Coaches talk third-down failure, but it starts on first two downs

seahawks-cowboys logoThird downs get such a bum rap.

One of these days, we hope, Pete Carroll and his coaches will realize third-down success starts on first down. They never seem to get that, constantly droning on after losses about how third downs ruined their offense.

It was more of the same after the 24-22 playoff loss to Dallas, with Carroll telling anyone who would listen that their failure on 11 of 13 third downs was what did them in — as opposed to any play-calling mistakes on the preceding downs.

Brian Schottenheimer continued the refrain Thursday, telling 710 ESPN: “The biggest issue that we had — and it was kind of the issue for us throughout the course of the year when we struggled – was third down. We weren’t able to convert on third downs. We weren’t able to get momentum going. We’re kind of an offense, because we run the ball and we throw the deep play passes, that when you’re struggling on third down it kind of hurts your ability to get started.”

It’s true the Hawks put themselves in big holes on third down; they averaged third-and-8 and went three-and-out six times in 12 possessions.

But how do you get into trouble on third down? How do you get into a spot that is too challenging to overcome? By messing up on first and second downs. And the Seattle offense finished the season just as poorly as it started it.

In Dallas, the Seahawks netted one yard on first down in three first-quarter series. And, if you take out the two chunk passing plays (26 and 40 yards) they had on their first drive of the second quarter, they averaged just 3.2 yards on first down in their 11 other drives. With penalties factored in, they were at second-and-9 on average throughout the game (17 second downs).

The failure was rooted in using the running backs too much and the receivers not enough, especially after the Seahawks realized how hard it was going to be to run behind a couple of banged-up guards against a stout run defense.

The first-quarter failures were less in the running game (Chris Carson gained 13 yards on three carries) than in the short passing game. Russell Wilson missed J.D. McKissic on third-and-2 to end the first drive, and Carson was buried for an 8-yard loss on a screen play to start the second series (Justin Britt missed his block).

One of Schottenheimer’s main failures throughout the season was calling running plays on second-and-long. He did it after that busted screen, with Carson gaining five yards on second-and-18. That’s not the kind of play that is going to extend a drive.

On the third drive, Schottenheimer reverted to the old run-run-pass formula, with Carson gaining just four yards on his first two carries. Another third-and-long, and Wilson was sacked.

The big failure in the first quarter was not getting wide receivers involved at all. In fact, Doug Baldwin was targeted once in the first half (an incompletion).

That second-quarter drive that started with two big pass plays — one to Ed Dickson and one to Tyler Lockett — showed that the Hawks had something in the passing game against Dallas. But Schottenheimer got predictable in the red zone, going run-run-pass and settling for a field goal.

With 3:12 left in the half, Seattle came out in the two-minute offense, as you would expect, and Wilson hit Lockett for 25 yards to get to the Dallas 27 — another big passing play that should have clued Schottenheimer in about how he should approach the second half. But then Carson was tackled for a loss of four, setting up another second-and-long, and the Hawks ended up with another field goal.

Rather than come out passing in the third quarter, Schottenheimer reverted to run-run-pass — Carson gained just four yards on the first two downs, and Seattle went from second-and-9 to third-and-six and a punt.

On the next drive, Schottenheimer came out throwing, and Wilson hit Dickson for a 9-yard gain — setting up a nice second-and-1. Rashaad Penny busted off two good runs — a 5-yarder for the first down and then a big 28-yard burst. But he lost seven on the next run off left end — and that shorted out another drive.

The Seahawks finally scored a touchdown late in the third quarter, on a drive that started at the Dallas 44. Carroll strangely touted the Seahawks’ success on that drive.

Carroll gushed: “You forget maybe that the go-ahead touchdown drive in this game was a nine-play drive — eight plays were runs. … To try to blame Schotty or the play caller — I understand that reaction, but it isn’t warranted.”

Really? Apparently the coach forgot that the Seahawks gained just 11 yards on six tailback runs during that drive. The TD came because of Baldwin’s 22-yard bailout catch on fourth down and Wilson’s two runs — seven yards on third down and then the 4-yard TD scamper.

In the fourth quarter, it was back to second-and-long and an eventual punt after Carson lost a yard on first down. Penalties on Britt and D.J. Fluker ruined the next series, and then Dallas scored to put Seattle down 24-14 with 2:08 left — and that was essentially the end of it.

Just like the opener in Denver, this game was not lost on third down. It was lost on the first two.

The overreliance on running backs — in the passing game (eight targets), coupled with the ineffective running game — scuttled Seattle’s offense. Of the 38 plays on first or second down, 23 went to running backs, just eight to receivers. The first/second-down receiver target percentage (21) was about the same as Seattle had tallied during the season (22), but it was a poor strategy in a game where Dallas was all over Seattle’s backs.

Remember: This season, the Seahawks were 10-1 when Wilson targeted his receivers at least half the time, 0-6 when he didn’t.

If Wilson was to blame, Schottenheimer should have made a coaching adjustment to get the quarterback to target his receivers. If it was just the game plan to use the running backs more, it was faulty and Schottenheimer failed to make the needed changes.

“I think we’ve got to be better,” Schottenheimer admitted, adding that he needs to find “calls that can get us back on track, get us into third-and-3s and 4s, instead of third-and-9 and 10s. … We didn’t get (the right plays) dialed up like we needed to. That starts with me, and again we didn’t execute perfectly.”

Now hopefully Carroll and Schottenheimer will figure that out and find ways to involve receivers more on the first two downs.

“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish,” Schottenheimer said, “but give us this offseason to build and grow, and I’m really excited about where we can go.”

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