We’re talking about a great offensive line, of course.
If Russell Okung, who injured his ankle in practice Thursday, misses the game in Dallas on Sunday, the Seahawks will end up starting undrafted players at the tackle spots and center, with a seventh-round conversion at right guard and a second-round reach at left guard.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have invested three first-round picks in their line over the last five drafts, and they lucked into a potential first-rounder when rookie La’el Collins went undrafted due to a murder case he was peripherally attached to.
The Cowboys won a recruiting war for Collins, adding him to an already stacked line that includes left tackle Tyron Smith, the No. 9 pick in the 2011 draft; center Travis Frederick, the No. 31 pick in 2013; right guard Zack Martin, the No. 16 pick in 2014; and veteran right tackle Doug Free.
“They’ve put their money in it. They’ve got three No. 1s playing there, those guys are all terrific football players,” Pete Carroll said. “Tyron was a guy that we loved coming up; he’s a fantastic athlete at the spot. And Zack’s terrific; it’s just a really good group. I think that they made a commitment to it and they’re benefiting from it. I don’t know if they’re the best one — we won’t see everybody particularly – but they’re as good as we’re going to see all year long.”
That group (minus Collins) helped the Cowboys beat the Seahawks in Seattle last season, and they have been playing well this year, too, even though they have been without their top skill players from 2014: quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant have been injured and running back DeMarco Murray is in Philadelphia.
Even without them, Dallas has the No. 4 run-blocking line, per Football Outsiders – although the Cowboys rank seventh in rushing at 127.7 yards per game.
They are coming off a 232-yard rushing game in a 27-20 loss to the New York Giants. Darren McFadden ran for 152 yards on 29 carries (so much for former Seahawk Christine Michael getting a lot of action).
“I thought we did a really good job controlling the line of scrimmage and really controlling the game because of our ability to run the football,” coach Jason Garrett said this week. “Each of those guys is a part of it. I think we’ve gotten better and better as the year’s gone on.
“No unit works harder than that offensive line group. So we love to have those guys and they’ll continue to lead our team really by example and by the work that they put in each and every day. I thought it was good to get them going in that game against the Giants the other day, and hopefully we can continue to build on that.”
They haven’t been as good in the passing game, though, ranking just 20th, per Football Outsiders. But Seattle pass rusher Michael Bennett, coming off a 3.5-sack game, is not taking that for granted.
“I think they’ve got a good line,” Bennett said. “I think (owner Jerry Jones) did a good job drafting a whole bunch of guys that can understand the system. They’ve got a lot of Pro Bowlers, and it’s one of the best offensive lines in the game.
“It’s one of those games when you get challenges as a defensive line to see where you’re at as a team and it’s going to be a great challenge. (Tyron Smith is) a great tackle, Martin’s a great guard, Frederick is a great center, and then you’ve got the other two. They’re pretty good too.”
The Seahawks would love to have that quality of line. It’s not like they haven’t tried. They drafted Okung sixth overall in 2010 and added James Carpenter in the first round in 2011, John Moffitt in the third round in 2011 and Justin Britt in the second round in 2014.
The problem: The latter three all were reaches at those points, as the Seahawks have found themselves drafting too deep to get quality linemen and other teams have been just as desperate and have ben reaching as well.
Tom Cable, Seattle’s line coach, has lamented the lack of quality offensive linemen in college these days, and – given the Seahawks’ inability to secure quality rookies – he has preferred to build his own linemen out of the draft crumbs he has gotten.
The Seahawks have lost three veteran linemen over the last two years – right tackle Breno Giacomini last year and James Carpenter and center Max Unger this year – but it’s not like those guys had made Seattle a great line. Unger had not been able to stay healthy, and the Seahawks felt fine going with a young player at center in exchange for having tight end Jimmy Graham.
It hasn’t worked great so far. The Seahawks are last in the league in pass protection, having surrendered a league-worst 31 sacks.
The Seahawks are No. 9 in run blocking, but their rushing game is second in the league (143.3 ypg) because Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls have made a lot of people miss.
“I’m excited about the way we’re running the ball,” Carroll said. “The consistency is showing up. And we’re coming off the football with the attitude that we like and the speed that we like, and that’s showing some consistency.
“Again, brand-new test this week. We’ll see if we can keep it going. … You go back three or four games here we’ve been running the ball very consistently, so I’m hoping that we can just keep adding to that and feeding off of that.”
If Okung is out Sunday, Alvin Bailey – who gave up two sacks at right tackle vs. San Francisco – would start at left tackle. He would join fellow undrafted center Drew Nowak/Patrick Lewis and right tackle Garry Gilliam on a Seattle line that has averaged seven starting combinations a year under Carroll.
The Seahawks have started two quintets this season, with center being the only change. But the inexperience and relative lack of talent has really affected the offense’s ability to become consistent.
Carroll knew it would take time for this youthful group to come together.
“I didn’t want it to take us halfway through the season,” he said. “But we have run the ball better in the last few weeks, and you can tell that we’re improving. So we’re going to try to build on that, and hopefully turn it this game again and play another good football game up front, and get us going. There’s a real sense and a confidence that we’re feeling the running game the way we want it.
“So we’ll see where it goes. But we did go through that. And it was really obvious that it took a long time. So we’ve gone through some growing pains and hopefully we can get out of it.”