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Analysis: The Tape Behind Seahawks' Third Down Failures

The Seahawks, as an offense, went 2-for-10 on third down in their 23-13 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, continuing their dreadful year in such situations. Matty F. Brown looks at the tape and explains why these struggles are still present.

Pete Carroll once more chose to focus on third downs following the Seahawks’ bitterly disappointing loss to the Kyler Murray-less Cardinals. Seattle’s offense converted just two of its 10 thirrd downs faced—a pitiful 20 percent ‘success’ rate. On the season, Shane Waldron’s unit is 31st in the league at third down conversions.

“Third down was a big factor again, and we didn’t hold on to the football on offense, and so we’re back on the field for an extra 20 plays on defense, you know, as the game wears out,” Carroll told Mike Salk on 710 ESPN Seattle the morning after.

“And so that has been a reoccurring theme where we’ve got to turn that to play better football. The defense, they were hanging, they were hanging, and we needed to complement them with a couple of scores and then we’ll see how we do get out at the end of it. In that setting instead of coming from behind.”

This year, Russell Wilson has thrown a league-low 10 passes that moved the sticks on third down. He also compares poorly to backup Geno Smith:

Russell Wilson: 13-of-37 (35 percent), 218 yards, 10 first downs, 5.9 YPA, 62.7 rating

Geno Smith: 15-of-22 (68 percent), 139 yards, eight first downs, 6.3 YPA, 85.2 rating

The head coach highlighting third downs makes sense beyond the isolated game situation. 

“We have to be able to reap the benefits of those opportunities,” Carroll outlined on Wednesday. “By completing our drives. you know? And that goes back to the third down stuff as well as our efficiency on first and second down. But the easy focus is for us to look at third down and see that, if we can make two or three more a game, it gives us more drives. And that’s what we need.”

The process that a third down conversion requires lends itself to successful offensive football in general. This is thinking that extends beyond third downs. Rather than focusing on points or scoring, third downs require a discipline in playing the situation posed. The defense is looking to get off the field and play to the sticks. With everything more finite, rhythm and taking what is there are requirements for an effective attack. There is not another opportunity on the drive.

For the passing game, third and medium-to-long also means that the defense is in a pass-first mindset, removing the threat of play-action and the run—seeing defenses tee off and disguised looks less concerned about fitting the run. This, in turn, and as Carroll said, emphasizes the importance of staying efficient on first and second down to enter more third and manageable situations—where the run is still a genuine threat.

“There’s 10 third downs in the game, we converted the two short yardage ones,” Carroll told Salk. “There’s eight other plays. We need to get three other wins to be at 50 percent, which leads the NFL. You know, so, I mean we’re talking about three plays that need to be different.

“So that’s the first cut-up that we went after today, you know, to go and look at each one of those. How could these have worked with the call? Was the call apt for the situation? Could we execute it?” 

We can explore those questions with the tape.

THIRD AND LONG

Two of the ten third downs offer little takeaways. The 3rd and 20 handoff to Travis Homer was a case of damage limitation. Given the field position making a punt trickier to down, it might have been nice for the Seahawks to be more aggressive and pass the football. Yet, not many plays exist for this down and distance, and protecting Wilson from a teeing-off pass rush was ultimately smart. The punt pinned Arizona at its own 5-yard line.

How Seattle got in this unenviable situation was a clear mistake from Alex Collins, who ran an outside zone handoff path rather than the toss that Wilson tried to throw wide to him. The cause of this could well have been a failure in quarterback communication from Wilson; we are only witnesses to the effect.

“We gotta stay out the third and catastrophe, like when we have the error on the toss and we lose 15 yards on the play, you know?” Carroll summarized on Monday. “That drive is in trouble right there.”

By Carroll’s own definition, this 3rd and 12 late in the game also falls in the long category. It arrived after Wilson went down on 1st and 10. By this point, the game was over and the Seahawks were in obvious pass hell—a pit in which most offenses would struggle to achieve success in.

Indeed, the Cardinals played the three downfield routes with layered depth and Wilson was forced to check the ball down to the chip-and-release of Will Dissly in the flat as the edge pass protection weakened. The turf ended up tackling Dissly before the pursuing defenders could, yet this was never going to pick up a new set of downs. 

THIRD AND MIDDLE

So which third down failures should we study in more detail?

“Really, it’s the third and mediums that are really the area where we gotta convert,” Carroll reflected in his Monday presser. “You know, short yardage we’ve done pretty well, we hit a couple of them again yesterday. That hasn’t always been a strength of ours but we’re doing a good job there.

“The area of focus is really in the middle. From four to 10, right in there and all of those, we gotta create more of them. But that’s where we’ve got to win.”

THE LONGER MIDDLES

We’ll start with the lengthier third downs the Seahawks faced. Behind the scenes, it’s likely that Seattle’s offensive staff has multiple categories for its third downs, which place these in a longer category. A 3rd and 10 situation poses the same challenges as 3rd and 12: the defense knows the opponent is very likely to be passing.

Indeed, this 3rd and 10 on the first drive of the game saw Seattle align in an empty formation and Arizona call a pass-focused, mugged odd front. Wilson knew he was facing a zone defense pre-snap after Travis Homer’s shift from out wide into the core.

Wilson did not have the time to access his primary read, let alone progress over the middle to the nestled—and open—Freddie Swain. Despite Seattle putting seven men in pass protection, an almost-instant bust happened.

The usually excellent Homer tried to achieve too much. As he went to help Brandon Shell with a chip inside, Homer’s primary threat, Isaiah Simmons, dipped back outside following a jab step inside. Clean off the edge, Simmons sacked Wilson. This was back-to-back sacks Wilson suffered. 

