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Seahawks offense is struggling to score, but not in all the ways one might have expected

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jane Gershovich/Getty Images

With just 47 points through three games, the Seattle Seahawks rank 28th in scoring, and that’s a kind ranking given 7 of those points were off a blocked field goal. They’re the only team in the league that hasn’t scored a 2nd half offensive touchdown, and if you took away the blocked FG return they would be tied for last with the Indianapolis Colts. However, in terms of points per drive (which is a better metric for this exercise), they’re 19th, and that’s probably more reflective of how they’ve performed than the raw point total.

None of this should be a shock, as this was always the projection for Seattle the moment Russell Wilson was traded and the quarterback competition was down to Geno Smith and Drew Lock. And yet, the route they’ve taken to being a points-starved group is one I don’t think many had anticipated.

The Surprises

Let Geno Cook?

Trading Wilson felt like a shift back to the (semi-stereotypical) Pete Carroll philosophy of a run-heavy, ball-control offense that he ran with Wilson as recently as 2018 and pretty heavily from 2012-2014. Geno Smith as quarterback combined with a rushing attack that was performing at a prolific level last December felt like the combo to run it, run it, and run it some more.

Through three weeks, the Seahawks have been a pass-first offense even though they never trailed against the Denver Broncos and frequently exchanged leads with the Atlanta Falcons. The game script has been consistently leaning towards pass, and Smith is currently 10th in ESPN’s QBR metric.

It’s early and the Seahawks’ struggles running the ball may be playing a role in this, but we are not seeing a stone-age offense as feared. If the rushing attack can get going again, maybe we’ll see the playcalling change, but in the meantime this is a pass-first system until further notice.

Drive success rate

Defined as “the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown,” the Seahawks rank 8th. They’ve only had four three-and-outs in this early portion of the season, and they’re below league-average in punts per drive.

Reduced sack rate

The league average sack rate is currently 6.4%, and Geno Smith’s sack percentage is just 5.5%. Part of that is Geno getting the ball out quickly in what is predominantly a limited, short-passing attack, but the other part is the rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas appear to be doing their jobs well.

Lest we forget that in his handful of starts (and relief duty against the Rams), Smith’s sack rate in 2021 was an astronomical 12%, and he’s currently on pace for the lowest sack rate of his career. Will it hold up? Perhaps not. But the drive-killing sacks have been kept to a relative minimum, although it’s of some concern all of his sacks have been in the second half and usually in critical possessions in which there’s urgency to score or (in the Broncos game) take time off the clock.

3rd Down efficiency

In the Pete Carroll era, the 2015 team remains the only top-10 3rd down offense the Seahawks have had. More often than not they’ve been no higher than 16th.

Your 2022 Seahawks ended September an impressive second in 3rd down efficiency (50%), behind only the Buffalo Bills’ staggering 61% success rate. (Note: I excluded Geno’s kneeldown on 3rd down against the Broncos, which was enough to put them over the Philadelphia Eagles in the data)

So far, Smith’s been very effective on this down and it’s not like he’s benefited from overly favorable distance: Seattle’s average yards to go is 6.8, which is middle of the pack but is down from several recent Seahawks teams.

Regression to the mean is inevitable but this is hugely encouraging. The Seahawks aren’t having problems sustaining drives, they’re having problems finishing them off.

The Disappointments

Red Zone struggles

It’s ugly out there.

Seattle has scored two touchdowns, kicked four field goals, turned it over on one of the worst executed trick plays I’ve ever seen, and turned it over on downs on a failed sneak. For as long as this defense is this inept, field goals in the red zone are a net negative. Seahawks running backs have just 5 carries for 9 yards inside the 20, and when you add in Geno’s botched sneak against the Broncos it’s been entirely on the passing attack to get it done. Smith is 5/9 for 47 yards and the aforementioned two touchdowns.

Ineffective running game

Last year’s late-season rushing surge combined with promising preseason play I think justified optimism that Seattle could uh... hit the ground running? I’ll be here all week, folks.

Seattle is 19th in rushing success rate and 22nd in EPA/play, as well as 22nd in DVOA (though I won’t factor too much given DVOA is best utilized later in the year). Pro Football Reference has the Seahawks near the bottom in yards before contact, which speaks to the struggles Seattle has had run blocking.

I was worried that a lack of a rushing attack would render the passing game completely useless, but that’s not materialized. With that said I’m not sure Seattle can go much longer with the run game stuck in neutral.

The Inevitable

Lack of explosives

The definition of an explosive play in the NFL is pretty arbitrary depending on which reference you use, but for the sake of simplicity and round numbers let’s use 20+ yds for passes and 10+ for rushes. Seattle is tied for 28th in overall explosives and the passing game (6) is the primary culprit.

Wilson, of course, is one of the most prolific big play passers the game has ever seen. Geno Smith... is not and never will be. Through the first two games, Geno’s air yards per attempt ranked at the bottom of the NFL, and even his performance against the Falcons saw just two passes completed 20+ yards down the field. This is not an explosive passing attack and the typical depth of target for Smith is also a lot of why his completion percentage is so high.

YAC attack is out of whack

New year, same story.

A team that is bad at screens and has a depth chart filled with players who do not break a lot of tackles in the open field — Seattle has zero broken tackles from its receivers so far — is not going to get a lot of yards after catch. You can scheme up YAC (see: Chiefs, Kansas City and 49ers, San Francisco) to great effect but personnel matters, too. Outside of 2021, which was surprisingly just outside the top-10 in YAC/reception, this has been the theme for the Seahawks.

A passing offense that is explosive but doesn’t generate YAC is one thing, a passing offense that is neither of those things is not going to have a super high ceiling for success.

We also cannot ignore that the offense has scarcely been helped by a defense that can’t get off the field — Seattle’s ability to at least move the ball immediately erodes any argument about potential fatigue because the offense isn’t scoring. No team has had fewer possessions (on either side of the ball) than the Seahawks, and when the offense is 19th in Pts/Dr and the defense is an astoundingly awful 30th (with some of the league’s most favorable field position), it’s obvious which side of the ball has been the bigger liability.

All things considered, while the Seahawks offense hasn’t been very good in totality, I believe this unit has been better than their point total suggests. The red zone and run game struggles figure to be the most correctable, whereas the explosives may just have to go by the wayside. Will this remain the case by the end of October with a greater sample size? I don’t know. What we have seen through three weeks — let’s keep in mind that the 49ers and Broncos could be elite defenses based on how they’ve performed — has been far from a disaster and at times pleasantly surprising, and in a season with a high probability of no postseason berth I’d say that’s about as much as we could feasibly ask for*.

* More scoring would be appreciated, though.