One exhibition season game. Just two drives of that one exhibition, actually.
That’s how long it took for the Seahawks to go to Plan B to fix their biggest issue for 2015: settling on five starters for their offensive line.
Quarterback Russell Wilson got sacked on each of the starters’ two possessions during Friday’s, 22-20, exhibition loss to Denver. In the first practice after that, Seattle had previous starting right tackle Justin Britt starting at left guard Monday. Former backup left tackle and college tight end Garry Gilliam was the starting right tackle.
Drew Nowak, a college defensive lineman who was a practice-squad guard last season, was the first-team center as line coach Tom Cable said this was Nowak’s week. Lemuel Jeanpierre started at center against the Broncos, then the blockers’ chief communicator said afterward he thought the line was slow and needed to communicate better.
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The mixing-and-matching Cable and coach Pete Carroll effectively demoted Alvin Bailey. The previous favorite to be the starting left guard was backing up Russell Okung at left tackle in Monday’s helmet-and-shoulder-pads practice before Friday’s second exhibition game at Kansas City.
“We couldn’t wait too much longer to do this,” Carroll said.
“It’s a really important week for us. We have to make strides. We have to get better. We can’t go out there and struggle early in games and take some hits that we don’t need to take. We’ve got to get off better than that. So we’ll see. We’re going to make it a good, hard week for those guys and really challenge them to elevate their play.”
Britt hasn’t played left guard since his freshman year at Missouri five years ago. But he and Cable talked about this as a potential move back in May around the time Seattle was drafting linemen to potentially replace two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger (traded to New Orleans in March for tight end Jimmy Graham) and departed left guard James Carpenter (to the New York Jets in free agency).
Cable said of last week’s exhibition: “I did not like the pass protection. At all.”
What else is new? The Seahawks have often won in spite of its pass blocking the past two seasons. They’ve relied on and excelled with Wilson’s unique ability to escape charging defenders and make improbable scramble runs and pass completions on plays that weren’t designed to happen the way they often have ended up.
But now they’ve gotten Graham and the potential for a newly reloaded passing game to complement Marshawn Lynch’s power running. If they can give Wilson the time to find him and wide receivers Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and zooming rookie Tyler Lockett, that is.
Britt got beaten outside by the speed of Denver’s Von Miller on the second play of Friday’s exhibition. Miller sacked Wilson and caused a fumble the Broncos recovered at the Seattle 11 for a gift field goal.
Then with the Seahawks driving for a possible touchdown with the first unit on the second drive, right guard J.R. Sweezy got pushed back and Okung got turned around. That sack of Wilson made Seattle settle for a field goal.
Cable said Monday’s moves are more about getting the quick, athletic Gilliam, an undrafted free agent last year out of Penn State and surprise inclusion on the 53-man roster at the end of 2014’s exhibition eason, among the starting five than it is unhappiness with Britt.
Gilliam played right tackle his senior year at Penn State, after three years at tight end. He can run — fast enough to get behind Green Bay’s defenders to catch a touchdown pass from holder Jon Ryan on a fake field goal for Seattle’s first score of January’s NFC Championship Game.
“He’s at 308 (pounds and 6 feet 5), something like that. He’s plenty big enough,” Carroll said of Gilliam. “He looks like the kind of exciting prospect you want for the position. We do cherish guys who get off the ball quickly.
“He had a terrific offseason and has come back firing. He’s smart, he’s athletic, all the good stuff ahead of him. We see a lot of promise in that so we’ll give him a shot.”
It’s been quite an 18 months for Gilliam. Quite a life, actually.
His mother, Thelma Shifflett, raised him and his special needs older brother Victor by herself in the crime-filled Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city. To give Garry a future she didn’t think she could provide as a single mother in such a long-odds place, Shifflett sent Garry away from the Hill when he was 7 years old, away and alone to Milton Hershey School. The cost-free, prekindergarten-through-
12th grade home and school is for children from families of low income.
Gilliam is the second person to make it through both Milton Hershey and college to play in the NFL. Joe Senser graduated from MHS in 1974 and played tight end for the Minnesota Vikings.
“I never forget where I came from,” Gilliam said Monday. “I went to obviously a little boarding school in Hershey, you know, to go to Penn State and be here across the country is huge for me.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to do something, so I’m going to take it.”
Bailey lost 25 pounds to get down to 325 this offseason and onto the inside track to replace Carpenter at left guard. But it now seems the coaches don’t see him as one of their best five linemen.
In some ways, the undrafted free agent in 2013 could be more valuable as the swing backup at tackle, guard and center that he was last season — especially given how fluid this line may prove to be this season.
“He certainly does have value in that regard,” Carroll said. “There are very few guys that can just readily do that. He’s a real bright kid and all. That’s a real plus and all.
“We’re trying to get our best five and see what’s the right combination. When you get down to nine guys or eight guys sometimes during the season, guys have to be flexible.”
Britt started all 16 games at right tackle last season as a rookie second-round pick. He often plowed defenders in run blocking but struggled to be quick enough to get out on faster edge rushers.
Now he will be getting his hands on pass rushers far more quickly immediately after the snap, since his assigned defenders are no longer lining up 3 or 4 yards outside of him.
“It’s quicker. There’s no kick, kick and punch (as there is at tackle),” Britt said.
“We’ll find out what’s the best combination.”
Asked how soon he expects to settle on five starters for the regular season, Cable said: “We think we are really close ... after this week or the middle of next week.”
For Wilson and the passing game, it can’t be soon enough.