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“We gotta not a miss a guy coming off the edge like we did. There’s a guy sitting right there and he gets hit before he ever gets a chance on third down,” Carroll told Salk. “You know, those things we have to clean those up.”

Without Carroll’s explanation of the 3rd and 9 Wilson incompletion in the red zone, you might have thought the quarterback had felt a ghost in the pocket given he immediately turned around to stare at seemingly nothing.

“There was a play down in the red zone when he’s going through his progression, he reads it perfectly, and he catches his cleat as he’s stepping up underneath the pass rush and throws the ball in the dirt. He stumbled a little bit on the field it looked like,” Carroll explained to 710 ESPN Seattle.

“Just so uncharacteristic. That would have been a third down execution. Freddie might have knocked it in the end zone, red zone win, you know, all that would have happened. And it was just a little footwork thing that just, you know, he got caught up stepping up under the pass rush. Which was a play, he did everything exactly right but then just his footwork got messed up.”

Given Arizona traveled with the shift of Freddie Swain across the formation, Wilson may have thought he was facing man-to-man coverage. Instead, the Cardinals dropped eight defenders into a middle field open defense. Wilson read the opening well, staying within the structure of Seattle’s offense, but the clip of his foot saw his mechanics discomforted into throwing a low and slow incompletion to Swain. 

This 3rd and 10 sack was a similar vibe to the Homer mistake: a pass protection failure. It was especially disappointing given that it killed what promised to be an effective drive, arriving after Will Dissly’s terrible drop on 2nd and 10 and DK Metcalf’s drop of 1st and 10 seam ball. Seattle put seven men in pass protection. Despite this, Wilson was unable to access his primary read, let alone his secondary, due to the instant pressure.

Brandon Shell and Gabe Jackson failed to effectively handle the game that Arizona ran. Jackson dipped too far outside with the pick of Markus Golden. Meanwhile, Chandler Jones looped inside into the room created, blazing past the minimal contact of Jackson to bring Wilson down. 

THIRD AND MIDDLE MIDDLE

It's the middle-middle third downs that should be given the most focus as they are the most doable. Indeed, all three from the Arizona game were serious opportunities for Seattle to move the chains. 

This 3rd and 6 with 1:15 left in the second quarter was the first moment that Arizona’s disguise messed with Wilson. The Cardinals showed middle field closed and man pressure via a mugged front. Instead, they immediately post-snap dropped into a Tampa 2 invert defense.

Lockett’s slant route was Wilson’s primary read and the quarterback showed extreme caution, not throwing to Lockett out of fear of the deep half safety. This would have been a tight throw yet there was room for the throw as Wilson hit his back foot.

Instead, the quarterback waited and the window shrunk. He then progressed to Everett over the middle, which was removed by the middle read safety. The other seam route/slot crossing route of Swain was open behind this safety, but Wilson immediately moved to his checkdown.

Through this full field read, the offensive line protected for Wilson. Wilson looking at DeeJay Dallas nestled over the middle led to him observing Jackson at right guard starting to lose. Wilson navigated backwards and away well, looking to Metcalf on the sideline versus what was essentially double coverage. The quarterback threw the ball out of the back of the end zone.

“There was a couple of third downs in the red zone, we’ve been really good in the red zone, we’ve been one of the top teams in the red zone, and we didn’t get our wins down there,” Carroll reflected to Salk.

Wilson’s worst miss came on his 3rd and 7 incompletion to Dallas. Seattle motioned Dallas to create four receivers to one side and created a numbers advantage, getting four versus three while throwing away from Arizona's middle field closed down rotation.

Wilson was forced to adjust his arm angle due to the presence of the leaping and tall Jones off the edge. The ball was thrown high and behind Dallas, seeing blocks lose their expected leverage and Dallas drop the football.

This should not be blamed on Wilson’s finger injury, an element that did not appear to impact any of his throws. 

“He feels fine, he really does feel fine,” Carroll mentioned to Salk. “I mean, I checked in with him last night, he came out of it feeling fine too, he did not think it was any kind of factor at all.” 

The eighth—and last—third down Seattle failed to make arrived with 6:54 left to play. Wilson was offered a chance at redemption versus the disguised Tampa 2. The quarterback undressed the defensive look well pre-snap with his cadence.

Wilson had clearly observed—or been informed about—the red zone Tyler Lockett slant window versus this coverage. So on this 3rd and 4, the quarterback tried the outside throw to Penny Hart’s slant. However, the Cardinals’ play-side curl defender, Jordan Hicks, played the situation superbly on this occasion. This restricted the available window and Wilson was forced to throw the ball further outside, seeing it land behind Hart’s route and therefore incomplete.

"THE CALLS ALL HAD A SHOT"

Carroll said in his radio appearance: “the calls all had a shot.” You can see the tape shows that he is right. The execution is just off in the crucial moments. Football is a game of very fine margins, and in each of the third down failures, Seattle missed one important element when the others looked right.

Carroll also suggested to Salk the possibility that his offense may need to relax. 

“We just needed to do it better and be more right, and maybe, you know, just chill out a little bit more in these situations and just count on us functioning and doing right, maybe we’re pushing and pressing a little bit on it.

“And that’s something that I have to do a better job of helping our guys believe that, you know, we know what we got, we know what we need to do and we go out there and execute it and then we’re getting the good results.”

Third down improvement is vital to the rhythm of the offense—an offseason buzzword that now feels like a misleading trope. Waldron’s job is difficult without sustained drives. 

“It’s like you’re getting the ball all over again when you convert on third down,” Carroll summarized to reporters on Monday. “And so that gives the opportunity for the variety of calls to use the play-sheet, and spread the ball around and all of that, which we know how to do but we just gotta get the chances to do it.”

However Seattle corrects its third down issues, it must get it done for the offense and Wilson to get back to a functioning standard—let alone the scoring that we have seen in past seasons.