The complaints about it might last as long around here as they do about the traffic.
Play calling in the Seahawks’ loss that ended their 2018 season.
“Look, we’re no different,” Brian Schottenheimer, the guy who calls the plays, told Seattle’s KIRO AM Thursday. “I wake up on Sunday and you start thinking through the game.”
Schottenheimer was on the radio Thursday, four days after “the game,” Seattle’s 24-22 wild-card playoff loss at Dallas Saturday night. The offensive coordinator was asked what they many in the Pacific Northwest have been howling all week: Why did you not use Russell Wilson more? Why not let your Super Bowl-winning, Pro Bowl quarterback throw the ball more after the Cowboys’ stopped the run?
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“The biggest issue that we had, and it was kind of the issue that we had all year when we struggled, was third down,” Schottenheimer said on the “Brock and Salk” show. “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, when you struggle on third down it kind of hurts your ability to get started.”
Going 2-for-13 on third downs hurts any team.
It killed the Seahawks. And their season.
“So, there were certainly things that we wanted to do,” Schottenheimer said. “There were certainly things that we had on the call sheet where I’m like, ‘Golly, I can’t believe I didn’t get that called!’ But it was our inability in converting the third downs.
“We put ourselves in, I think it was, 13 third downs. I think four of them were 10 or more (yards to go). Seven of them were 7 (yards) or more. We just got behind the sticks.
“And so I think we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be able to... myself—OK, these are get-back-on-track calls: This can get us back on track, get us to third-and-threes and -fours instead of, you know, third-and-nines and -10s.”
Schottenheimer said third down being pivotal was a trend throughout the season for his offense. It led the league in rushing at 160 yards per game. It scored 428 points in the regular season. The points were second-most in team history, 24 behind Mike Holmgren’s, Shaun Alexander’s and Matt Hasselbeck’s 2005 team that reached Seattle’s first Super Bowl.
“That was a theme that when we were playing really well this year we were great on third down,” Schottenheimer, the 19-year veteran NFL offensive assistant, said. “That allowed us to sustain drives. Again, you give us extra plays, a Chris Carson is going to break out, a Tyler Lockett is going to get free deep.
“And ultimately, when I look back on the game, that was the biggest issue.”
Converting just 15 percent at Dallas was Seattle’s second-worst performance on third down this past season.
At least it was better than nothing; the Seahawks were zero percent, 0-for-10, Sept. 30 at Arizona. Yet they won that game.
For the season the Seahawks were 38.9 percent converting on third down. That was 17th best in the NFL. Seattle was the only one of the six teams that reached the NFC playoffs that wasn’t in the top 12 in the league in third-down conversion rate.
For many Seahawks fans, the third-down rate against the Cowboys last weekend was also the play caller’s fault.
Seattle went three-and-out on each of its first three drives in Dallas. All three of those times Wilson was pressured trying to throw on third down for the only time in those possessions. That early Cowboys pass rush seemed to discourage coach Pete Carroll and Schottenheimer from calling more pass plays, on any downs.
The Seahawks went three-and-out six times total in the game. They ran it two out of three plays on four of those quick possessions. Carson, the team’s 1,100-yard rusher in the regular season, ran seven times for 21 yards on those early three-and-out drives.
Schottenheimer called runs 20 times on first and second downs in Saturday’s game. Those rushes gained a total of 58 yards, not even 3 yards per rush. And that includes the 28-yard burst by rookie Rashaad Penny on a bounce-out run around right end in the third quarter. Take out that, and it was 19 carries for 30 yards on first and second downs.
How did that happen?
Dallas’ defensive front slanted into run gaps and dominated the line of scrimmage physically. Plus the Cowboys’ linebackers including impressive rookie Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith scraped hard into the run gaps. That often put two defenders in Carson’s run lane. Carroll also mentioned he over-estimated how well recently injured guards D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy, huge, rugged plows for the run game all season, would perform in the game after not practicing the previous couple weeks.
That’s why Seattle had third-and-13, third-and-6, third-and-7, third-and-17—and then a third-and-20, after a penalty for unnecessary roughness on Fluker following a Doug Baldwin catch in the fourth quarter.
