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The Seattle Seahawks Defense and Third Down Efficiency

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While we lost our opening game, the Seahawks posted a pretty noteworthy game on defense, taken at face value: the team held the San Francisco 49ers to 209 total net yards, and its rushing attack to 2.7 yards per carry, both overall and for its lead back Frank Gore. The standout stats are the 49ers efficiency in converting on 3rd down at 1 out of 12, and the 49ers red zone efficiency which was held to 1 out of 5. The San Francisco offense scored only 19 points.

So, despite forcing no turnovers and not sacking Alex Smith once, the defensive performance seems like it's pretty damn good. Traditional stats agree, seeing the Seahawks ranked 1st in 3rd down defense, 2nd in total yards, 4th in the redzone, 4th against the pass (not hard when your opposing QB only has 20 attempts) and 15th against the run. Football Outsider's advanced stats puts us as the worst team in the NFL according to their DAVE (projection + results) system, but does have us as the 6th-best defense in the NFL in VOA.

More than anything, the paragraph above shows the weakness in just looking at the numbers. Football Outsiders doesn't have opponent adjustments yet, and neither do we. It's not really possible to tell how good or bad the 49ers will be based on just one game. But it's still possible to look at an opponent's strengths and proclivities to analyze what this defensive performance means. So, this piece is mostly about the 49ers offense. And if I were a 49ers fan, I would be pretty concerned.

Of 52 plays on offense, the Niners passed 20 times and ran 32 times. That is not a ratio that is realistic in the modern NFL. Throughout the broadcast you could hear the commentators struggle with finding an explanation. "You gotta trust your quarterback", "Harbaugh really trusts his defense". Perhaps, it's hard to tell, but it's also hard to imagine the team not opening it up sooner rather than later. We knew Harbaugh wanted to go back to West Coast offense fundamentals with the 49ers offense, sure, but exactly how core do you want to go into the WCO?

I can't help but feel the offense playcalling was the biggest factor in our defense's performance. Calling only 20 passes, and only three or four of them deep (mostly to Vernon Davis) does indicate a game management performance from Alex Smith, but how well does that work against a Seahawks defense primed to stop the run? The short passing game and rungame became so predictable it felt like watching last year's Raiders-Seahawks game but with the roles flipped, with our safeties constantly sniffing at the line (more on them later when Gamepass unlocks the all-22 footage).

In particular, I want to look at the 3rd down attempts by the 49ers.

3-7-SF 10 (7:46) (Shotgun) 21-F.Gore right guard to SF 13 for 3 yards (59-A.Curry).

The 49ers line up 3 wide, and the Seahawks are in a nickel package with Matt McCoy in. Marcus Trufant, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond are in man coverage. Aaron Curry is lined up right next to the LDE (on the strong side). Trufant seems to be making an adjustment just as the ball is snapped but it's fairly irrelevant, as no one is there to block Curry. Iupati was coming around to block for Gore but has no interest in Curry for some reason. Easy tackle for 3.

3-3-SF 36 (4:11) 21-F.Gore right tackle to SF 34 for -2 yards (92-B.Mebane).

Like a mirror image of the first, three wide. This time, the Seahawks stay in base. Curry is lined up on the weakside of the line of scrimmage, Chancellor is moving towards off-man coverage on Michael Crabtree.  The 49ers almost create a beauty of a gap between Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons, but Leroy Hill runs straight into the opening, meeting Chilo Rachal head-on and getting a hand on Gore, slowing him down enough to allow Mebane to mop up.

3-11-SEA 16 (15:00) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass short left to 17-B.Edwards to SEA 9 for 7 yards (39-B.Browner). Caught at SEA 9.

This is the third consecutive three-and-out for the 49ers, and by now the Seahawks are stacking the line. On the previous play (a power O run), the Hawks had six guys on the line of scrimmage and 3 guys 4 yards off. Earl Thomas tackled Gore behind the line of scrimmage.

This 49ers finally decide to pass on 3rd. Braylon Edwards runs a quick comeback from the slot, with Aaron Curry covering him fairly badly. It's a good decision and a pass that could've gone for the 1st if not for Earl Thomas arriving immediately to hit Braylon, stopping him dead in his tracks, and Browner then throws him down.

3-6-SEA 6 (11:31) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass incomplete short right to 21-F.Gore.

A Tarvaris Jackson fumble gave the 49ers great field position (blindside hit with a blown block from Anthony McCoy). On this play, three receivers and Vernon Davis run into the endzone, but (perhaps hearing Chris Clemons' footsteps) Alex Smith decides to go for the underneath option, Frank Gore on the line of scrimmage. Gore drops it, but that's irrelevant as McCoy and Thurmond were right on him.

3-2-SEA 29 (5:54) 21-F.Gore left end to SEA 28 for 1 yard (29-E.Thomas).

A fairly obvious running situation, a fairly obvious running formation. 49ers have three linemen and tight ends on the line, Seahawks respond with seven defenders, with Kam Chancellor tracking blocking tight end Delanie Walker. Smith pitches it to Gore. Walker ends up picking up Hill, which frees up Chancellor for the tackle. Joe Staley manages to trip him up, but he's still in position to trip up Frank Gore himself. Earl Thomas kind of touches Gore as he goes down, which I guess gives him the tackle.

