Looking for ways to stay on the field longer

Posted Oct 9, 2013

The offense has struggled to convert third-down situations during the Seahawks’ 4-1 start. Sunday, they’ll be facing a Titans defense that counts among its strengths getting off the field on third downs.

Third downs were an issue for the offense in Sunday’s loss to the Colts in Indianapolis because the Seahawks converted just two of 12 situations on that critical down.

That situation is an even bigger issue this week, as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s game at CenturyLink Field, because the Tennessee Titans’ defense has been so stingy on third downs.

During their 3-2 start, the Titans have held opposing offenses to 18 conversions in 64 third-down situations – that’s a percentage of .281, which is third-best in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs (.235, 16 of 68) and Detroit Lions (.270, 17 of 63).

“Third downs are going to be a huge part of this game, obviously,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s one of their strengths, and right now it’s one our weaknesses.”

The Seahawks’ problems with converting third downs began before the loss to the Colts. During their 4-1 start, they have turned 20 of their 65 third downs into first down – a percentage of .308 that ranks 27th in the league, ahead of only the Buffalo Bills (.304), Arizona Cardinals (.300), St. Louis Rams (.299), Jacksonville Jaguars (.288) and New York Giants (.262); five teams who are a combined 7-18.

“It’s something we’re continuing to work on each and every time we go out,” Bevell said. “And it’s something we definitely have to improve.”

The biggest problem, as coach Pete Carroll stressed Monday and pointed to again Wednesday, is less-than-ideal pass protection from a line that has been missing three injured starters. It’s looking like All-Pro center Max Unger will be able to return against the Titans after missing the past two games with an arm injury, but tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini remain sidelined.

“The combination of new guys has made it challenging to be right all the time, and that’s just to get the scheme right and calls right,” Carroll said. “And then physically, you’ve got to come through and get your blocks as well, and your combinations and things have to be carried out well.

“Which, with inexperience, there’s some slippage in there. There’s some space in there that’s occurring that we don’t want.” 

Has there been a secret to the Titans’ success in getting off the field on third downs?

“I think it’s confidence,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Titans’ backup QB who will start against the Seahawks because Jake Locker is out with a hip injury. “I think once you start to have some of that success, being a confident football team, and we’ve seen it the last few weeks.

“In playing the Chiefs last week, on defense the biggest difference from last year to this year – yeah, their scheme was different – but it’s the confidence. And that’s something when you play Seattle’s defense, it’s the same thing. I think it notches up even more when they play at home.”

Fitzpatrick would know. He was with the Buffalo Bills last season, and played against the Seahawks in the Week 15 game in Toronto that Seattle won 50-17.

“It’s just the fact that they’re out there playing with speed and without any fear,” Fitzpatrick said of the Seahawks’ defense, but using an assessment that also could describe the Titans’ defense – especially on third downs.

Asked about the ability of his defense to limit opponents on third downs, Titans coach Mike Munchak offered, “As a group, they’re playing well. I think we’ve tackled better when the ball has been thrown. We’ve made a lot of tackles a yard, 2 yards before the chains. I think that’s been a big difference.

“Last year, we struggled to make some of those plays after the ball was dumped off to the back or if the quarterback takes off and runs. So that’s what we’ve done, we’ve rallied well to the ball when it has been delivered and then the coverage has been better so that we’re getting more pressure on the quarterback.”

The Titans have 16 sacks – more than all but four teams in the league – including three each from former Washington State University defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and weak-side linebacker Zach Brown. They also have six interceptions – more than all but nine teams in the league – including a league-high four from cornerback Alterruan Verner.

Two of Brown’s sacks have come on third downs, as well as one by Casey and one of Verner’s interceptions. The Titans also have forced and recovered fumbles twice on third downs.

“That’s worked hand in hand with the rush being a little better and the coverage being a little better at certain plays,” Munchak said. “So it’s allowed us to get more sacks and be more disruptive with the quarterbacks. That’s been a big part of it.”

And it’s been obvious just how big as the Seahawks are studying video of the Titans’ defensive prowess on third downs.

“They’re very aggressive. Just their whole makeup of their style,” Carroll said. “They’re challenging you from the beginning. They pressure a lot. They have a very multiple-oriented scheme that really gives them a chance to do a lot of stuff and it’s hard to predict what you’re going to get.

“Other than that, you’re getting a really aggressive style. So they’re doing a fine job.”