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Seahawks' frustrating loss raises one big question

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Third-down defense was the Seahawks' undoing in their 28-24 loss to Matthew Stafford and the Lions. (AP)

By Mike Salk

The Seahawks' loss in Detroit was, by a large margin, their most frustrating of the year.

Losing in Arizona was forgivable. It was the first game of the year, the first start of Russell Wilson's career, and the team had a few chances to win the game at the end. Plus, the Cardinals' defense is impressive and Kevin Kolb had magic pixie dust after losing the starting job.

St. Louis? That was aggravating because of the caliber of opponent and because the Seahawks gave it away with reckless mistakes, silly coaching decisions and a general lack of discipline. But it was their mulligan, and they corrected those mistakes in a hurry.

Losing in San Francisco didn't bother me too much, either. In that game, I saw a team beaten by isolated mistakes that didn't seem to define it. The Seahawks, I reasoned, were not a team that drops balls nor were they a team that habitually allowed big rushing plays. Isolated incidents happen. Correct the drops, make adjustments against the trap play and get back to your winning ways. Easy.

The difference is that Sunday's 28-24 loss in Detroit cast doubt upon the one rock-solid principal on which our faith in the Seahawks was based: the defense.

More specifically, the defense on third down.

The Lions converted 12 of their 16 third-down opportunities. For those of you out of practice with elementary school mathematics, that is 75 percent. It also means the Seahawks defense had 12 opportunities to get off the field but failed to finish. On those 12 plays, they gave up an average of 10.5 yards.

Three of those 12 plays ended with the ball in the end zone. One of them was the winning score. If they had stopped just one of the three third-down plays on the final drive, they would likely have won the game (or forced overtime).

The Seahawks' third down defense has not been a problem of this magnitude yet this season, but it has not been stellar, either. They get off the field just 38.5 percent of the time (16th in the NFL) and the problem has raised its ugly head in important spots in three of their four losses.

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The Seahawks have allowed more than 350 yards passing in two of their last three games. (AP)
Therein lies the rub.

Elite defenses do not allow 75 percent conversion rates on third down. Elite defenses do not allow the 2-4 Lions to come from behind three times in one game, once from two scores down. Elite defenses do not give back a lead handed to them with 5:27 left to play.

If elite defenses don't do those things, what are the Seahawks?

Well, the last three games suggest that they are a very good defense that can appear elite at times. They still hit as hard as anyone and cover outside receivers as well as anyone. But they can be run on with certain types of plays. They can give up completions to tight ends and slot receivers in the middle of the field. They do not force enough turnovers nor do they generate enough consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

They have been a defense good enough to carry them to wins this year, but the trend of the last three games is disturbing. The Patriots threw for 395 yards. The Niners ran for 175. Now the Lions throw for 352 while converting every meaningful third down along the way. And while the Seahawks have forced four turnovers in those three games, three have come within 10 yards of their own end zone.

The defense allowed this team to jump out to a 4-2 start while the quarterback was learning the ropes in the NFL. But a funny thing happened along the way. The quarterback play has been stellar for three straight weeks while the defense has slipped.

That should not happen.

The Seahawks have plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of their young defense. They have just as many reasons to be excited about the second half of this season, which features five games at CenturyLink Field.

But they blew an opportunity to win in Detroit and for the first time, their superior unit is the one being questioned. How that defense responds to those questions will likely decide their record in the next eight games.

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