There's nothing more frightening to a Seahawks defensive player than third down. The second that funny looking little old man holding the sticks on the sidelines clicks the down marker to 3, it emits a terrifying echo that resonates through the air like a gunshot.
For the defenders, the field begins to stretch out in a Hitchcock-esque fashion, creating a feeling of nauseating vertigo. The opposing players' eyes glow red and their heads spin around. The field feels like quicksand and the air gets thick and humid, making it hard to breathe. Seahawks fans sitting in front of their flat screens break into a cold sweat.
It's third down, and it has taken on a horrifying life of its own.
Of course this is absurd, folks. I entirely reject the notion that third down is a problem and write it off as pure happenstance. Besides, the Seahawks have enough to fear with a 4-4 record and the 49ers and Bears on the schedule to be worrying about a problem that doesn't have one logical explanation.
That may sound insane considering the Seahawks defense couldn't get off the field Sunday in their 28-24 loss to the Lions. Yes, Detroit converted a whopping 75 percent of the time on third down. Yes, the Seahawks defense is bottom-of-the-barrel in that category. But the former player in me does not accept that it is different than any other down.
It's just a play and ultimately it's just a number.
Sure, stopping an opponent on third down means more than stopping them on first or second down. You force a punt, you've done your job and you get the ball back to your offense. But in the mind of a player, you have the same goals and execute the same technique and go every bit as hard as you would on first or second down.
If you don't believe me, let's see what the numbers say.
The best third-down defense in the NFL belongs to the Dolphins, whose opponents are converting just 22 percent of the time. The worst team is the Bills at 47 percent. The Seahawks currently rank 27th, allowing third-down conversions 44 percent of the time.
Even though the Seahawks' struggles in that category have taken center stage this week, it certainly hasn't been the reason for each of their losses this year. The fact is that the Seahawks defense has been good if not great on third down in each of their other three losses. Against Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco, Seattle's defense went 30 percent, 38 percent and 27 percent on third down, respectively. Their average third-down percentage in those three games (32 percent) would rank third-best in the NFL.
Additionally, that particular statistic is not terribly monumental in defining a defense's success. The aforementioned Dolphins rank 24th in points allowed (25 per game). Conversely, the Steelers are ranked second in total defense and their third-down percentage is the same as the Seahawks' – 44 percent.
Another reason not to fear the dreaded third down statistic: in the Seahawks' most dominating win of the season, a 27-7 trouncing of Dallas, their defense allowed the Cowboys to convert on third down 54 percent of the time.
I'm not denying it's a head-scratcher nor am I denying it was a problem on Sunday. Even coach Pete Carroll, who has been coaching football since 1978, can't explain it. He told "Brock and Salk" on Monday, "It wasn't against any one coverage or any one thing."
The Seahawks have pressured in that situation, they've dropped back into coverage in that situation and they've run both man and zone coverage in that situation. At this point, it's unexplainable.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can't put a name on it and no player or fan has yet to come up with a valid reason or explanation for this problem. The best response I've heard came from cornerback Richard Sherman and it wasn't an explanation at all. A few weeks ago, we asked him about the Seahawks' problems on third down during "The Huddle" and he answered, "It's not anything specific or identifiable. If it were, everyone would run those plays against us all the time and we wouldn't be leading the league in all of these different categories."
Brilliant. Thanks, fellow Stanford guy!
I won't tell you that it's not troubling. It's human nature to want an explanation for things like this. We want to connect the dots and makes sense of the world in our simple little minds. I know I do.
Sometimes bad things happen but they don't happen for very long to a good defense like this. If it is just by chance, I predict a significant positive correction on third down for the Seahawks defense in the second half of the season.
In the meantime, Seahawks fans, try not to fear third down. It's not an entity that has taken on a life of its own and it certainly is not a barrier that stands in the way of a successful season.