Seahawks’ O-line: From a weakness to a strength

RENTON — When Pete Carroll told everyone last year how excited he was about the impact Tom Cable could have on the Seahawks’ offensive line, your were understandably pretty skeptical, right?

After all, when Mike Holmgren hired Mike Solari in 2008, we heard that Solari was the guy who could work wonders with a struggling offensive line. And when Carroll made offensive line guru Alex Gibbs one of his first hires in 2010, that was the move that would help shape the Seahawks’ offense.

Yet for a number of reasons — not the least of which were an unusual amount of injuries — things never got going under Solari, and Gibbs unexpectedly retired before coaching a regular season game in Seattle. So heading into last season, line play remained one of the Seahawks biggest concerns.

Even though Cable, a Snohomish High graduate, had a good track record of improving offensive line play, Seahawks fans had to wonder what would be different this time around. And because the NFL lockout erased offseason workouts, growing pains were inevitable for an offensive line that was starting two rookies and learning under a new position coach and offensive coordinator.

Not surprisingly, the line struggled early as the Seahawks struggled to run the ball and keep quarterback Tarvaris Jackson upright.

But then midway through the season a funny thing happened. After years of being told that Seattle’s offensive line play would improve, it actually did.

In a meeting before Seattle’s Week 9 game in Dallas, Cable and Carroll decided that, for better or worse, the Seahawks would commit to the run game for the rest of the season. The Seahawks rushed for 162 yards that day, and while they lost to the Cowboys, they went on to win five of their next six while committing to the run. After averaging just 77.7 rushing yards per game through seven games — an average that, had they maintained it, would have ranked last in the league by a large margin — the Seahawks increased that average to 134.7 over the final nine games.

Now, with half a season of considerable progress, and a full offseason of workouts under their belts, the Seahawks’ line could go from being a cause for concern to an actual source of optimism.

“There isn’t a comparison,” Carroll said when asked the difference in his line from this time last year to this year. “We were so far off last year. … These guys are so much farther along. You’ll see the continuity, not just in the first year but all the way through. The stamp that Tom puts on these guys with the system and how disciplined that they become under his guidance, it runs throughout the group, so we are way, way ahead in the running game and in pass protection.”

What was most impressive about Seattle’s improved line play last season, and what should be most encouraging heading into this year, is that the line was able to continue its growth even as injuries took their toll. When John Moffitt and James Carpenter both went down with season-ending knee injuries, Paul McQuistan and Breno Giacomini stepped in and the line didn’t miss a beat.

When Russell Okung went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle, McQuistan moved to left tackle, one of football’s most demanding positions, and held his own. McQuistan and Giacomini were both rewarded with contract extensions, and will open the season as starters, Giacomini at right tackle and McQuistan at left guard.

And those players aren’t starting simply because of injuries.

The Seahawks released veteran guard Robert Gallery because of their confidence in McQuistan, and when James Carpenter comes back, it will most likely be to play guard, not to replace Giacomini. And even then, Carpenter will have to battle to get a starting job back.

More than anyone, McQuistan exemplifies what Cable tries to build in an offensive line. Like any line coach, Cable wants linemen with versatility. McQuistan started at three positions last year, and the Seahawks would be comfortable plugging him in at any position but center. Cable also puts a premium on depth so that when the inevitable injury occurs, the next man up is ready.

“His philosophy is ‘next guy up,’” said McQuistan, who started 10 games last year after starting only 12 in his first five seasons. “You’ve just got to get in there and play ball, do your assignments, let the guys count on you, and just go from there.”

McQuistan did so well filling in for injured players at multiple positions — he started three games at each guard position and four at left tackle — that Marshawn Lynch called him the team’s MVP.

“You thought he’d be able to play a couple spots for you,” Cable said. “To say he’d be able to play four spots, that’s pretty hard to predict, but that’s a real tribute to him. We’ve got to find another guy like him.”

McQuistan, who Seattle signed because of his familiarity with Cable’s scheme having played under him in Oakland, knows as well as anyone that he can’t relax now that he has earned a starting job after not starting a single game from 2008-2010.

“One thing about this game, if you get complacent, you’ll be on you’re way out,” he said. “So you’ve got to come in and compete.”

So no, not McQuistan nor anyone else on Seattle’s line will feel like they’re done improving after half a season’s worth of solid play. But while no one on the line is complacent, the improvement that group has shown over the past year does mean that, for the first time in years, the Seahawks should open the season not worried about how line play will hurt the offense. Rather, they’ll contemplate how it can help the team win.

“From last year to this year,” Jackson said, “it’s night and day.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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