Back in January, the Seahawks limped into the playoffs losing three of their final five regular season games, including dropping back-to-back divisional contests to the Cardinals and 49ers at home in the final two weeks.
While injuries can't be used as excuses in the NFL, Seattle lost all three of its top running backs in the month of December to season-ending injuries, including starter Chris Carson. Further complicating matters, the team lost both Duane Brown and Mike Iupati to injuries of their own late in the season, leaving the offensive line in tatters rolling into postseason football.
Brown managed to return from knee surgery for a Divisional Round defeat to the Packers, but Iupati couldn't make it back from a neck injury and the Seahawks missed his presence dearly. In two playoff games, without Carson or Rashaad Penny and the line unable to generate push at the line of scrimmage, they rushed for only 184 yards and more than 100 of those came from quarterback Russell Wilson.
Earlier this season, Seattle once again had to go without Iupati's services for four games as he battled through back spasms. Unlike January, however, the return of Jordan Simmons from a knee injury allowed the team to handle his absence more effectively and the reserve played well enough to warrant potentially keeping the job.
Still, even considering Simmons' admiral performance, the Seahawks were thrilled to get Iupati back in the lineup earlier this month. This was particularly true with a dire situation developing at center that ultimately led to Damien Lewis making his first career start at the position against the Cardinals last Thursday night.
There's no question Lewis benefited immensely from having a seasoned veteran such as Iupati alongside him. But as coach Pete Carroll emphasized, while he provided a stabilizing force in the trenches for young players to lean on, Iupati remains an excellent NFL guard in his own right and has played some of his best football in 2020.
"When you return a guy that has this much experience, background, and all that, his poise and all, it helps everybody," Carroll said on Tuesday. "Mike's a really good football player and tough as can be. He had to fight his way back to it, but we're really happy to have him back."
Known throughout his stellar career for his brute strength and punishing style at the line of scrimmage, the 330-pound Iupati has maintained dominance as a run blocker. After getting off to a strong start before injuring his back, he picked up right where he left off on Thursday, turning in one of his finest games as the Seahawks racked up 165 rushing yards in a 28-21 victory.
Most notably, Iupati threw a pair of textbook blocks to help spring running back Carlos Hyde on two of his three 15-plus yard runs on the night. Hyde finished with 79 yards on just 14 carries and much of that success came due to strong play by his left guard.
Where Iupati has really surprised this season, however, has been his dramatic improvements protecting Wilson.
According to Pro Football Focus, Iupati has yet to allow a sack in six starts thus far. Currently boasting a solid 73.4 grade in pass protection - the highest of his 11-year career - he's been credited with only one hit on Wilson and eight total pressures. Last season, comparatively, Iupati surrendered five sacks and 24 pressures in 15 starts, earning an underwhelming 60.1 grade.
Continuing his sound performance keeping Wilson clean in Week 11, Iupati allowed a single pressure on 41 pass plays against Arizona. It was his fourth game with one or less pressures given up per PFF charting.
To put a cherry on top, Iupati has cut down on his penalties compared to last season. He has been flagged only twice on 322 offensive snaps after committing eight penalties in 2019.
While such evaluations are far from foolproof, film matches with the grades for Iupati. He's been as proficient in pass protection as any point previously in his career, including when he was an All-Pro selection for the 49ers in 2012, and he's still elite as a road grader in the ground game.
With Simmons, Jamarco Jones, and Phil Haynes all available in reserve roles, Seattle has better depth than last season. As the team has done all season, they will likely continue to spell the 33-year old Iupati a handful of snaps each game to keep him fresh with an eye on January.
Given Iupati's rebirth of sorts this year, that's a wise strategy. As the Seahawks learned the hard way, his availability will be invaluable once postseason football rolls around and the organization needs him to be healthy to make a push for a Lombardi Trophy.