of their run plays have been either inside or outside zone. Breaking down assignments and responsibilities of those is for another time and place, but the important aspect of blocking on those plays is that linemen need to work in tandem to execute blocks. Depending on the alignment of defensive players, a pair of blockers need to execute a handoff on a defensive lineman so that the right guy can get to the second level and take on a linebacker. This is basic zone blocking, but right now, the Seahawks can’t manage it.

On this play, the Seahawks allow Rams DT Aaron Donald to penetrate between the RG and RT—and completely destroy the play—as they try and execute their assignments.

Seahawks O-line

This is also a good example of the kind of impact a guy can have on the run game without actually crushing the stat sheet. Donald bursting through the line causes Wilson to pull the ball, but he has nowhere to go because DE Ethan Westbrooks stayed at home. Wilson gives himself up, but had Westbrooks cleaned up the play, Donald would have been the one to make it all happen.

2. Simple miscommunication.

Failing to execute blocks is one thing, but with so much flux and change along the line, the Seahawks are screwing up basic communication, too, and allowing entirely free defenders through virtually untouched. Here, the C and LG both think they’re just putting out a hand to help the other seat the block, and then go look for work elsewhere, but that means neither of them actually throws a meaningful block on DT Cam Thomas, who comes through the line quickly, only to trip and fail to make the play.

Seahawks offensive line

If this had been Donald, instead, Wilson would likely have been sacked right about the time he was finished checking his first read. The O-line is bad enough on an individual level that they simply can’t afford to give defenders additional free plays by screwing up assignments.

3. Just bad players.

Of course, even when they do get their assignments right and we’re only dealing with one-on-one blocks, the players themselves are just poor. Seattle expects to be able to insert linemen that have washed out at other franchises in the NFL and somehow raise their play through coaching, despite very limited live-action practice time these days, and it’s just not working.

Seattle offensive line

The game is littered with examples of players just getting whooped in one-on-one matchups and destroying plays. Every block except one can be perfect on a play, but if the one that breaks down is at the point of attack, the run is going nowhere. The same thing is true in pass protection. A clean pocket only exists if everybody holds up—as soon as one block fails, the play is in trouble, and we’re into free-styling things.

4. TEs can’t secure the backside.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t on the offensive line, so the big guys can rest easy for a minute. One big problem the Seahawks have is that they can’t bolster the line with quality blocking from the TE position. I’m not even talking about keeping TEs in to pass block as a max-protect option in the passing game—I think you’re probably better off in today’s NFL flooding the field with receivers than you are flooding the line of scrimmage with pass protectors if you have a high-level QB. Instead, I mean this as a problem for the run game.

As we covered earlier, the Seahawks run almost nothing but zone, and many zone plays rely on the cutback option to create big gains and the most space. Against the Rams, the Seahawks’ TEs weren’t able to secure the backside of run plays, resulting in RBs cutting back into a wall of Los Angeles defenders collapsing down the line and just smothering the life out of the play.

Seahawks offensive line versus Rams

5. It’s breaking Russell Wilson.

This might be the biggest problem of them all. Issues Nos. 1–3 are starting to affect Wilson’s play. Ignoring the ankle injury, Wilson’s tape shows him beginning to throw passes in the act of flinching from pressure, rather than standing strong in the pocket and delivering while knowing contact may be coming. He’s also beginning to bail too quickly on entirely clean pockets in a way that was far more rare before. Wilson has never been a statuesque QB, and will take off and extend plays once the alarm in his head goes off, but now it’s happening more quickly.

offensive line in Seattle

Sustained pressure can break a QB over a long period of time because it changes the fundamental nature of their game—the security they have in the pocket, the length of time they have to play with before they need to make something happen, and even potentially the scheme on offense (if they’re trying to cover it up). Russell Wilson is still playing well, and he is hampered at the moment with that ankle injury, but there are warning signs that the pressure from the line is beginning to affect him. That should be the biggest worry for the Seahawks right now, who have consciously avoided investing in the line because of Wilson’s ability to offset their play.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Kevin

    I agree there are some issues with Seattle’s O-line. But I this this article fails to recognize Justin Britt has graded above 70 in each of his two starts this season. So while he certainly won’t be at the top of his position this season, he does seem to grade out as a passable starter.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      one guy can’t get it done, takes a unit, which is the underlying point of the whole article

    • Chris

      You also have to remember, both of Seattle’s opponents ran 4-3s and neither team likes to use a NT much. Miami doesn’t hardly at all, and if they did it was Earl Mitchell who isn’t very good. LA used a NT in their 4-3 more often, but when they did it was always Brockers or Cam Thomas. So Britt NEVER had to line up with Suh or Donald across from him like his fellow OGs did. And he never had to line up across from Wake or Mario Williams or Robert Quinn etc like his fellow OTs did.

