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Why are the Commanders always facing third and long?

There is more than one way to kill an offensive drive

Washington Football Team v Buffalo Bills Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Last week, I published an article that examined the impact of negative plays by Washington’s QBs on the length of offensive drives. I found that Carson Wentz was more than twice as likely as Taylor Heinicke to bring drives to an end prematurely by committing turnovers or taking sacks on third down, leading to a punt on fourth down.

While I was sifting through the play-by-play drive recaps to compile the data for that one, a repeating pattern just popped out at me. An awful lot of the Commanders/Football Team’s drives seem to end in third and very long, followed by a punt on fourth down. When I say third and very long, I don’t mean situations like third-and-seven, where the offense simply failed to advance the ball far enough to set up an easy conversion. I mean situations like third-and-11 to third-and-24, where they actually went backward on the first two downs.

That made me realize that there is a wide variety of ways that negative plays by QBs can hinder the offense’s progress, some simple and some more complex. I decided to write up and publish the simple, direct impacts, which I termed Drive-Killing Plays, while I thought a bit longer about how to address the more complex and often indirect impacts of negative plays on first and second downs.

That became a challenge, because the more I delved into root causes of the situations Ron Rivera’s Commanders find themselves in on third downs, the more I became convinced that I was looking at the work of a true mastermind, or perhaps 13 masterminds (11 players + Offensive Coordinator + Head Coach). The Commanders’ offense under Rivera is simply diabolical in the ingenuity with which it finds ways to make the ball go backward instead of forward.

Rather than try to capture the full spectrum of offensive ineptitude that we have witnessed for the past three seasons, I realized I would have to set some boundaries to keep this one from growing out of hand. I decided to focus on the simple, yet disturbing question that kept confronting me on the pages of the offensive drives spreadsheet: Why do the Commanders find themselves facing third and very long so often?

To answer that question, I decided to look beyond just the quarterbacks and ask who was to blame for the team’s third-down woes across the whole offensive unit. But those readers who enjoy a quarterback controversy should not despair. If it happens that some of the fault lies with quarterback play, I might just have a look to see if one of the Commanders’ quarterbacks bears more of the fault than the other.

Note to time poor readers: This article got a little long and takes the reader on a bit of a journey of discovery. Those readers who just want to know the key findings can skip to the TL:DR Summary and Conclusions at the end.

Authors’ note: This article analyzes drives up to Week 8 because I wrote it last week but didn’t get it published in time. The Commanders did not find themselves in any third and very long situations in the Week 9 loss to Minnesota, so I didn’t bother updating it.

The Commanders’ Third-and-Long Problem

First things first, let’s see if my impression was really valid. I did a quick count and discovered that the Commanders have faced third and greater than 10 yards to gain a total of 28 times in the first eight games this season. That equates to 3.5 times per game, which seems like a lot. But is it really any more than other teams encounter?

The following table shows how the Commanders rank in terms of third and very long situations faced through Week 8 of the 2022 season, relative to the rest of the league. For this purpose, third and very long was defined as third down with greater than 10 yards to gain.

The Commanders have faced the second-most third and very long situations of all NFL teams in 2022. Only Denver has faced more. They have faced third and very long 3.5 times more often than Buffalo, who are the leaders in this regard. When they have found themselves in third and very long, they faced an average of 16.6 yards to gain. That ties them with the Raiders for the 29th most yards to gain in the NFL, ahead of only Green Bay and Houston.

The Commanders are not the worst, but are in the bottom third of the league at getting out third and very long situations. They averaged 4.1 yards in these situations, which ranks 22nd in the league. They only managed to convert 10.7% of their third and very longs to first downs, which is the 23rd worst in the league.

As I suspected, this is a particular problem for the Commanders. They find themselves going backwards instead of forwards on offense more than any team but Denver, and when they do, they are seldom able to turn things around for a first down.

Therefore, in addition to negative plays by quarterbacks ending drives prematurely, which I addressed in the previous article, the offense also has a problem with negative plays putting them in situations on third down where it is particularly difficult to convert a first down. Let’s see who is responsible for those negative plays.

Assigning Blame

To determine where the fault lies, I examined all the offensive drives on which Washington has faced third and greater than 10, starting with Taylor Heinicke’s debut in the 2020 Wild Card playoff against the Bucs. To keep consistent with the previous article, I only examined drives with Taylor Heinicke or Carson Wentz at QB.

