Following yet another interview that included questions about fellow tackle Germain Ifedi, Duane Brown turned to Ifedi, who was seated a few lockers away, and joked he was going to have to fine the third-year tackle for making him answer so many questions.
This has become something of a new normal for Seattle's offensive line, which six games into the season has become one of the best stories of this Seahawks season.
"You guys running out of questions or something?" center Justin Britt asked sarcastically when a reporter approached with a similar line of questioning to what he had just heard.
For more than a month now, offensive linemen aren't being asked to explain why Russell Wilson keeps getting sacked, or why the running game isn't working; instead they're being asked about how well they've been playing.
"We feel great about the way that they're playing," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "… There's an attitude there. The offensive linemen give us an attitude—the way that they play, the way that D.J. Fluker prepares, the way he plays on gameday. The way Justin Britt is, Duane Brown, those guys give us an attitude that I think is infectious in our group. Like I've said before, they're always on me about running the ball. Normally you get coaches that kind of give you ideas. It's our players that when they come back after a touchdown drive, 'hey don't forget, run the ball.' I think that's pretty cool. It's the buy-in, it's the belief in themselves but there's an attitude there with those guys."
The reason the Seahawks linemen keep telling their coordinator to call running plays is that they know they can move the ball on the ground, and they've been showing it over their last four games, averaging 157.3 rushing yards per game as the Seahawks have won three of their past four. But the line isn't just thriving in the running game, they're also succeeding in pass protection after Wilson was sacked 12 times in the first two games—though it's worth noting that Wilson as well as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll were quick to point out at the time that not all of those sacks were the line's responsibility. According to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks offensive line ranked first in pass-blocking efficiency from Week 3 to Week 6, allowing 13 pressures in 106 drop backs, and the 36 pressures allowed this season are the fewest in the NFL. And according to ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, Ifedi and Brown are the No. 5 tackle duo in the NFL.
"(The running game) is something offensive linemen pride ourselves on, so it's a great thing to see, and we're just trying to keep it going," Brown said. "And we're blocking for a generational talent in Russell Wilson, so we also really take pride in keeping him clean, allowing him to make plays. When you're able to run the ball and also give him time, we feel like we're a force to be reckoned with."
This level of play is what the Seahawks knew was possible not long after they began working together and under new offensive line coach Mike Solari.
"In the preseason, you saw spurts of what we can do, and the attitude that we had on the O-line with the ones," Britt said. "It was just about finding our identity and building the trust within ourselves. Me trusting the guy to my right and my left, and so on and so on, then the coaches trusting us and believing in the plan that we had."
So how did Seattle's (sometimes unfairly) oft-maligned offensive line go from constant cause of fan consternation to a top-performing unit? As is usually the case in football, there's not one simple explanation, but rather a handful or reasons behind this O-line turnaround. Britt and Brown continue to provide both outstanding play and veteran leadership as the two top returning starters. Around them the Seahawks added help via free agency by signing guards D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy, while at right tackle Ifedi has taken a big step forward in his third season. Add to that a new offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, and a lot of change has all worked together to produce so very encouraging early results.
"Mike is a great ball coach," Carroll said of Solari. "He's got great experience, he has a breadth of experience with numbers of different systems and all that. All through that, Mike and I were together at the 'Niners a million years ago and he was coaching tight ends at the time, but all of the background that he's had has just coalesced into—he's got a great offering. His mentality, the strict system that he runs, the communication system is really tight, and he knows exactly what he wants which is always really valuable and important. He obviously relates really well. He's getting along great with his guys and he's kind of pulled a bunch of guys together and they've really responded to him. He's just a terrific football coach. For us, there's some changes in here from where we've been system-wise, and it was good for us. It was just a good change. It fit our personnel and we were able to take advantage, really, of Mike's background so the whole thing has worked out well for us."
