clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seahawks on tape: Third down failure is play-calling shame

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks’ offense isn’t quite dead, but it’s certainly looking lifeless. Though it isn’t yet time for an autopsy, Seattle’s dreadful third down record against the Arizona Cardinals is emblematic of the deeper issues that remain in this attack after a quarter of the NFL season.

Going 0-9 on third down (not including the spike at the end) with Russell Wilson as your quarterback, and a run game that averaged 5 yards per carry on its way to a total of 171 yards, is a failure of epic proportions. It’s a play-calling shame.

To say offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is not delivering would be the biggest understatement in Seahawks on tape history. If not for multiple let-offs, Seattle would have lost to Arizona. Ifs, buts and maybes coming into play against a terrible side is simply not good enough. Being only the 20th team since 1991 to win an NFL game without a 3rd down conversion is simply not good enough. Being just the fifth team since 2001 to do it 10+ times is simply not good enough.

Regression in the first year of a new offensive coordinator is the norm league-wide. The offense will develop throughout the season as personnel grow more familiar with it. However, the third down ineptitude last Sunday reeks of an offense rotten to the core. The Seahawks need to throw it in the trash. Fast. Or the decay will spread into their season and Pete Carroll’s tenure.

Seattle’s success rate of 27.5% on third down is the second-worst in the NFL, behind only the Buffalo Bills’ 24.1%. The third down failures against the Cardinals, and the one fourth down abomination, is an excellent lens to view the entire Seahawks offense through.

12.05 1st, Seattle 0 Arizona 0, 3rd and 6

The positive of this empty set is that Rashaad Penny at the top of the screen provides a simple man or zone coverage indicator. Linebacker Deone Bucannon being over him tells Wilson that the coverage is man.

That side is the “zone beater” side. The trips is the “man beater.”

Uncharacteristically, Baldwin runs his route short of sticks. He needs to press his man coverage more up field and then make the cut on the sticks. It’s a tricky task given Arizona is camping there. Credit to the offensive line for picking up the five-man pressure flawlessly.

Schottenheimer lining up in a bunch and not running any rub route is a confusing theme. Rub routes would naturally separate against man coverage. Furthermore, it would be an excellent way to employ the available talent. For instance: the nippy, agile Tyler Lockett; the Golden Tate-like yards after catch ability of David Moore; the nous of Doug Baldwin.

This is representative of a wider issue with Schottenheimer. Too often he relies on players to win matchups rather than engineering them more favorable matchups or manufacturing separation.

5.15 1st, Seattle 7 Arizona 0, 3rd and 9

Again, Wilson is provided with a pre-snap coverage indicator—Lockett’s motion being followed tells him the pass defense is a form of man or pattern matching. Wilson chooses his most trusted target Baldwin and the quick out as the primary read.

Though the play is there to be made, the six-man pressure the Cardinals bring comes right through Wilson’s passing lane.

Wilson could have thrown to Baldwin with more anticipation. Instead, he is left avoiding the pressure and finding his check down option Brandon Marshall. It’s a shame he didn’t look to Lockett’s over route, which is open the entire way given the outside leverage off-man coverage.

Responding to an Arizona fumble with a three and out is pathetic.

12.36 2nd, Seattle 7 Arizona 3, 3rd and 9

This was another instance of Baldwin being short of the sticks, again versus off-man coverage. Once more, just one extra yard of drive would have got it done. This likely can be chalked up to his rustiness coming off injury.

A subtle thing to observe is Nick Vannett’s poor awareness. If he had looked over his right shoulder rather than his left, recognizing the coverage better, he would have been open for a huge gain.

6.03 2nd, Seattle 7 Arizona 3, 3rd and 22

Running on 3rd and 10+ can be a nice way to pick up a few easy yards against a lighter box. This decision was foolhardy garbage though.

Seattle faces seven in the box with just five blockers. They’ll count the quarterback in the box count too, yet that’s still six versus seven.

Running here makes no sense. It’s running into dreadfulness. Sure, 3rd and 22 restricts the playlist and it’s unfair to expect a conversion. That said, at least taking the easy yardage presented by the 1-on-1 or 3-on-2 on the perimeters would make far more sense.

As it was, Sebastian Janikowski ended up missing the field goal. Perhaps he’d have converted if he’d been 7+ yards closer.

0.41 2nd, Seattle 7 Arizona 10, 3rd and 14

Given all three corners line up over the three wide receivers, and the isolated Nick Vannett garners the attention of a linebacker, Wilson knows the coverage is man and probably two-man under given how deep the two safeties are. It sees him adjust the play at the line.

The pass is designed to be short of the sticks. This is basically a gimme to the high safety on that side. It’s strange the Seahawks don’t try to conflict him with something like a post route. Seattle almost picks up a new set of downs, nevertheless it’s conservative and highly unlikely to get the first given the two deep safeties.

0.34 2nd, Seattle 7 Arizona 10, 4th and 1

This might have been the worst play-call. Schottenheimer had plenty of time to think about it beforehand, after the Seahawks tried to draw the Cardinals offside and then took a timeout.

Needing just one yard, Schottenheimer chooses a straight drop back pass—with the run game working—and has the receivers run at least 12 yards. Against a blitzing look no less!