I soon realized that assigning blame for the team ending up at third and very long on any given series of downs can be tricky, because it wasn’t that uncommon for there to be two or more negative plays on the same series. Therefore, rather than attempting to determine which negative play had the biggest impact, which could get very subjective, I decided to simply count every play that lost yardage in the series, including penalties.

I also decided to only count plays that lost yardage, and not incompletions or running plays that were stuffed for no gain as contributing to the third and very long situation. For one thing, such plays can get you to third and 10, but you need something extra special to get you to third and longer than that. Secondly, those are ordinary and expected plays. The best quarterbacks in the NFL throw around 35% to 30% incompletions. Similarly, there is nothing out of the ordinary for rushes to be stopped for no gain. The emphasis here is on players who have gone beyond the normal call of duty to actually drive their team backward, rather than just failing to move forward.

Going through all the series of downs that featured a third and very long, I counted three out of four possible ways that the Commanders have managed to lose yardage on a play:

Sacks: I attributed sacks as a quarterback statistic, for reasons discussed in the preceding article, and kept track of which QB took each sack.

Tackles for Loss: These were further broken down into tackles for loss on running plays and completed passes. Assigning blame for tackles for loss between the ball carrier and offensive line would really require a play-by-play film breakdown, which I didn’t do. Therefore, I have simply recorded them by category and left it at that.

Penalties: These were broken down by position group and individual player. Delay of game penalties were attributed to the team as a whole, since they are not called on individual players. It could be argued that the QB is most responsible, but sometimes other players or the coaches can be involved.

Recovered Fumbles: While it is possible to lose yardage by recovering the team’s own fumble behind the line of scrimmage, I did not find a single case where doing so led to a third and very long, even though this analysis takes in Antonio Gibson’s supposed “fumbling problem” in 2021.

Who Are the Culprits?

In total, I analyzed 61 third and very long situations. These included 39 cases where Heinicke was quarterback and 22 with Wentz. I identified 80 negative plays that contributed to the lost yardage. That means that there was an average of 1.3 loss-of-yardage plays per series that ended at third and very long. In practice, most series culminating at third and very long had a single loss-making play, some had two, and one even had four (Dallas 2 October 2022, 3rd Q, 8:03 remaining, 3rd and 27: 1 TFL rushing, 2 penalties, 1 TFL passing).

The breakdown of negative plays that contributed to the third and very long situations is as follows:

It should come as little surprise that the biggest single cause of loss-of-yardage, leading to third and very longs, is penalties. As you might have expected, the position group most responsible for the penalties was the offensive line. Within the O-Line, the most frequent offenders were tackles Sam Cosmi and Charles Leno.

The quarterbacks committed four penalties, all for intentional grounding. Wentz committed three intentional grounding penalties to Heinicke’s one. The difference in rates of intentional grounding between the two quarterbacks is actually much greater than the raw totals make it appear, because Heinicke was QB for nearly twice as many series as Wentz. Dividing by numbers of series reveals that Heinicke committed intentional grounding on 2.6% of third and very long series that he was involved in, while Wentz was penalized on 13.6% of such series.

The data actually underestimate the difference in grounding penalty rates between the two passers. Across their entire careers in Washington, Wentz has been penalized for grounding three times in 232 passing attempts (1.3% of attempts) and Heinicke has been penalized once in 577 attempts (0.17% of attempts). Wentz is actually penalized 7.5 times more frequently than Heinicke if we look across all passing attempts, which is a more fair comparison.

Tight ends, as a group committed five of the penalties, and the other skill positions contributed two apiece.

The next biggest contributor to third and very long situations, after penalties, was sacks. Heinicke had the most, with 17 to Wentz’s 9. However, as mentioned above, he was also involved in nearly twice as many series within this analysis. Correcting for that difference reveals that, within this dataset, Wentz took sacks at a rate of 40.9% of series, compared to Heinicke at 43.6% of series. That was a little surprising, since I showed in the previous article that Wentz commits more than twice as many drive killing plays than Heinicke. I’ll expand on that in the next section.

The final contributor to third and very long situations was tackles for loss. Of the 22 tackles for loss, 17 (77%) occurred on running plays and five (23%) occurred on passes completed behind the line of scrimmage. Assigning blame for TFL between the blockers, ball carriers and even play callers requires film breakdown, which I didn’t do, so there was not much point in recording which ball carriers were involved.

Which QB’s Sacks are More Dangerous?

The fact that Heinicke takes slightly more sacks leading to third and very long situations does not seem to sit well with the fact that Wentz causes over twice as many drive-killing plays, a large proportion of which were cause by sacks, as I showed in the previous article.