“You saw us trying to adjust a little bit in that fourth series,” Schottenheimer said on the radio Thursday. “We started slow at Dallas, you saw us try to adjust and come off with the play(-action) pass.”
On that fourth series, early in the second quarter, Wilson threw for 26 yards on play action to tight end Ed Dickson, then for 40 more yards to Lockett to the Cowboys 12 on the next play. Those were Seattle’s initial first downs of the game. Two runs by Carson for 3 total yards and an incomplete pass to Dickson later, the Seahawks settled for a short field goal for their first points.
Thing is, this is how the Seahawks got to the playoffs: by running the ball more often and for more yards—and passing it less—than anyone else in the NFL. It’s how the team rallied, from an 0-2 start when Schottenheimer and Carroll had Wilson throwing it 73 percent of the time while absorbing a league-high 12 sacks through two games, to 10 wins in their final 14 games.
In only one of its 10 wins this season did the Seahawks not run how they wanted to. On Nov. 25 at Carolina, the Panthers held Seattle to 75 yards on 28 carries.
Yet the Seahawks ran in 2018 not just for yards, but also to give their offensive line that still struggled in pass protection when defenses knew Wilson was going to throw a better chance to pass protection. They ran to give their quarterback time to make plays with his legs and arm late in games. That’s what happened late in that game at Carolina.
The fact the Seahawks ran 28 times made the Panthers defense play honestly. That, in turn, slowed down their pass rush enough for Wilson to buy time on fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter on his tying touchdown pass to David Moore, and again on the slide left and throw right to Lockett in the final minute. The second, extended play set up Janikowski’s field goal on the game’s final play.
The Seahawks lived by the run all season to return to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
They died by it in Dallas.
“We couldn’t have been more committed to being an aggressive football team than we were this year. That meant that we’re playing great defense and we’re working on our (special) teams and running the football,” Carroll said. “And we’re playing off of that. That’s us. That’s how we do it.
“That’s not anybody but starting with me. The fact that Schotty was working the game plan and trying to hammer the football is what we did every week. And that’s how we’ve figured to win.”
Indeed, as Carroll pointed out, the same play calls many have been ripping all week had Seattle ahead 14-10 at Dallas in the fourth quarter. Then the Seahawks’ defense allowed 121 yards and 14 points to end any chance of advancing to this weekend’s second round of the playoffs.
It’s Schottenheimer who takes Carroll’s system and directives and then calls the individual formations and plays.
What was particularly galling for many was Schottenheimer’s decision to go to an empty backfield on the one third down where the run was a viable option: third-and-2 at the Dallas 48 in the first quarter. Schottenheimer had third-down back J.D. McKissic shifted outside as a split receiver. That formation showed the Cowboys there was zero chance Wilson would hand the ball off to a back beside or behind him in shotgun formation, because there was no one beside or behind him. Knowing Seattle was throwing, Dallas pressured Wilson into a harried scramble to the right and rushed pass to McKissic that was incomplete. Then Seattle punted again.
“That was one of those calls when I look back (I say), ‘You know what? There were better calls,’” Schottenheimer told 710 ESPN Seattle.
“They came up and actually went ‘dime’ (six defensive backs), which meant they put in an extra defensive back to play J.D. And they ended up covering it.
“Again, I have no problem being accountable for those things. There were better calls in that situation.
“What we know about empty, empty does clean the picture for the quarterback a little bit. Empty does create huge running lanes for our quarterback, so if they do cover people our quarterback has been known to get out for explosive plays.
“Again... that probably wasn’t the best call for that play.”
In one moment Thursday Schottenheimer said: “We’ve got a way we play. We are a physical football team. We are a run-first football team that plays into our play(-action) pass.”
But in another one he said the Seahawks’ offensive style in 2018 isn’t necessarily how it will be in 2019.
“We are always looking to grow,” Schottenheimer said. “I know more about Russell today. He knows more about me...
“We are going to go into this offseason with, ‘What more can we add?’...
“You’ve got to evolve in this game.”