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The Seahawks’ success on early downs has crumbled, and with it so has the offense

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

We’re all trying to figure out what the hell has led to the collapse of the Seattle Seahawks offense. Once again I’m going to cite the article that I wrote almost exactly one month ago right before things fell to pieces.

Improved: Early down success rate

A rightful gripe about the Seahawks offense in years past is how much they ran the ball on early downs and forced themselves into shitty third down situations. This year they are the most pass-heavy team in neutral game script situations on first and second down. They lead the NFL in yards per play on early downs as well as first down percentage. It’s great to see Schottenheimer not play for third down and instead up the aggression sooner. Not coincidentally, the Seahawks have scored 28 of their 36 touchdowns on early downs, and actually have more TDs on fourth down (5) than third down (3).

And then...

Worse: Third down offense

I’ve touched on this already and I have to address this again. After a brief reprieve against the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson was a mess again on third down versus Buffalo. Russell Wilson’s third down passer rating is only better than Sam Darnold among qualified quarterbacks. Passer rating may be a mostly useless stat, but “only better than Sam Darnold” is a meaningful line. His EPA/play on third downs is in the neighborhood of Drew Lock and a substantial distance away from fellow MVP candidates Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.

And no, the running game isn’t helping, either. Twice they got stuffed on 3rd and 1 last week and famously lost the Cardinals game with a failed 3rd and 2 run. Their entire offense is putrid on third down.

Well guess what’s happened? The fun times on early downs are over.

Early Down Offense Success Rate

Games 1-8: 34.5% first down rate, 6.9 yds per play (1st, 1st)

Games 9-12: 27.2% first down rate, 4.9 yds per play (13th, 27th)

Early Down EPA/play ranking

Games 1-8: 1st

Games 9-12: 20th

Wilson was sacked 15 times on early downs through the first eight games. He’s been sacked 11 times on early downs over the last four. His sack rate has soared and not coincidentally this has also been at a time when Seattle’s offensive line has been in upheaval. They never trailed against the Cardinals or Eagles and led for the entire first half against the Giants, so it can’t be a product of constantly playing from behind.

As for that 3rd down offense:

3rd Down Offense Conversion Rate

Games 1-8: 37.6% (30th)

Games 9-12: 43.1% (13th)

3rd Down EPA/play rankings

Games 1-8: 29th

Games 9-12: 11th

That looks like improved 3rd down offense, right? Well I’d contend that it’s misleading. They were 2/10 against the Eagles and 4/13 against the Giants, so it’s heavily skewed by the combined 15/28 against the Rams and Cardinals. The 7/14 versus the Rams involved a 3/3 on the Seahawks’ final drive, at which point the game was pretty much decided if you look at win probability. If I removed garbage time (which would include the end of the Eagles win) their EPA/play drops to 21st from Games 9-12.

The torrid pace at which the Seahawks offense was crushing teams on 1st and 2nd down didn’t hold up and it probably never was going to hold up. Not only has it faltered over the past month but the 3rd down offense hasn’t actually been all that better from the first half of the season. That’s something that should’ve been mandatory to fix knowing full well they couldn’t light the league on fire forever. And yes, once again they are consistently facing longer yards to go than other teams. I’m not even going to bring up the 4th down offense, which has been especially dismal and rather preposterously pass-heavy in short-yardage.

One thing we do know is that whether it’s Schottenheimer or Bevell, the one constant has been that Russell Wilson has rarely commandeered a great 3rd down offense. The lone top-10 finish occurred in 2015. If you look at his EPA/play historically he is a demonstrably worse quarterback on 3rd down compared to early downs. My theory on this is that Wilson is forever someone who wants to hit home runs. The whole damn passing offense is tailor made for his prolific ability to launch one into the upper deck. Your typical 3rd down conversion involves the football equivalent of just hitting a single or even a double. These are usually short, timing-based patterns where not getting the ball out quickly enough will kill the whole play. This is not Wilson’s strong suit. I think it largely explains why nearly 40% of his career sacks taken have come on 3rd down even though less than 30% of his dropbacks occur on this down.

Which is to say, barring a change in Wilson and/or a total change of the offense, I think the 3rd down woes are here to stay. So it’s up to the Seahawks to correct their newfound woes on 1st and 2nd down or else this offense is going to be stuck in neutral or reversing straight out of a deep playoff run.