Seahawks’ play-call tendencies show offense dependent on ‘staying on schedule’

They talk about it so much, they sound like train conductors. Or budget managers.

“Staying on schedule.”

It’s the basis for the Seahawks’ run-first-to-set-up-the-pass offense. In this way, “schedule” means manageable distances on succeeding downs. First and 10 becomes second and 6 into third and 2, and the like.

Checks in the mail arrive more on schedule than the Seahawks were in their opener last weekend.

The offense got out-gained 429 to 233 in a 21-20 escape past Cincinnati. It had second and 16 or more three times. Seattle had third down and 16 or more yards to go a staggering five times. That was the most such situations in the NFL on opening weekend.

You have as many good plays as Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has for third and 16.

Of the mere 49 offensive plays the Seahawks had against Cincinnati, 12 of them were second and third downs and double-digit yards to go for the first down.

Seattle was in long, long yardage on almost one-fourth of its offensive snaps.

“That’s crazy-bad football,” coach Pete Carroll said.

And crazy off schedule.

The NFL’s best rushing offense from 2018 is next to useless on second and third and 16. And the issues the Seahawks’ offensive line has had in pass protection for years, including on Sunday, look even worse when defenders know the Seahawks have to throw to get a first down. Worse, as in center Justin Britt being thrown onto his knees and right tackle Germain Ifedi getting sped past. Both happened early in Sunday’s game.

Britt went to the ground on Seattle’s first pass attempt Sunday, a play on which Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins hit quarterback Russell Wilson.

“We have to be able to come out and play to a certain level. We didn’t start off that way,” Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown said. “We had some great moments, but we just have to have it consistently.

“Again, Cincinnati has a great front seven. They did a heck of a job, great game plan.

“We just have to be better.”

Better, specifically, running the ball on first and second down.

Just what many of you wanted to hear, eh?

Seattle’s offensive system is so run heavy, its ability and even willingness to make up for negative plays and penalties is lower than most teams in the league.

Even—make that, especially—the bad teams throw it more than the 20 times Wilson did despite on Sunday despite all the long-yardage situations.

“I think the reason why we were a little bit behind is just because it was third and 15, third and 22, third and 30,” Wilson said. “You know, it’s hard to do anything in that situation.

“We said that before, right?”

Absolutely, positively right.

The Seahawks were in second or third down and more than 10 yards to go 99 times in 16 regular-season games last year. That’s more than six times per game, on average.

When they aren’t running effectively on early downs—when the linemen aren’t doing what they do best, run block—Wilson often gets pressured or sacks on later ones. And the offense goes nowhere.

Actually, it goes backward.

Recall the first two games of last season, at Denver and at Chicago. Wilson got sacked a league-high 12 times through the first two weeks of last season, when Seattle threw it on 73 percent of its snaps. The Seahawks lost both games to start the season 0-2.

Monday, in the rare luxury of discussing all that went wrong following a win, Carroll was asked why the offense was losing yards against the Bengals and just didn’t look in sync for most of the opening game.

“Well, it’s not that easy,” the coach said. “We wound up in five or six third and 16s or more. That’s crazy-bad football. You can’t function like that.”

Carroll then expounded on his answer. It was revealing. The fact he had these numbers on the tip of his tongue show how closely he, Schottenheimer and Wilson pay attention to staying on schedule.

“When we were in third and 10 or less, we were 4 for 7 on third-down conversions,” Carroll said. “That’s the way we’re supposed to be playing football. But stuff added on—a couple penalties, a couple sacks— and you’re behind the sticks so far it’s hard to overcome it. That’s really what happened.”

Here’s what else happened, again, when the Seahawks’ running game was stalled, while lead rusher Chris Carson, the 1,100-yard back last season, was grinding out just 25 yards in his first 14 carries:

The Bengals did what most defenses are likely to do early this season against Seattle, including this Sunday at Pittsburgh (0-1). Cincinnati moved defenders closer to the line of scrimmage and flooded running lanes. Having studied Seattle’s tendencies from most of the 2018 season, the Bengals took away the Seahawks’ run on first and second downs.

So when he had to throw, Wilson was hit twice and sacked once within his first five drop backs to pass. Alarmingly, the Bengals were getting to the quarterback with just four down linemen. That allowed the Bengals to cover Seattle’s receivers with seven defenders on four or five Seahawks down the field.

Schottenheimer’s in-game adjustment was to call more conservative plays safer to Wilson’s well-being on second and third and long. The Seahawks ran the ball four times on second and 10. That was the most runs on that down at that distance in the league in week one.

They ran it on one of their two second and 16s or more, and on two of their five third and 16s-plus plays.

The sold-out CenturyLink Field crowd booed increasingly with each one of those. But the white-flag calls were what they were when Schottenheimer did it last season: a decision to rely on All-Pro punter Michael Dickson to flip field position then the defense to keep the team in the game while Wilson stayed upright long enough for the offense to figure it out.

And that’s what happened. Dickson had punts of 51, 60 and 54 yards. Although the defense was giving up yards by the dozens, it wasn’t allowing points. Cincinnati kept self-destructing inside the Seattle 35-yard line: sacks, missed field goals, a turnover on downs, Dalton losing grip on a pass that became a fumble into the mitts of Seahawks defensive tackle Al Woods.

Then, with Seattle only down 17-14 in the fourth quarter despite being out-played, Wilson faked a hand-off left, rolled right and found Tyler Lockett wide open freed from day-long double coverage. The 44-yard touchdown pass, Lockett’s first pass target of the game, proved to be the winning points.

So how to fix this for Sunday when the Seahawks meet some angry Steelers in Pittsburgh?

You may be saying (screaming) Schottenheimer breaking some tendencies to run on first down could help.

Well, Seattle ran the ball 13 times and threw 10 passes on first down against Cincinnati. That broke the Seahawks’ tendency from last season. The Seahawks ran it 278 times on first down and threw it 160 times in 2017. That was the most runs and fewest passes in the NFL on first down last year.

Of course, that fits Seattle. It ran more and threw it less than anyone in the league in 2018. And the Seahawks went to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

Against Cincinnati, they did throw more on early downs. It’s just the later downs were so bad the Seahawks sometimes waved a white flag, ran it or threw a short, check-down pass and punted.

If anything, listening to Wilson and Carroll this week makes one expect more runs on first downs by Carson and Rashaad Penny against the Steelers.

“If it were that easy, I would fix that. I would click the button and away we go,” Carroll said, pantomiming a button push with his thumb. “So, we have to be more consistent. We’ve got to stay ahead of the sticks. We have to be more effective running the ball on early downs.

“When we didn’t make much of the running game early, losing the drive in the first quarter screwed us up a little bit, because we got antsy a little bit. One drive and a couple plays, and we were in the second quarter already and hadn’t accomplished much.

“So, we didn’t start quickly enough. But the cool thing was that we figured it out. We got down the field (late in the third quarter while down 17-14). We made our plays. Got enough to win, and defense held them off, and we got out.

“First game behind us.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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