Football has more numbers than a drum of lottery balls.
There are Moneyball-style advanced statistics and other baseball-style comparative analytics in the NFL now. Heck, WAR — “wins above replacement,” not the actual combat to which some liken the sport — has even invaded football.
Yet you can crystallize a defense and a team to its essence with just two stats: third-down efficiency and turnovers created. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll talks about these numbers more than any other.
They are why the Seahawks’ defense is on a three-game run of dominance that may be the best in team history entering Sunday’s home game against San Francisco (7-6).
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“It’s just about having fun,” All-Pro cornerback and chief leader of fun Richard Sherman said. “Like I told you last week, we are playing like kids out there. We are celebrating after every play. We are enjoying each other. It’s just about guys growing together.
“And I think that is what Pete and (general manager) John (Schneider) wanted. It’s been years that we’ve played with each other. We’ve been through the bad times, the good times, through it all.
“That’s why adverse situations don’t rattle us.”
Such as September, October and into November.
Seattle spent the first half of this season beset by injuries and among the worst in the league on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of them. The problem was most pronounced in September’s loss at San Diego and again in October in the loss to Dallas.
The Chargers were 10 for 17 converting third downs, so the Seahawks offense ran just 40 plays in their 30-21 loss in San Diego in Week 2.
“Third downs, man,” defensive end Michael Bennett said on Sept. 14, shaking his head in the locker room at Qualcomm Stadium.
On Oct. 12 at CenturyLink Field the Seahawks led Dallas 23-20 and were five minutes and perhaps one more third-down stop from improving to 4-1. On third and 20, Tony Romo spun and hopped to twice escape sacks by Seattle’s Bruce Irvin. He threw a sideline strike that Terrance Williams sprinted from the middle of the field to catch with a deft drag of both feet inside the sideline boundary. The last and most remarkable of the Cowboys’ 10 conversions in 17 third downs led to Dallas’ go-ahead touchdown. The Seahawks ran just 48 plays on offense and lost 30-23 — and lost again the following week at St. Louis to sink to 3-3.
“They made a crazy conversion on third and 20, and, you know, we just didn’t do enough,” safety Earl Thomas said after that galling loss to the Cowboys.
“Even when the offense is not clicking, we still have to stand up if we want to be the defense that we say we are.”
Rise. And shine.
Seattle’s last three foes are just 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) turning third downs into first downs. The Seahawks have gone from ranked 28th in the NFL in third-down conversions allowed following that Oct. 19 loss at St. Louis that left them 3-3 to 14th in the league now that they are 9-4.
The Eagles were 2 for 11 on Sunday. That — and their no-huddle ways — were why their time of possession of 18:04 was the lowest ever for a Seahawks opponent — and why Seattle ran a whopping 85 plays to Philadelphia’s mere 45.
Afterward, Eagles coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Mark Sanchez sounded like Carroll did on that wilting September afternoon in San Diego. They cited Philadelphia being in too many third and longs. That was with Wagner (who missed five games with a broken bone in his foot tendon and torn foot ligament) and Chancellor (bone spurs in his ankles, a sore hip and strained groin) back healthy and flying around making plays for the Seahawks on first and second down. Those are the plays Seattle’s defense wasn’t making so close to the line of scrimmage earlier in the season when those two keys to the middle were hurting.
In Seattle’s four losses, the Chargers, Cowboys, Rams and Chiefs had five or fewer yards to gain on more than half of their third downs, 52 percent.
In Seattle’s last three wins — 19-3 over Arizona, 19-3 over San Francisco and 24-14 at Philadelphia — those opponents had fewer than five yards to go on just 44 percent of their third downs.
Earlier in the season, the Seahawks were even having trouble stopping third and long. The Chargers and Cowboys combined to go 8 for 19 (42 percent) on third down and seven yards or more to go.
The Cardinals, 49ers and Eagles have converted only 1 of 16 (6 percent) on such long third downs.
What’s happened? Now that it’s been third and long more instead of third and 2, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has felt emboldened to blitz more knowing teams have to pass. Even part-time cornerback Marcus Burley got a sack on one of his three defensive snaps Sunday in Philadelphia.
Ten of Seattle’s 23 sacks this season have come in the last three games. That’s led to the other half of Carroll’s — and football’s — most important pair of statistics: turnovers.
Four of Seattle’s 10 interceptions have come in the last three games. The Seahawks are plus-4 in turnover margin in those wins — and are plus-9 for the season. They were just plus-1 in turnovers entering November.
“I think the fact that Bobby has returned has been significant and also, I think Kam really rounding into full health is helping us, too,” Carroll said. “He feels great and he’s playing like crazy. I think the camaraderie of all those guys being back in there and feeling right has been resounding.
“You can really feel it.”