Best and worst third down offensive players this season

Ben Stockwell highlights the performers who get it done on third down—and those who come up short.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Best and worst third down offensive players this season

In an ideal world, an offense never puts itself in a situation to have to be efficient on third downs; if they can chunk through yards on first and second downs, then their ability to convert under pressure can be marginalized.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and some of the most defining tests of a game—and a season—are played out on both a team and individual level on the ability to perform and convert on third down. With 10 weeks of the 2015 season in the books, today we’re going to analyze the performance of individual players on third down in a way that goes beyond a simplistic look at conversion percentage. We begin with a look at the offense; specifically, how they are setting up their third downs and executing in the passing game.

Setting up for failure

If third down circumstances are defined by a sequence of downs, then that result can largely be set by the work that the offense has done before that on first and second down. Two failed run plays will set up a tough conversion on third down, while two successful plays not only brings the running game into play, but also opens up the options in the passing game to not simply look for a conversion, but stretch the defense and look well beyond this.

Team Quarterback Dropbacks 3rd-and-8+ yards Percentage of 3rd Down Pass Plays of 3rd-and-8+ 1st down Touchdowns Conversion percentage
CLE Johnny Manziel 47 26 55.3% 13 3 34.0%
KC Alex Smith 98 52 53.1% 24 2 26.5%
MIA Ryan Tannehill 90 47 52.2% 22 3 27.8%
HOU Brian Hoyer 71 37 52.1% 24 4 39.4%
DEN Peyton Manning 103 53 51.5% 28 4 31.1%
NFL League total 3,269 1,469 44.9% 995 131 34.4%
ARI Carson Palmer 86 33 38.4% 30 8 44.2%
WAS Kirk Cousins 105 40 38.1% 41 7 45.7%
SEA Russell Wilson 93 35 37.6% 24 3 29.0%
ATL Matt Ryan 105 37 35.2% 40 4 41.9%
PIT Ben Roethlisberger 57 20 35.1% 24 1 43.9%

That stark difference in how the first two downs set the tone for third down is displayed by the differences in conversion rate for these quarterbacks at opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of the distance they have to gain on third down. Only four quarterbacks are converting a lower percentage of their third down targets than Ryan Tannehill this season, but when held up against the fact that only Johnny Manziel and Alex Smith are setting up to pass on 3rd-and-8 or longer more often, that perhaps isn’t so surprising. Compare that to Ben Roethlisberger: consistently setting up to pass on third-and-short and -intermediate opens the passing game beyond the markers, playing its role in the Steelers’ aggression on third down and their efficiency in such circumstances.

Playing short of the markers

One thing that consistently raises the ire of football fans in the stadium or at home in front of the television is throwing passes short of the markers on third down. League-wide, 41.5 percent of third down passes are targeted short of the markers; less than 30 percent of those targets are converted for a first down, while more than 50 percent of passes targeted at or beyond the markers on third down result in a touchdown or a fresh set of downs.

Team Quarterback Targets Short of Markers Percentage of pass attempts short of markers Average depth of target vs. yards to gain Conversion percentage
KC Alex Smith 73 45 61.6% -3.6 33.3%
PHI Sam Bradford 84 43 51.2% -0.5 27.9%
MIA Ryan Tannehill 71 36 50.7% -0.6 8.3%
STL Nick Foles 89 45 50.6% +0.4 11.1%
SD Philip Rivers 83 41 49.4% +0.3 46.3%
NFL League total 2654 1101 41.5% +1.5 28.5%
GB Aaron Rodgers 69 24 34.8% +3.1 25.0%
ATL Matt Ryan 88 27 30.7% +1.9 29.6%
ARI Carson Palmer 72 22 30.6% +5.1 36.4%
JAX Blake Bortles 79 24 30.4% +3.6 41.7%
HOU Brian Hoyer 63 19 30.2% +2.8 26.3%

No quarterback, then, frustrates his fans more on third down than Alex Smith, who throws short of the markers on more than 60 percent of his third downs, 10 percent more than any other quarterback in the league. Even when you factor in how often he is setting up third-and-long or -extra-long situations, that is staggeringly conservative. In third-and-short or -intermediate (7 or fewer yards to go) situations, Smith is still conservative in the extreme, targeting 52.7 percent of his passes short of the markers. (Only three other quarterbacks are above 40 percent, let alone 50 percent.) No other quarterback puts more of the onus to convert on his receivers than Smith.