      Britt basically had the easiest assignment of any Seattle lineman through the first two games, usually either helping an OG in pass protection or getting to the 2nd level in their zone scheme. And he still couldn’t grade any better than a 70.

  • Jon Su

    Barring injury, how much does offensive line play improve/worsen as the season progress? Like there was a lot of talk about how the seahawks oline was bad last year, but they pieced it together later into the season. Is that a usual trend?

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      improving is the norm if units remain intact and healthy as you stated, and tom cable is maybe the best in the business at coaching up lineman. which is partially why they put out “lumps of clay” as this article mentioned, over relying on cable’s expertise

  • KWS13

    Seems like 1/2 will be helped immensely by getting Ifedi back in at RG since there were no hiccups/meltdowns in those areas with that starting 5 in, and Webb never had a chance to practice there until right before the season. 3 should be helped once again, in part, simply by replacing Webb with Ifedi, and even aside from 1/2 issues discussed should alleviate pressure on Glowinski- in the Rams game when Webb was 1 on 1 with anyone it was bad, so you need help on that side, leaving Donald 1 on 1 with Glowinski which is just unfair, and it was the same against MIA with Suh. Let’s judge the line once Ifedi is back in. 4 should be improved when Vannett starts playing and proves to be solid as a blocker. That’s why they drafted him and why they said they’d use Graham and Willson more as WRs but it hasn’t happened yet. Give them a chance to sort things out, this was absolutely worst case scenario in almost every way, give them time to gel with Ifedi and Vannett

    • Eric

      All good points, although we really don’t know yet how much Ifedi will help. Not many OL play very well in their rookie year, particularly when they miss time. I think the thing that will help the most will be when the Seahawks get past this stretch of opponents with dominant players on the DL. Donald and Suh are currently the 2 highest graded interior defenders, with Brockers 6th (yes, in part because they played the Seahawks) but once the Hawks get past the Jets game in week 4, the schedule eases, they get a week 5 bye, Ifedi should be back, Wilson will be near full strength, and if they can’t achieve some success at that point, well, its going to be a long year.
      Last year something clicked during the bye week. They made a lineup change, inserting Patrick Lewis at center at that point. They scored 29 points or more in 7 of 8 games after their bye, after scoring 26 or less in 7 of 8 games before the bye. I get tired of hearing how the Seahawks profess that Tom Cable has some magic ability to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad, but maybe he can make some adjustments again during the 2016 bye week and fix some of the issues.

  • Alan

    the Hawks pride themselves on finding steals in the late rounds of drafts. over the last couple of years i feel that in rounds 6 & 7 while they were busy trying to unearth the next diamond in the rough they missed the chance to grab a obvious much higher ceiling year 1 or year 2 starter along their OL.

    yes these guys had some issues either in college or predraft but with a 6/7 round pick it would have been well worth the risk at a definite position of need with a very high reward. better than selecting a small school DT project that you think you can turn into an OL in 3-4 years (high risk/low reward).

    seantrel henderson and la’el collins are the first 2 that come to mind.

    • Eric

      The Seahawks have drafted their share of OL in rounds 6 and 7 since 2013… they just haven’t connected on those picks.
      Its not a perfect subset 2 weeks into the season, but I looked at all the OL that PFF currently has rated at 80 or higher (36 players in all). 15 were 1st rounders, and 25 were drafted in the first 3 rounds. Looking at the late rounds, there were 2 6’s, 2 7’s, and 3 undrafted players. Only 3 of those late round/undrafted players came out in 2013 or later (Matt Paradis 2014/6, Ryan Schraeder 2013/U, Quinton Spain 2015/U). In other words, its almost impossible to find and develop an above average player while they are playing out their rookie contract for the team that drafted them, unless you draft them high.
      Henderson has not graded out well at all on PFF by the way.

    • eYeDEF

      No one had any idea how Collins would turn out because he was threatening to hold out till next year’s draft.

      • Shoutout to all the guest

        yup, and im sure the seahawks offered him a contract after the draft ( like probably 25 other teams) but he turned it down for dallas

  • Bruce Locis

    Oline has been clearly been the single biggest issue with Seattle. And its been a strange mix of under spending ($ and draft choices) and gambling on converting d-line guys to o-line.

