Protecting Russell Wilson Remains Seahawks’ Achilles Heel
Before the start of the season, tackle Duane Brown told reporters he believed the Seahawks could field one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
At the time, Brown’s viewpoint didn’t seem unrealistic at all. With four starters returning from last year’s playoff squad as well as line coach Mike Solari, the unit finally had continuity and was supposed to be a strength for this football team.
But as seen on display for a national audience during Sunday’s 28-12 loss to the Rams, pass protection remains a lingering problem that could derail the Seahawks hopes of pushing for another Lombardi Trophy.
Throughout Russell Wilson’s career, the franchise quarterback has been able to pull rabbits out of a hat and make magic happen despite being under constant duress. Even with pass rushers constantly chasing after him, his brilliance has kept Seattle afloat, allowing the team to make the playoffs six of the past seven seasons.
Wilson’s innate ability to extend plays sometimes creates pressure, so not all of the sacks and quarterback hits he’s been subjected to over the years were the fault of the offensive line. That’s been true at times this season as well.
Against the Rams, however, a beleaguered offensive line effectively functioned like the turnstiles that once “protected” Wilson earlier in his career. The veteran quarterback didn’t stand a fighting chance most of the night.
Living in the backfield, the Rams sacked Wilson five times and amassed 11 quarterback hits. Most the time, he couldn’t scan the field beyond his first read as the pocket quickly broke down. Wade Phillips’ defense deserves a ton of credit, but that doesn’t disregard the fact it was a putrid showing by Solari’s front line.
“We really ran the ball fine. I wish we had run the ball more and stayed with it,” coach Pete Carroll said on Monday. “Particularly against the team that rushed the passer so well. I wish we would’ve been able to play off that more so and relied on it. The score gets to influence it because we’re falling behind.
Playing from behind certainly didn’t do Seattle any favors, as the team had to scrap its original game plan going into halftime trailing by 18 points and wasn’t able to lean on the ground game to neutralize Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler Jr. as they hoped.
Averaging five yards per carry, the Seahawks were able to control the line of scrimmage more effectively on the ground and if they could’ve avoided penalties and dropped passes that took the offense off schedule, they may have been able to rely on the run game more heavily as Carroll envisioned. That’s what this offensive line featuring maulers such as D.J. Fluker and Mike Iupati was assembled to do.
Still, this was far from the first game this season where Brown and his line mates struggled to keep Wilson clean. According to ESPN’s Pass Block Win rate formula, which indicates the rate offensive linemen are able to hold their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer, the Seahawks rank 28th in the league at just 52 percent.
Looking more specifically at ESPN’s data, not a single Seahawks offensive lineman makes the top 10 at any position for Pass Block Win Rate.
Even from a more conventional standpoint, the Seahawks offensive line doesn’t stack up favorably compared to the rest of the league when it comes to protecting Wilson. He’s been sacked 40 times, the fourth-most of any quarterback in the league, while also being hit 42 additional times.
Both of those numbers would surely be further inflated if not for Wilson’s penchant for escaping trouble, as he ranks second in the league in scramble attempts (36) on designed pass plays per Pro Football Reference.
As Carroll noted after Sunday’s loss, Wilson could help his cause a bit by doing a better job of throwing the football away and especially in the second half, it did seem like he was breaching the pocket quicker than he needed to at times.
But when it’s all said and done, Wilson doesn’t deserve the bulk of the blame. Even with the experience Seattle has assembled in the trenches, pass protection hasn’t been up to par across the board for the offensive line and after surrendering 18 sacks in the past four games, it's a central reason for the team's recent offensive funk.
In regard to their status as a contender, even if the run game is humming as it did against the Vikings two weeks ago, the Seahawks will only go as far in the playoffs as the offensive line allows Wilson to carry them. Sunday’s beatdown in Los Angeles served as an unwelcome, all-too-familiar reminder of what that could mean in January.