Seahawks’ Okung living up to lofty expectations

RENTON — Russell Okung (politely) declined to be interviewed for this story. Which, while not ideal for the guy writing it, is kind of fitting for a left tackle.

Okung would rather not talk, and truth be told the less people are noticing, or for that matter talking about the Seahawks’ left tackle, the better it is for Seattle’s offense.

For much of his first two seasons in Seattle, the talk about Okung, the No. 6 pick in the 2010 draft and the man handed the unenviable task of filling Walter Jones’ sizable shoes, was about his inability to stay healthy. And when this season started, Okung found himself in the spotlight for one of the worst reasons possible for a lineman—a plethora of penalties.

But lately, you probably haven’t heard much about Okung, and when you’re not hearing discussions about an offensive lineman, it’s usually because he’s doing his job. And when you do actually focus on Okung, you realize that now more than ever, he is living up to the lofty expectations that were placed on him when he was picked in the first round, then immediately named the starter at one of football’s most important positions.

And this weekend, it would be very beneficial to the Seahawks if Okung can continue to not stand out. For a good portion of Sunday’s game against Minnesota, Okung will be asked to keep All-Pro defensive end from inflicting physical harm on rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

“Jared Allen, he’s a war daddy,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “He can do it all. He does physically, he does it with quickness, he does it with finesse. He’s a rare football player.”

Now, I’m not sure what calling somebody a “war daddy” means exactly, but it sounds like pretty high praise. And high praise is merited when it comes to the former fourth-round pick turned destroyer of NFL quarterbacks. Allen, who last season came half a sack short of the NFL record with 22, is one of the league’s most ferocious and relentless pass rushers, and is the kind of player who can singlehandedly disrupt a passing attack if not sufficiently blocked.

And the good news for Seattle is that Okung, despite the ups and downs with penalties this season, and injuries in the past, has always been up for a challenge. When the Seahawks went to Chicago in 2010, Okung was just coming back from a high-ankle sprain and starting just his second game. There was serious concern that week about what Julius Peppers might do to Matt Hasselbeck. So what did the rookie do against the Pro Bowler? He more than held his own, playing a big role in a surprising road victory.

More recently, Okung has helped the Seahawks hold elite pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews without a sack in wins over the Cowboys and Packers. In San Francisco, Okung exerted his physical will on one play with a pancake block on Justin Smith, one of the best defensive linemen in the game. It was a play so impressive that Sports Illustrated’s Peter King felt compelled to single it out in his Monday Morning Quarterback column, writing, “You do not pancake Justin Smith. You just don’t.”

“He’s done great, man,” said center Max Unger. “… He’s locked a lot a lot of really good players down. This is another really good challenge this weekend, there’s no doubt about that.”

And sure, Okung isn’t alone in stopping Allen or any other pass rusher. Sometimes a tight end stays in to help, other times a running back or fullback picks up a block in the backfield, and other times still it is up to the quarterback to make a defender miss, something Wilson has been very good at doing this season. But in the end, there is a reason left tackles are among the highest paid players in the game—they are responsible for the well being of the most important, and exposed, player on the field.

“It’s scheme and prioritizing the right guys, but without question it always comes down to those guys having to make the blocks,” Carroll said. “And Russell is off to a really good year. He’s really playing solid and he’s getting better and improving and more confident. There are more plays when you see him demonstrating his power and overwhelming at times and making some big-time blocks. We can scheme all we want, but it still comes down to Russell’s got to block the guys who’s on that left side, and he’s been doing a fine job of it so far.”

Yet for this to be a good year for Okung, which it undoubtedly been of late, he first had to get rid of the penalties that plagued him early in the season. Okung was called for three false starts in the season opener, then another false start and two holds, one of which was declined, in Week 3. Since then Okung has been called for only three penalties in the past five games, and is a big reason why Seattle has allowed just 14 sacks through eight games this season after giving up 50 last year.

“We have put an emphasis on that with the whole group, the penalty thing, and I think he’s adhering to that,” said offensive line coach Tom Cable. “That’s the big goal, to cut those down.”

And with penalties now less of a problem, a healthy Okung is looking more and more like what the Seahawks were hoping to find in April of 2010—a player worth that first-round selection, and somebody capable of taking over for a Seahawks legend.

“Before he got injured (last season), this is how he was playing those last three weeks, so we’ve been here before,” Cable said. “The thing now is to hopefully sustain it for the long haul. That’s who he is, that’s the player he is, and he’s fortunate now to really be healthy and be able to go out every week and prepare and play the whole game. I just think it’s who he is, who he’s supposed to be.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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