Seahawks reveal a hand rich with suddenly well-polished rookies
by Art Thiel
Marshawn Lynch and Seahawk fans shook the seisometers during the 2011 playoff game against New Orleans. Credit: KellBailey (Kelly Bailey)/Flickr
The spectacle of 49ers demolition Sunday was of a breadth and depth that caused some lesser deeds and feats by the Seahawks to go under-appreciated. Such as getting away with starting two more rookies in the crucible.
Offensive guard J.R. Sweezy and cornerback Jeremy Lane were injury replacements for more accomplished starters. Couldn't tell. Or, if San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh could tell, he has not, among his splutters, mumblings and grunts post-game, disclosed the fact.
For the unfamiliar, Lane was a sixth-round draft choice from obscure Northwestern State, a little Division 1 Football Subdivision school in Natchitoches, La. Sweezy was picked after him, picked in the seventh and final round from the more notable North Carolina State. Still, he was a defensive lineman until he was baptized to the organized side of the game in spring.
Preposterously, Sweezy started the first game of his pro career, the 20-16 loss at Arizona. His play, by his own admission, was so grim that he was hardly seen any more of this season until a recent resurfacing.
"It’s amazing I was in position to play [the opener]," Sweezy said Wednesday. "Now, knowing so much more, I look back on that film [of the Arizona game], and say, 'if I knew then what I know now . . .' A world of difference. It wasn’t so much the physical part. I could handle that. It was the movement, and what my job was. I look back on my notes and it looks like a different language. I don’t even understand some of it. So much is different, it’s unbelievable."
Long a proponent of force-feeding young players, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll now admits he nearly choked the kid. QB Russell Wilson is one thing; at least he played his position his entire football career. In his first NFL game, Sweezy was asked to start and play backward.
"It was too much, the first Cardinals game," Carroll said Wednesday. "The [Cardinals defenders] were all over the place. They made it as hard as it possibly could on him, and he struggled because of it."
"J.R. sat out a long time. It was almost like when guys go through their first year and they come back after the off-season, they see things so much more clearly. He had the benefit of that. He had to wait it out, but he has made a big improvement. He had the most to improve, because he was on the other side of the ball."
Sweezy will start again Sunday at the Clink in the regular-season finale against St. Louis, and maybe the playoffs as well. The two vets ahead of him, James Carpenter and John Moffitt, can't seem to stay healthy. Meanwhile, Sweezy will be playing alongside two newly minted Pro Bowlers — left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger, who were among five Seahawks Wednesday named to the NFC's 43-player all-star team.
Given the recognitions and the recent team accomplishments — 150 points in three consecutive games, numbers unseen in the NFL since before the Korean War — a strong case can be made that a preseason question mark and has been straightened into an exclamation point.
"For us to have that kind of game [against the 49ers], was phenomenal," said Okung, a man of few adjectives, or words of any category. "When we move ball on guys like that, it makes it even better. They’re a great defense."
Okung said that an obscure feature of this line, adaptability, has been crucial.
"That’s what makes our line so great," he said. "During training camp, [line coach] Tom Cable showed he's great at teaching, and rotating different players into different spots, in case things happen during the season, which they always do. Guys hopefully can take the next step."
Sweezy appears to have done so, because, despite being 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, he's sufficiently athletic — "He's the fastest [lineman] we have, and is ridiculously strong for his weight," Carroll said — to rate serious consideration for Sweezer as the permanent starter next season, not just an emergency fill-in.
"It was just a matter of how far he could come along and how fast," Carroll said. "Since then, he’s settled down. The game has slowed down. The communications make more sense to him now, and he’s made great improvements with a tremendous amount still ahead. We think he’s going to be a real exciting player as he grows into it."
The other newbie, Lane, had, like Sweezy, one start before the Niners game — the week before against Buffalo, plus special-teams work. Thrown into a secondary pickled with injuries and a suspension for Brandon Browner — a second suspension, for Richard Sherman, could come as soon as Thursday — Lane had four tackles and helped to confine the 49ers to 231 yards net passing, the longest 35 yards.
"He’s got really, really big time speed," Carroll said. "If you look at the [second-quarter] throw to [SF wide receiver] Randy Moss, he makes a tremendous burst to get back in that play, in the back of the end zone [a near-pick]. On the first play of the game, he had another look at it too."
“It doesn’t matter where he came from. That has no bearing on anything at all. Once they’re out here with us, they’re all the same. Jeremy might have been hampered a little bit, draft-wise, because of [a slower time in the 40-yard dash]. I think he’s a 4.3-second guy."
So while considering Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, et al, to hail for the Seahawks' burst to NFL eminence, it is also worth tracking the obscure. A hallmark of nearly every successful team is finding treasure deep in the draft where others see tripe and travail.
Much as Native Americans knew with the buffalo, every part is precious.