Max protection: Unger makes a difference

Max Unger sets up in pass protection vs. Carolina as Russell Wilson receives the center's snap (Seahawks.com)
Max Unger sets up in pass protection vs. Carolina as Russell Wilson receives the center’s snap (Seahawks.com)

Max matters.

Just ask Russell
Wilson and Pete
Carroll. Oh, and the stats.

In Seattle’s 31-17 playoff win over Carolina, center Max Unger returned from a six-game absence and helped the Seahawks’ offense surpass 30 points for just the fifth time this season while leading a line that protected Wilson as well as it had since the first month of the season.

And Unger survived a scare when he got his just-healed ankle rolled up on late in the game.

“I’m excited to have Max Unger back in there,” Wilson said after the game. “… Max Unger played a phenomenal game tonight. ”

Carroll wasn’t quite as effusive, but he was pleased to have the former All-Pro center back and knows he will only get better.

“He was real solid — pass protection was really good,” Carroll said, referencing the fact that Wilson was hit just twice — one of the cleanest games the Hawks have had up front all season.

“Our consistency, just like we had hoped, was there, along with the communication,” the coach said. “So it was a good start back for him. He hadn’t played in a long time, so you have to kick the rust off a little bit.”

Unger missed 10 games this season with foot and ankle injuries, and the offense missed him — particularly during his four-game absence in the first half of the season.

With and without Unger

In the first four games, before he got hurt, the Hawks gave up just 10 hits on Wilson and the offense surpassed 200 rushing yards twice. Meanwhile, Wilson hit 66.1 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and just one interception, good for a 106 passer rating. The Hawks went 3-1 to start the season.

But Unger got hurt in the Monday night win against Washington in Week 5, and Wilson and the offense went in the tank for the next four games.

Wilson was hit 21 times and completed just 56.5 percent of his passes, with just three TDs, two interceptions and a rating of 76.4. And the Hawks dropped two of the four.

Unger returned against the New York Giants in Week 10 and spearheaded a franchise-record 350-yard rushing day. The Hawks also went over 200 rushing yards against Kansas City, but Unger was injured again late in that game.

The final six games were challenging as the Hawks went with Patrick Lewis and Lemuel Jeanpierre at center and the line gave up 39 hits, including 22 sacks. Wilson completed 64 percent of his passes, but he threw just seven TD passes as the passing game played second fiddle to the dominant defense and rushing attack.

But then Unger came back vs. Carolina, and the Hawks — with their starting five in place for the first time since Week 5 — looked like they had in the first month of the season. Wilson hit 68.2 percent of his passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

The Hawks weren’t able to get the running game going against a Carolina defense that sold out to stop it — just 100 yards on 28 carries — but Unger settled a line that had struggled to give Wilson time for most of the season.

Now, the Hawks need to hope the center can stay healthy for two more games — and next season, to boot.

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