Converting from short of the markers

The next logical step in our path through first downs so far this season is to look at the receivers who are being asked to convert when their quarterbacks throw them the ball short of the markers. The list of most-targeted receivers short of the markers on third down is, unsurprisingly, headed by a pair of running backs (Danny Woodhead and Duke Johnson). But soon after follow Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and Travis Kelce, showing that throwing short of the markers isn’t all about involving the running backs.

Team Position Receiver Targets short of markers Average depth of target vs. yards to gain Completions Yards after catch per completion Conversion percentage
TB RB Charles Sims 8 -8.0 6 17.5 62.5%
NYG WR Odell Beckham Jr. 9 -4.0 8 5.1 55.6%
BAL WR Steve Smith Sr. 9 -1.8 7 3.9 55.6%
WAS TE Jordan Reed 11 -5.2 9 7.6 54.5%
SD WR Steve Johnson 8 -6.3 7 9.4 50.0%
NFL N/A NFL total 1,101 -7.5 873 6.5 28.5%
KC WR Jeremy Maclin 8 -7.9 7 3.7 12.5%
MIA WR Jarvis Landry 10 -7.5 6 4.3 10.0%
TEN RB Dexter McCluster 8 -14.4 6 8.0 0.0%
MIA RB Lamar Miller 8 -12.4 6 6.3 0.0%
DAL TE Jason Witten 8 -6.3 8 1.9 0.0%

Heading the list at converting on passes short of the markers is a running back, with the Buccaneers’ Charles Sims converting five of his six catches short of the markers on third downs. Following quickly behind Sims is a quartet of receivers making the most of their ability after the catch, both through agility and physicality, to extend a set of downs when they begin behind the markers. At the other end of the scale we find Jarvis Landry, whose standing so low in this statistic shows that even the best receivers after the catch can’t guarantee a conversion from short of the markers. Landry is a wizard after the catch, but taking the ball an average of 7.5 yards short of the markers is a mountain too tall even for him to overcome.

Getting aggressive on third down

It’s easy to get in trouble on third down by getting conservative; a team can zero in on the markers to such an extent that a defense can flood the first down, leaving no room for a throw to the sticks, and putting a wall in front of passes thrown short of the markers. No offense has been more aggressive on third downs this season than the Steelers, particularly with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. Pittsburgh has capitalized on their first and second down offense, keeping them out of long yardage to get aggressive and take shots on third downs, stretching the defense to open space around the markers as well as go hunting for the big play.

Team Quarterback Dropbacks Average Yards to Gain Average depth of target vs. yards to gain Average time to throw
PIT Ben Roethlisberger 57 7.1 +6.8 2.51
ARI Carson Palmer 86 6.8 +5.1 2.63
NYJ Ryan Fitzpatrick 90 7.1 +4.0 2.55
JAX Blake Bortles 113 7.9 +3.6 3.01
BAL Joe Flacco 98 7.0 +3.1 2.46
NFL League total 3,269 7.7 +1.5 2.71
DET Matthew Stafford 102 8.0 -0.1 2.72
PHI Sam Bradford 96 8.4 -0.5 2.79
MIA Ryan Tannehill 90 8.4 -0.6 2.59
HOU Ryan Mallett 44 7.3 -1.7 2.36
KC Alex Smith 98 8.6 -3.6 2.85

Once again in this table, we see another illustration of Alex Smith’s conservative nature on third downs, further away from every other quarterback in the NFL, in a conservative sense, than Roethlisberger is in an aggressive sense. Those quarterbacks standing with Roethlisberger at the top of the list include Carson Palmer, whose downfield accuracy has elevated the Cardinals to new heights this season. His 44.2 percent conversion rate on third down dropbacks is the fourth-highest in the league, another indication of his MVP level of performance.

Keep hold of the ball

After all the work to set up a favorable third down situation, setting up an offense to create space for conversions both beyond and short of the markers is for naught if the receiver cannot hang on to the ball. We finish our look at third down performance on offense with a look at the receivers who are—and aren’t—doing their job and hanging onto the ball on third downs. A drop on first or second down offers you at least some opportunity to atone for your mistake and convert on a subsequent down—a third down drop offers no such opportunity, unless your coaches get aggressive and go for it on fourth down.

