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Seahawks overcome more first down sputtering

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Before a season-saving home victory over the Green Bay Packers, the Seattle Seahawks had given their fans little reason to be optimistic about first downs. Because they were bad.

How bad?

Teams who earn a first down most often on first down, ranked:

32. Bills

31. Cardinals

30. Seahawks

Coming into Week 11 and Thursday Night Football, only two lousy teams, with a combined 5-14 record, were worse than Seattle at moving the chains early. So of course, the Seahawks continued the trend against the Packers.

Seattle elected to run the ball early in series against Green Bay far more often than passing it: on 22 out of 30 first-down plays, Russell Wilson handed it off. On just 3 of those 22 plays, the Seahawks earned first downs. All those times in the first half, too. Between a lot of small gains, there was Rashaad Penny’s 30-yard scamper, and this beaut:

But the other 19 times out of 22, Seattle settled for 2.4 yards per attempt, placing the team in second and long more often than not. Their success rate on first down, running, was meager, especially when compared to passing.

Successful handoffs, first down: 8 of 22

Successful dropbacks, first down: 6 of 8

Success is defined as getting half the yardage necessary to move the sticks, or earning a first down outright. Included in the dropback category above is the 48-yard penalty that put the Seahawks in scoring position, and an 11-yard sack that derailed an entire series.

Care for a tmn;dr (too many numbers; didn’t read) summary? Seattle again intentionally sacrificed explosiveness on first down, for the sake of getting their ground game going, for staying on schedule, for carving out their identity as a balanced offense. What’s interesting about this strategy is that... it didn’t not work.

That the Seahawks managed to put 27 points on the board despite another so-so day on first down speaks to their third- and fourth-down prowess: 8-of-17 on the night. As long as they keep that up, they don’t need early conversions. The problem, of course, is, they’re not likely to be that good on third down — they’re currently 22nd in the league at 37.5 percent.

Running so much on first down placed a burden on the passing game to deliver explosive gains on the eight first down plays it was their turn to shine. Five times they did. When the coaches called a first-down pass, it resulted in a first down more than half the time, including a 48-yard defensive pass interference penalty and a 14-yard completion that set up 2nd and 1.

Despite Seattle failing on first down, relative to the league, they’ve still averaged 27 points the last six games. Sure, they’ve gone 3-3, but they’ve also given themselves a chance to tie or win on the final drive of the game, against three good opponents. They’re still averaging 24.6 points per game, quite a bit more than last year’s 22.9. Something’s working on offense. And there’s substantial room to grow, if they can get out of their own way on first down and start moving the ball more consistently.