RENTON, Wash. - After being shut out by the 49ers one week prior, Geno Smith and the Seahawks took a massive step forward offensively last weekend despite falling short in a 27-23 loss to the Falcons.
Much to the encouragement of coach Pete Carroll, Seattle racked up a season-high 420 yards of total offense, with Smith leading the way completing 32 out of 44 passes for 325 yards. The team consistently moved the chains to sustain drives as well, converting on nine out of 17 third down opportunities, helping them win the time of possession battle for the first time this season.
But ultimately, the Seahawks were undone by two critical deficiencies that have dogged them throughout the season thus far and they still rank near the bottom of the league averaging just 15.7 points per game on offense. They struggled to create yardage after the catch, which has been a problem for the better part of a half decade in the Pacific Northwest, and most importantly, they haven't been able to put an exclamation point on red zone opportunities.
With Smith replacing Russell Wilson under center, Seattle has placed a greater emphasis on the short-to-intermediate passing game and isn't taking as many deep shots downfield. Per Pro Football Focus, the veteran signal caller has only attempted eight passes of 20 or more yards downfield, tied for 25th in the league. His performance has been a mixed bag on those throws, as he's completed four of them for 90 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
A successful offense doesn't have to be built around explosive downfield passes as the Seahawks have done for the past decade taking advantage of Wilson's deep ball prowess. But if a team is going to focus more on quick passing concepts, manufacturing yards after the catch is vital to generating big plays and moving the chains. Look no further than the 49ers, who had three players in the top 50 in yards after the catch in 2021, including Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.
After three weeks of play, according to Pro Football Reference, Smith ranks 30th out of 32 quarterbacks with his receivers averaging a paltry 3.5 yards after the catch per completion. Against the Falcons last Sunday, the Seahawks averaged just 3.2 yards after the catch per completion, sinking below that average.
While some may point to the quarterback for that number being so low, Smith merely plays the role of distributor in an offense that is predicated on unloading the ball from the pocket quickly and decisively. Once the ball is out of his hands, it's up to the receivers, running backs, and tight ends to be able to break a tackle or make a defender miss after the catch, and thus far, Seattle's skill players have been arguably the worst in the league in that department.
Per Pro Football Focus, only DK Metcalf has forced more than one missed tackle this season and as a team, the Seahawks have forced only seven missed tackles total in the passing game. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, the team's two biggest stars, are both averaging under 1.5 yards after the catch this year. Those numbers obviously are impacted by Lockett's propensity for going down immediately after the catch as a means of self preservation and Metcalf's talents as a downfield threat producing far more air yards than yards after the catch.
Currently, tight end Will Dissly leads the team with 40 yards after the catch, which ranks 106th in the NFL.
Somehow, if Seattle wants to continue relying on a short-to-intermediate passing game with Smith at the controls, the team has to find a way to be more productive after the catch. That onus largely falls on the players to step up their game as play makers with the ball in their hands, but coordinator Shane Waldron can scheme up those opportunities as well through the quick passing and screen game, and one personnel change could bolster those efforts.
Neither Metcalf nor Lockett have been great YAC producers in their NFL careers. But behind them on the depth chart, former second-round pick Dee Eskridge's calling card at Western Michigan was turning quick passes into big gains with elite speed and tackle-breaking ability. Thus far, he's played a grand total of 23 offensive snaps and has two catches for a mere six yards this year. Trying to find ways to get him more involved would immediately help in this department.
It would also be helpful to scheme plays for tight end Noah Fant to get the ball in space and go to work. Two years ago with the Broncos, he finished fifth among tight ends averaging 6.0 yards after the catch per reception and third overall at his position with 372 yards after the catch. Given his speed and athleticism, he should be a bigger focal point after producing only 54 yards and 3.0 yards after the catch through the Seahawks' first three games.
While finding a way to be more effective manufacturing yardage in the passing game should be a priority for Smith and Waldron, it still takes a back seat to the Seahawks biggest problem on offense, as they have struggled to finish in the red zone. After three games, only the Broncos have been worse at scoring touchdowns inside the opposing 20-yard line, as the Seahawks have been held to a dismal 25 percent red zone percentage.
