RENTON — Here’s something you don’t hear everyday:
“Justin Britt, I think he is playing like a Pro Bowl center, in my opinion.”
Whoa, there, Russell Wilson.
It’s not that the quarterback is praising his new center. That’s not only understandable, it’s indicative of the fact Britt has been the Seattle Seahawks’ most consistent and valuable lineman this season.
It just that, well, a member of the Seahawks’ offensive line — the league’s lowest-paid unit, the team’s most maligned, scrutinized group, one that has gotten Wilson hurt and left the running game stagnant until recently — singled out as the best in the league?
Or, taking a longer view to this summer: The right tackle as a rookie in 2014 and left guard last season is among the NFL’s best? At his third position in three seasons in the league? In what could easily be seen as his final chance at sticking in Seattle?
“The great thing about Justin Britt, he works at it, first of all,” Wilson said this week before the NFC West-leading Seahawks (8-3-1) departed Friday for Sunday’s game at Green Bay (6-6). “Second of all, he’s extremely talented. And third of all, mentally, he’s trying to master the game every week. …
“(It) is great to have a center like Justin Britt. I think he’s playing like a Pro Bowl center in my opinion. He’s playing very fast, very strong. He’s pass protecting like crazy, so he’s doing a great job.”
The most telling measure of Britt’s value to the line, the offense and the team came two weeks ago — when he wasn’t there. Britt missed the first game of his career because of a sprained ankle, and rookie Joey Hunt started for him at Tampa Bay. Though Hunt played well by coaches and teammates’ accounts, including Britt’s, the line played it worst of multiple bad games this season. Wilson got sacked six times. The Seahawks’ offense produced only a field goal against the league’s 26th-ranked defense in a 14-5 loss.
Wilson finished 17 for 33 passing for 151 yards and a passer rating of 38.8 against the Buccaneers. The only day he’s been rated worse was Oct. 18, 2012, a loss at San Francisco in his rookie year.
“It just didn’t feel like us, the whole team. It had a weird vibe,” Britt says now of that lost Sunday in Tampa Bay.
“It was one of those games that brings you back to reality and humbles you.”
Then last weekend against Carolina Britt returned. Presto! The Seahawks rolled to season bests of 534 yards and 40 points. The league’s 27th-ranked rushing offense romped for 240 yards, Seattle’s most yards on the ground in two years. Britt threw Panthers nose tackle Kyle Love to the ground for the block that started Thomas Rawls on his 45-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“I think we should capture whatever everyone did on offense, whatever we did to prepare throughout the week, and game day where we were mentally,” Britt said. “I think we should capture that and take that with us as we continue this journey as we go into the end of the season and into the playoffs.”
And now Wilson is touting Britt as a Pro Bowl candidate entering Sunday’s test against the Packers, with the Seahawks a win and Arizona loss away from clinching the division title.
What a difference a Britt makes.
“I started to realize later in the week (before the Carolina game), just seeing the guys come together and how the week went … how sharp we were finishing the week, without question, his factor of the confidence he brings guys, the knowledge and communication (helped),” coach Pete Carroll said of Britt. “Whereas Joey is a really smart player, he just hasn’t been with these guys and worked together with these guys. He’s been with the second group for the most part.
“I think it was very clear that getting Justin back was a big deal. He had a terrific game, too. He did a very good job.”
When line coach Tom Cable switched Britt from guard to center this preseason, it seemed to be merely the latest reach in a series of failed replacements for Max Unger. The Seahawks traded their two-time Pro Bowl center in March 2015 to New Orleans to get premier tight end Jimmy Graham.
Last season the Seahawks tried three centers to replace Unger. All failed. The initial choice fared worst. Undrafted college defensive tackle Drew Nowak started the first five games, got benched for Patrick Lewis, then returned for two more starts when Lewis got hurt. Seattle started 2-4 and allowed 31 sacks in the first seven games.
The Seahawks brought back Lemuel Jeanpierre, Unger’s former backup. He played three games at center last season. Lewis ended up stabilizing the line for the rest of the season that ended with a loss at Carolina in the divisional-playoff round.
So Lewis was the presumed starter entering 2016. But Cable and Carroll had considered since trading Unger trying Britt at center. They liked his intelligence and ability to process quick protection calls. They liked he had experience at the other positions on both sides of the line he’d have to direct.
Wilson loved what Britt showed him in August.
“This training camp I really noticed how great Britt was doing,” Wilson said. “We got into the games and nobody could get by him. We had some very tough competition early on (Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald, the New York Jets’ Muhammed Wilkerson) some of the top defensive lines. And he was handling it with such great poise. He was physical.
“Just meeting with him and being able to be with him for three years now, being able to communicate with him and be in meetings one on one, us talking early in the week and communicating throughout the whole entire week, then obviously on game day I think is a vital point, a crucial point to all of that.”
And, it’s proving, a vital point, a critical point, to the Seahawks’ resurgent offense. Perhaps, their season.
Though listed as questionable, Mike Morgan (hip) is ready to return to starting at strong-side linebacker despite a hip injury. Safety Jeron Johnson and four-time Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece are ready to make their Seahawks debuts, days after signing. And the maybe/maybe-not snow forecast for Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay? Whatever. Seattle is showing up to play, regardless. Those were the high points of Carroll’s remarks following Friday’s indoor practice and the team’s late-afternoon flight to Wisconsin. … Carroll said he’s been “really fired up” with how the Seahawks’ offense has been running the ball in recent games, after spending most of the season among the bottom six teams in rushing offense. Carroll said that resurgent running game will come in handy in wintry Wisconsin on Sunday. “This is exactly the kind of game (for running the ball),” Carroll said. “If you check the weather report, it keeps flip-flopping. So we don’t know what it is. We will just go out and go play. But this is precisely why balance is important.” … Earlier forecasts for Sunday afternoon in Green Bay went from a 20-percent chance of snow showers with not much accumulation for the 3:25 p.m. local-time game to by Friday morning a 90-percent chance of up to five inches of snow. By the time the team left for SeaTac Airport and the trip Friday afternoon, predictions were for an 80-percent chance of snow accumulating one to three inches by evening.