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O’Neil: Seahawks should be worried about fourth-quarter defense, first-quarter offense

The Seahawks' defense is having as much trouble late as the offense does early. (AP)

Halfway through the season, the Seahawks find themselves in a position they’re familiar with.

They’re not half bad, having won five of their first eight games for the third time in the past four seasons.

O’Neil: What We Learned from Seahawks’ loss to Washington

They’ve been worse, like 2012 and 2015 when they were 4-4 at the midpoint of the season. They’ve been better only once under Pete Carroll, and that was 2013 when Seattle won seven of its first eight games.

But while Seattle has typically gotten better in the second half of the season, some concerning questions remain about this team coming out of Sunday’s home loss to Washington:

Three things we’re still trying to figure out

1. Why is Seattle having trouble holding onto the lead?

The Seahawks didn’t allow a fourth-quarter touchdown in any of the first six games, giving up a total of nine points in the final period of those first six games. They’ve given up three fourth-quarter touchdowns in the past two games, though. Two of those touchdowns occurred in the final 5 minutes as the defense was unable to hold on to a late lead. The Seahawks were able to come back and beat Houston in the final minute, but they came up short against Washington. Throw in the fact that the Los Angeles Rams came one dropped pass away from coming back against Seattle in Week 5 and there are some concerns about the defense’s ability to close the game.

2. Should the Seahawks even play offense in the first quarter?

The fact that you can legitimately ask that tells you everything you need to know about just how awful this team has been with the ball in the first quarter. It has now been 21 consecutive games in which Seattle has failed to score a touchdown on its opening possession. Now factor in that Seattle’s defense has scored as many first-quarter touchdowns this season as the offense. That’s literally true as each unit has one touchdown, both coming in Week 7 when Earl Thomas returned an interception for a touchdown against the Texans and then Paul Richardson caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson later that same period. While you can’t necessarily win the game in the first quarter, the Seahawks surely can do more in that opening period than they’ve managed so far this season.

3. How do you curtail the penalties?

If it was a matter of focus, you’d think the 15 penalties the Seahawks were flagged for two weeks ago at New York would have been a sufficient wake-up call. That didn’t stop Seattle from being flagged for 16 penalties on Sunday, second-most of any game in franchise history. It’s not like the Seahawks tolerate mistakes so much as they encourage a level of aggressiveness that makes those penalties more frequent. Seattle is currently on pace to have the second-most penalty yardage of any team in NFL history, and while they may be able to curb that rate, nobody should go thinking that Seattle is suddenly going to start playing clean football. Seattle has been among the 10 most-penalized teams in the league for each of the previous six seasons.