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.
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|
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|
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|
|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%|
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|
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.
|NYG||Odell Beckham Jr.||33||22||0||100.0%|
|BAL||Steve Smith Sr.||24||12||3||80.0%|
|CAR||Ted Ginn Jr.||15||7||3||70.0%|
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.
Ben Stockwell | 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.