One possible source of the discrepancy could be that I am analyzing a highly selected dataset in this article, by just examining the small subset of drives that ended in third and very long. Looking across their entire tenures in Washington, Wentz has taken sacks on 9.0% of pass attempts, while Heinicke has taken them on 6.1%. Wentz therefore takes sacks 47.5% more frequently than Heinicke, overall, on a per dropback basis.

OK, now things are starting to make sense. If Heinicke takes slightly more sacks leading to third and longs, but Wentz takes more sacks overall and kills more drives with sacks on third down, then perhaps the key difference is that Heinicke takes more of his sacks on early downs and Wentz takes more on later downs. To see if that was true, I did a breakdown of sacks by downs:

Which QB Is More Clutch?

The flip side of putting drives in danger by getting the team into third and long yardage situations is saving drives by when the team finds itself in these situations. To see whether one of the Commanders’ two quarterbacks is more clutch, I compared their save rates on third and very long yardage situations.

A “save” was defined as either converting a first down or scoring on third down with more than ten yards to gain, or on the following fourth down. The conversion or score was only counted as a save when it was by the quarterback’s action – either a pass or run. Field goals on fourth down following a third and very long were also not counted as saves because they are credited to the kicker, not the QB.

Applying this definition, Wentz had one save in 22 third and very long situations, which equates to a save rate of 4.5%. Heinicke had seven saves in 39 third and very long situations, giving a save rate of 17.9%. Taylor Heinicke is 3.9 times more likely to dig the team out of a third and long yardage situation to keep a drive alive or score than Carson Wentz.

Washington Commanders vs Detroit Lions Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

TL:DR Summary and Conclusions

In a previous article, I started an examination of the impact of negative plays by Washington’s QBs on offensive drives. That article showed that Carson Wentz was over two times more likely to end drives prematurely by taking sacks or turnovers on third down than Taylor Heinicke. While compiling the data for that article, I noticed that the Commanders seem to find themselves in third and long yardage (>10 yards to gain) situations very frequently. This article examined the plays leading up to those situations and asked how they got there.

The main findings of the first part of the analysis were:

  • In 2022, the Commanders faced the second-most third and long yardage situations of all NFL teams.
  • In third and long situations, the Commanders had the 29th most average yards to gain of all teams.
  • The Commanders were in the bottom third of the league in first-down conversions from third-and-long situations.

I then asked what types of negative plays contributed to the Commanders finding themselves in third and very long yardage situations. This analysis covered all offensive drives with Taylor Heinicke or Carson Wentz at QB from 2020 to the 2022 Week 8. The main findings were:

  • Penalties accounted for 40% of loss-making plays contributing to third and very long situations.
  • Half of the penalties were committed by the offensive line, 15.6% were committed by TEs, 12.5% by QBs, 6.25% each by WRs and RBs, and 9.4% were delay of game calls.
  • 32.5% of loss-making plays were sacks. Heinicke took sacks on 43.6% of series leading to third and very long situations and Wentz took them on 40.9% of such series. Therefore, in apparent contrast to the previous findings showing that Wentz was more likely to kill drives by taking sacks on third downs, the two QBs seem to contribute equally to third and very long situations by taking sacks on early downs.
  • Tackles for loss, excluding sacks, accounted for 27.5% of plays leading to third and very long yardage situations. 77.3% of the tackles for loss were stuffed running plays and 22.7% were pass plays stopped short of the line of scrimmage. I did not do the film breakdowns required to determine how many of these were the fault of the ball carriers, OL or play calling.
  • There was not a single case where a fumble led to a third and very long yardage situation.

Since sacks were the second major cause of offensive drives going backward instead of forward, I returned to where this all started and asked which quarterback’s negative plays were having the biggest impact. The main findings were:

  • Looking across all down and yardage situations, Heinicke tends to take more of his sacks on early downs, where they are potentially less costly. Wentz takes more of his sacks on later downs where they are more likely to kill drives.
  • When the team finds itself in third and very long yardage situations, Heinicke is nearly four times more likely than Wentz to save the drive by converting a first down or scoring.

Overall, these results reinforce the findings of the previous article that Carson Wentz is much more likely to kill offensive drives with negative plays than is his backup. He is not alone in this regard, however, as both quarterbacks get plenty of help in moving the offense backward from other players, most notably the offensive line.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to James Dorsett for his usual top notch editorial assistance.


What should the Commanders do when Carson Wentz is cleared to play?

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    Play him. He is the starter.
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  • 42%
    Keep rolling with Heinicke
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    I don’t care. Dan’s selling the team.
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