Third & Forever: how the Bucs statistically compared to the rest of the league on third down

Rich Schultz

The Bucs appeared to face very long distances on third downs far too often last Sunday - but just how bad was the average third down distance for the Bucs? This article tries to place the third down distances the Bucs saw against the Jets in the wider context of the other twelve games played that day, as well as taking a closer look at how the Bucs and the Jets specifically fared on third down.

It's often said that the third down is the ‘money down'. Reeling from a tough, painful loss to the Jets, I decided to see just how money the Bucs were - or weren't - on that money down, and compare it to the Jets, and then the rest of the NFL playing on that day, in various statistical categories.

Now, as the departed Raheem Morris taught us, stats are for losers, so I won't be reading too much into what the statistics mean, but thought it's interesting enough to see if there's much to be gleaned from looking at the raw data in terms of statistical trends.

Firstly, though, this is how the Bucs' third down story unfolded on Sunday:


3RD DOWN DISTANCE CONVERTED? PLAY PASS COMPLETED?
1 1 YARD YES PASS YES
2 35 YARDS NO PASS YES
3 10 NO (SAFETY) N/A N/A
4 14 NO PASS SACK
5 5 YES PASS YES
6 16 NO PASS YES
7 7 NO PASS INTERCEPTION
8 8 YES PASS YES
9 9 YES PASS YES
10 4 NO PASS NO
11 12 NO PASS NO
12 9 YES PASS YES
13 4 NO PASS NO
14 24 NO PASS NO
15 10 YES PASS YES
16 3 NO RUN N/A

A few things jump out: firstly, with the exception of the final third down the Bucs saw, when the aim was to run down the clock before the field goal attempt, the Bucs called pass on every other third down on the day (it's probably safe to assume that the play ending in safety would have been a pass). As you can see, Josh Freeman actually completed passes on 61.5% of his passes on third down, though only six of his eight completions actually resulted in first downs (with the other two completions coming on 3rd & 16 and 3rd & 35). With the exception of the interception, Freeman actually did an OK job on third downs when you look at the stats - though it didn't help that the two completions that weren't converted where when Mike Sullivan called running back screens on those two incredibly long third down distances.

Now, let's look at what the Jets did on third down:

3RD DOWN DISTANCE CONVERTED? PLAY PASS COMPLETED?
1 3 NO PASS NO
2 9 NO PASS YES
3 9 NO PASS NO
4 11 YES PASS YES
5 7 YES PASS YES
6 8 YES PASS SCRAMBLE
7 11 NO PASS NO
8 1 YES RUN N/A
9 21 NO (YES ON PENALTY) PASS YES
10 1 YES RUN N/A
11 16 NO PASS YES
12 7 YES PASS SCRAMBLE
13 2 NO PASS SACK
14 1 NO RUN N/A
15 6 NO (YES ON PENALTY) PASS SCRAMBLE
16 2 YES PASS YES
17 8 NO PASS YES
18 4 NO PASS SACK

One thing I find interesting here is that every time the Jets were in a third and one situation, they dialled up a run; in every other instance, they called a pass play. Despite being a rookie, Geno Smith had a very healthy 70% completion rate on third down - though when you look closer, only three of his third down completions actually resulted in a first down, which suddenly makes Smith's seemingly impressive statistic lose some of its lustre. It should be noted, though, that Smith was able to pick up an additional two first downs by scrambling. One more thing to note: unlike the Bucs, the Jets were also gifted two more first downs from third down defensive penalties - including, most crucially, one on the Jets' only touchdown drive of the night.

We've looked into detail at what the Bucs and the Jets did on third downs, but stats are just stats until we throw in some context - so let's go ahead and throw some context in there by seeing just what ‘third down' meant to the other twenty four teams playing on Sunday.

One of the things Greg Schiano said having a strong run game would produce is the Bucs being placed in third-and-manageable situations, so let's take a look at how the Bucs did in average third-down distance compared to the rest of the league.

RANK TEAM AVERAGE 3RD DOWN DISTANCE THIRD DOWN CONVERSION PERCENTAGE
1 STL 5.5 36.4
2 CAR 5.6 45.5
3 ARI 5.7 50
4 KC 6.2 33.3
5 PIT 6.2 30.8
6 DET 6.3 38.5
7 CHI 6.4 42.9
8 BUF 6.5 30.8
9 NE 6.7 55
=10 CIN 6.8 63.6
=10 MIN 6.8 20
12 NYJ 7.1 38.9
=13 MIA 7.3 50
=13 NYG 7.3 54.5
15 OAK 7.4 53.8
16 NO 7.6 46.2
=17 DAL 8 33.3
=17 GB 8 40
19 IND 8.6 60
20 SF 8.7 50
21 TEN 9.2 40
=22 ATL 9.6 27.3
=22 SEA 9.6 46.2
=24 CLE 10.5 7 (that's right, 7% third down conversion rate)
=24 JAX 10.5 26.3
26 TB 10.7 37.5

Ouch, not so good. Now, to be fair, the statistics are skewed by that early 3rd & 35, but even without that third down included, the Bucs would still have averaged a distance of 9.1 yards on third downs. Still, I'm going to keep that 3rd & 35 in, since there were plenty of teams whose third-down distance was affected by penalties which would have skewed their stats. Penalties take us out of those third-and-manageable situations we need to be in, so they need to be factored into the statistics. (BONUS STAT: you'd expect teams that won to face a more manageable third-down distance on average than teams that lost. Well, they did - barely. Teams that won on Sunday averaged a 7.5-yard distance on third down; teams that lost, 7.8 yards)

