RENTON, Wash. – His locker is located in the corner, which is fitting.
Russell Okung was selected to be a cornerstone at left tackle. A piece of bedrock to build around. That is why the Seahawks chose him with the sixth overall pick in the draft last April, and it’s the reason there is such anticipation for his return from the second ankle injury of the season.
“All of us that have been watching closely thought we saw a little bit different effect when Russell was playing,” coach Pete Carroll said. “So it’s what a really good player should do: He should help guys do well around him.”
Okung has done that. At least he has for the six quarters he has been able to play. On the 48 rushing plays with Okung on the field, Seattle gained an average of 4.4 yards. Without Okung, the average is 3.3.
But those six quarters have been sandwiched between separate ankle injuries. He suffered the first one in August, an injury to his right ankle that kept him out until October. His left ankle was hurt Oct. 24, and this is the first week since then he has practiced without limitation.
Carroll hopes Okung can play Sunday in New Orleans, but his status might be in question all the way up until game time.
Okung’s ankles have continued a carousel trend at left tackle. Seattle has started three players at the spot this season: Okung, Tyler Polumbus – who belonged to three teams in August – and Chester Pitts, who had not started at that position since 2005.
Add the four other players who started at left tackle last season, and the Seahawks have had seven starters there over the past 25 regular-season games. No other team in the league has had more than four different starters in that time.
Last year, the uncertainty on that side destabilized Seattle’s entire season. The Seahawks never recovered, even when Walter Jones came back from knee surgery. This season, Seattle has weathered the storm of uncertainty up front, standing with a winning record and with lots of room for improvement.
“We can be better,” said Art Valero, Seattle’s offensive line coach. “Continuity is the key, and that’s one thing that we’ve got to make sure we do, but there are no excuses.”
There have been rough patches like the eight sacks allowed in Oakland – the most the Seahawks had given up in any single game since 1992. Seattle is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Only two teams are averaging fewer.
But the Seahawks are 5-4 and on the brink of getting the line configuration they’ve been aiming for since Week 3 with Okung at left tackle and Pitts at left guard. Are things about to stabilize up front?
“Well, things were stable about three other times,” Valero said. “So you never know.”
Injuries are the sport’s biggest variable, but even without Okung, Seattle placed a great deal of faith in its pass protection last week in Arizona. The Seahawks constructed a game plan that emphasized throwing the ball downfield, resulting in Matt Hasselbeck’s highest passing total in three years.
“The offensive line did a great job,” said Jeremy Bates, Seattle’s offensive coordinator. “They really fought. We did more seven-step drops in that game than we have over the whole season … I’ve said it before, we’ll go as far as they take us.”
With Okung about to return, it’s fair to wonder just how far this team might go.
“We’re still on the verge of getting to the best that we can be,” Carroll said, “and it’s going to take Russell a few weeks to get back in action to help and to work and get together with everybody.”