The Seahawks will be battling the 2nd best team in the NFL on 3rd down when they face the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Peyton Manning led offense converted 46% of their 3rd down attempts during the regular season, a whopping 95 conversions out of 205 attempts. Only the Philip Rivers led Chargers did better - Rivers converted an impressive 49% of his 3rd down attempts (101 of 206!), willing a flawed Chargers team into the AFC playoffs and netting a Wild Card win.
The NFL median in 2013 was 38% conversion on 3rd down. The Seahawks' defense finished 10th at a 35% conversion rate allowed, and the Seahawks' offense finishing slightly below average at 17th ranked and 37%.
Doug Baldwin mentioned this week that the Seahawks were not satisfied at their postseason conversion rate of 36%. You really want to be 40% or above. No one converted at a higher rate in the postseason that the Broncos, who are moving at a 62% clip on 3rd down while chewing up a whopping 35:36 average in clock time.
Seattle is all about limiting explosives on defense and creating them on offense, and limiting turnovers on offense and creating them on defense. Explosives and turnovers are the two biggest stats to Pete Carroll and he believes those are the most important stats related to winning.
To Pete, it's all about points, not necessarily yards. The 2013 Seahawks' defense did lead in yards allowed, but more importantly -- led in points allowed -- and they also led the NFL in takeaways and turnover margin (+20).
If being good on 3rd down was the most important stat in relation to winning, I am sure Pete Carroll would make it the number one emphasis of his "program". While it's surely very important, four of the top ten teams on 3rd down did not make the playoffs (Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Tennessee).
That being said, of the bottom 14 teams in the NFL on 3rd down -- NONE OF THEM -- made the playoffs! Right above those bottom 14 were the four most "average" teams on the 3rd down (18th SF, 17th SEA, 16th NEP, 15th IND, and they all made the playoffs and netted wins in the playoffs).
So, 3rd down may not be as important as explosive plays and turnovers, but it is probably the 3rd or 4th most important stat in football. I could be wrong. I think of red zone as almost a "branch" of 3rd down as any red zone "failure" will likely come down to not converting on a 3rd down opportunity down near the goal. Perhaps Red Zone itself is more important to winning than 3rd Down, and I can see that being the case, but that research is for another day.
Against the 49ers, Seattle converted 5-of-14 3rd down opportunities. In reality, they went 5-of-13 (38% or "average"), because the last play of the game was a kneel-down in victory formation. Seattle was in victory formation more than most teams, had many games where they were not playing "real" offense in the 4th quarter, and sometimes were running the clock out midway through the 3rd quarter. In reality, they were probably close to a 38-39% team in "real situations".
I, of course, was hoping Seattle would turn the corner and get close to the 49% clip they operated at in the 2nd half of 2012. That only happened this season during the month of November and the Monday Night Football game against the Saints.
Basically, Seattle played September, October and December below average on 3rd down, and operated in November (plus MNF) at or near the top of the league on 3rd down. In a sense, their mediocrity did not hurt them, they did a lot of winning despite being an average or below average team on 3rd down for most of the year. Again, Pete knows that turnovers and explosives are probably bigger keys to winning than 3rd down.
Still, I always worry about 3rd down for Seattle. I worry, because I tend to think that is when Russell Wilson is vulnerable in these situations because play action is greatly reduced and the defense can blitz him. The blitzing is designed more to keep Wilson in the pocket and hopefully retreating. The read option has been taken away somewhat in 2013, and that may take away one "easy" 3rd down per game that Wilson could have "stole" in 2012. (One extra 3rd down conversion per game is a huge deal).
But basically, 3rd down should ideally be about throwing short passes in rhythm. This is probably the weakest area of the Seahawks. They are good at running, good at throwing deep, good at all aspects of defense, and good on special teams.
Where is Seattle probably "below average"? Short passing.
Here are three little plays against the 49ers where the Seahawks offense (Wilson, the WR and the OL) convert on 3rd down -- with on-time and designed passing. No improvisation and scrambling to these plays.
I believe we will need to see three to four of these successful plays against the Broncos in New Jersey.
Early 2nd Quarter (9:20) 3rd and 3 from SEA 31 -- Wilson throws complete to Tate for 4 yards.
Seattle comes out in 11 personal with Lynch offset left. Miller was flexed out far right, but goes in motion to form a stack formation left. Baldwin and Tate form a stack formation to the right. Ball is on left hash. Niners defend with five defensive backs (nickel) and a single high safety.
They rush four and drop two linebackers in coverage. The 49ers corners play off and all Tate has to do is run a simple square-out at around 5 yards. Baldwin looks open as well on his vertical route, but Wilson does the right thing here as his primary receiver is wide open -- so he makes the simple throw on time to Tate. 1st down.
Late 2nd Quarter (2:00) 3rd and 8 from SEA 49 -- Wilson throws complete to Baldwin for 9 yards.
Seattle does not score on this drive, but this 3rd down conversion allows them to not give the ball back to San Francisco with a chance to score before halftime. San Francisco was set to receive the kickoff after halftime, so this was a fairly big deal.
Again, the Seahawks are in 11 personnel with Lynch now offset right. The Seahawks have Miller flexed out in the right slot, with Kearse far right, Tate far left, and Baldwin the left slot. Ball is on the right hash. 49ers are again in off coverage, but this time they rush five.
Baldwin runs a slant, starting to break inside around 3 yards. The 49er corners have to stay on top, and the slot corner has inside help with Willis dropping into the middle, but there is still too much space as Willis drops on the right hash, and Baldwin connects around the left hash for 9 yards. Wilson throws it high, perhaps on purpose, and Baldwin leaps and uses his body to shield from the nickel and falls forward for the first down.
Mid 4th Quarter (6:50) 3rd and 8 from SF 38 -- Wilson throws complete to Tate for 10 yards.
This was a very important 3rd down as it put the Seahawks into field goal range (to create a 6 point lead) and allowed Seattle to drain the clock down below 4 minutes.
The Seahawks are again in 11 personnel but Zach Miller is in-line next to Okung. Ball is on the left hash. Lynch is offset left. All three WR are on the right side. Again, its 3rd and 8, and the 49ers play off coverage. They rush four.
Tate and Kearse run verticals, which clears the underneath route for Tate to break inside. He rounds his cut at around 6 yards, and the corner is a step late and beat. Tate has the first down the loses the first down and then regains the 1st down. Golden Thangs.
The Niners were obviously coached to stay on top and guard against explosives (which worked for the most part), but Seattle was able to take advantage with some short routes which were pretty wide open. In the Turning Point show on NBC, the 49ers wide receivers talked about how their defense was going to "stay on top" at all costs - which is a smart strategy against the Seahawks. Again, Seattle was able to get the looks they wanted from these tendencies.
Here were three links in the chain the Seahawks needed to beat the 49ers, and Seattle will likely need to convert at least 3-4 of these types of plays on Sunday to beat the Broncos. As much as I worry about the Seahawks on 3rd down, I think they can and will do this on Sunday.