49ers go for it on 4th, and a penalty keeps the drive going.

3-1-SEA 14 (3:41) 75-A.Boone reported in as eligible. 32-K.Hunter up the middle to SEA 14 for no gain (31-K.Chancellor).

Still in the same drive, the 49ers ran it twice for a total of 9 yards with Frank Gore, and then put in 5'7 190 pound Kendall Hunter to pound in the final yard. Inside the redzone, they don't pass it once on three attempts. If Gore is indeed winded on the sideline, why are you trying to pound a yard with your scatback? KJ Wright, Kam Chancellor and Red Bryant all converge on him. Pretty hopeless from the snap.

3-1-SEA 5 (:21) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass incomplete short left to 17-B.Edwards. PENALTY on SEA-39-B.Browner, Defensive Pass Interference, 4 yards, enforced at SEA 5 - No Play.

This is a no play, so it doesn't count towards the 12, but it was still an interesting play to watch. It was pretty much the only Alex Smith pass into the endzone that ever had a shot, and if Browner wasn't clinging to Edwards' jersey it would have been a completion. They're both a little handsy throughout the process, but Browner clearly has a handful of jersey as the ball is in the air, and then grabs Braylon's shoulder pads as the ball arrives. Too obvious for the refs to call, you have to be smarter than that.

3-12-SF 5 (14:09) 21-F.Gore left end to SF 12 for 7 yards (56-L.Hill).

3rd and 12, with the 49ers playing in front their own endzone.  Trufant is on the line of scrimmage with 8 Seahawks set to respond to the inevitable run. Clemons runs into the pile for no good reason, which frees up Gore to run around the pile, until Thomas rockets in to hit him while Hill drags him down from behind.

3-10-SF 23 (9:23) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith pass short right to 85-V.Davis to SF 20 for -3 yards (94-T.Hargrove). Caught at SF 15.

This one follows a deep incompletion to Davis that Chancellor really should have been able to pick off, if he hadn't reacted slowly.

Frank Gore motions outside to become the fourth receiving option, but the pressure up the middle is exquisite. Aaron Curry blitzes inside through the right A-gap, and he and Raheem Brock arrive fast, while Anthony Hargrove and Chris Clemons aren't too far behind. Hargrove sees the pass and chases down Davis effectively. Good defensive play.

3-9-SF 21 (5:46) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith scrambles up the middle to SF 28 for 7 yards.

Fox flashes us the stats so far: 5 rushes and 3 passes on 3rd down. Unusual to say the least. 49ers line up with trips right. Alex Smith is flushed out of the pocket by Brock and - to a lesser extent - Hargrove. Smith pumpfakes to Gore while running, and Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner both bite on the fake, opening up a lane for Smith. Curry, McCoy and Branch converge to stop him, but that was a close one.

3-3-SF 34 (13:30) 11-A.Smith pass short right to 17-B.Edwards to SF 46 for 12 yards (29-E.Thomas). Caught SF 41.

The lone 3rd down conversion. Chancellor is right on the line of scrimmage and the linebackers are close behind, as the Seahawks defense isn't taking the 49ers' 3rd down passing very seriously anymore. Trufant steps back about 5 yards before the snap, giving Braylon a comfortable cushion. Because of that, Trufant is behind Braylon when the ball is thrown, which gives the big-bodied receiver a chance to shield the ball from Trufant for an easy catch and run. Thankfully Earl Thomas arrives immediately, or this could have been a much bigger reception. Thomas had quite a game.

3-4-SEA 4 (9:01) 75-A.Boone reported in as eligible. 21-F.Gore right tackle to SEA 2 for 2 yards (91-C.Clemons).

Three receivers lined up right, and yet the Seahawks have Aaron Curry and Brandon Browner right on the line. Wonder why! Gore runs right at Mebane and Bryant, and while he gets a bit of a second effort in, Chancellor and a whole pile of bodies stop him short.

3-4-SEA 4 (6:44) (Shotgun) 21-F.Gore up the middle to SEA 1 for 3 yards (31-K.Chancellor, 50-K.Wright).

You're not seriously going to run again here, right? From right to left, the 49ers line up Braylon Edwards, Josh Morgan and Delanie Walker. The defensive formation leaves a pretty large gap between Mebane and Clemons, which KJ Wright plugs as he should. Gore and the linemen still power forward and get pretty damn close to a touchdown before a whole mess of bodies converge.

So, that's 13 3rd down attempts, including the no play, six were designed as passes (with one quarterback scramble) and seven as runs. By comparison, for each of our 15 3rd down plays (plenty of which were long and 5 of which were converted), Tarvaris Jackson passed, got sacked or scrambled.

In a lot of ways, this game reminded me of the preseason game against Oakland. Our defense looked better because it was playing an offense that was playing to its strengths: a quarterback working within stringent limitations and with only 20 attempts, while the offense constantly tries to run over our defense.

That doesn't negate this defensive performance, far from it, it highlights our strengths. But it also leaves us without conclusions to draw on our defense as a whole. Can it provide passrush? How is its pass coverage? I don't think the 49ers offense will be very good but if it will be, it certainly won't be with this archaic playcalling. So while it's nice to see the defense hold up where it should, the level of opposition and the unusual playcalling means it doesn't provide a ton of confidence for the future.