Letting Russ Cook could hardly have worked better the first half of the season, as Russell Wilson spent much of September and October on an NFL-record pace for touchdown passes and the Seahawks led the league in scoring.
But the stunning home playoff loss Saturday to the Rams added more flame to the debate about what happened to Seattle’s offense in the second half of the season. The Seahawks were held to a season-low 278 yards, and Wilson completed just 11 passes, tied for the ninth-fewest of his career, regular season or playoffs.
And in the aftermath of the offense’s second-half slide, coach Pete Carroll said Monday he has come to one conclusion:
Wilson and the passing game need more help. Specifically, from the running game.
Carroll said he knows that might not be music to fans’ ears, after they surely loved the highflying ways of the first half of the season.
But, as he essentially said, Carroll is the coach, and it’s his call.
“We have to run the ball better,” Carroll said. “Not even better — we have to run it more. We have to dictate what’s going on with the people that we’re playing, and that’s one of the ways to do that. And I know the fans aren’t really jacked about hearing that, but Russ knows it, too. We need to be able to knock those guys into the scheme that we want to throw at.”
Carroll said many of the defenses Seattle faced down the stretch favored a Cover-2 scheme, meaning keeping two safeties deep, which is designed to eliminate big plays. That’s something he felt the Rams did well Saturday.
“Frankly, I’d like to not play against 2-deep looks all season long next year,” Carroll said.
The Rams’ defensive front had its way with the Seahawks much of the day, led by Aaron Donald. And the Rams have one of the NFL’s best cover corners in Jalen Ramsey. Those were obvious factors Saturday.
What the Seahawks must do is run the ball well and often enough that defenses can’t keep safeties far off the line all game, Carroll said.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to run the ball 50 times a game,” Carroll said. “It means we need to run the ball with direction and focus and style that allows us to dictate the game.”
Carroll also said he wished the Seahawks had focused more on their quick passing game against the Rams.
But those are routes that often make use of the middle field, and the Seahawks struggled to connect there Saturday. Wilson, for instance, was just 1 for 7 for 1 yard throwing to tight ends.
As the Seahawks began to face better defenses — including three games against the Rams, who led the league in total defense and pass defense this season— they reined in their passing game.
One reason, as Carroll alluded to Monday, was to cut down on turnovers. The Seahawks had 10 turnovers in three defeats during a four-game midseason span. That included seven interceptions by Wilson, who had just seven in the other 14 games this season.
Seattle was 12-0 this season when it had one or fewer turnovers and 0-5 when it didn’t. That included Saturday, when a pick-six in the second quarter helped turn the game.
Seattle was sixth in the NFL in percentage of passing plays through the first eight games of the season at 62.45 but finished the season 14th at 59.59. The Seahawks had a pass-to-run percentage of 54.34 in 2019, 27th in the NFL.
As Carroll noted, Seattle won its last four games of the regular season — and six of the final seven — when it dialed down the passing, winning with a formula focused on defense and ball control.
“It’s not just the running game,” Carroll said. “It is the style of passes that will help us some. But we have to get after it a little bit differently. As it unfolded in the end of the season, it became really obvious. In the last four or five games, it became really obvious. Remember, I don’t mind winning 20-9. I don’t mind winning 17-14. I want to win controlling the game. That means we don’t give them the football. We gave them the football a couple times in this game. It was the difference.”
Another difference was third-down conversions. The Seahawks were just 2 for 14 on third down, including 0 for 5 in the first half. The Seahawks, for all their offensive prowess at times, were just 27th in third-down conversion rate this season at just over 38%. Carroll said he’d like to be in the 45-48% range.
Running the ball better, Carroll said, can help keep Seattle out of more third-and-long situations. The Seahawks had 38 third downs of 10 yards or longer this season and converted just two. They were 76 for 189 overall.
“Third down has got to be better,” Carroll said.
Seattle had some success running the ball on the Rams early, with 72 yards on 12 carries, though 14 came on a Chris Carson run on second-and-34 and 17 on a scramble by Wilson.
The Seahawks had less success running as the game wore on. They had 64 yards on 13 carries in the second half, but just 36 on 11 carries from Carson and Carlos Hyde.
What also shifted in the second half of the season was the strength of the defenses the Seahawks faced. Of their final nine opponents, including the playoffs, seven had defenses ranked in the top 13 in the NFL in yards allowed per game.
The strength of Seattle’s defense also shifted, particularly after the addition of end Carlos Dunlap and the return of safety Jamal Adams.
The Seahawks hope to keep much of that defense intact, and Carroll seemed to hint strongly at returning to the tried-and-true philosophy of the Legion of Boom days — running, ball control and defense.
Who will run the ball in 2021, though, remains one of Seattle’s key questions entering the offseason. Carson and Hyde are free agents, and Rashaad Penny, who has one year left on his contract, played just three games this season. Carroll indicated he hopes Carson and Hyde return.
And as Carroll made sure to highlight, the offense could hardly be called a failure this season after setting a team record with 459 points. And that point total was reached without a defensive or special-teams touchdown for the first time in franchise history.
Carroll said he didn’t anticipate changes to his coaching staff. But his son, Brennan, who was the run-game coordinator, is leaving to become offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona, and passing-game coordinator Dave Canales has reportedly interviewed for the offensive-coordinator job at Vanderbilt.
“I want to see if we can run the ball more effectively to focus the play of the opponents and see if we can force them to do things like we’d like them to do more,” Carroll concluded. “Like we have been able to do in the past.”