RENTON, WA - Throughout his 11-plus seasons as coach, whenever the Seahawks have sputtered and failed to score points offensively, Pete Carroll has always turned to one source as the root cause of these struggles: the lack of a run game.
During a second half swoon a year ago that ultimately cost offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer his job, for example, Carroll persistently lamented about Seattle's inability to run the football enough. Along with winning the time of possession battle, with two-high safety sets becoming more prevalent league-wide in an effort to take away explosive downfield pass plays, he felt the only way they could get opponents out of those looks was via the run game.
Considering those prior comments and his affinity for running the football in general, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone Carroll's main takeaway from a 17-0 shutout loss in Green Bay on Sunday revolved around the dearth of carries for Seattle's running backs.
“I didn’t like that we didn’t get to run the ball more," Carroll told reporters on Monday. "In a close game like that, I would have expected that we would have run the ball more than we did. The running backs carried the ball 11 times, that’s not enough. It’s not enough to get into a rhythm and it’s not enough to get a feel for the game. We had so few plays run in the first half in particular. We just never got going.”
While Carroll's infatuation with running the football has become a punch line for some fans over the years, especially for those who have argued to "Let Russ Cook," he can't be faulted for being aggravated about Seattle's lackluster attempt to establish a run game in Green Bay.
The Packers entered Sunday's matchup with the No. 6 scoring defense in the NFL primarily due to their success stifling opposing passing games. They had allowed the seventh-fewest 20-plus yard passes in the league in their first nine games and also ranked 11th in sack percentage per 100 drop backs, combining a quality pass rush with a surprisingly dominant secondary.
But when it came to slowing down the run, Green Bay had been average at best through Week 9. According to Football Outsiders, the team ranked 22nd in DVOA defending the run and based on how they game planned for Seattle's offense, it's understandable why teams have found success in that aspect.
The Packers rolled into Sunday's contest deliberately inviting offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to hand the football off to Alex Collins and the rest of the Seahawks backs. Deploying the aforementioned two-deep safety looks for much of the game, defensive coordinator Joe Berry dared them to the run the ball by consistently having six or less defenders in the box.
Per NFL Next Gen stats, Green Bay had six or fewer defenders in the box on 97 percent of its defensive plays, the second-highest percentage for any team in a game this season. Berry rarely dialed up blitzes either, sending five or more defenders after Russell Wilson just 19 percent of the time, but that didn't prevent them from ratcheting up constant pressure on the quarterback.
But despite the fact the Packers did everything but beg for Waldron to run the ball, Wilson wound up dropping back to pass on 48 out of 59 offensive plays in his first game back from a complicated finger surgery that landed him on injured reserve for a month. This happened amid chilly temperatures at Lambeau Field, not exactly ideal conditions to have a pass-heavy game plan for a fully healthy quarterback, let alone one who clearly didn't look ready to play after a long layoff.
If the Seahawks were getting blown out early and/or the run game wasn't effective, then diverting to a one-dimensional approach would have been more forgivable. But neither was the case, as the game remained a defensive slugfest with the Packers up 3-0 after three quarters. Meanwhile, Alex Collins had found success on the ground with limited opportunities, averaging more than four yards per carry on the afternoon.
However, much to Carroll's frustration, the Seahawks simply didn't give their backs enough chances, pointing to poor third down efficiency early in the game once again being the main culprit. One particular drive stood out to him in the first quarter when two carries by Collins for 16 yards moved them into enemy territory, only for a ill-conceived flea flicker from Wilson to Will Dissly that lost six yards to destroy the drive.
“We came out running the ball and hit an 11 [yard gain], then a six. We got some movement and some space, but then we didn’t convert and then were off of the field," Carroll explained. "We have been in this rhythm a lot this year where our opponent will move the ball, kill some clock, and we are playing good defense, but it’s eating up clock. When we are not making first downs on the other side, all of a sudden, the half is squished into nothing. We are not creating enough movement, so that means we have to drive the ball better. That comes from being efficient on first and second downs and obviously, you need to convert, but we would rather be making first and second down move for us, so we make some first downs there. It hasn’t caught fire the way it needs to, so it’s still a work in progress for us.”
Then in the third quarter, Collins had seven and four-yard runs on back-to-back plays to move the Seahawks into the red zone for the first time. But instead of continuing to lean on the ground game, Wilson dropped back to pass five straight plays and threw an ugly interception to cornerback Kevin King trying to squeeze a pass into DK Metcalf in the end zone, leaving the offense empty-handed again.
It's a horror flick Carroll has seen way too many times this year with Seattle not being effective enough on early downs and unable to avoid negative plays. These issues have compounded themselves into far too many long third down situations and the third-worst conversion rate in the league. This in turn has led to the worst average time of possession in the NFL and put an exhausted defense in difficult spots on a weekly basis.
That trend continued in Green Bay, as the Packers held the football for nearly 20 minutes more than the Seahawks on Sunday. With Wilson throwing two horrible interceptions in the second half and the offense continuing to stumble with a one-dimensional approach, the dam finally broke when AJ Dillon dragged worn down defenders into the end zone for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to seal the win.
With an offensive line struggling to pass protect in front of a quarterback who was uncharacteristically erratic throwing the ball on Sunday, the Seahawks simply aren't built to sling the pigskin 40-plus times a game. And unfortunately, the buffet bashers haven't been very effective as run blockers either, putting Carroll and Waldron between a rock and a hard place as they try to get the offense back on track to facilitate a playoff run in the final eight games.
Though Seattle did finish a respectable 7-15 on third down conversions, the majority of those first downs were picked up in garbage time with Green Bay up multiple scores. As has been the case all season, until the team can convert on more third down chances early in games and allow the run game to truly be a factor as Carroll wants it to be in a balanced attack, it will be difficult sledding moving the ball and scoring points even with Wilson back under center.
“We just have to just stay with it and keep working off it. When we convert, we will. It’s been the same story for a while now. I hate keeping the topic alive. I want to get this thing and put it behind us. The third down numbers aren’t indicative of how we played yesterday, I don’t think, because the third down numbers early weren’t good. It’s great to get half of them, but we needed to do that within the drives early in the game. That’s where we were missing out.”