By Chris Cluff
When head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider arrived in Seattle in 2010, the Seahawks’ offensive line was in such shambles that they spent two first-round picks and a third-rounder over their first two drafts on guys they expected to spearhead the rebuild.
Carroll wanted to build his team around physical play on both sides of the ball, and he brought in assistant head coach Tom Cable to oversee the construction of the O-line.
Around midseason last year, Cable’s line began to push defenses around and create some running room for running back Marshawn Lynch. The surge started in Dallas in Week Nine as Lynch ran for 135 yards, and it continued for the entire second half of the season.
So, it was apropos that the line did it again Sunday, paving the way for 182 yards on the ground against the Cowboys in Seattle.
But here’s the punchline: Most of this groundswell has been accomplished without those high draft picks who were expected to anchor it.
Left tackle Russell Okung, the 2010 first-round pick, has missed five of Seattle’s last six games, dating to last season. He missed the game Sunday with a bruised knee.
James Carpenter, the 2011 first-rounder, has missed the last nine games and likely won’t play for a few more weeks. On top of that, he has been moved from right tackle to left guard, where many figured he would end up in the NFL.
Right guard John Moffitt, the 2011 third-rounder, had missed eight straight games until he started against Dallas on Sunday.
Last year, the running game was just starting to click — Lynch had two straight 100-yard games — when Moffitt and Carpenter both were lost for the season. The running game continued to gain momentum without them, though, as Lynch gained 347 yards over the next three games.
Okung was lost in Week 13 when Philadelphia defensive end Trent Cole pulled a WWE move that resulted in a torn pectoral muscle. And yet, the Hawks continued to run the ball, with Lynch going over 100 yards in two of the final four games, when Paul McQuistan was playing left tackle, Lemuel Jeanpierre was at right guard and Breno Giacomini was anchoring right tackle. McQuistan and Giacomini earned new contracts and starting spots for 2012 based on their play last season.
On Sunday, with new backup tackle Frank Omiyale starting for the once-again-injured Okung, the Seahawks used their eighth line configuration in the last 18 games. Yet they ran the ball down the Cowboys’ throats with a group spearheaded by second-round center Max Unger, Omiyale, McQuistan, Giacomini and the right guard combination of Moffitt and rookie J.R. Sweezy.
Cable’s influence on the line has been obvious – his work converting Sweezy from college defensive lineman to NFL guard is the ultimate example of his impact.
The lingering questions: How good can this unit become if Okung, Carpenter and Moffitt are ever healthy for a full season? And will they ever be healthy for a full season?
Okung had ankle problems in his first two seasons before the fluke chest injury ended his season last year. And then he started this season with a knee injury. Carroll told reporters he should be able to play next Monday against Green Bay.
“He should be able to make it — particularly with the next couple days that we can rest him,” Carroll told The News Tribune. “So he won’t have to practice until Thursday. So that will give him a good break.”
Moffitt, who had elbow surgery last month and missed the opener, started Sunday and made some good blocks – he helped spring Lynch on his 36-yard run. But he was playing with a bum shoulder and shared time with Sweezy. And he probably will continue to.
“The competition is definitely on there,” Carroll said. “John did all right. And J.R. did pretty well, too. Neither one of them had any glaring mistakes that hurt their cause. Both could play better, but they did a nice job.”
Carpenter, meanwhile, will practice full time at left guard this week as he continues his comeback from an ACL injury.
“He’s way ahead of schedule,” Carroll said. “We’re thrilled with what he’s doing and the fact he’s out competing and taking pass rushes and all of that stuff full-go in practice.”
When healthy, this year’s line is comprised of (left to right) Okung, McQuistan, Unger, Moffitt/Sweezy, Giacomini. But Carpenter should work his way into the discussion at left guard for next year.
In the meantime — even when Okung, Carpenter and Moffitt are out — the unit has become a very effective run-blocking line under Cable. After a tough start in Arizona, they rediscovered their push against Dallas, and they have to hope they can repeat the results from last year, when the Dallas game was the beginning of a long run of success.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.