There has been a lot of talk recently about the Seahawks defense (1) not being elite, and (2) not getting off the field on 3rd down. Fans are mad that the best quarterback in football, Tom Brady, moved the football up and down the CLink field turf. Then, the NFL's best rushing team, the San Francisco 49ers, ran the pill right down Seattle's throat. To add insult to injury, the prolific Matthew Stafford, the #1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, a guy that threw for 5000+ yards last year, led his Lions on four touchdown drives, including one to take the lead with 20 seconds to go. Then, last Sunday, the best running back in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, left Seahawk bodies laying & splayed on the turf like a kung fu brawl.
Yet, after all of that shame, the Seahawks defiantly sit at 5-4 and currently hold the final playoff spot in the esteemed NFC. The Seahawks defense still remains 4th in yards allowed at 309 yards per game. The defense still remains 3rd in points allowed per game at 17.1. Using advanced metrics, Football Outsiders ranks Seattle's Defense 3rd in DVOA, ahead of San Francisco, and behind only Chicago and Houston. Is it Elite? I don't know. Is it Very Good? Yes. Is the Seattle Seahawks defense a top-5 Defense? Absolutely.
What about the 3rd down defense?
The more I research this, the more I come to the conclusion that having a below average 3rd down defense may not be as damaging as I originally thought. Although 3rd down is a recent point of emphasis from Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley to their defense, I am fairly confident it is not one of their overarching, top-4 priorities.
Make no mistake, the Seahawks need to clean up 3rd downs, and I think they will. I have confidence in this regime, especially on defense. I think the linebackers are young and neither K.J. Wright nor Bobby Wagner have played in the Seahawks nickel before this year. But, 3rd down may not be a top priority by design.
Which begs the question: What are their top-4 priorities? What is important to Pete Carroll and his defense? Glad you asked.
Scott Enyeart sent Danny and I an email over a year ago that was chock full of fun PDFs of various Carroll-philosophy. One article in particular I found extremely fascinating. Today, I hope to touch on just one of the main points.
Coach Rocky Seto gave a presentation in March 2008 at USC about "USC Secondary Play". Coach Seto followed Pete to the Seahawks and currently serves as the "Safeties Coach" but his official title is "Defensive Passing Game Coordinator." Seto was a walk on linebacker at USC and has worked for Carroll his entire coaching career. It is safe to say that Carroll is his main influence, and the opinions expressed here reflects Carroll's views completely. Here are some key notes from this presentation:
3 MAIN PRINCIPLES OF USC SECONDARY PLAY
#1 ELIMINATE GIVING UP THE BIG PLAY
#2 OUT HIT THE OPPONENT ON ALL PLAYS
#3 GET THE BALL. EITHER STRIP THE BALL OR MAKE THE INTERCEPTION WHEN IN POSITION.
#1 ELIMINATE THE BIG PLAY
"Giving up big plays will cost you the game in either the pass or run department."
"THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT DEFENSE. EVERY SCHEME, EITHER MAN OR ZONE OR COMBINATION HAS WEAK POINTS."
"USC CHOOSES to defend the middle third in particular and that is what all incoming freshman secondary players must learn to do well. A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome.
Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive and the opposition will score over 75% of the time for the period studied. (WOW) Conversely, if the defense limits the opposition to 3 big plays in the game or less, the offense will only generate 8.6 points per game on average. (Personally, I find that stat- "8.6 ppg on average" a bit hard to believe- but I do thing keeping the opponent to 3 or under is the key takeaway here).
"Sorry math and stat phobes, USC coaches both track and hang their hat on this notion, and it is the #1 base principle for secondary play. USC annually leads the Pac-10 in not allowing big plays on defense."
There is so much packed into those last few paragraphs, I think it's worth reading three or four times.
In 2011, the Seattle Seahawks' defense was a top-10 defense. They ranked 7th in points allowed at 19.7 per game. They ranked 9th in yards allowed at 332 yards per game. They ranked 6th in opponent passer rating allowed at 74.8. They ranked 9th in 3rd down percentage at 35% (League median was around 37-38%). They ranked 15th in rushing yards allowed per game, but 4th in rushing yards per carry allowed at 3.8. They ranked 11th in passing yards per game allowed at 220 yards per game. They were 10th in yards per attempt passing allowed at 6.9.
