RENTON — Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane plays in the land of football giants and because of that he casts a long shadow.
If Marshawn Lynch is the beating heart of Seattle’s offense, Mebane is the sturdy anchor of its defense. He takes on two defenders so linebackers can run free. He dismantles running games, brick by brick, by sealing off the interior.
He was having the best season of his eight-year career, a season worthy of a Pro Bowl, before leaving Sunday’s game with what coach Pete Carroll called a “legit” pulled hamstring. Carroll said only that Mebane would be “out for a while”, and now the Seahawks must fill the shadow of one of their biggest giants.
“He’s the most important person to this defense,” defensive lineman Michael Bennett said earlier this year. “Everybody think it’s the Legion of Boom or me or Cliff (Avril), but it’s really Mebane.”
The loss of Mebane leaves the Seahawks reliant on veteran Kevin Williams, a potential Hall of Famer at the twilight of his career, and second-year tackle Jordan Hill, who has struggled to stay healthy. But the reality is that even if Williams and Hill fill in admirably, there is no replacing Mebane.
“I mean, there is nobody like Mebane,” Carroll said. “He’s a very unique player. He’s had, I think, the best season he’s had since he’s we’ve been here to this point – most consistent, best factor — so that’s a big hit to take.”
The Seahawks have been the NFL’s best team at defending the run, and there was no bigger factor than Mebane in the middle. The best way to picture Mebane is as a roundabout: He might not always stop you, but he sure will slow you down. He is so strong, his body control and balance so good, that he rarely went to the ground. His ability to clog the middle forced running backs to change direction at the line of scrimmage, and he was quick enough to sometimes shoot the gap between the guard and the center.
The Seahawks demand their interior players also be able to run laterally, and few big guys tracked running backs outside better than Mebane.
“He disrupts the whole entire run game,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said this season. He can make plays bounce (outside) right from the get go, and that does help us because we’re not the biggest guys back there. But we can run and we can get to the sideline. Even he can make those plays himself. There are times when he can take my responsibility in one play, and I’ll just be extra help.”
His loss is especially significant considering the timing of it. The Seahawks are about to enter the gauntlet their schedule, with five black-and-blue games against division opponents. Earlier this season, defensive end Cliff Avril singled out games against San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis as ones in which Mebane makes his biggest impact.
“Any game where there was a lot of running,” Avril said, “you’ll see his presence being made.”
Mebane had one of his typically disruptive performances against the Giants before his injury sidelined him.
He pushed New York’s center backward so quickly that quarterback Eli Manning nearly tripped over him as he dropped back to pass. He blew up running back Andre Williams for a one-yard loss. Even on New York’s three-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Mebane forced Williams to change directions in the backfield before bouncing off tackles into the end zone.
It could be argued that Mebane was the Seahawks’ MVP in the first half of the season. Now the Seahawks must learn to live without him.