Seahawks offensive line improving, but questions remain ahead of tough test

posted by Curtis Crabtree - 

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers

RENTON -- What exactly is the current version of Seattle's offensive line capable of?

It's a question we still don't know the answer to 11 games into the 2017 season, mainly because this version of Seattle's offensive line has played just one game together. Duane Brown and Luke Joeckel played together for the first time last Sunday in Santa Clara against the 49ers. Ethan Pocic has played one game at right guard after replacing Joeckel for five games on the left side.

And while pass protection has generally been decent most of the season, the run game has been abysmal. Will it stay that way? There's not enough evidence to say definitively. There's also the possibility that the addition of Brown, return of Joeckel and insertion of Pocic at right guard could help propel the running game forward for the final five weeks of the season.

"Each week is for us right now is a new situation, we’ll figure it out as we go," head coach Pete Carroll said Monday. "And we’ll see Mike Davis come back to practice and see where he fits in and see the whole thing how it fits together. It’s just not as clear as it could be maybe with a couple of more weeks, so we’ll see. I’m anxious to see our guys run again behind the line playing together and see how that works, and we’ll just wait and see what comes."

Brown and Joeckel never once practiced together before taking the field side-by-side on Sunday. Brown hadn't practiced in two weeks while recovering from an ankle injury and Joeckel returned to the lineup last week for the first time since knee surgery in October. Keeping the same group together, if possible, down the stretch should allow the Seahawks to maximize what they can do.

"Anytime you start to have a line together more than a week or two weeks and you get to start to build relationships, camaraderie and just understanding how the guy next to you plays, there's trust that goes in there," center Justin Britt said. "I feel like the left side is well-schooled. They've played a lot of ball between the both of them. And then the right side, they're relatively new but Germain (Ifedi)'s got experience and Ethan's coming along pretty nice. So it's just working together."

Wilson wasn't sacked and was hit just six times on Sunday. He did have to avoid a couple of near sacks but he wasn't under a constant barrage of pressure like has been seen in past seasons.

"It was interesting because (there was) a couple issues early, a stunt, and then we were able to get it worked out," offensive line coach Tom Cable said. "The experience of both of them showed up because we were on it. ... It was good in that we were able to problem solve with their wisdom and experience and then once they got going it was pretty good."

It wasn't perfect. Brown and Joeckel missed a stunt, which Cable mentioned. Matt Tobin (as an extra tight end) and Germain Ifedi had instances where they appeared to go the wrong way on a play, which caused issues as well. It's a group still trying to find its way at times, but there has been progress made.

"First time in a couple of years that they didn’t give up a sack," Carroll said Monday of the offensive line's performance against the 49ers. "Russell did a nice job of avoiding some stuff, but all-in-all, it was kind of like the first step together, and I’m hoping that as we come down to the finish of this season that these guys can really continue to develop and we can play better and smarter and be more efficient. It was a really good sign in that regard."

It's been a default position for some time that Seattle's offensive line is abjectly terrible. That's no longer the case. However, the ability of the group to forge a running game remains unknown due to the turnover up front since midseason.

While Davis is returning to the lineup this week, Seattle is set to face the league's top-ranked rush defense in the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday. 

"That's going to get answered here very quickly," offensive line coach Tom Cable said of how close the offensive line is to getting the run game issues sorted out. "If you look at what this week is, and the next week (Jacksonville) and the next week (LA Rams), we've got a month of really big challenges against really good defenses. So we're going to find out."

The Eagles front seven is a serious challenge for Seattle. They are holding opponents to just 65.7 yards per game on the ground. Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry and Chris Long help comprise as formidable a front line as the Seahawks will face all year on the defensive line.

"They're well coached on penetrating and trying to close the pocket down and the rush lanes," center Justin Britt said. "Big week of pad level and bringing our feet with us and that's what we work at every day, that's what we preach. Really it's about us and our fundamentals and we understand it's going to be a bar fight but we accept that and we like that. We enjoy it."

Of course, the offensive line isn't the only part of a successful rushing attack. Tight ends blocking, wide receivers blocking and running backs doing their jobs also factor into gaining yards on the ground.

While the Seahawks rank 20th in the league in rushing offense, that doesn't exactly paint a truthful picture on its own. Wilson's 401 yards lead the team in rushing yards. Chris Carson's 208 yards remain second on the team despite him playing in just four games this season.

Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, J.D. McKissic and Mike Davis - Seattle's current stable of running backs - have combined for just 463 yards and one rushing touchdown this season

"We’re continuing to try to do different things, we’re continuing to try and run the ball, but we know what we need to do as well," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said." The object is to score points, which we’ve been able to do, so it’s really by any means necessary. If we can run it in, we’ll do it, and if we have to throw it in, we’ll get it in that way."

While it's difficult to expect the Seahawks to suddenly find tremendous rushing game success with the Eagles, Jaguars and Rams on the schedule over the next three weeks. The flip side is if Seattle can run the ball against those teams, it would signal the group has progressed pretty significantly.

"That is the whole key right there is to see if we can keep that group together and let them grow together now," Cable said. "To see if we can keep working on finding the runner. If we can continue to do that then cohesiveness will start to show itself and that is always a positive."

Whether it's capable of happening or not remains to be seen.

Notes:

-- Tight end Luke Willson is making progress from the concussion sustained Sunday against the 49ers. He did not practice on Wednesday but has a chance to return this week if he can clear concussion protocol in time.

"He has to get through this next stage here, but he looks really good and he feels really good. He has a really good chance, but we won’t know until possibly tomorrow. Friday for sure we’ll know one way or the  other," Carroll said.

-- Defensive end Dion Jordan will also have a chance to play after a stinger kept him out for last week's game.

"He is trying to get back this week," Carroll said. "He had a little shoulder/neck thing, the stingers that he is coming back from. We are going to take it day-by-day. He’s got a chance to play this week."

-- Running back Mike Davis was limited in practice on Wednesday and has a decent chance to play Sunday against the Eagles.

He’ll practice today and we’ll get him out there and see how he’s going," Carroll said. We’re anxious to see if he can fit back in, but I can’t tell you until he comes back after a couple of days. We won’t know until the weekend."

Injury Report:

Photo Credit: SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks looks to hand the ball off against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on November 26, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

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