Behind Unger, Seahawks’ Running Game Is Maxing Out
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By Chris Cluff
Max Unger, C, #60
Hometown: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Experience: 4 Years
Russell Wilson quickly has become known for his work ethic and attention to detail — qualities that have helped him develop into a very productive starting quarterback in just his first year.
But Wilson is not alone in his preparation. The Seahawks’ zone running game, orchestrated by Tom Cable, is every bit as intricate as the passing game, and center Max Unger makes sure he knows the game plan just as well as Wilson knows it. The three of them reportedly meet every week to go over the details of the plan.
“(Unger is) a really bright football player. He’s got a great competitiveness to him that makes him want to know everything that’s going on for everybody,” coach Pete Carroll told The News Tribune last month. “He’s really the captain of that line. (With) all the calls and the complexities that are there, you’re looking for a guy who will take care of that accountability, and he’s done a great job of that.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Hawks’ running game has picked up where it left off last season. After running for 554 yards in the past two games, Seattle ranks third with 2,250 yards this season. The Hawks are at their peak now, having rushed for 284 yards on 42 carries (6.8 ypc) in a 58-0 wipeout of Arizona and 270 yards on 32 attempts (8.4 ypc) in a 50-17 blasting of Buffalo.
They have been successful despite a constantly rotating cast of guards on either side of Unger, who has had various combinations of Paul McQuistan, James Carpenter, John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy flanking him.
Unger has been at the center of it since last year, when he took over at the pivot in Cable’s first season as line coach. Unger anchored that line as it paved the way for Lynch to gain 1,204 yards and score 12 touchdowns. The unit has been even better this year, helping Beast Mode to 1,379 yards and a career-best 5.1 average per carry while scoring 10 touchdowns so far.
“Where it starts to become really fun is when, as a group, you’re more aware of what you’re doing aside from just your specific assignment,” Unger told the TNT. “You get a greater understanding of the offense and what you’re trying to accomplish with the game plan, and I think that’s what we’re all growing into now.”
The Seahawks have been at their best running off right or left tackle, according to Football Outsiders. And they run to those sides — behind right tackle Breno Giacomini and left tackle Russell Okung — more than all but one team in the league. But Unger can be seen moving into the second level of the defense or sealing off his defender on many of those runs.
He is a sound technician who rarely makes a mistake, and he has good mobility to reach that second level. In 14 starts this season, he has just one penalty (a false start) and no sacks. And in 29 starts over the past two seasons, he has not been called for a hold. That play has garnered him attention as a possible Pro Bowl/All-Pro player. It is what former GM Tim Ruskell envisioned when he made one of his few good draft moves, trading back into the second round to get Unger in 2009.
Unger played guard as a rookie and missed all but one game with a foot injury in 2010, but last season he stepped into the center spot he had played so well in Oregon’s zone running game, and his success gave Carroll and GM John Schneider reason to sign the center to a four-year, $25 million contract in the offseason.
He has proven to be worth the investment — providing stability in the middle for a rookie quarterback and a revolving quartet of guards. As Giacomini told the TNT, “It all starts with Max.”
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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.