The Elephant in the Locker Room: Do We Really Need to Talk About the O Line Again?

be-back-smBy Greg Wright

A decidedly strange thing happened in the first quarter of Sunday’s dismal loss to Tampa Bay.

No, it wasn’t the fact that the defense gave up two porous TDs to the opposing team. Been there, seen that. Gave the t-shirt to Value Village.

No, it wasn’t that the Hawks’ offensive went three and out on their opening possession. That’s a pretty frequent occurrence.

The truly strange thing is that the Seahawks benched a player after three plays. For apparently just doing his job. Pete Carroll and Tom Cable even called it a benching after the game, and later during the week.

I’m talking about Garry Gilliam, the erstwhile starter at right tackle. He who managed to hold down the position through an entire season last year, and more than half of this one.

Gilliam, he who on first down Sunday blocked his man on Rawls’ first carry. He who was decidedly not the left tackle who gave up a sack on second down. (That would have been George Fant.) He who was not the right guard who let a man go free on a line stunt up the middle of pocket to pressure Wilson into a bad throw on third down. (That would have been Germain Ifedi.)

But, yes, he who was sent to the the bench nonetheless in favor of Bradley Sowell.

Word on the street is that Sowell and Gilliam had been set to alternate series on Sunday. But what did the coaching staff see that led them to make the move permanent not only for Sunday but for the foreseeable future?

After going over the game film repeatedly, I’m at a loss to explain it. Despite Cable’s assertion to the contrary, I can see nothing exceptional in what Sowell did on the Hawks’ second useless series; he in fact blocked absolutely no one on two of the five plays they ran. The series ended with another sack given up by Fant, but still it’s Gilliam who sits.

I honestly don’t get it.

Protection calls were almost certainly a little off on Sunday, what with Joey Hunt starting in place of Britt at center. But it’s hard to see how Gilliam’s on the hook for that. The line stunt that Tampa Bay employed on both ends–in which both DT and DE crash into the offensive tackle with the DE curling back into the inside using the DT as a lead blocker of sorts–was devastatingly effective on Sunday. In fact, here’s exactly the same stunt in the fourth quarter, with Ifedi and Sowell getting burned in exactly the same way that Ifedi and Gilliam did on the first series:


You can clearly see Ifedi (76) and Sowell engaged with the DT while the DE loops back inside right up the gut at Wilson.

Do you suppose Gilliam took the blame for that one, too?

The common thread on the right side of the line Sunday was not Gilliam, but Ifedi. Numerous times he missed assignments. But Ifedi is the rookie. Gilliam is not. Ifedi is the first-round draft pick, the golden boy of the future. Gilliam is not. Gilliam is an undrafted free agent converted from little-used tight end.

Kinda feels to me like he’s a fall guy. Kinda feels to me like the “competition” at right tackle that Pete and Tom talk about is not whether Gilliam or Sowell will actually play tackle better, but who will be better at holding Ifedi’s hand. As Carroll remarked, about issues of “trust and feel.”

Kinda feels to me like something not quite right. The Hawks do not bench players mid-game for in-game mistakes. There’s no precedent for that. And Gilliam was far from the worst offender on Sunday. I’m getting the impression that Ifedi is not easy to work with, and Gilliam just doesn’t like it.

But let’s also give Tampa Bay credit for a good defensive game plan, and taking advantage of officials. Beyond the stunts that Cable said they expected and had obvious problems with, I’ve noticed in previous games that Seattle’s offensive line also has problems when the D crowds the so-called “neutral zone.” I stopped counting the number of times Tampa Bay was lined up offsides Sunday, and they weren’t called for it once.

Here’s a collection of screen shots of several infractions, which are tipped off by the network’s digitally super-imposed blue line-of-scrimmage marker.

capture capture2 capture3  capture6 capture7 capture8 capture9

Bear in mind that the blue line itself isn’t the issue (since the networks often get the placement of that line of scrimmage wrong by a foot or more).

The issue is that defensive players’ hands and/or heads were regularly lined up over the football–hence a neutral zone infraction, and a defensive penalty.

Apparently, the Bucs’ defensive coordinator has noticed that the extra two- or three-inch advantage gained by crowding the Hawks’ O line foils Tom Cable’s blocking schemes and protection adjustments. And they also noticed (as I have) that officials are not enforcing the rule often this season.

Seattle simply got outcoached by Tampa Bay on Sunday. That’s not on the offensive line, folks.

And it’s certainly not on Gilliam.

John Schneider and Pete Carroll have a history of cutting their losses on bad draft picks and trades. It feels to me like they’re having a hard time finding a tackle who can successfully work with Germain Ifedi. If that’s truly the case, I hope they make a move with Ifedi sooner than later.

I’d sooner have Fant and Gilliam than a first-round guard who can’t figure out a simple line stunt on his own.

Ifedi doesn’t need his hand held. He needs to put on his big-boy pants.

There’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us weekly for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

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