Arizona does rush only four. The receiver separation is awful. Again, there is an over-reliance on the players winning their 1-on-1 with little help. Vannett must do better running his route, looking to get open quicker. That doesn’t change the truly dreadful concept and play-calling “feel.”

Phil Dawson fortunately missed the resultant field goal.

7.58 3rd, Seattle 10 Arizona 10, 3rd and 5

Wilson looks to Baldwin first and then moves to the second in-route of Lockett. He has a clear passing lane to hit this, and then Vannett’s underneath crosser, nonetheless he decides to scramble once feeling pressure from the left edge.

Wilson processes the disguised cover-2 too slowly, struggling to anticipate routes versus the coverage. Play-action concepts and their simpler reads would avoid this issue.

5.42 3rd, Seattle 10 Arizona 10, 3rd and 19

Seattle is in this near hopeless position after Wilson was tripped by his offensive linemen and then missed a hitch.

(The organization from the offense was dreadful in general. They took too long to get lined up, failed to mix in tempo as a weapon, and almost blew their two-minute game-winning drive.)

The decision to hand off the ball here is more palatable than the first instance. They face a favorable box count and the inside power would have gone for a big chunk if they had blocked it better up front.

11.58 4th, Seattle 17 Arizona 10, 3rd and 1

This is the type of play where you’d love to ask Wilson what he was thinking. Following a 5-yard gift of a neutral zone infraction by Markus Golden, this is horrendous from Wilson. It could partially be a result of years of bad offensive lines. Or maybe a result of a lack of faith in the plays?

Here he abandons the concept, no two ways about it. Wilson’s decision to look to the isolated side first, where he is pretty much guaranteed to get off-man coverage based on the pre-snap indicators, is smart.

The slant-flat concept against the pass defense quickly gets Vannett open—despite his poor route. But for whatever reason, with the offensive line blocking for a quick hitter, Wilson decides to not throw the ball. He seems overly scared of the breaking defender.

Wilson takes ages to make this decision, but he still has space to move up and keep his eyes downfield—where he would have found Lockett butt naked in the middle.

Rather than that approach, Wilson tries a mad backdoor scramble, creating more pressure for himself. He ends up throwing the ball away.

Once more, it’s fair to question why the Seahawks didn’t go to their functioning run game in short yardage. Or play-action. Instead, they were left to punt and the Cardinals scored on the next drive.

It’s fair to ask why it took Schottenheimer this long to deploy natural separation concepts—see the pick combination to the trips side. They’d been facing predominantly man the entire game. So how on earth did the adjustment take this long?

(Seattle has had four third and one situations this season. They’ve passed twice and haven’t converted either times. They’ve run twice and have converted on both occasions.)

7.22 4th, Seattle 17 Arizona 17, 3rd and 3

The last failure is the most frustrating. The design was beautiful, with Schottenheimer leaning on a pick that he should use far more often against man coverage. Vannett sets the pick and the wheel down the sideline to Penny is going to be wide open for a probable touchdown. Unfortunately, the offensive line can’t hold up against the five-man stunt blitz Arizona sends.

Wider takeaways

It’s bemusing that none of these attempts featured play-action. In the game, just six of Wilson’s 30 drop backs were play-fakes (20%). As covered, the quarterback was not without fault, just like the rest of his season, but he’d look a hell of a lot better if given more of the stuff he excels at.

Wilson is a fantastic play-action quarterback. The best scheme to put him in is one laced heavily with play-fakes. He throws a sexy deep ball, which right now has been utterly neutered in a scheme that lacks nuance, sequencing and creativity.

Since when did he become Alex Smith circa 2015?

Next Gen Stats

Since when did he become 2011 Tarvaris Jackson?

Consider, for instance, the fact that Wilson has used play action on 16.8% of passing plays this season, which is the 8th lowest percentage out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks. This is despite Wilson leading the league in play action passer rating (149.2).

Or painfully digest these figures from Warren Sharp:

This bland conservativeness is far more dangerous to the team’s chances of success than an offense featuring more play-action and run-pass options. It’s revealing that Schottenheimer has never had a top 10 NFL offense in total yardage.

Heck, the attack could still be conservative, but use more play-action rather than hideous elements like that dreadful 2nd and long check down design. Play-action is still relatively low-risk, often being a high-low or one-read play.

Instead, when games get close, Schottenheimer shrinks into a ball of fear that is not conducive to winning football games. That’s strange given that play-action does not have to be going for the jugular each time. Indeed, we’ve seen the Seahawks successfully utilize both short and intermediate passes off the run fake. So why not more?

I’m not expecting peak Kansas City Chiefs or Los Angeles Rams; undoubtedly, Seattle has built their roster to run the football. Yet this makes it more confounding that they’re not calling the natural complement to the run game—play-action—far more often. Frankly, it’s a sham. There’s zero reasonable explanation.

Their redzone DVOA is 128.4%, by the far the best in the league with the Chiefs placing second with 65.2%. However, this figure is of course skewed because the Seahawks are so befuddling when outside the 20-yard-line.

Something must change, because rebuilding year or not, the Cardinals game was unacceptable for a peewee football team, let alone a professional football franchise. Failure to fix the issues, and the remarkable surgery Carroll has performed to keep his gutted defense alive is going to be in vain. They’re heading for a blowout against the Rams if the offense remains putrid on third downs.