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The Seahawks have a serious third down problem on both sides of the ball

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of my earliest criticisms of Brian Schottenheimer was that the Seattle Seahawks offense would often play for third down. He’s eradicated that and then some, as Seattle has faced the fewest third downs in the league this season. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Seahawks have thrown it on early downs in neutral game script situations more than any team in the NFL.

Now the new problem: Seattle’s offense is astoundingly bad on third down.

As of Week 7, the Seahawks are 31st in third down conversion rate at roughly 34%, only ahead of the truly dysfunctional New York Jets and behind the unwatchable Chicago Bears. If you look at the other teams populating the bottom it’s just nothing but bad offenses and/or bad quarterbacks. Seattle shouldn’t belong there.

This is shaping up to be by far the worst third down offense of the Wilson era, ironically in the year in which the coaching staff has agreed to let him cook. Every other season has been somewhere between slightly below-average to excellent. Their early down passing offense is elite and then is below mediocre on 3rd down. No team averages more yards per play or first downs achieved on early downs than your Seahawks.

You know what’s not excellent and not even below-average? Russell Wilson’s third down passing. This surprised me upon research and it’s still hard to fathom.

Heavily dented by the Arizona Cardinals game, Wilson is 17/38 (44.7%) for 201 yards, 1 TD (the game-winner to DK Metcalf against the Dallas Cowboys), 3 INTs, and 6 sacks taken. His sack rate almost triples on 3rd down compared to 1st and 2nd down. In pure passing situations, Seattle is 31st on 3rd down. Traditional passer rating is often misleading but I don’t think you can spin 37.3 into anything positive. Of the Week 1 starters or at least the quarterbacks who have started a majority of their teams’ games, Wilson’s third down passer rating is only better than Drew Lock.

Ouch.

Wilson has not been this awful on third down... ever? Actually he had more interceptions than touchdowns in 2014, but they still got first downs at a higher rate than the 2020 team has managed thus far.

The rushing third downs are a bit interesting because on the surface they’re only converting at 46.7% (28th in the NFL), but it’s quite misleading. Out of 15 runs, four of them were Travis Homer give-up draws, and three Wilson scrambles on passes (two successful conversions). That means out of eight designed runs, five have led to conversions. Homer, Carson, and Hyde have each failed on 3rd and short once.

What we are seeing within the playcalling is that the Seahawks are throwing at about a 2-to-1 clip even on 3rd down and 1-4 yards to go, which I would consider open to both throwing or running. Wilson has been much worse in obvious passing situations if you look at the splits:

Wilson on 3rd and 1-4: 7/13 for 91 yards, 1 TD, 1 sack taken

Wilson on 3rd and 5+: 10/25 for 110 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, 5 sacks taken

When faced with 3rd and 5+, Seattle’s offense is dead last in both conversion rate and yards per play. The only defense I can think of for this futility is that four of the six teams they’ve played this season rank in the top-ten in third down defense.

17 of the Seahawks’ 27 touchdown drives did not even involve a third down play. Tyler Lockett’s third score in last Sunday’s game against the Cardinals was the first time all season that they’ve had a touchdown drive in which they converted multiple third downs without the aid of a penalty. Funnily enough, they have scored three touchdowns on 4th down.

We should be delighted that the offense’s proficient ability to score touchdowns has come through minimizing third downs, but we should be horrified that third downs crumble the entire offense in ways you normally associate with bad teams.

What this has led to is a “boom or bust” offense that has provided a lot of booms. They’re first in touchdowns per drive, first in red zone touchdown percentage, and at the same time they’re 28th in punts per drive. The success rate on early downs has minimized the three-and-outs but the disastrous actual third down situations have sunk just about every other drive.

The defense is much easier to figure out what their malfunction is, so their write-up is shorter. Last year they were 32nd in third downs forced but were actually average at stopping teams on third down. In 2019 it was a case of getting crushed on early downs. The 2020 team is 28th in yards per play on early downs and 27th in early down first downs. Their impressive turnover rate is essentially saving them from being much worse.

Then you get to third down itself and it’s just a mess. At 48.8% they’re tenth-worst in the league and while I know the technical correct answer is eighth-worst, fiddling with Stathead allows me to exclude kneeldowns that can be considered “stops” for the defense. Isolate it to the pass defense and they’re 31st behind the Tennessee Titans. You can take a wild guess as to the sack rate and yards per play in these situations. It is the great short-yardage run defense that is boosting the Seahawks to merely 22nd overall.

Despite playing the ninth-most snaps in the NFL, the Seahawks defense has only forced 80 third downs, which is tied for tenth-fewest. And while the Seahawks offense is repeatedly putting themselves into third-and-long — they average the eighth-longest distance to go — the defense is giving teams the ninth-shortest distance to convert. This unit has essentially swapped out getting crushed on early downs and swapped in getting crushed on every down and then hoping for a turnover. That is absolutely not a sustainable way to play defense — or at the very least it’s the type of “living dangerously” defense that costs you games at any point in the season.

You could scoff at everything I just wrote as a small sample size and I wouldn’t blame you, although I’d disagree on the defense as they’ve just extended last year’s problems and made it worse. But I also wouldn’t assume the Seahawks are going to just be a prolific 1st and 2nd down offense every week. They have to pick it up on 3rd down quickly or else the “boom or bust” offense will feature more “busts” against better defenses, and if that doesn’t happen then this whole season could go boom.