For those who witnessed training camp practices in July and August, red zone failures shouldn't come as a surprise. Regardless of whether Smith or Drew Lock was at the wheel, Seattle's defense won the majority of situational red zone team blitz drills with the offense sometimes enduring lengthy scoring droughts that spanned through multiple practice sessions.
What's been the primary culprit for the Seahawks ineptitude in the red zone? Rather than point the finger at one position or coach, it's been a collective group effort.
From a passing perspective, Smith has been solid inside the 20, completing five out of nine pass attempts with two touchdown passes. However, he hasn't been able to come through in clutch situations on third and fourth down. So far this year, when facing third or fourth down in the red zone, he's completed one out of four pass attempts for one yard, failing to move the chains once.
Last weekend, Smith's 3rd and 2 goal line fade to Metcalf sailed over the receiver's head in the third quarter, leading to a timeout and Carroll ultimately choosing to settle for three points rather than going for it at the Falcons seven-yard line. Losing by four on the scoreboard, the inability to cap off that drive with a touchdown wound up being a critical missed opportunity.
Two weeks earlier, Smith also got stuffed on a 4th and 1 quarterback sneak by the Broncos at the opposing seven-yard line, appearing to slip after the snap and failing to reach the ball past the pylon.
In Smith's defense, the Seahawks haven't been able to run the football effectively as they have approached the opposing goal line. In fact, they haven't even really tried. Starter Rashaad Penny has received just four carries inside the 20-yard line, rushing for four yards and one first down. Rookie Ken Walker III has ran the ball once for five yards and neither DeeJay Dallas or Travis Homer have earned a single carry in such situations.
In total, Seattle has handed the ball off to running backs in the red zone five times and none of them have yet to find the end zone. With defenses still running a lot of two-deep safety coverages in such situations, Smith thinks getting the ground game going would have a positive impact on him and his receivers once they get into congested territory in the red zone.
“I mean the run game helps all aspects of our offense especially in the red zone," Smith explained. "We can run the ball and you can see some loaded boxes there but we’ve been seeing some two-high down there as well so we can run the ball in and really just be strong in that aspect down there. It just helps the team out and the offense out. But anytime you can run the ball, it makes it easier on the entire offense.”
On top of that, Waldron and Carroll inexplicably took the ball out of Smith's hands on the only promising drive Seattle had against San Francisco two weeks ago, running a bizarre four-back wildcat offense with Dallas throwing an ugly interception trying to get the football to Metcalf on a trick play. That back-breaking turnover happened at the 49ers 13-yard line, taking away at least three points.
Though frustrated by the Seahawks red zone woes, the ever-optimistic Carroll isn't concerned long-term because of his confidence in Smith and the abundance of talent around him, including the stable of backs behind him. Encouraged by progress he saw on the field a week ago getting into the red zone three out of eight possessions, the group simply has to finish once they get there.
"We missed our third downs down there in some situations we just got to finish the drive, we’re there," Carroll said on Wednesday. "Usually, the baseline of that is running the football down there so you can continue to pound away and make your yards but then, you have to make your big plays. That’s got to come through for us. We have the stuff that we need. We got the guys to catch the football and Geno Smith can throw. We’ve just got to do it and be down there and win.”
If there's a week for Seattle to get its offense clicking on all cylinders, Sunday's opponent may be just what the doctor ordered. Detroit has been quite charitable in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on a league-worst 90 percent of drives when opponents advance the ball inside the 20-yard line. Per PFF, the Lions also have allowed 407 yards after the catch thanks in large part to 32 combined missed tackles as a team.
Echoing Carroll's sentiments, Smith isn't worried about the Seahawks being able to score points and maintains the utmost confidence in the players around him getting the job done. From his perspective, improved red zone efficiency boils down to better execution and less self-inflicted mistakes, and he and his teammates will have an ideal opportunity to remedy the problem this weekend at Ford Field.
"We have to score touchdowns and can’t just be happy with settling for field goals obviously. There are going to be things that will happen, and there have been things that have happened where we shot ourselves in the foot here and there. For the most part, we just have to finish. It just comes down to our ‘want to’ and ‘will’ to finish in the red zone.”
Want the latest in breaking news and insider information on the Seahawks? Click Here to subscribe to AllSeahawks.com's Newsletter.