Throughout the first seven weeks, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll frequently heaped praise on starting center Kyle Fuller. But midway through the practice week gearing up to face the Jaguars in Week 8, he dropped a bit of a surprising bombshell, indicating Ethan Pocic would see some snaps for the first time since the season opener.
At the time, it remained unclear whether Pocic or Fuller would start, but the decision to re-open the competition at the pivot position midway through the season confirmed Seattle wasn't pleased with Fuller's performance in the first two months of play. However, this shouldn't come as much of a shocker considering Pro Football Focus had allowed charged him with 13 pressures and a pair of sacks in pass protection for a dismal 45.0 overall grade.
On top of Fuller's own issues protecting the quarterback, teammates such as tackle Duane Brown had been seen barking at Fuller on the field for a variety of reasons, including missed blitz pickups and delayed snaps. It became apparent communication issues were impacting the play of the entire line, leaving Russell Wilson and Geno Smith hanging out to dry.
"We have to be more consistently on it on the calls and stuff. We can get better there," Carroll told reporters. "In that sense, the competition is still open and it's important that we get a chance to see how Ethan does and how Kyle does in response and all that. It's a very important position for Shane's background. It's been a really important position for that guy to command what's going on and assist the quarterback in all ways, so we're still working at it."
Taking all of the first team reps during warmups, Pocic was officially announced as the starting center moments before kickoff against the Jaguars. Instead of playing "some" as Carroll originally told reporters he would, he played all 57 offensive snaps for the Seahawks and Fuller only saw the field for four special teams snaps.
While Seattle's line still allowed three sacks on the afternoon, they only surrendered three quarterback hits and eight total pressures on 28 drop backs. In regard to the sacks, Carroll placed much of the blame on Smith, indicating the quarterback needed to do a better job of unloading the football.
“We did communicate well," Carroll said of the line's performance. "The coaches felt really good about the calls, the consistency, and all of that. The protections were in good shape. I thought Ethan did a nice job in his first game back, he was little rusty in some stuff physically and technique wise, but he did a nice job, controlled it, and was very comfortable with the opportunity.”
Looking back at Pocic's first start of the 2021 season, how did the fifth-year veteran perform in extensive action? And has he all but re-secured the starting gig for the remainder of the year?
For the most part, Pocic did an adequate job in pass protection, allowing only two quarterback pressures on 28 snaps. He played light on his feet, mirrored defenders well with active hands, and kept his head on a swivel looking for work when he didn't have a rusher covering him or a blitzer to pick up.
Starting with Seattle's first offensive snap, Pocic got off to a promising start. Slanting from 3-tech alignment, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown attempted to deploy a club move with his right hand to slip inside past the center. But Pocic kept his hands engaged and slid in front of the defender, helping provide Smith with a clean pocket to deliver a first down strike to Tyler Lockett.
Later in the half, with the Seahawks holding a 14-0 lead and aiming to extend their advantage before halftime, Pocic did an excellent job holding his ground against a bull rush from Roy Robertson-Harris, who lined up head up as a nose tackle across from him. Getting his hands into the defender's frame first and then setting anchor, Pocic prevented him from being able to successfully slip by the block with a swim move. Though he was knocked back a bit towards the end of the rep, Smith was able to shuffle to his left and hit Lockett again for a 28-yard gain on a corner route.
Moments later, Seattle tacked on a Jason Myers field goal to go into the break with a commanding 17-0 lead.
As Carroll mentioned, Seattle's communication up front did seem vastly improved from previous weeks with Pocic coordinating line calls and the whole offense benefited. The line wasn't out of sync in regard to snap timing and blitzes as well as stunts were picked up cleanly for the most part, including on a key third down conversion on their second touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Facing 3rd and 5 from the opposing 38-yard line, Smith took the shotgun snap and the Jaguars brought six rushers, including a blitzing Damien Wilson. Pocic sealed off nose tackle Taven Bryan as he tried to penetrate the A-gap, while running back Travis Homer stepped up to stonewall Wilson. The rest of the line effectively neutralized the other four rushers, giving Smith a picturesque pocket to throw from and complete a nine-yard pass to Lockett in tight coverage to move the chains.
