One of my biggest pet peeves in life, and there are many, is sports clichés. Most of them tend to be based on fragments of facts that may or may not be true and they are repeated over and over to the point that they merely fill space as opposed to offering any kind of insight. I am not making this point because I am on the verge of a ranting article about some of the things that sports commentator say that drive me crazy. Someday I may write that article. In fact, someday I probably will. What compels me to write this piece today is the fact I have actually found a cliché worth contemplating and investigating. You often hear about strength up the middle in every sport from football to hockey to baseball. I think the importance of strength up the middle or building from the inside out varies from sport to sport, but the more I thought about it the more I think it applies to the Seahawks this year. “Up the Middle” positions on defense, DT, MLB and S, factor on every play either by attacking the pocket or by ranging sideline to sideline and without them a defense can be worn down by bruising inside runs as well as TE seam routes. On Offense these up the middle men are the center, the quarterback, and the backfield. The 2012 Seahawks blueprint calls a power running game, efficient passing and stuffing the run on defense to make offenses one-dimensional. As such I thought I’d evaluate the Seahawks up the middle talent to see if they have the personnel for this strategy, starting with the offense.
Center- Max Unger
When Unger started all 16 games as a rookie in 2009 at right guard, reviews were mixed. It is always impressive to see a rookie come in and establish himself as a starter immediately but Unger seemed to lack strength and looked over matched in many games. Unger missed all of 2010 save one game but came back strong last year. Returned to his natural center position Unger looked beyond competent and seemed to be a totally new player. This off season the Seahawks rewarded him with a multi-year extension and clearly see him as a core player. So do I. If the Seahawks are going to roll with an undersized quarterback they will need an interior line that can keep passing lanes open. Unger can do that and is someone who the fans should be comfortable with at center for years to come.
Quarterback- Russell Wilson
Most things I’ve said about Wilson in the past have raised the ire of people around here so I’ll keep it short. Wilson is talented and athletic and seems to have rare poise for a rookie QB. He may be the “quarterback of the future” this franchise so desperately needs. He may not be. It’s too early to make a definitive judgment either way. Of all the players I will discuss in this article Wilson is the biggest question mark, through no fault of his own. Time will tell.
In today’s passing heavy NFL the lead-blocking fullback is something of a dinosaur. However, like many Seahawks fans that enjoyed Mack Strong for so many years, I continue to live in the past. I love the old-school I-Formation power runs and Robinson is one of the best at leading the way. Robinson was a Pro Bowler last year and appears to be a leader on this team despite the fact he only ran for 7 yards last year. He’s one of those players whose value is pretty difficult to quantify but I’m pretty sure Marshawn Lynch would tell you that this guy is plenty valuable. That’s not even mentioning special teams contributions. My one complaint about Robinson’s game is that the Seahawks don’t use enough trick plays involving his passing ability. Hard to blame Robinson for that though.
Running Back- Marshawn Lynch
What is there to say that hasn’t been said? Lynch is everything you want in a power back and more. When running backs are said to “punish” defenses it is always a hyperbole unless it is being said about Lynch. There is no need to gush further except to say that Lynch fits this team perfectly and there is nothing to worry about at the RB position.
The offense is pretty set up the middle, but what about the defensive unit that has been so stellar so far?
Defensive Tackle- Brandon Mebane
Mebane is the sort of player you plug in your lineup and forget about. After a sophomore season that saw him rack up 5.5 sacks it looked like Mebane was on the way up as a pass rushing tackle but that never really ended up being his niche. Instead Mebane has settled in as an all-around DT who is more of a pocket collapser than a pass rusher per se. Mebane is unlikely to put up big numbers individually but he can help other defensive lineman by wreaking havoc on the other side of the line of scrimmage both in run support and in terms of pushing the pocket. At 27, the recently re-signed Mebane has a lot to offer the Seahawks over the next few years.
Defensive Tackle- Alan Branch
Impending free agent Alan Branch is possibly the most underrated player on the Seahawks defense. Branch is a dominant run-stuffer and if the Seahawks fail to resign him this off season they may see their success against the run suffer into the future. Branch registered 3 sacks last year but that’s not his job. The 6-6 324 pound defensive tackle is built to stop the run and there are very few people who can do it as well as him. At 27 he has good years ahead if the Seahawks should choose to resign him.
Middle Linebacker- Bobby Wagner
The 2012 second round pick out of Utah State has looked the part of a starting MLB in the NFL so far. He isn’t huge but he is fast and hasn’t made many rookie mistakes just yet. Much like Russell Wilson he has not played enough for us to have a complete read on him but I’m inclined to believe the kid can play until proven otherwise. The last time the Seahawks drafted a 2nd round MLB who started right away that seemed to go alright….Linebacker is a position where rookies tend to be able to contribute and we are seeing that from Wagner so far.
Strong Safety- Kam Chancellor
Full disclosure: Kam Chancellor is my favourie Seahawk. The way he brutalized the Cowboys receiving core last week was a sight to behold. Chancellor combines vicious, violent and borderline illegal hits with responsible coverage that sees him get burned deep far less than one would think for a player his size whose straight line speed doesn’t compete with top receivers in this league. Chancellor went to the Pro Bowl last year and could end up becoming a perennial Pro Bowler if he keeps up his play. Even if he doesn’t he will be a rock solid contributor who is an essential partner in possibly the best safety tandem in the NFL.
Free Safety- Earl Thomas
Not only is Thomas a Pro Bowler but he might well be the best player on the Seahawks. Thomas’s expansive range covers for the mistakes of an aggressive secondary and prevents opposing offenses from beating the Seahawks deep. Thomas is also a strong tackler who throws the occasional highlight reel hit in for variety. I would be surprised to see him reach the Pro Bowl any less than five times in his career. At 23 he is already a franchise cornerstone, one of very few safeties who can say that. There is no player on this list I am more confident in my praise of than Mr. Thomas. He has started 34 games in a row and Seahawks fans should hope that he can draw that streak out to Cal Ripken-esque proportions.
Overall it appears that if strength up the middle is important to success in the NFL then the Seahawks are in good shape, not only now but into the future. The oldest player on this list is Michael Robinson at 29 and Alan Branch is the only one with a contract expiring soon. As such, it appears that the literal core of the Seahawks is both stable and promising. Unfortunately there are premium positions that are ignored by this analysis: OT, DE, CB (to be fair there are very few complaints here) and WR, but for a physical run-first team it is encouraging to know that these Seahawks can enforce their will between the hash marks.