Team Receiver Targets Catches Drops Catch rate
PIT Antonio Brown 39 27 0 100.0%
NYG Odell Beckham Jr. 33 22 0 100.0%
NO Willie Snead 21 16 0 100.0%
ATL Julio Jones 25 16 0 100.0%
DAL Jason Witten 18 15 0 100.0%
NFL League total 2,654 1856 169 90.9%
BAL Steve Smith Sr. 24 12 3 80.0%
PHI Jordan Matthews 23 10 3 76.9%
OAK Amari Cooper 17 10 3 76.9%
CAR Ted Ginn Jr. 15 7 3 70.0%
TB Mike Evans 27 11 5 68.8%

Top of the class, and highlighting why he is arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL today, is Antonio Brown. Short of the markers or beyond the markers, Brown is going to catch the football and give the Steelers an excellent chance of keeping their drive alive. He heads a group of 21 receivers with at least 10 catches and no drops on third downs, which includes Saints receiver Willie Snead near the top, matching Julio Jones with 16 catches and no drops on third downs.

At the opposite end of the scale are two NFC South receivers from the Saints and Falcons rosters. Of Mike Evans’ six drops in the last two games, three of them have been on third down, having previously spilled a pair of third down passes in the Buccaneers’ Week 3 defeat to the Texans. Just outside of the bottom five, Dexter McCluster is one of only three running backs with multiple drops on third down this season.

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Tony

    If people are curious, Football Outsiders has a new metric called ALEX (Air Yards Less Expected) that measures weekly how close to the sticks QBs throw on third and fourth downs. Really interesting stuff.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I think everyone would concede that a team’s ability to convert on third down is influenced significantly by how they perform on the two previous downs. Efficiency is also influenced by some other factors the article overlooked such as field position and whether a team is trying to rally from a scoring deficit or simply running out the clock with a comfortable lead.

  • gofins60

    This is why I hate Miami’s offense… too many 3rd down passes thrown short of the 1st down marker. Their entire offense is based on WRs gaining yards after a short pass. If 85-90% of your offense is short passes (and you rarely go deep or run the ball), you make it easy for the defense to move up and limit the yards after catch. I can’t understand how anyone could be so stupid as to make their offense almost completely one-dimensional.

    The offense is a little more balanced with Philbin gone, but usually by the 2nd quarter they go right back to the same old garbage.

    • ZLC

      The offensive line simply cannot run block an nfl defensive line or hold up long enough in pass protection for long pass plays, The coaches have no other choice besides short passes. The fins are already tied for seventh most sacks given up. If they ran long pass plays Tannehil wouldn’t last a game, I’m honestly surprised that his body has lasted this long.

      • gofins60

        You’re right, the o-line is the problem, and I blame Philbin. Philbin wanted an offense based on short timing routes, where the ball should be out of the QB’s hand almost immediately. I believe this is why Philbin didn’t bother to do all he could to fix the o-line; why worry about it if the linemen don’t have to sustain blocks? The problem is that his linemen are so bad that sometimes Tannehill has no time to throw the ball.

        Why did Philbin go into this season with someone like Dallas Thomas as his best OG, knowing that his job was on the line if he didn’t make the playoffs? Philbin could have had the personnel guys get him some better linemen. Since he’s all about the passing game, he had no problem getting a ton of WRs brought in over the years, so why didn’t he ask for better linemen? He had Incognito and Jerry at Guard, but he got rid of them. What does he have now? Two or three of the worst Guards in the entire league. He’s an idiot, and I’m glad he’s finally gone. Hopefully the next guy in charge will install a “real” offense instead of Philbin and Lazor’s garbage, and build a tough, physical o-line.

        • ZLC

          I mostly agree, I like short passing routes, especially when we have Jarvis and Lamar two fantastic YAC guys, but you are certainly correct that we need to be able to keep defenses honest with the run game and a legitimate deep threat.

  • Patriot42

    Smith’s main aim is to avoid INTs so he throws to safe receivers miles from first downs.

  • enai D

    Wow… Alex Smith’s target on 3rd down is, on average, 3.6 yards short of the yard-to-gain? That’s really, really sad- and yet, completely unsurprising.