While Pocic didn't make many mistakes in pass protection on Sunday, he did have a couple of bad habits resurface over the course of the game. Most notably, on Seattle's first drive of the second half, he received the Michael Phelps treatment from defensive tackle Dawaune Smoot. Sliding to his right after the snap, Pocic got caught leaning with his head down and Smoot swam right past him inside as he fell onto his knees, allowing for the defender to have an unimpeded path to Smith for a drive-ending sack.
On a few occasions, as has been a persistent issue for Pocic sent entering the league as a second-round pick in 2017, he struggled with late adjustments against twist stunts in the trenches. This problem can't be solely put on him, however, as evidenced on the below example.
Going up against a five-man rush on the opening drive, the Seahawks did a quality job blocking the edges to protect Smith. But Pocic passed off nose tackle Davon Hamilton to Lewis, who didn't pick him up, while the center was late to react to defensive end Adam Gotsis looping back inside. Both Hamilton and Gotsis were able to collapse the pocket and K'Lavon Chaisson also impacted the play with late burst around Brown, leading to an ugly incompletion intended for tight end Will Dissly.
If there's a silver lining on the play, Hamilton wound up getting penalized for roughing the passer, extending the drive and eventually allowing Smith to score on a quarterback sneak.
While Pocic by and large had a solid first start in pass protection, his outing as a run blocker reflected his career to this point, as he endured an uneven performance.
Starting with the positives, the light feet Pocic displayed in pass protection also showed up as a run blocker on zone concepts. On the opening drive of the game, the Seahawks dialed up an inside zone to the left and Pocic won the positional battle sliding to his left to stay square on Hamilton, then sealing the defender outside. Running back Alex Collins astutely cut back behind him and found a crease, picking up nine yards and nearly moving the chains.
Not necessarily known for his athleticism, Pocic also made several nice blocks at the second level on Jacksonville's linebackers, though his running backs often didn't position themselves to take advantage.
The clearest example of this came midway through the fourth quarter when the Seahawks ran duo to the right out of 11 personnel. Pocic initially teamed up with Lewis on a combo block against Robertson-Harris before disengaging and working his way upfield to Wilson. Taking a perfect angle, he latched on and sealed the linebacker inside to help create a sizable running lane.
The only problem? Going against the design of the play, running back Rashaad Penny didn't get downhill and instead tried to bounce the run outside, only to be brought down by defensive end Josh Allen for a two-yard loss.
The most glaring weakness in Pocic's run blocking remains his inability to generate push off of the line of scrimmage. Though he has added muscle during his career and bulked up to 325 pounds, he rarely overpowers defenders across from him and doesn't generate the consistent movement off the snap Seattle likely desires from the position. This is especially evident in goal line and short yardage situations.
As just one example of several, on a trap run in the second quarter, Pocic tries to down block on Robertson-Harris. But he isn't able to push the blocker off the ball at all and after being knocked back a step, he gets stood up in the hole, preventing Collins from being able to go anywhere. Multiple Jaguars rallied around him to bring the back down for no gain.
These types of plays have been consistently littered in Pocic's play for years and even with added muscle, he's never evolved into an imposing run blocker and it's unlikely to ever be a strength in his game. While he was far from the only reason Seattle couldn't get much going on the ground on Sunday, it's not far-fetched to see his struggles as a drive blocker putting a cap on the team's rushing attack.
Looking back at his performance in 2020, the Seahawks should already know that Pocic provides a serviceable starting alternative at the center position. Physically, he doesn't hold any significant advantages over Fuller, but he clearly has a better handle on pre-snap line calls and his teammates responded to his presence on the field on Sunday. That alone should give him the starting role for the remainder of the season. He also was better in pass protection last year than many credited for, allowing only two sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 14 starts.
But while Pocic most likely is the better option compared to Fuller moving forward, when considering his obvious limitations, including his lack of play strength at the point of attack as a run blocker and pass protector, Seattle's front office rightfully has earned criticism for not pursuing a potential upgrade this offseason. Several quality veterans were available to sign on the free agent market and the team may regret not choosing Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey in the second round of April's draft for years to come.
As things stand with the trade deadline already passed, Pocic should be the starter for the remainder of the season as long as he can stay healthy. The Seahawks offensive line looks more in sync with him than without him. But the decision not to provide additional competition to pit against him and Fuller heading into the 2021 season will be questioned for some time.