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Originally published January 9, 2014 at 7:03 PM | Page modified January 9, 2014 at 10:30 PM

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Seahawks sacrifice to make most of their remarkable depth

The Seahawks are one of the NFL’s deepest teams, which keeps players fresh but means they have to sacrifice playing time and stats for the good of the team.


Times staff columnist

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And the cool thing is players still want to come here to be a part of this experience. ... MORE
Building the team this way makes everyone stay hungry. It keeps them fresh. And yes... MORE
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Marshawn Lynch barged into the end zone as only he can, and even in celebration, he refused to let the football go. He protected the ball as if it signified a record-breaking touchdown and not just a random thrill in a blowout victory.

As he walked to the sideline, Lynch cradled the ball in his left arm, pointed to the crowd with his right hand and looked for the reason he had kept the pigskin. When he found tackle Michael Bowie standing on the sideline, inactive for the game, Lynch handed the rookie the game ball, hugged him and whispered in his ear.

It was a small, private moment lost in a 41-20 Seahawks victory over Minnesota in mid-November. But for a Seahawks team that understands sacrifice better than most, it was a revealing act of kindness.

Lynch was thanking Bowie for his previous contributions. Before that game, Bowie, a seventh-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, had made his mark by starting seven consecutive weeks and helping the Seahawks overcome the loss of both of their starting tackles to injury. Bowie and the reshuffled offensive line endured struggles and criticism, but in the previous two games, it had paved the way for Lynch’s best back-to-back games of the season — 125 yards against Tampa Bay, 145 yards against Atlanta.

But with Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini healthy again, Bowie was out of the rotation. On a team widely hailed as the deepest in the NFL, you can go from starter to observer without doing anything wrong.

Lynch hadn’t forgotten about Bowie, however. The game-ball gift touched Bowie so much that he even gave the star running back a Twitter shout-out, which, of course, is the highest honor a young person can bestow upon another these days.

The Seahawks are united in empathy: They all know that ego bruising is part of their job description. But because they’re winning and operating in a system that utilizes the entire roster and emphasizes the importance of smaller roles, the team moves on purposefully, if not always happily.

This is a better team because of those sacrifices. The Seahawks can wear down opponents with their depth. When players get hurt, their replacements are more than adequate. Competition, the central theme of coach Pete Carroll’s team-building philosophy, keeps everyone hungry. And the coaching staff does a brilliant job of carving out digestible roles that accentuate players’ strengths.

“There’s no doubt that it took a lot for all of us to get there,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “But I think we’ve realized how important putting your pride aside is.”

Avril signed a two-year, $13 million deal with the Seahawks before this season. He and defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal, were key free agents acquired to boost Seattle’s pass rush. They haven’t disappointed. Bennett led the Seahawks with 8.5 sacks in the regular season. Avril had eight sacks. But while both signed here to showcase their talent for a contending team, both are reserves who play nearly half as many snaps as comparable players on other NFL teams.

It could cost some Seahawks money over the long haul because their numbers aren’t as robust as they could be. But their impact is undeniable, and the Seahawks have become a better defensive line because they have a deep rotation.

“We probably play half the reps of what we could,” Avril said. “We’re still effective, though. And we’ve been fresh the whole season.”

Avril and Bennett look around and see sacrifice everywhere. Defensive captain Red Bryant has long lobbied to be on the field on third down, but that’s not his role. Bruce Irvin switched from defensive end to linebacker after the Avril acquisition, and at times, that has meant linebacker Malcolm Smith has lost playing time despite performing at a high level. The wide receivers have adjusted their games and learned to appreciate blocking as much as receiving in the Seahawks’ run-centric offense.

Sometimes, assistant head coach Tom Cable juggles the offensive line like a baseball skipper managing a bullpen. And in the secondary, where the Seahawks have unmatched depth, the shuffling has lasted all season.

Cornerback Walter Thurmond earned a starting job in 2011, but when he suffered an injury, Richard Sherman emerged and turned into an All-Pro. Then Thurmond earned a starting job again this season after Brandon Browner’s hamstring injury. He was playing well until a four-game drug suspension, and while he was out, Byron Maxwell emerged, and Thurmond is now battling Jeremy Lane to be the nickel corner.

“We know the deal on this team — everybody can play,” Thurmond said. “Pete and John (general manager John Schneider) have shown the ability to find players with chips on their shoulders. Being a competitor, you always wish you could be playing, wish you could start. But on this team, you have to make the most of your reps.”

And on this team, it is understood that you must pass around the game ball.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com



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