Seahawks hoping better pass protection is new O-line trend

RENTON — Two weeks ago there was an unusual sight for the Seattle Seahawks in their game against the Dallas Cowboys:

Quarterback Russell Wilson, standing upright.

Seattle’s terrible trouble with sacks disappeared just prior to the bye week, and the Seahawks are hoping that was the beginning of a trend rather than a one-off.

“That’s a great indicator, if we can come back and do it again,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We don’t want it to be a one-game phenomenon. We need to come back and see if we can protect well again, get the ball out, keep it moving and not let them get to us. It’s a big area, we’re trying to improve on that, hopefully we can show that.”

Seattle’s offensive line has been the subject of much scrutiny this season as the Seahawks worked in new starters at three positions. That scrutiny focused largely on pass protection as through the first seven games of the season Seattle allowed a NFL-high 31 sacks. Through eight games Wilson was the victim of 60 quarterback hits.

But that changed in Seattle’s 13-12 victory at Dallas two weeks ago in the game that preceded the Seahawks’ bye. In that game Wilson was not sacked once and was hit just five times. It was a stark contrast to the first seven games of the season, when Wilson was frequently running for his life.

“I think we did well,” right tackle Garry Gilliam said about the line’s performance against Dallas. “Any game you come out without giving up a sack is huge. There’s still room for improvement, there were still pressures and QB hits and stuff, so if we could limit that stuff it would be even better. But it’s definitely a good stepping stone for us to grow off of.”

However, the sack numbers aren’t just down to the performance of the offensive line. Carroll listed a number of factors in why Seattle was able to prevent sacks against the Cowboys.

“We complemented better up front, we did things with protection, Russell did a nice job of getting the ball out, coaches did a nice job of adjusting some subtle things in the plan to help do that,” Carroll explained.

“A lot of that is with the scheme, a lot of quick passes, getting the ball out fast, having some extra blockers in chipping, stuff like that helps,” Gilliam added. “In terms of offensive line just sticking to our technique, being sharp, being tight, handling our one-on-one battles. It all plays a role in that.”

The scheme in particular plays an important role. A significant part of Seattle’s passing offense rests in Wilson’s legs, with the speedy quarterback extending plays and improvising. Sometimes it leads to big plays, sometimes it results in sacks.

But the heavy sack numbers prompted the Seahawks to dial up passing plays intended to get the ball out of Wilson’s hands faster. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Seattle had just four of its 29 pass attempts against the Cowboys classified as deep passes, which is 13.8 percent. That’s the Seahawks’ lowest percentage of deep passes in a game since attempting only one deep pass in the season opener at St. Louis. It reinforces the notion Wilson was getting the ball out more quickly.

“I think I was a little bit more on time,” Wilson said when asked if he got rid of the ball faster against the Cowboys. “Like I always tell you guys, there’s a happy medium. You want to make sure you don’t miss the big play, but at the same time you want to keep chipping away. … I think the biggest thing for us in terms of our offense and everything like that, we want to be able to run the ball physical, we want to be able to play action, we want to get the ball out on time, but we also want those big play-action plays and those scramble plays as well.”

The prevention of sacks didn’t exactly translate into improved offensive success for the Seahawks against Dallas. Seattle’s offense scored only one touchdown, and Wilson had his lowest-rated passing game of the season with a 81.2 quarterback rating — his rating for the season is 95.0. It’s an indication that solving the sack crisis won’t be a cure-all for the Seahawks’ offense.

And the lowered sack total didn’t prevent the Seahawks from making changes on the offensive line for Sunday’s game against Arizona.

First, Russell Okung is ready to return from his ankle injury. The two-time Pro Bowler will resume his spot at left tackle in place of Alvin Bailey.

Also, Patrick Lewis is being reinstated as the starting center after an ankle injury forced him to miss the previous two games. Drew Nowak started the first five games before Lewis took over in Week 6 against Carolina. Lewis played one game before getting hurt, and he was inactive for one game and kept on the sidelines the next as Nowak returned to the starting lineup.

But preventing sacks is a start, and the Seahawks hope that trend continues Sunday against an Arizona Cardinals team that loves to blitz.

“We’ve demonstrated great patience and we’ve been waiting to get it going,” Carroll said. “But there has been a turn in the last three or four weeks. Hopefully we can continue to see that improve. That was predictable, I think. I said it was going to be like that, the sooner the better. We’ll see. The first half is done, we can’t do anything about what’s occurred. But it will illustrate how far we’ve come.”

Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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