RENTON, Wash. — It was the kind of statement that in seasons past might have sounded like an unintentional joke.
To a man, after Sunday’s surprisingly suspenseful 21-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the members of the Seattle Seahawks offensive line said that the game did not meet their standards.
In the final few years of the Tom Cable era, most Seahawks fans and NFL observers’ response to such a claim might have been it’s really not that hard to reach the bottom.
But after the offensive line’s revival of 2018 — when the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing yards per game, scored the second-most points in franchise history and averaged 30 points per game during the second half of the season — such a statement takes on new meaning.
Offensive linemen such as Duane Brown spent the offseason saying they felt Seattle could have the best offensive line in the NFL with four of five starters back from a year ago and the only newcomer being veteran four-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati, signed as a free agent to replace the departed J.R. Sweezy at left guard.
Which is why Sunday was such a slap to the face as Seattle allowed four sacks and nine quarterback hits on 24 pass attempts and rushed for just 72 yards on 25 carries — less than half the 160-yard average of a season ago.
Cincinnati has a good defensive line, no doubt. But it also was called “maddeningly inconsistent” by Sports Illustrated (maybe the Seahawks just caught the Bengals on a good day?). And if you’re going to be the best offensive line in the NFL, then you should be able to have success against just about any foe, regardless.
Hence, the somewhat surprised looks among the linemen in the locker room afterward.
No one, of course, is going to panic about one game.
The offensive line allowed 12 sacks in the first two games of last season and struggled to run the ball before finding itself in Week 3 (which also was when D.J. Fluker entered the lineup).
But the hope was that with a veteran line and in the second year under offensive line coach Cable’s replacement, Mike Solari, this group would hit the ground running and passing with ease.
So what happened?
Solari said a breakdown in fundamentals was the main issue.
“We’ve just got to be able to get our pads down and do what we do,” Solari said this week.
It didn’t help that center Justin Britt banged his knee on the second play of the game and had to leave for a snap. He returned to play the rest of the game. But he sat out practice Wednesday, and the injury contributed to his struggles on the field, maybe more than was realized at the time — he had by far the worst grade of Seattle’s five linemen from the football analytic site Pro Football Focus.
Also an issue, some of the linemen said, was communication.
“I think our communication could be better,” right tackle Germain Ifedi said. “Starting with me.”
It’s tempting to place blame on the starting offense playing just five series in the preseason. But most teams also sat most of their starters in preseason, and many had big offensive performances in Week 1.
“Preseason isn’t an excuse,” Brown said.
Still, something was amiss, with the line at times seeming not to know whom to block Sunday. Pro Football Focus said Ifedi gave up one sack, tight end Nick Vannett another and simply credited unblocked defensive linemen for the other two sacks.
But the running game struggles were harder to figure.
The Bengals went with largely a 5-2 front designed to stop Seattle’s run and mostly succeeded until Chris Carson’s late 21-yard run to pick up a critical third-and-one.
Carroll said later the Seahawks got too stubborn with their playcalling, expecting they eventually would wear down the Bengals and blow them off the ball.
Indeed. Of Seattle’s 25 running plays, per Pro Football Focus, 14 were zone reads, which gained 48 yards. Expect Seattle to add more variety to the running game this week at Pittsburgh.
But Solari said the answer is simple: “We’ve got to play better, just no doubt about it.”
Iupati, who has been struggling with foot and then calf injuries and did not play in the preseason, practiced Wednesday. If Iupati is healthy, Carroll said he will return to left guard, where Ethan Pocic played in preseason and for all but one snap of Week 1.
Although Carroll said he expects Britt to play, if his injury lingers then expect Pocic to move to center — Pocic likely is getting Britt’s snaps at center as he sits out of practices this week with Iupati at left guard.
Pittsburgh was blasted 33-3 at New England on Sunday, but the Seahawks offensive line knows it will be tested greatly by the Steelers’ 3-4 front, which features three down linemen who have played together since 2016, led by tackle Cameron Hayward, a Pro Bowler the past two years and an All-Pro in 2017.
But Ifedi said the Seahawks will be ready.
“We are challenging ourselves to get better this week, as we do every week, but this week especially, having things to clean up,” Ifedi said. “We are going to be hard on ourselves to do it because we know the goal. (The Steelers) are coming off a tough game, and that front is going to be ready to go, so we will be ready to go too. We feel like we are coming off a tough game too.”