In Quest For Complete Game, Third Down Struggles Remain Seahawks' Achilles Heel

Through the first first four games of the 2021 season, Seattle hasn't been able to play three quarters of quality football on offense. While other factors have contributed, ineptitude on third down has been the main culprit for the team's inconsistency thus far.
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Rebounding from a putrid start offensively on Sunday, the Seahawks went off scoring four touchdowns during the final 35 minutes of play to discard the 49ers for a 28-21 road victory in their NFC West opener.

The win pushed Seattle back to .500 with a 2-2 record and prevented quarterback Russell Wilson from suffering a third consecutive defeat for the first time in his NFL career. In the process, there were plenty of positives to unpack on offense, including the emergence of running back Alex Collins and a great response by the entire offensive line after struggling mightily out of the gate.

But while there's reason for optimism heading into another pivotal divisional matchup against the Rams on Thursday night, the Seahawks have yet to put together a complete game. Through four contests, they have had at least one quarter in each game without scoring any points, including being shut out by the Vikings in the second half two weeks ago.

Prior to Sunday's game, Seattle led the league averaging close to 21 points per game in the first half. But in the second half, the team ranked dead-last averaging under five points per game in the third and fourth quarter. The script received a changeup in Santa Clara, with Wilson and company having five straight three-and-outs to open the game before putting up 21 points in the second half.

"I think you guys jinxed us," Wilson told reporters after the game. "I think you guys were saying we could start good early and couldn't finish late, so we flipped it around on you guys."

In losses to the Titans and Vikings, the Seahawks didn't get many opportunities to possess the football as the defense couldn't find ways to get off the field. Both teams had the ball at least 20 minutes in the second half of both games, feeding the ball to Derrick Henry and Alexander Mattison to control the clock and keep the ball out of Wilson's hands.

But ultimately, Seattle's inability to move the football effectively for four quarters keeps coming back to the same central problem: They aren't getting the job done well enough on third downs. That trend continued on Sunday, as the team finished an abysmal two for 10 on third down situations, failing to sustain drives.

Currently, per Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks are tied with the winless Jaguars and Lions ranked 27th in the NFL converting on only 33 percent of their third down opportunities. Much to the dismay of coach Pete Carroll, every other team in the NFC West, including the 49ers, has been more efficient moving the chains in such situations.

“They are not good enough," Carroll bluntly said of the team's third down numbers. "We need more conversions to keep moving it and need more consistency. We aren’t making the first downs, we have to get them. There are so many factors that go into that, so it isn’t that easy. I haven’t found the consistency of going back to the same guys in similar situations that sometimes happens, you get going to DK [Metcalf], you get going to Tyler [Lockett], and Gerald [Everett] is a factor for us when he’s there too. There’s a rhythm for it that we haven’t found yet, but we are working for it.”

While not all of the blame for poor third down performance falls on the shoulders of Wilson, who has been under frequent duress and sacked six times on 33 drop backs, he hasn't been near as effective as previous seasons in the passing department. The quarterback has completed only eight out of 22 passes (36.4 percent) for 178 yards and two touchdowns and per usual, some of the pressure has been created by his willingness to hold onto the ball looking for a big play downfield.

For his career, Wilson has completed 59.5 percent of his pass attempts on third down for 9,039 yards, 69 touchdowns, and a 92.9 passer rating. He's also taken a whopping 160 sacks and interestingly, Seattle has only converted 40.3 percent of third downs since he first became starter in 2012.

One of the biggest issues in the present has been the length of third downs Wilson and his teammates have been tasked with trying to convert. 20 of the team's 39 third down snaps (51.2 percent) have been with seven or more yards to gain for a first down, including nine plays of 3rd and 10 or longer. Penalties and poor results on early downs both factored into that high percentage and not surprisingly, the Seahawks have only picked up four first downs for a 20 percent conversion rate on those plays. 

When asked about his thoughts on Seattle's third down struggles and high volume of third and long scenarios, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron pointed to the team's first and second down productivity as a key ingredient to those difficulties. When they have excelled in those areas, points have come in bunches.

"If we can have as many of those third and six or less just like the rest of the NFL is, we will have a better chance of success in those scenarios," Waldron said on Tuesday. "For us, when it comes to those third downs in particular, we have to keep getting the ball out of our hands, getting ready to pick up all of the different pressures that come our way, and continue to do a good job with it knowing that it’s an area that we need to continue to strive to improve in. It all starts with that first and second down execution, a lot of our drives that end up in points, you are limiting those third down chances throughout those drives. It’s no coincidence that those can lead to touchdown drives or field goal drives when you can eliminate that part of it.”

From Waldron's perspective, finding a bit more consistency in the run game on early downs could work wonders solving that issue by making third downs easier for Wilson and the rest of the offense. So far, they've only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on first down, though they have been more effective averaging 5.6 yards per carry on second down with 20 less carries.

“We can stay efficient with those runs of getting those four yards and plus rush attempts as we are going into the game and staying into those second down and mediums or short. It helps out and transitions usually to those third down or shorter which are more manageable," Waldron said, citing a 28-yard completion from Wilson to DK Metcalf on a third and short opportunity on Sunday. "I know getting into a third and short this past game really allowed us to create an explosive there, and get momentum going offensively. That is really what we are looking for and it starts with the run game and being efficient in those areas.”

As Carroll and Wilson each astutely pointed out on Tuesday, however, Seattle has actually been pretty efficient on first and second downs overall. According to Football Outsiders, the team ranks seventh in DVOA on first down plays and first in the NFL in DVOA on second down plays.

Ultimately, the third down ineptitude has boiled down mostly to costly penalties and, as Waldron hinted, taking big losses on sacks or broken plays that need to be cleaned up.

"I think we've done a good job in terms of efficiency on first and second down," Wilson remarked. "But the times we've had a penalty or something didn't go right and this and that, I think that's where we caught ourselves in a little bit of trouble, so I think we'll make sure that we continue to work on that and make sure we fix it for Thursday."

When the Seahawks have had more reasonable third down situations with six or less yards to gain for a new set of downs, as Wilson noted, they have been a bit more productive as expected with a 47.4 percent conversion rate in more ideal circumstances. That would be good enough for sixth-best in the NFL right now.

But Wilson still has only completed four out of 12 passes for 88 yards in those situations and has accounted for just five first downs and a touchdown. Even though Aaron Donald and the Rams have regressed defending third downs this year and have allowed opponents to convert on 50 percent of their attempts, Wilson, Carroll, and Waldron understand such numbers won't cut it on Thursday.

To earn a second straight victory against one of the league's premier teams, the Seahawks will have to be much better on third down than they have been moving forward, and the failure to make noticeable improvements in that area could prevent championship aspirations from becoming reality.