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Brian Schottenheimer and the second-down decision

Is it maybe becoming a default running down?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions
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Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks have played half their regular season, because after an interminable offseason, of course the games are always over in the blink of an eye. Maybe two blinks. The season has half disappeared already! What is this time warp in which we live.

With eight games in the books, it’s a good time to look at trends in the offense. We already know the defense is producing at a high rate. They’re tied for fifth in scoring defense, fifth-best in generating turnovers, and occasionally dominating halves or entire games. They’re good.

The offense remains a mystery to some extent. With new leaders on the sideline, the same ones on the field, and a suddenly competent offensive line, it’s fair to expect high performance but also understandable to see hiccups. Every offense sputters, every quarterback has good and bad days, everybody gets banged up — and most especially, every coordinator earns the right to be second-guessed.

Or, as the case may be, second-down guessed.

A casual glance at some game film the other day led to me to discover a bizarre stat: the Seahawks ran on 17 of 22 second downs in Week 8 vs. the Lions. Was that an anomaly, or a trend? Here’s how much they ran on second down, broken down week by week, with average yards to go on second down added for good measure.

Week 1 at Denver: 3 runs on 18 opportunities, 9.4 average yards to go

Week 2 at Chicago: 7 out of 24, 7.3 yards to go

Week 3 vs. Dallas: 18 out of 24, 8.8 yards to go

Week 4 at Arizona: 15 out of 25, 7.7 yards to go

Week 5 vs. LAR: 11 out of 19, 8.8 yards to go

Week 6 at Oakland: 14 out of 23, 8.0 yards to go

Week 8 at Detroit: 17 out of 22, 6.0 yards to go

Week 9 vs. LAC: 9 out of 24, 8.8 yards to go

Add ‘em all up and the total gets your attention: while Seattle has run the ball on 50.8 percent of all plays this year, the most in the league, second down appears to be their favorite running down, at 52.5 percent. Removing two-minute drills from the calculations boosts the running numbers even more, because 19 of those 21 plays on second down were passes. Our new percentage of running on second down becomes 58.2 percent overall.

It’s quite a bit more true if you apply the two-minute drill adjustment from Week 3 on, as we see the run percentage rise to 64.6 percent.

It doesn’t appear to matter how much yardage is necessary to move the chains; the Seahawks are probably gonna run it on second down. To the tune of something approaching 60 percent, even higher if we’re not in an end-of-half situation. In fact, the numbers seem to indicate, if anything, a problem with the Seattle offense in getting to second and medium at all. In half the games, they face 8.8 yards or more to go on average. That’s another research project, and maybe a good explanation for some of the team’s occasional scoring woes.

Four times this season, the Seahawks have elected to run on 2nd and 20 or more. Any enterprising soul who wants to find out where that ranks among NFL teams, have at it. I will wager it’s near the top.

On to the theories why they love to run on second down:

A) Brian Schottenheimer wants to avoid P-P-P at all costs. Seattle has only twice started a series outside of the two-minute drill with three passes. Both times in Chicago, both times in the third quarter, and both series resulted in immediate punts.

B) They pass more in games where they trail. Seems legit when you consider time constraints and the rush to get into scoring position during the last drives at Denver, Chicago and Arizona.

C) The coaches want to set up manageable third downs. “Stay on schedule,” we keep hearing. What better way to do so than by gaining a handful of yards on second down, to avoid third and long? Incomplete passes on second downs don’t help, and neither do sacks. Completed passes set up new series, but you run the risk of the incompletions and sacks. Running is the safe way to ensure manageable third downs — i.e., if you’re already in 2nd and 9, better not fall into 3rd and 9.

(I’m channeling Pete Carroll’s presumed thought process here. If you caught me in a moment of candor, I’d say pass more! Ideally, I’d love to see the Seahawks pass the ball two-thirds of the time, especially with a quarterback who’s historically cautious with the football. And never run on 2nd and 9 or more. But, digressing, moving on, different topic for different day, yada yada yada.)

Whichever combination of the above theories, plus your own, that you subscribe to, the trend remains clear: Schottenheimer’s Seattle Seahawks will run more on second down than overall. Can they avoid that extra predictability becoming a negative? The next few games will tell, although the meeting in L.A. this coming Sunday might not mean anything more than a chance for the Rams to clinch the division a few weeks early.