Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is running for his life these days.
It happened on Friday night against the Vikings, who chased him down four times for sacks in just five possessions. While it was only a preseason game, it might be a dangerous glimpse into what 2016 could offer for a Seahawks offense that has disintegrated around its quarterback.
Coach Pete Carroll suggested Friday that Wilson could get the ball out quicker. He isn’t wrong. Wilson has shown in his short career a penchant for scrambling, sometimes unnecessarily. He has at times fallen into panic mode when a go-to target such as tight end Jimmy Graham or running back Marshawn Lynch is covered and the pocket begins to collapse. His legs can buy him time, but sometimes that’s all they do.
In the middle of last season, just after Graham and Lynch were essentially finished for the season due to injury, Wilson started to morph into a new kind of pocket passer. Without an established No. 1 target, he started to work progressions with a new sense of determination.
He finished the regular season with 24 touchdowns and only 1 interception over his final seven games. Seattle went 6-1 in those games to earn the final playoff seed in the NFC at 10-6. Wilson became the first quarterback in league history to string together five straight games with at least three passing touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 125 or better.
In hindsight, the streak had a down side. The rise of Wilson, just as his targets were diminishing, gave the impression that he can win with just about anyone around him. And so this offseason, aside from rehabbing Graham back to form, Seattle did almost nothing to improve the offense. In fact, the organization let it disintegrate a little more.
The Seahawks let powerful right guard J.R. Sweezy depart for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They said goodbye to talented left tackle Russell Okung, who then signed for no guaranteed money in Denver.
Those two were the best players of an offensive line last season that quietly excelled along with Wilson down the stretch. The unit finished as the fourth-best run-blocking line in the league, according to FootballOutsiders.com. It was a big reason undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls was able to lead the league in yards per carry after taking over for Lynch as the featured back.
It wasn’t a perfect unit, as it still struggled with pass protection at times, particularly on the interior. But it was an ascending group that was starting to find some consistency.
Now, coach Tom Cable’s group is hardly recognizable. Garry Gilliam, the unit’s weakest starter at right tackle last year, will now command Okung’s old post on the left side. The left guard spot will either belong to an aging Jahri Evans or Mark Glowinski, who appeared in just one game as a fourth-round rookie last year. Center Justin Britt is on his third starting position in three years. First-round pick Germain Ifedi looks to be the man at right guard after he spent his last season at Texas A&M playing right tackle. The final spot on the right side is J’Marcus Webb’s to lose. He has amounted to little more than a journeyman in his first six seasons, having played for three other teams.
The Seahawks have made a recent tradition out of watching their linemen depart, from shipping two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger to the Saints in the Graham trade to letting former first-round guard James Carpenter leave for New York and become a standout with the Jets. The Seahawks have shown more interest in protecting the league’s best defense; they rank 29th in the NFL in offensive spending.
They’ve long asked Wilson to work with whatever is there on offense, and he’s done so with a special skill set that lends itself to improvisation. He’s a mobile quarterback with the strength to absorb hits and the awareness avoid many more of them, which is how he’s started all 64 games in his young pro career. With Lynch in the backfield, Wilson engineered a lethal option game that created more than enough scoring to power the Seahawks to two straight Super Bowl appearances.
Last year, Wilson elevated the talent around him better than he ever has, but time will tell if he can replicate that kind of exceptional play. The Wilson who scrambles in and out and then back into pressure is becoming more prevalent.
This will be the first season that Wilson will find himself both short on offensive line play and without his old battering ram at running back for the first time. If Rawls doesn’t establish himself as a healthy and dominant feature back behind a reworked offensive line, and if Doug Baldwin doesn’t reclaim the No. 1 receiver role he grabbed during Wilson’s hot streak, that much more pressure will fall on the quarterback.
Pressure is what Seattle is asking for by continually requiring Wilson to work with less.