Unger's return should help solidify Seahawks' offensive line

RENTON, Wash. (AP) Of all the positions on the offensive line, center is the one most needing continuity. And it's been the one most like a revolving door for the Seattle Seahawks this season.

Four different players have started at least three games at center this season. But just in time for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against Carolina, veteran Max Unger is expected to return after missing the final six games of the regular season because of an injury.

''What he brings is his experience, and comfort level, and knowledge in the system and targeting,'' Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable said. ''Just being that much more right, whether it's run or pass I don't think it really matters. Just kind of being on the same page. Being able to help the quarterback where he needs to go. Just the background, that's great experience we're getting back.''

Unger's entire season has been littered with injuries. He played the first four games but suffered a foot injury against Washington. After sitting out four weeks, Unger returned for a pair of games in November only to suffer a high-ankle sprain late in Seattle's 24-20 loss at Kansas City.

The ankle injury sidelined Unger for the rest of the regular season.

''Nothing you can do about it,'' Unger said. ''(This is) stuff that's kind of out of my control.''

Unger's injuries led to the long list of replacements Seattle has used. First up was Stephen Schilling, who made three starts around midseason before ending up on injured reserve. Next in line was Patrick Lewis, who started games in Week 9, 11, 16 and 17. Also thrown in was former Seattle backup Lemuel Jeanpierre, who was re-signed before Week 12 and made three starts.

''We have rotated a lot of guys but everybody who has stepped up has done a great job,'' guard J.R. Sweezy said. ''We may have been a little off here and there but for the main whole we've really worked at getting our communication down with whoever is in there and being on top of it and knowing where we're going.''

While Seattle has received serviceable play from Schilling, Jeanpierre and Lewis, there is no denying the Seahawks have better offensive numbers when Unger is on the field.

In the six games Unger played - the first four and Weeks 10 and 11 - the Seahawks averaged 392.5 yards of offense per game, including 203.8 yards rushing. Seattle also allowed 13 total sacks in those six games and quarterback Russell Wilson had a passer rating of 95 or higher in five of the six.

In the 10 games Unger missed, Seattle averaged nearly 30 yards less of offense, but the big drop off was in the running game. The Seahawks rushed for just 153.9 yards in those 10 games when Unger was out.

''That's his guidance and his experience for the other guys up there. He's an expert at recognizing looks and calls and directing what's going on there,'' Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. ''So it just stands to reason that we maximize more so with him there. We'll just be a little bit more accurate with stuff and the kind of experience that just takes time to get. Patrick and Lemuel, they just haven't had the background. It's a wonderful dimension for us that helps us just be right more and that's a really important thing in the game.''

Despite the lengthy layoff, Unger and his coaches don't believe there will be any rust in the return. Unger practiced both days last week during Seattle's bye and was close to being able to return for the regular-season finale against St. Louis.

''The bye was huge as it always is coming off a long schedule and being able to take a week off and come back,'' Unger said. ''Especially for me and not having played for the last six weeks, that was big not to be thrown in there and be able to have a couple of days of practice.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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