While the results might not have always shown it, the line's turn in the right direction in a lot of ways began around this time last year when the Seahawks traded for Brown, bringing in a Pro-Bowl left tackle to solidify a position that had been somewhat in flux since Russell Okung left in free agency in 2016. Brown has not only come in and played at a Pro-Bowl level, his leadership has also proven valuable, particularly to Ifedi, a Houston native with whom he formed a relationship while he played for the Texans and Ifedi was in college at Texas A&M.
"Germain grew up in the area and knew of Duane as he was a guy playing his position and so he looked up to him," Carroll said. "He was a natural mentor for him. I don't know that they had a great relationship beforehand but there was tremendous respect from Germain's part… Immediately that relationship was obvious. It was just good for Germain to have a guy that's been through it, and also who has a willingness to share his thought and his concerns. It's the thing we talked about, somebody taught us a while back about sharing your scars. He's been through it all and Duane's willing to help a young guy. That just, it was a natural fit for us with some background that helped us out."
And if anything has served as a symbol for the improvement the entire line has made, it has been the play of Ifedi this season. After starting his season with perhaps the toughest test possible for a tackle—back-to-back games blocking Denver's Von Miller and Chicago's Khalil Mack—Ifedi has settled in and played a very high level after some mixed results during a 2017 season in which he led the NFL in penalties.
"I said it before the season, I expected a big year from him," Brown said of Ifedi. "He has always had the tools to be successful, it's just a combination of him just preparing a little bit differently with another year of experience, and just playing with more confidence. He has confidence in his ability, he has confidence in his preparation, and you can see him having a lot of fun out there.
"The first few weeks, he had the toughest schedule of any tackle in the league, and I think he held his own. Obviously those guys are going to make their plays, but he didn't have bad games, and since then, he has been one of the best in my opinion, so it's great to see that, and I think he'll only get better. I'm looking forward to it."
Brown knows more than most what Ifedi has gone through over the past couple of years, playing a very difficult position while dealing with the expectations that come with being a first-round pick. While Brown is now a four-time Pro-Bowler and regarded as one of the best left tackles in the league, he too went through some struggles early in his career.
"It's very hard," Brown said. "That tackle position, it's an island out there, and the transition from the college game to the NFL is so different. Everyone in the NFL is good, even guys you've never heard of before. So you have your growing pains. I had my growing pains and my first couple of years were rough, and I was able to fight through it. That's something I've been able to share with him and relate to him, and I think he has taken every piece of advice I've been able to give to him and apply it. I'm looking forward to what he can continue to do."
Much of Ifedi's improvement is the result of his own hard work and the experience that comes with two years of starting in the NFL, but he also credits Brown and the leadership he brought upon arriving in Seattle last year.
"Duane is as good of a veteran offensive tackle as you're going to find in this league," Ifedi said. "He's seen it all, done it all, heard it all, experienced it all as far as playing offensive line in the NFL, on and off the field. So he's just a steadying force. He just gives you genuine perspective on how things are week in and week out."
Having already known Brown and spent some time with him in Houston, Ifedi was "really excited" when he found out the Seahawks traded for the Pro-Bowl left tackle last season.
"He's one of those guys you just know is ready to give knowledge and really help you grow," Ifedi said. "He knows his job is not just, 'I'm coming here to lead by example, do my job and leave.' He's going to stay here—we sat here two hours after practice talking, talking about ball, other things in life. He's always there for you, 12 at night I text him, he texts right back. He has been great for our offensive line, and he's helped steady us and help us get continuously better since he got here."
Ifedi insists his only focus this season is on doing his job and getting better, not of proving his doubters wrong.
"I come here to do my job and play ball. I'm not here to prove the doubters wrong, not out to prove the supporters right, I'm just out to set the goals and do those goals I set, and if I do that, I'll sleep well at night," he said. "… People feel how they want to feel, good bad and indifferent, so you just keep doing your thing, doing your job, working your craft, and I'm usually pretty happy about it."
But if Ifedi and the rest of the line continue to play at this level, there won't be many doubters left by the end of the season.
Starting with Sunday's game against the Lions in Detroit, the Seahawks will wear a patch on their jerseys honoring club owner Paul G. Allen, who died last week from complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.