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Third downs got you down? The Seahawks’ defense is doing its job

The numbers say Seattle is poised to feast as soon as it gets Michael Bennett back, and gets past the Patriots

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

How are you doing, reader? Just checking in.

How is the Seattle Seahawks’ defense? Any good? Why, yes, as Kenneth Arthur pointed out Wednesday, the defense is still highly ranked by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. However, the Seahawks were leading the league in third down stops through five games (allowing conversions only 29.9 percent of the time) and in the three weeks since have been the absolute worst (58.5 percent). So what’s up? How did things change so quickly?

Football is a complicated game. Just like, um, other matters of national interest, every activity in a given play is entangled with factors going on elsewhere on the field, all linked together in an intricate and sensitive contraption of influence and consequence. The running bone’s connected to the blocking bone. The coverage bone’s connected to the pass rush bone. Not to mention the hidden elements of game flow, strategy and tendencies. Even the basic direction of a given play may be dependent on the location of the previous spot (left hash, right hash) and the strengths of a particular team’s personnel, or specific opponent matchups.

So it becomes hard to isolate responsibilities for clear evaluation, even for something as separate as units that aren’t in the game at the same time. In Seattle’s case midway through 2016, no one seems to be able to agree if the defense is struggling on third downs lately because the offense doesn’t sustain drives well enough to grant the defenders proper rest—even across several weeks—or if the offense can’t get into a run-first mode because the defense hasn’t been able to secure leads. These things are interrelated and circuitous, for sure, but also bound up in other factors—namely injuries, but also the more glacial challenge to depth that is the salary cap and John Schneider’s team-building prerogatives.

So in this roundabout way it could be fair to blame the shift in Seattle’s defensive success rate in the lack of investment in its offensive line. Is that ridiculous or nah?

It’s true that the defense has faced 244 snaps during this three-game period, the most of any group in the NFL according to ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia, and that’s partly because the offense has only been able to maintain possession for 72 out of a possible 195 minutes (37 percent). Even when the offense has produced points, as it did relatively well in explosive stretches against New Orleans and Buffalo, it did so by manufacturing scores with long passing plays—rather than making sustained drives. The distribution of these minutes matters too, because in the first halves of those games the possession has been even more skewed: 26:35 of a possible 90 minutes (less than 30 percent). Since second halves aren’t independent events, even though the later-game splits are more balanced you might expect the accumulated minutes to express themselves by resulting in weary defense at the end of games. Indeed the defense has been outscored in those three second halves (and an overtime) 23-15.

But wait, that’s actually a pretty low score—it projects to a 14-9 four-quarter game, and if the Seahawks were losing 14-9 every week there definitely wouldn’t be any question where to lay the blame. If Seattle gets anything more than a field goal in the second half, the Bills don’t have a drive to try to win the game, right? And lo, third-down defense improved overall after halftime in those games, allowing a more modest 12 of 22 tries compared to 19 out of 31 before the breaks. All of this is to say, then, that the time of possession issue is not only a product of a muddled offense and fatigue. The defense still needs to make those stops to earn rest for itself, limit opportunities for the opposing offenses and create more advantageous game states later in contests.

So let’s back up: How is the defense playing otherwise, independent of situation?

In the last four games, Seattle has allowed more than 400 yards on average, after permitting just 264 per game in the four weeks before the bye. The run defense especially seemed to sputter, according to these grand totals, giving up more than 120 yards each of the last three weeks after holding opponents to fewer than 65 yards on the ground in four of the first five games.

However, remember the number of plays they’ve faced. Over that same stretch, Seattle has allowed only 5.2 yards per play which is not so far off the defense’s 4.9-yard season average and would still be good enough to rank eighth in the league (for the year they’re fourth). Here highlighting the volume of plays isn’t an excuse for fatigue or a way of working out blame: It’s examining the output in a context of efficiency.

And just like last year, the efficiency numbers make a clear case that the Seahawks defense has not fallen off. Seattle’s ANY/A is 5.4, which isn’t as spectacular as the Denver Broncos’ 4.1 adjusted net yards per pass attempt, but it’s still fourth in the NFL and still a full yard ahead of league average—which is a threshold of excellence rarely repeated by any defense but the Seahawks are working on achieving for a fifth straight year.

Thanks to five sacks, ANY/A is also the key to understanding how Seattle kept basically to its season pace (5.5 ANY/A) while allowing a career game for Tyrod Taylor Monday night in terms of raw yards. Against the Buffalo Bills the rush defense allowed 4.2 yards per carry, which is a downgrade from its yearlong average of 3.4 but is also more than a yard per run better than that team, the NFL’s leader by both yards per carry and rush DVOA, averaged the rest of its games (5.5 ypc). This run superiority is what closes the gap between the Seahawks and a less balanced unit like Denver’s.

So, since the general play remains at the same elite level, third downs have truly been the difference lately in explaining how, for example, opponents managed to score 10 out of 16 possessions between weeks 8 and 9. Suddenly what had been Seattle’s biggest strength became its biggest weakness. And while it is tempting to ascribe this flip to the physical drain of that Blood Draw game in week 7, you can really trace it to when Michael Bennett hurt his knee against the Atlanta Falcons. (The Falcons only three third-down conversions of the afternoon came during Bennett’s absence.) It’s hard to put into words just how Bennett’s forceful rushing and versatility to move around the formations stirs the Seahawks’ defense in those high-leverage moments, but Tom Brady chose these ones: “best defensive player in the league”.

But when you include Atlanta, there’s still one more factor that establishes a firm endpoint separating the last four games: The opposing offenses have been lots better. And keep in mind we knew this was coming. The extremity of Seattle’s early defensive success always came with the caveat that it had played bad quarterbacks on bad offenses. Since the bye they have played the best, fifth- and sixth-best offenses in DVOA. Yes the Arizona Cardinals are terrible on that side of the ball, apart from David Johnson, but Seattle held them to six points on almost two games worth of plays.

Bennett should be back in a week or two, and is supposed to be fine. The bad news is there’s no respite for now, with the Patriots inviting the Seahawks over to talk about old times, but remember this is the last of the hard stretch for the defense. After New England, the Seahawks play the 23rd, 19th, and 17th offenses by DVOA, plus Green Bay, which is 11th but sliding without any running backs themselves. And then it’s a tour through the NFC west again (the 26th, 27th and 30th offenses).

So both the numbers and the eye test should bring the performance back to where you expect it to be on third downs, very soon. You might just have to be patient a week—or maybe Seattle shuts down the league’s top-offense-since-Brady-returned and starts the conversation early. But either way, unless there’s another major injury this Seahawks defense will be back in the conversation for the league’s best over the next few months.

There’s something to look forward to.