Midseason Report Card for Seahawks' Oft-Criticized Offensive Line

With the Seahawks off this week on bye and the club's regular season at the halfway point, it is a logical time for midseason grades.

Each position is assigned a classic "A-F" grade as is each individual player. A's are rewarded for exemplary Pro Bowl-caliber play. B's are given for very good to good play - better than the league average. C's are given for average play and D's for significantly below average play. Failing grades are reserved for players who, frankly, shouldn't be on the roster. 

The quarterbacks, running backsfullbacks and tight ends were graded earlier. Next up is the offensive line - the group most blame for Seattle's disappointing first half. Does the OL really deserve the blame and if so, who individually, is most at fault?

Offensive Line:  There are two very simple statistics to point out when beginning any conversation about the Seahawks offensive line in 2015 -- Sacks Allowed and Rushing Yards gained.  Critics are quick to point out that Seattle ranks dead last in the NFL in pass protection with 31 sacks of Russell Wilson. If the offensive line is most to blame for these struggles, then at least some of the credit for the Seahawks' No. 2 rated rushing attack (averaging 139.5 yards per game) should go to Seattle's front five - especially given that Thomas Rawls (376 yards) and not All-Pro Marshawn Lynch (375) is currently the club's leading rusher.

To properly assess Seattle's offensive line, one must acknowledge the extra time Wilson routinely takes before throwing or running. For every brilliant play the improvisational savant makes, there are multiple pressures (and sacks) he brings upon himself by hanging on to the ball rather than getting it out quickly as many of the NFL's top passing attacks - like the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers - attempt to do.

Some evidence of this can be found in the success that former Seahawks offensive lineman have enjoyed elsewhere. Max Unger is back to playing at a Pro Bowl level for the New Orleans Saints. James Carpenter, commonly derided by Seattle fans in the past, has quietly proven one of this year's biggest free agent bargains for the NY Jets, as Breno Giacomini was for the same team a year ago.

Seattle's best offensive lineman has been and remains left tackle Russell Okung. At 6-5, 310 pounds, Okung has prototypical length, balance and power to compete for Pro Bowl accolades on a yearly basis. That said, it's no guarantee that Seattle will retain Okung after this season, the last year of his rookie contract. Longtime Seahawks fans know all too well that Okung has struggled with durability throughout his career, missing at least one game in all six seasons he's been in the NFL.

It doesn't help Okung's negotiations that his replacement - Alvin Bailey - enjoyed a solid game at left tackle in Seattle's Week Eight win over Greg Hardy and the Dallas Cowboys. At 6-3, 320 pounds, Bailey doesn't possess Okung's height but he has disproportionately long arms (34 3/4") and surprisingly quick feet, which help him corral edge rushers. Bailey is very physical and can be Seattle's most aggressive blocker, traits that have made him effective at guard throughout his career, as well. However, he's proven prone to mental lapses, too often playing to the level of his competition.

For whatever reason, Justin Britt has become a popular whipping boy for Seattle's fans. Like Bailey, Britt is very physical and has shown the ability to play inside and out. This versatility and Britt's sustained intensity have made him a favorite of Tom Cable and the rest of Seattle's coaching staff.  At 6-6, 325 pounds, Britt's frame would appear better suited outside at tackle and it remains possible that he'll be moved back there in the future. His height makes him susceptible to shorter, quicker defensive tackles, especially in pass protection. Aaron Donald, arguably the game's best most disruptive defensive tackle, was almost an unfair matchup for Britt in his first regular season start of the year but Seattle's second-year pro has fared much better in pass protection since. Further, many of Seattle's best runs this season, however, have come behind Britt. Debate all you'd like as to where he fits best, but Britt, at least in my opinion, is Seattle's second-best offensive lineman behind only Okung.

It is perhaps ironic that Drew Nowak has been a "weak" link up front for the Seahawks because his strength is his calling card. Nowak generates impressive power as a run blocker and can anchor against the bull rush. He's not particularly light on his feet, however, and has struggled to sustain blocks in both pass protection and in the running game. As the year has gone on Nowak has improved in his recognition of defenses, in making line calls and with his accuracy on shotgun snaps. However, Nowak has made the most (and most glaring) mistakes among Seattle's offensive linemen this season.

Because of Nowak's miscues, Seattle's offensive line actually got a boost, at times, when backup Patrick Lewis received snaps and he received the start against the Carolina Panthers. Lewis is the more athletic and aggressive but at just 6-1, 311 pounds, he isn't as big or functionally strong as the 6-3, 292 pound Nowak. Lewis suffered injuries to his ankle and knee against the Panthers, pushing Seattle to sign Lemuel Jeanpierre, who has good strength and the awareness to help in pass protection but doesn't have ideal agility or balance.

Perhaps no one on Seattle's offensive line better encapsulates the growing pains of melding three new starters than right guard J.R. Sweezy, who for most of the year has been sandwiched between newbies Nowak and right tackle Garry Gilliam. When blocking man to man or asked to pull and block on the move, Sweezy has generally shown the same impressive combination of power and athleticism that initially excited the Seahawks. He's been caught flat-footed at times but hasn't been helped by the wide arc Gilliam has allowed in pass protection, leaving Sweezy with a lot of space to cover.  

Gilliam's light feet and length make him better able to slow down speed rushers than Britt, and it is this advantage in pass protection which is why he earned the starting right tackle role in training camp. However, while Seattle gained athleticism on the perimeter with Gilliam over Britt (or Bailey), the club lost strength and nastiness at the point of attack with "power" ends feasting on the first-year pro. Simply put, Gilliam is the weakest of Seattle's offensive linemen, too often "catching" opponents than then controlling them. He's struggled to pin defenders inside to create rushing lanes on the perimeter. Further, he lacks the jolt in his hands and leg drive to consistently push opponents off the line of scrimmage.

Seattle's rookie offensive linemen - Mark Glowinski and Kristjan Sokoli - are projects who haven't seen the field. Barring injuries to others or Seattle falling out of the playoff chase in the second half, they likely won't play significant time this season.  

Since a tough start against the Rams in the opener, Seattle's offensive line has shown solid improvement over the first eight games with the unit enjoying its best performance of the year in the Week Eight win over Dallas. The frenetic style that makes Wilson and Lynch so effective will continue to make Seattle's offensive line look as though they're struggling more than they really are. 

Russell Okung Grade:  B

Justin Britt Grade:  C+

Drew Nowak Grade: D

J.R. Sweezy: C

Garry Gilliam Grade: C-

Alvin Bailey: C

Patrick Lewis: C-

Lemuel Jeanpierre: C

Overall Position Grade: C-

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