The Seahawks are 5-1, they score the 8th most points per game in the NFL, have the 2nd most rushing yards per game, and are 8th in rushing yards per attempt, and despite these things, why do I want to throw my Crown and Coke through the TV every Sunday?
The failed 3rd down conversions are why! I know that I am not the only fan that sits in front of their TV and thinks "It would be huge if the Seahawks convert this 3rd down." Then Sidney Rice drops a pass, James Carpenter holds, Golden Tate doesn't get separation and/or the line lets a pass rusher get in the backfield. These are the plays that make some of us want to put a hole in the wall and why the Seahawks are 28th in the league in third down conversion rate.
3rd down has been the down of the devil this season. After converting 40.2% of 3rd downs last year, the Seahawks have regressed to only converting 32.1% of their 3rd downs this year.
Now, despite this decrease in 3rd down productivity, the Seahawks have still managed to go 5-1, so perhaps my concerns about 3rd down are overblown. The Seahawks have certainly found ways to score with explosive plays instead of long methodical drives with multiple 3rd down conversions.
However, if the Seahawks want to look like the best team in the NFL - which many experts thought they were on paper during the preseason - the Seahawks are going to have to improve their 3rd down performance. Today's game offers them the opportunity to improve their 3rd down numbers.
The Cardinals defense allows opponents to convert 38% of their 3rd down opportunities against them. This number is right at the league average, so an improved 3rd down outing is not impossible. If the Seahawks hope to improve their 3rd down productivity then they are going to have to deal with the many different blitz packages that the Cardinals attack with.
The Cardinals love to blitz on 3rd down. Even though Ray Horton left the desert, his attacking style of defense stayed. They'll send ILBs, OLBs or DBs, it doesn't matter. Their exotic blitzes attack multiple gaps and they do a wonderful job pre-snap of disguising their blitzers. If the Seahawks can't identify the blitz early, get in the proper protection, and get the ball out quickly, it is going to be another miserable day on 3rd down for the offense.
One QB that had a miserable day against the Cardinals defense was Cam Newton. Newton completed 21/39 (54%) of his passes, was sacked seven times, and threw three interceptions in a 22-6 loss against the Cardinals in Week 6. Overall, the Carolina offense actually had an alright outing on 3rd down, converting 5/12 of their attempts. However, some of the 3rd downs proved to be disastrous and hopefully the Seahawks won't face similar outcomes today.
For example, up 3-0 against the Cardinals, the Panthers faced a 3rd and 6 at the start of the 2nd quarter. The Panthers lined up in "11" personnel (one tight end, one running back) and the Cardinals lined up in their nickel defense (five defensive backs). The Panthers ran a play action pass with two WRs running deep routes and the third coming on a shallow cross. The Cardinals attacked with a 6 man rush that involved all four linebackers and two defensive linemen. The result in the play was a sack by Carlos Dansby for a six yard loss and a 3rd down stop for the Cardinals defense.
See it below:
A lot of things went wrong for the Panthers on this play. The first was that Cam Newton did not identify the blitz and thus know presnap that Brandon LaFell was going to be wide open on the shallow cross. He instead stared down Steve Smith on his corner route, initially, and by the time he decided to look at Brandon LaFell, Carlos Dansby was all up in his grill.
The second thing that the Panthers did wrong was slide their protection to their left when in fact the real threat was coming from their right.
The 3rd thing was that Byron Bell, the LT, and Mike Tolbert, the RB, both pick up the C gap Blitzer - Daryl Washington. This allows for Carlos Dansby to fly through the B gap unblocked.
Another example of the Cardinals various blitz packages is illustrated in the very next 3rd down for the Panthers. Still up 3-0, the Panthers faced a 3rd and 9 with 11:35 remaining in the 2nd quarter. Again the Panthers lined up in "11" personnel and the Cardinals matched with their nickel defense. The Panthers tried to get LaFell and Smith on out routes but the Cardinals blitz gives Cam no time to deliver a pass to LaFell.
This was another break down in protection from the Panthers O-Line. They slid to their right when the blitz was coming from their left. The Cardinals sent Washington through the A gap, Calais Campbell through the B gap, Antoine Cason through the C gap and Tyrann Mathieu through the D gap.
This blitz, combined with wrong protection from the offensive line, left 3 blockers to defend 4 rushers which allowed for Campbell and Mathieu to get pressure on Newton. Mathieu was ultimately credited for the sack because of the referee's early whistle, but regardless, the Cardinals defense was not going to allow a first down anyway.
If the Seahawks want to avoid the same mistakes the Panthers made, Russell Wilson is going to have to identify the blitzers presnap. This will allow him to get the ball out of his hands quickly and take some pressure of the offensive line.
This is going to be hard to do on a short week of practice and the absence of a hard count on the road, but these presnap reads are one of the things that separate the best QBs from the rest.
The offensive line is also going to have to get in the right protections. If they slide left when the blitz comes from the right or vice versa, then Wilson is going to be running for his life like he did in the Houston game. Then of course, it is all going to have to come down to execution. If Wilson identifies the blitz, the o-line does the right protection, and then J.R. Sweezy holds and/or Wilson overthrows an open Doug Baldwin, the result is obviously going to be a failed 3rd down conversion.
Lastly, hopefully Darrell Bevell calls some screen plays to the RBs and WRs to slow down the Cardinals' pass rush. The Seahawks have been very good at bubble screens this year to Golden Tate and have been successful on a few screens to Marshawn Lynch. Screens definitely are not the offense's strong suit, but today they are certainly going to have their opportunities against an aggressive defense.
With proper pre-snap reads, correct line calls, some nifty play calling and a whole lot of execution, the Seahawks should perform better on 3rd down, start playing like the most talented roster in the NFL and win tonight's game.
Big Up to Danny for the GIFs!