Basically, they were not a top-5 defense, but firmly a top-10 defense.
But, check this out.
The 2011 Seahawks only gave up 43 passes of over 20+ yards. NFL.com tracks 20+ passes and runs (it doesn't go by the +16 passing and +12 running that Seto mentions above, but it is the best stat I can find). 43 explosive passes allowed was good for 2nd in the NFL. They only gave up 8 runs of over 20+ yards, good for 6th best. When you combine the two -- they allowed only 51 explosive plays for the entire year.
The Seahawks allowed 51 explosive plays in 16 games -- or about 3 per game. 3, the magic number.
But let's talk about those 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers were ranked 29th in turnover margin at -13 for the year! They were below average on 3rd down, allowing opponents to convert 39% of the time. Again, the league median was around 37-38% in 2011. The key was, the Steelers allowed only 43 explosive plays, at a mere 2.69 per game, and led the league in both points allowed, at 14.2, and yards allowed, at 271.
Which defenses led the NFL in 3rd down percentage?
Baltimore was 2nd at 32%, and they were good all around, in points allowed, explosive plays, and yards allowed.
But, Arizona's defense led the league on 3rd down at 31%, yet finished only 17th in points allowed. The Lions were 3rd at 33% but were 23rd in points allowed. The Jets were 4th at 33%, yet 20th in points allowed. The Saints were 5th at 33% and 13th in points allowed.
Interestingly, and I have no stats to prove this - but the Cardinals, Jets and Saints are known for aggressive blitzing. The Steelers blitz too, but typically in a more controlled, safe, LeBeau "zone-blitz" fashion - with 5 rushers and 6 men falling back into zone coverage.
Having a great defense on 3rd down is not as important as we may think.
The first thing Pete Carroll did on defense was draft Earl Thomas, not to get off the field on 3rd down per se, but to defend against the explosive play. He didn't draft Jason Pierre-Paul or a big time linebacker or defensive tackle. He drafted a free safety. Four picks later, in the very early portion of Round 5, he took another safety, Kam Chancellor, even though his team was riddled with more holes than a besieged saloon in a wild west shootout. Pete was looking to defend the deep middle and eliminate the explosive play - first.
After the Lions game debacle, where the Seahawks allowed the Lions to convert 12 of 16 third downs (a once in every two decades type performance) if you watch Carroll and Gus Bradley closely in their post-game interviews -- the first thing they both mention was the 3rd and 11 EXPLOSIVE play given up to Titus Young before half-time as the key to the game, not the long marches with multiple 3rd down conversions in the 1Q and second half.
They talked about Kam and Sherman, and how that play was so "uncharacteristic" of the Seahawks. Giving up 3rd downs isn't as "uncharacteristic" as giving up the explosive play, according to Carroll and Bradley.
The 2012 Steelers defense isn't quite as good as they were in 2011. They do lead the NFL in yards allowed at 263 per game, but are 9th in points allowed. They, again, rank #1 in least amount of explosive passes allowed at 15 (tied with the Lions) and are below the NFL median of 40% on 3rd down. They are currently ranked 23rd on 3rd down at 42%. The Seahawks are ranked 26th on 3rd down at 43%. The Seahawks are 5th in explosive passes allowed at 20, with a "bye-adjusted" 17.7 explosive passes allowed (good for 4th) as they have played 9 games and the other leaders have only played 8.
You can be good on 3rd down and in explosive passes allowed. The 49ers have allowed only 16 explosive passes (3rd best) and allow only 32% on 3rd down (2nd best) and allow only 12.9 points per game (1st). But, 3rd down excellence may not be a prerequisite for having a great defense, as the 2011 Steelers have proven.
Next week, I will expand the three other priorities I see in a Pete Carroll defense, and on the flip-side -- what I believe Pete is looking for in a "Pete Carroll offense". But, this article is getting very long, so I will pick this up next week. Til then, you can catch me on twitter.