    From left to right….. (to my eyes)
    LT Bradley Sowell. Better than expected, but I did not have very high hopes. Has had some penalties but I like his scrappy play. On a short contract, I’m already looking for a LT in 2017 draft
    LG Mark Glowinski. Aside from one start last season at RG, he is a rookie. Not surprisingly, looked over matched vs. Miami and St. Louis. Interested to see how he holds up vs. DT’s not named Aaron Donald and N. Suh.
    C Justin Britt has done well – much better than I would have even hoped for. Last season I would have said let him walk – now he may be worth a second contract w/Seahawks.
    RG Webb – Making the most, playing the worst at the moment. Injured through much of training camp, I’m hoping he gets his feet under him and does better in the next couple of weeks before Ifedi returns after the week 5 bye
    RT Gary Gilliam – After 1 year of uneven performance at RT, Seahawks want to mike up his feet and move him to LT. I’m glad that didn’t work out and he can continue to work at RT and improve.

    Overall, its about what I expected. But much like last year, I expect the o-line will improve as the season progresses. The team needs to continue to invest high draft picks in o-line.

  • Robert

    You guys must be smoking more than weed. Biggest bunch of crap I’ve read in a while from the comment section. Yeah Cable is great, but acting like Brit is good bc he graded out at 70 is a joke. Watch the clips above. Should have kept Unger instead of spending money they didn’t have to burn on Graham. Or maybe drafted a tackle that can actually play tackle. Honestly don’t even know if Ifredi has what it takes to be a top flight guard. And he’s certainly not going to fix the other issues. Oh BTW, Marshwn is gone. Good Luck. Hope you guys score a TD sometime soon.

    • InvokeMyRage

      Seattle will score touchdowns vs SF.

      • NinerED

        No they won’t. This ain’t Tomsula anymore buddy.

        • coduj

          yeah you have chip kelly now, the same coach that seattle’s D was predicting playcalls for last season. if there is gonna be a touchdown itll probably be defensive for seattle

        • InvokeMyRage

          Didn’t even take a full minute…

          • NinerED

            No worry. Seattle isn’t going very far this year either.

            Hope lil Russ is ok, with his other leg hurting now.

    • Shoutout to all the guest

      ifedi is probably the best ol we have right now

    • Kevin

      Who said Britt is great? I said he is a passable starter according to his PFF grade, a fact the article author neglects to mention. I whole heartedly agree keeping Unger was the right thing to do. But we don’t like in that universe. My only argument is the according to the author’s own grading metric, the whole line isn’t completely in shambles. One player actually grades out as a passable starter. Does that mean he will maintain that grade? No, and based on history he won’t.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Sam has been hard on the Vikings OL and now the Seahawks get their turn but it’s a bit disconcerting that he’s giving the Cowboys a free pass. Yep, the Cowboys….who were going to be opening massive holes in defenses, allowing Elliot to gain yardage at 5 yards a pop. Currently the Pokes rush avg is ranked 23rd which should be a major embarrassment for an OL unit that PFF has been touting as the leagues best.

  • Eagle Eye

    Ignorant article on a lot of levels and sad that a “professional” would spend so little time understanding the facts.
    1 – You’re right that Seattle’s OLine is bad right now.
    2 – You’re wrong that Marshawn Lynch saved them last year. He played in 7 games (you do know that’s less than half, right?) for a whopping 417 yards.
    3 – You’re wrong that the Seahawks have taken players scuttled elsewhere and inserted them as starters. The only one who fits your description is turnstyle Webb and he is not starting because he “first a profile”. He’s starting due to injuries.

    Finally, if you wanted the Seahawks at all last year – which based on your analysis you didn’t – the OLine started even worst but they at least made the playoffs.

    At least do a modicum of research.

    • Joseph

      Completely agree. In addition, he called the tight end block the failure on the play above. It was the WR blocking that blew up that play.

    • Kevin

      You mentioned Webb, but didn’t include Sowell, who was “scuttled” by the Bucs Colts and most recently Cardinals.

    • eYeDEF

      At least do some modicum of research on your own home team before sticking your foot in your mouth. Hard to believe you’re ignorant of the starting left tackle Sowell who is a retread from Arizona, and a pretty terrible one.

      I believe the point Sam made was Lynch AND Wilson. You realize Wilson did bail them out last year but is hobbled now right? The strategy to surround Wilson with garbage has consequences. That was the point.