INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In terms of an ideal start on the road in the NFL, Geno Smith and the Seattle Seahawks couldn't have opened Sunday's rematch against the Los Angeles Rams any better.
Playing with a hot hand from the opening snap, Smith completed seven out of eight pass attempts for 50 yards as the Seahawks melted nearly eight minutes off the clock on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The veteran quarterback completed a pair of clutch third down passes to Tyler Lockett and Jaxon Smith-Njigba to move the chains before culminating the possession with an eight-yard scoring toss to DK Metcalf.
Though they didn't find the end zone on their next two possessions, Seattle still managed to tack on a pair of Jason Myers field goals, racing out to a 13-0 lead with less than five minutes left in the first half to seize control at Sofi Stadium.
But in eerily similar fashion to their meltdown against the same Rams squad in Week 1, that early advantage didn't hold for the Seahawks as the offense sputtered for most of the final three quarters. Producing less than 100 total yards and three points in the second half, albeit without an injured Smith for a large chunk of the final 30 minutes, they wound up dropping a 17-16 decision, falling out of first place in the NFC West in the process.
"We really were controlling the game but still only scored 13 points," a frustrated coach Pete Carroll said after the game. "It felt like we were in really good shape and like one touchdown felt like it's a close game after all that we had done, you know? We need to capitalize and get those touchdowns. You get just one of the two field goal drives."
If this was the first time Seattle got off to a sizzling start on offense only to wind up on ice for the rest of the game, it'd be a little easier to overlook as a one-off. Unfortunately, this latest collapse magnified a chronic problem that has now cost the team in three of their four defeats, including twice against Los Angeles, who has won only two of its other eight games this season.
In three of their four losses, Smith has led the Seahawks on a scoring drive to open the game, including touchdowns against the Bengals in Week 6 and Rams on Sunday. All season long, they have been among the best offenses to kick off games, scoring four touchdowns and two field goals on 10 possessions for a 60 percent scoring rate, the sixth-best mark in the NFL. They also haven't had any turnovers on those drives.
Aside from being incredibly productive on opening drives, per Pro Football Reference, Seattle has been one of the most potent and efficient first quarter offenses in the league, ranking in the top-10 in scoring drives (12), touchdowns (seven), and third down conversion rate (51.5 percent). From an analytical standpoint, the team has been a top-tier unit in the first period as well, ranking in the top 10 in expected points per play and success rate.
Under center, Smith has played at an elite level orchestrating the offense in the first 15 minutes, ranking third in completion rate (76.3 percent), sixth in touchdown passes (four), and fourth in passer rating (113.5) among qualified quarterbacks.
But after the Seahawks move away from offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's scripted plays and opponents initiate adjustments, from plummeting third down efficiency to the lack of any semblance of a run game, things consistently have unraveled for Smith and company from the second quarter on.
Just how stark have the differences been for Seattle's offense comparing the first quarter to the final three quarters? First and foremost, the team averages 6.1 points per first quarter, the sixth-best rate in the league, but that average tumbles to 25th in the second quarter, 14th in the third quarter, and 21st in the fourth quarter.
Digging deeper into the regression, in the second quarter, the Seahawks rank in the bottom third of the league in points, touchdowns, and third down conversion rate (27.8 percent). Failing to sustain drives only gets worse in the third and fourth quarter for Smith and his counterparts, as the team sits dead last in third down conversion rate at under 21 percent in both periods.
Not being able to move the chains on a regular basis led to just five carries in the run game in the second half on Sunday, continuing a season-long trend where they haven't been able to come close to establishing desired balance on offense. Through 10 games, only Cincinnati has ran the ball fewer times in the final three quarters than Seattle (161), which has actually been effective averaging 4.5 yards on those carries.
The only area where Seattle maintains a top-10 ranking in the final three quarters is the field goal department, which isn't necessarily a positive. While kicker Jason Myers has been money for the most part, that statistic further highlights the persistent issues the team has had moving the chains and finishing drives, which showed up again on Sunday by failing to score a touchdown after a 53-yard catch by Metcalf advanced them inside the opposing 10-yard line in the second quarter.
Acknowledging he sounds like a "broken record" at this point addressing an issue that has been problematic for multiple seasons, Carroll again pointed to the third down woes on Monday as the biggest factor behind the stagnation. Wishing he had a more concrete answer to solve Seattle's problems, he suggested Smith, his pass catchers, and Waldron all have to do a better job adjusting and executing as the game progresses to help open up the offense.
"We have to continue to adapt as the game goes on to make sure we are making the plays available to us," Carroll elaborated. "That's the thrower, that's the catchers, that's the calls. We've got to make sure we're making the right calls as we continue through the game. It seems like we're losing our momentum on third downs for some reason, so we just got to execute better and keep putting the ball in guys' hands that can make plays for us."
Now past the midway point in the 2023 season, if the Seahawks are going to make any headway with their offensive consistency issues, the improvements will have to start immediately heading into a grueling stretch starting on Thursday night against the 49ers. Over the next four weeks, they will face their hated rivals twice in a three-game span with a tough road prime time game against the Cowboys sandwiched in between and a home contest against the defending NFC champion Eagles afterward.
Putting it realistically, if Seattle can't find a way to move the chains on third down more often, struggles to finish in the red zone, and fails to establish a ground game to complement Smith and his receivers, the team could be looking at four losses that knock them out of not just the NFC West race, but the playoff discussion altogether. Sprinting out of the starting gate only to slow to a crawl for the rest of the game against far superior opponents will be a guaranteed recipe for disaster.