When Russell Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse for a 9-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was easy to notice the accurate throw, the timing, the sure-handed catch, and even the precise route run by Kearse and realize it was a well-executed play.
But those things were just the beginning of what made that play one of the best moment of an outstanding offensive performance by the Seahawks. What made that play a successful one started before the ball was ever snapped, with the line recognizing a blitz and making the necessary adjustments. For right guard J.R. Sweezy, that meant picking up Sean Spence, Pittsburgh's blitzing linebacker, rather than Stephon Tuitt, the defensive end lined up across from him. And if Sweezy was letting Tuitt go, that meant right tackle Garry Gilliam had to take Tuitt, leaving outside linebacker Bud Dupree unaccounted for on the edge. And that's where rookie running back Thomas Rawls fit into the equation, picking off a pass-rushing linebacker who outweighs him by 54 pounds.
Had anything gone wrong up to that point—the Seahawks not recognizing the blitz, Sweezy and Gilliam not making the proper adjustments, Rawls not being able to hold up as a blocker—then Kearse wouldn't have had time to run that double-move and Wilson would have either been hit before making the touchdown pass, or had to bail out of the pocket and improvise if he had been able to avoid the blitz.
"J.R. and Garry gap down inside, and Thomas came off the edge and smoked that guy, and (Wilson) threw a touchdown," offensive line coach Tom Cable said. "It's like, 'That's pass protection.' They're on the same page, everybody targeted it right, (Wilson) threw it on time, (Kearse) ran the right route… You just look at that whole picture and say, 'No one's perfect, but that's kind of a perfect moment right there for a lot of people—the route, the throw, the protection, the pickup, the whole thing.' That was pretty cool."
The play described by Cable was just one of Wilson's five touchdown passes on an afternoon when, for the second week in a row, a lot more went well for the offense than it had in previous games. The Seahawks scored 39 points, went 4 for 4 in the red zone and were 7 for 13 on third down, including five conversion of third-and-10 or longer.
A huge part of the growth of the offense has been the improvement of the offensive line, which struggled to protect Wilson early in the season, allowing 31 sacks in the first seven games, but has been considerably better of late, giving up six sacks in four games. The Seahawks have also made a concerted effort to get the ball out more quickly when throwing since their bye, because, as offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell notes, "we were taking sacks at an alarming rate." The Seahawks have run the ball pretty well all season—they currently rank second in the league at 142.2 rushing yards per game—but now the passing game is taking off, the offense has been at its best over the past two games.
"It's exciting, because I think style wise and everything, we're more who we should be and can be and need to be for (Wilson)," Cable said. "He's a special quarterback, and when you do it right for him… I really love what we've done in terms of moving in a direction that kind of accentuates his strengths, which I think helps everybody.
"I just think it's a cool group effort. This is one of the funnest things I've got to watch develop in my career is a group of offensive players kind of collectively take on this responsibility, and it's showing up across the board."
While Cable is quick to give credit to the offense as a whole for the recent improvement, it is his position group more than any that has helped spur the improvement with its growth. Cable saw tremendous potential in his line back in camp, even when people wondered what such a young and inexperienced group might be able to accomplish with so little experience together, and while it hasn't gone exactly according to plan—there was that whole "taking sacks at an alarming rate" thing, and a change was made at center, going from Drew Nowak to Patrick Lewis—the line is now starting to reward the confidence Cable showed in it from the beginning. And even if Cable doesn't want to pat himself on the back for the offense's marked improvement, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been happy to do so, gushing about the improved line play whenever other topics about the offense are brought up.
Yes Russell Wilson has been phenomenal in the past two games, and yes, as Carroll has noted, Wilson is the best he has been in his career as a pocket passer, but none of that shows up on gameday if there isn't a pocket from which Wilson can function. And when he has been asked recently about the improvements on third down, or in the red zone, Carroll again comes back to the line.
"This has been coming, this was their best game probably protecting the passer against a very difficult group to figure out who's coming, who isn't," Carroll said. "Communication was good, sets were really solid. Russell had a really good pocket and he really took advantage of that. I think this is the culmination of these weeks, and yeah, we are getting better. If you stay at it and you don't change and you don't mess them up, then we should expect them to improve. I think that's what's happened. I'm hoping that we're going to keep going. We're going to rely on the fact that they're improving and they can handle the burden of the challenges and all of that. This is pretty exciting I think, at this point."
"I think the most obvious part of this is really what's going on up front. I think we've just come a long ways, and I think the pocket being so consistently solid for him makes a huge difference. The rhythm, since the break we had, we've really tried to feature a fast rhythm and making sure he's really got a chance to get the ball out fast to keep the pressure off of the guys up front. All of that has happened with more earnest because of how the start was. I think it's a combination, but I really think the guys up front are really improving and that's what's made the difference for us. We're playing off of that."
Yet while for the most part the line's growth has been the result of continuity and growth of that group, one change did help make a difference, with the Seahawks going to Lewis at center. Lewis, who started four games last season, took over the starting role in Week 6, missed two games with an ankle injury, then returned from that injury to start the past three games. The Seahawks liked some of what they saw out of Lewis last season, but there were communication issues to the point that, as Cable noted, he was removed from a couple of games. After losing the battle for the job out of camp, Lewis has improved as a communicator, and now is helping to anchor an improved offensive line.
"He's communicating really well," Carroll said. "He's really taking command of the line of scrimmage. That's exactly the point. He was kind of quiet and didn't assume the responsibility to be verbal and to really reach out. He has done that. Tom pointed it out to him that that's what was holding him back, and he emerged out of that and has become the captain of the front. He's getting it done. We always thought he had the potential, we didn't know if he would tap into it. But he has, so it's obviously been a factor to help us."
Cable joked that to get Lewis communicating better, "I put a quarter in him and he just went off." But kidding aside, Cable has seen growth from Lewis. "He understood that was his issue last year. If you remember last year we put him in some games and actually took him out of the same game because we couldn't get communicated. I think he has owned that. Like everybody, he's developing and took his offseason seriously in what he needed to do, and did it."
Lewis tried to downplay the idea that he has changed drastically in terms of his ability to communicate, but acknowledged, "I guess I'm just louder."
And like Cable, Lewis sees the improvement of the line and the entire offense as a collective effort, not the result of a lineup change at center. "
"I'm just trying to adapt to what they wanted me to do," Lewis said. "We're getting it done together collectively as an offensive unit."