3rd downs may decide Super Bowl

Seattle Seahawks

Every Super Bowl winner needs a key stop on defense at some point during a postseason run. Getting a stop on third down remains the most common way of ending an offensive possession in the NFL and it should be a big factor for both teams in Super Bowl XLVIII. While the team that converts at a higher rate on third down is only 7-7 in the past 14 Super Bowls, these games often swing on one or two crucial third-down situations.

Fans of the Seahawks should understand this very well. In Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger converted a third-and-28 -- the longest third-down conversion in Super Bowl history -- with a 37-yard pass to Hines Ward. The Steelers went on to score a touchdown and never trailed again. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception on third-and-18 in the fourth quarter and the Steelers put the game away with another score.

Broncos QB Peyton Manning is also familiar with big third downs. With a 10-3 lead in Super Bowl XLIV against New Orleans, he watched Pierre Garcon drop a critical pass on third-and-4, setting in motion events that led to Manning not throwing another pass until the third quarter, after the Saints used a surprise onside kick to take the lead. In the fourth quarter, Manning's third-and-5 pass with the Colts down 24-17 was intercepted and returned 74 yards for a game-clinching touchdown by Tracy Porter.

In 2014, Manning will look for redemption against a historically stingy Seattle pass defense. Meanwhile, the Denver pass defense has been the worst in the league on third down, setting up a Super Bowl that would seem to favor the Seahawks in crucial situations, but let's break down the tape and numbers to see who really has the advantage.

Denver offense versus Seattle defense

This is a matchup of strengths. Denver has not played a defense as tough as Seattle's this year and Seattle has not played an offense as great as that of the Broncos. For teams that are so unfamiliar with one another, this chess match should be magnificent to watch, assuming the weather does not severely hinder the quality of the game.

Football Outsiders uses a DVOA rating ( explained here) to measure how efficient teams are on each play in the context of that game situation. When it comes to the best pass defenses on third down since 1989, the Seahawks rank No. 1 (out of 765 defenses) with an incredible minus-78.9 percent DVOA (a negative number is better for defense). The Broncos are no slouches on third-down passing offense, ranking third in 2013 with a 62.7 percent DVOA.

Denver's offense ranked second with a 47.3 percent conversion rate and the Broncos' average third-down attempt came with 6.3 yards to go for a first down. Only San Diego (6.2) and Indianapolis (6.2) did a better job of making third down manageable. In the playoffs, Denver has turned into a ball-control offense, averaging 8.0 drives per game compared to 12.0 in the regular season. The key to that change has been converting 16 of 26 third downs (61.5 percent), which could have been even better without three dropped passes and a lost fumble (or so it was ruled) by Julius Thomas against San Diego. Unsurprisingly, Denver's had to punt only once on 16 postseason possessions.

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