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The 3rd-down Stooges

Images courtesy Our bad third down performance courtesy the three men above.

Defense -- First the cold, hard numbers: We are currently 27th in the league in 3rd down percentage as our opponents are converting on an embarrassing 43.5% of their attempts. That number looks better than it is, because we are currently dead last on 4th down. No one has of yet failed a fourth down attempt against this Redskins defense; we're 5 for 5 (or 0 for 5, depending how you want to look for it). We've also allowed 20 1st downs on penalty, which is good (or bad, again depending on how one views it) for 28th in the league.

Getting off the field is crucial for any number of reasons, a few of which I'll outline briefly. First, it gives the defense much needed rest. Defenses typically tire themselves out more quickly than offenses, because those pesky offensive players have the schematic advantage of knowing exactly where they are going. Thus, the longer a drive takes the less likely the defense is to prevent a score.

Second, when the defense is on the field the offense is not. Corollary: the offense cannot score when the defense is on the field. Failure to convert on third downs robs from the offense a much needed opportunity to drive the ball down the field and put points on the board. It also affords the opposing team's defense with some much needed rest, thus making it more difficult for the offense when they actually reach the field.

Offense -- First the cold, hard numbers: Slightly better, the Redskins are 20th on third down with a 36.9% conversion rate. We have also respectably converted 5 of 9 4th down attempts. One of the reasons our third down conversion rate is so bad is because this team frequently puts itself into a position to fail, offensively, due to penalties. We have 71 offensive penalties (4th worst in the league) for 640 yards (2nd worst in the league).

A friend of mine was a member of a College Football coaching staff some years ago. I was complaining specifically about Brunell's annoying habit of dumping the ball to a RB on 3rd and 15 and generally about coaches who run the ball or go for screen passes on 3rd and forever.

His response largely explained why, despite the inevitable boos that accompany the decision, coaches frequently run the ball or make nary an attempt to successfully convert 3rd and a mile plays. The reason is because coaches don't typically have a 3rd and 25 play to run. You don't prepare for that situation because it's largely unconvertable; if the opposing defense knows the sticks are 25 yards down field, they're going to play defense to prevent a 25 yard attempt. They will be in a perfect position to make a play on the ball should it sail into their defensive territories, thus making the risk more dangerous (to some) than the perceived benefit. My former coaching friend's justification was that running or screen passes are safe and buy valuable field position; in 3rd and a mile scenarios they frequently go for 10-15 yard, thus increasing the amount of 1st downs necessary to score for the opposing offense.

I understand the point. I don't agree with it, particularly when you have Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd, Antwaan Randle-El, and Chris Cooley on the field. Still it cannot be stressed enough that penalties lead to longer distances to chains. This will make converting third downs (or any down) more difficult.

The reason converting third downs offensively is so important is that it gives a team more Time of Possession and more opportunities to make plays. Reflect upon the Tampa Bay game for a moment; despite losing the turnover battle, Tampa Bay had 7 more offensive plays than we did. Incidentally, 7 plays is exactly how long their go-ahead field goal scoring drive took.

Every successful 1st down increases the number of offensive plays in a drive by a minimum (barring turnovers) of 3 plays. Unlike passing, a successful running game is contingent on a large volume of plays. It takes time to wear a defense down and to establish the run. Once one does this, everything else becomes easier as well; teams have to respect your ground game and stack many bodies in the box, thus opening up favorable matchups for the receivers and tight ends.

The Redskins are 1-6 (with a win against Dallas) in games where their opponents have more plays. They are 2-2 (with losses to Philly and Indy) when they have more plays than their opponents. I don't want to overemphasize the point because it probably has the causal relationship mixed up. Teams that run the ball well have more plays and win games; having more plays does not cause the win, it's suggestive of something else that does. But, as a general rule, teams are better off if they execute more plays than their opponents.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to:

  1. Force turnovers.
  2. Protect the ball.
  3. Rob the opponent of plays by ending drives on 3rd down.
  4. Sustain drives by moving the chains, particularly on 3rd down.
The Redskins have done a great job of protecting the ball, a below average job of sustaining drives, a horrible job ending drives on 3rd down, and are the worst in the league at generating turnovers -- perhaps the worst in recent history. Since 2003 (and beyond?) no one has generated fewer than 15 turnovers. The Redskins are on track to finish with 12. The result of this is an overall 40 play deficit and the Redskins trailing their opponents in virtually every meaningful offensive and defensive statistic.

The result of that is 3-7.