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Clayton: Seahawks’ D made strides, but playoff loss proves it has room to grow

Dak Prescott's third-and-14 run may have been the biggest play in the Seahawks' loss. (AP)

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll opened his season-ending press conference talking about the frustration of not being able to continue in the playoffs. But a loss in the playoffs was inevitable.

Moore: Play-calling alone not the reason for Hawks’ loss to Cowboys

The Seahawks had a remarkable regular season, going 10-6 while getting younger on defense and re-establishing themselves as a power-running team with a great quarterback who can make play-action connections.

Still, the 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys left fans, players and coaches disappointed. But any loss leads to criticism, and in this case, it’s criticism that I believe is unfair. The Cowboys have a top seven defense that played its best and Dak Prescott grew as a quarterback Saturday – his third-and-14 running conversion to the Seahawks 1 in the fourth quarter was a championship-type play.

Let’s look back at the game.

• The blame being sent the way of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is ridiculous. Carroll called the criticism “garbage,” and he’s right. The Seahawks didn’t lose the game because of play-calling. They lost because of execution.

Sure, the Seahawks could have called a few more pass plays, but let’s get to the basics. Three three-and-outs in the first quarter set the Seahawks back. The slow start was at least explainable – the Seahawks had gone several weeks without guards D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy, and the offensive line had some blocking misses.

Here is where I don’t get the criticism of the play-calling. In the first possession, Chris Carson opened with a 5-yard run. Carson ran for 3 more yards, setting up a third-and-2, exactly what a coach and a quarterback likes, but Seattle threw an incompletion and had to punt. Then the second possession was damaged when the Seahawks got away from the run on first down, trying a pass to Carson that lost 8 yards. The third series opened with a 4-yard run by Carson; four-yard first-down runs are wins. Maybe the Seahawks should have tried a pass on second down, as Carson was stuffed for no gain.

Three three-and-outs cost them the first quarter, but they came out trailing just by three points and still entered the fourth quarter with a 14-10 lead.

• The offensive line didn’t have its best day, but the players showed how tough they are. Sweezy played with a broken bone in his foot, while Fluker was fighting through a hamstring injury.

What caused problems was the Cowboys’ defensive line. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins didn’t play in the Week 3 game against the Seahawks, and his return was huge. Collins and Antwaun Woods are big defensive tackles who can move, and their stunting created trouble.

It took the Seahawks until the second quarter to make adjustments, and the running game didn’t get going until the second half. The Seahawks had only 22 yards on their first 10 carries. The middle was stuffed and there wasn’t running room for Carson. Nevertheless the Seahawks settled for two field goals and trailed only 10-6 at halftime even though the Cowboys had the ball for 19 minutes, 24 seconds compared to the Seahawks’ 10:36 time of possession.

Commitment to run that saved Hawks’ season sinks them in playoffs

• The Seahawks’ defense deserves lot of credit for keeping the team in the game despite the offense’s problems, but the Cowboys two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter cost them. Prescott led touchdown drives of 63 and 75 yards.

The Seahawks developed a good, young secondary and improved their pass rush this year, but more work is going to be needed on the defense. Because of the youth of the team, missed tackles and some coverage mistakes hurt.

You would figure the Seahawks to build more on defense next year. Getting better in run-stopping will be one of the keys. The Cowboys rushed for 70 yards in the fourth quarter and Ezekiel Elliott had 137 yards for the game.

• Carroll will have to figure out why there were too many return yards on punt coverage late in the year. As it turns out, the coverage team is still adjusting to Michael Dickson’s incredible kicking ability.

Down the stretch, Dickson outkicked his coverage a few times. The 51-yard return in the fourth quarter by the Cowboys’ Tavon Austin was a classic example of that. Dickson should be more consistent next year, and the coverage team will be better after a season with the rookie Pro Bowl punter.

• There is no way the Seahawks should be breaking up the 1-2 receiving duo of Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin. Baldwin is entering the final year of his contract, and even though he fought through injuries all season – it appeared he might have had as many MRIs as catches – Russell Wilson is so much better when he’s on the field. Cutting him would be a mistake. Lockett had an incredible season, and Baldwin still offers leadership and play-making ability.

• The Seahawks will more than likely be looking for a new kicker. Sebastian Janikowski suffered a bad hamstring injury trying a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half in Dallas. His injuries down the stretch have to be a concern. At 40 years old and on a one-year contract, he was 24 for 30 on field goals and 48 of 51 on PATs.

Salk: Blame Seahawks’ playoff loss on execution, not play-calling

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