COSTA MESA – Russell Okung is a big man. At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, Okung is big enough to slap down Big Foot. That’s why the Los Angeles Chargers made a push to sign the veteran offensive tackle during free agency.
Coach Anthony Lynn and the Chargers got their man, inking the much-hyped Okung to a four-year, $53 million deal back in the spring. But for that agreement to take place, there was mutual admiration of the Chargers on Okung’s part to make the deal a reality.
“Even in the past, we just knew they were always a really talented team,” Okung said after a Chargers training camp practice during the summer. “Hopefully, I can bring something helpful to the guys here. I saw what coach Lynn was doing, and I was immediately sold on who he was as a person and what he was going to do as a coach. What we’re doing now is indicative of what our success will be. I’m all the way in.”
Landing Okung is a big deal for the Chargers and Lynn. With an aging quarterback in Philip Rivers, who can still zing it all over the football field, and a promising rushing attack with a young runner in Melvin Gordon, the Chargers needed to not only shore up its offensive line, they needed to put in place dynamic pieces that will push their offensive firepower.
A good start would be with a talented run-blocker and a ferocious pass protector. For the Chargers’ sake, they have both attributes in Okung. There are not too many players at his position in the National Football League (NFL) that are as good as Okung. He was the anchor to the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line during the team’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Last season, Okung found himself in a Denver Broncos uniform, dropping pancakes and making space for the likes of quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian. With a multi-year pact with the Chargers established, Okung is now firmly entrenched to getting down to the business of pass protection and run-block dominance.
The Chargers can benefit from Okung’s method of laying hands on opposing defensive linemen in more ways than one. The last time the Chargers had a running back go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark was in 2013 when Ryan Mathews galloped his way to 1,255 yards.
When it comes to having his backside protected, it’s a good bet that Rivers might have a little bit more confidence that he has Okung in front of him as that moving wall keeping him from harm’s way. Against Von Miller and the Broncos’ quarterback rodeo crew on Monday Night Football to open their 2017 NFL season, the Chargers offensive line surrendered only one sack.
That’s almost light years better than what Rivers has had to go through in the past few years. Since 2012, Rivers have been sacked (including the Chargers’ 2017 season-opener) 242 times. That’s a lot of time for a quarterback to be on his backside.
To help cancel out this problem, the Chargers brought in Okung and drafted rookies Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp in order try to fix this issue. If the head-to-head matchup with the pass-rush happy Broncos is any type of barometer, the Chargers looks like clear winners on this platform. The chemistry jelling of the team’s offensive line should not be understated or dismissed.
By hanging out with his O-line buddies and getting more acquainted them and with their families, Okung said the rapport between teammates will carry itself out on the field.
“It comes down to trust,” said Okung. “Like any relationship, I trust somebody to do their job, and they trust me to do my job as well, too. When you’re dependable, everybody has success.”
Don’t expect Okung to take all the credit for the offensive line’s re-birth. The success of any offensive line is not dependent on individual achievement. It’s group success or bust.
“It’s always been all of us collectively working together on every single play. There is no one offensive lineman who has a great game,” Okung said. “That’s not going to happen. Usually, it comes down to a lot of things. It comes down to participation and understanding where your help is.”
Okung spent the first six years of his career with the Seahawks, four of them sliding up and down the field trying to shield the scrambling Russell Wilson from taking too many hits. Rivers is a more stationary, throwback-type quarterback who doesn’t have a choice but to stand in the pocket.
To Okung, the styles may be different, but keeping defenders off the quarterback is in the same job description.
“Philip (Rivers) is definitely a more pure pocket passer, and his understanding of concepts, in terms of really relying on the throwing game…It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Okung said. “Russell is different. He has a different way of playing. The offenses are completely different as well. Also, with (offensive coordinator) Ken (Whisenhunt), you have to know a lot and understand a lot of different things as well.”
Part of that understanding is knowing that as offensive linemen, you live in a world of anonymity.
“We don’t have as much notoriety,” Okung said. “Nobody cares about our stats. We don’t have stats. What’s more important is that we’re more of unsung heroes. Nobody talks about us until we’re doing bad. If they’re not talking about us, we’re doing our jobs.”
By Dennis J. Freeman