RENTON, Wash. – Center Max Unger, a Pro Bowl selection last season, should be able to play Sunday when the Seahawks host Tennessee after missing the past two games with a triceps injury.
And Seahawks coach Pete Carroll hopes that begins to solve what he said Monday was one of the biggest factors in his team’s 34-28 loss at Indianapolis — an inability to convert third downs.
Seattle has played the past two games without three starting offensive linemen and neither left tackle Russell Okung nor right tackle Breno Giacomini is ready to return.
Without those three, Seattle has struggled with pass blocking, which Carroll pointed to as the main reason the Seahawks were able to convert just 2 of 12 third downs against the Colts.
“The last couple of weeks, it really shows that protection issues have been at the root of it,” Carroll said. “There are a number of things we can do better. But the protection issues have made the quarterback move quite a bit, and it hasn’t allowed us to be on time the way we would like.”
Seattle hasn’t been great on third down all year, making just 20 of 65, 30.8 percent, 27th among the 32 NFL teams.
But it has been a particular problem the past two weeks when Seattle has been 5 of 26, beating Houston despite converting just 3 of 14.
“It was drastically different the last couple of weeks with the changes in the offensive line,” said Carroll. “And it’s just hard. They are working hard at it, they are improving, but it’s just a factor.”
Lemuel Jeanpierre started again for Unger, just the third start at center in his career. Paul McQuistan filled in for Okung at left tackle with rookie Michael Bowie replacing Giacomini at right tackle. Carroll indicated that the return of Unger would be the only personnel move for Sunday’s game.
“We just have to be better,” he said.
Seattle worked around the offensive-line issues well enough to gain 423 yards against a defense that entered the game ranked eighth in the NFL. Particularly early in the game, the Seahawks had success with three- and four-receiver sets and a quick passing game.
But as Carroll noted, the options get narrower on third down.
“That’s the most difficult time to pass protect because they know you are going to throw the football, so they give you their best shot,” Carroll said. “Certainly we want to get the ball out quicker and we would like to have him (quarterback Russell Wilson) with his feet set.”
Complicating matters is that on seven of Seattle’s 12 third downs, the Seahawks needed to pick up 8 yards or more.
For the game, Seattle was 1 of 8 passing on third down (converting the first down on a 27-yard pass to Doug Baldwin). Seattle called passes on two other third downs in which Wilson instead scrambled, once picking up 14 yards to convert a third-and-nine.
Statistics from Pro Football Focus illustrated the affect that protection has on Seattle’s passing game. PFF determined that Wilson faced pressure on 22 of 42 called passes.
On plays with no pressure from the pass rush, PFF said, Wilson was 11 of 17 for 150 yards with two touchdowns and a QB rating of 132.0. For the game, Wilson was 15 of 31 for 210 yards — only the fourth time he has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in a game — with a passer rating of 78.7.
Carroll, asked about the play of Wilson and the receivers, said “there is always some stuff” that could be better but that “that’s not the biggest issue right now.”
The most vexing part of Seattle’s third-down problems was the five field-goal attempts they were forced to take on drives to or inside the Indianapolis 30 — three times in the second half.
“We have to really focus in here because what that leaves is field-goal opportunities,” Carroll said. “Third down will be a primary focus this week.”