So, that's the average distance each team faces on third down - and with the Bucs coming last, it might not be surprising that the team's third down completion percentage (37.5) was ‘good' for 17th among the 26 teams we're looking at. However, plenty of teams face long third down distances - what matters is third and manageable distances. How can we determine what's a ‘manageable' distance for a given team? Easiest way (even if it's not the most strictly accurate method) is looking at the average third down distance teams faced on third downs that they converted - which looks something like this:

(Note: for the purposes of this graph, a third down conversion means a third down play that resulted in a first down or a touchdown. It does NOT include plays where a third down resulted in a first down purely because of a defensive penalty. It does, however, include third downs where defensive penalties where committed, but the play would have resulted in a conversion even without the defensive penalty)

RANK TEAM SUCCESSFUL 3RD DOWN DISTANCE # OF 3RD DOWN CONVERSIONS
1 KC 3.2 5
=2 BUF 3.5 4
=2 MIN 3.5 2
4 STL 3.7 3
=5 ARI 4 7
=5 CLE 4 1
7 JAX 4.4 5
=8 CAR 4.6 5
=8 DET 4.6 5
10 CIN 4.7 7
11 SEA 4.8 6
12 MIA 5.1 8
=13 GB 5.3 7
=13 NYJ 5.3 4
=13 OAK 5.3 7
=13 SF 5.3 7
17 NYG 5.8 6
18 DAL 6 5
19 TEN 6.1 7
20 IND 6.2 6
21 NE 6.3 11
22 NO 6.8 5
23 TB 7 6
=24 CHI 7.5 6
=24 ATL 7.5 2
26 PIT 8.3 4

That translates to an average third-down distance of 5.3 yards for successful conversions - with teams averaging 5.4 successful third down conversions per game. This new set of stats presents some seemingly contradictory information. Take the four longest averages in this data set - the Bucs, Bears, Falcons and Steelers. Both the Bucs and the Falcons, as you might expect of all teams, faced a shorter average distance on third downs that were successfully converted, than they did on all third downs. On the other hand, the Bears and Steelers actually converted third downs when they were facing an average third-down distance that was longer than the average distance they faced on all third downs.

For the Bucs, though, it does suggest that the team does need to facing shorter third-down distances if they want to have a better third-down conversion percentage - though there might be at least some solace in the fact that, on the first Sunday of the season, they were able to convert third downs from a greater distance than 22 of the other 25 teams playing that day.

Of course, it's not short third downs that wins games - it's points, and that's where the data gets more interesting. It's all well and good third downs being short, but statistically the best way to get to the end zone is by facing as few third downs as possible.

There were 57 offensive touchdowns last Sunday; while getting to the end zone, NFL teams saw an average of just one third down during those touchdowns drives - or more accurately, an average of 1.1 third downs. To put that statistic into context, a team gained an average of 2.9 first downs during  a touchdown drive - not including the first down that began each series. Sixteen of the fifty-seven touchdown drives passed without a team facing a single third-down situation. To go further, when teams did see a third down en route to a touchdown, the average distance on those third downs was just 4.8 yards - under two-thirds of the distance during an average third down. However, some of those drives were sustained because of penalties; when we remove third downs on touchdown drives resulting from defensive penalties, that average distance drops to 4.2 yards.

What this suggests is that the quicker drives take - indicated by how few third down situations are typically faced by a team on a touchdown drive - the more likely they are to end in a touchdown. There could be multiple factors for this (perhaps it's a result of the psychological momentum swing that an offense gets from gaining a fresh set of downs from and first and second down situations; or maybe, it's because quicker drives mean a less worn-down offensive line by the time you get to the red zone), but it's an interesting data set for sure. It will be interesting to see if this trend, or any of the trends suggested by any of the data in this article, continues over the season.

But back to the Buccaneers. We know that the Bucs did not do a good job on Sunday, and Greg Schiano claimed that it was because the quarterback needed to do a better job of passing in his day-after press conference (which some have seen as him throwing Freeman under the bus, but that's a discussion for another time). Regardless of who's under center, it's clear that the offense as a whole was not doing a good job on the first two downs - it might have felt obvious from just watching the game, but the stats bear it up. More specifically, you cannot expect a team to have much consistent success when they're facing an average third down distance of over ten yards - or even over nine yards, which is what the Bucs were facing when you discount the third-and-35 down.

While there can be some silver lining in the Bucs' seeming ability to still convert long downs compared to the rest of the NFL, the poor gains the team were getting on the first two downs are not going to lead to a productive offense - not when the key to score touchdowns, at least as suggested by the statistics, is to see as few third downs as possible. Maybe that was part of the problem with the offensive gameplan last Sunday: the team kept running when the run game wasn't working in order, presumably, to try and get the team into third and manageable situations. Instead of conservatively trying to get into third and manageable, it behoves the Bucs, at least statistically, to get aggressive and aim to not get into third down at all. After all, it's appears to be no coincidence that the only series that the Bucs didn't see third down on were the two drives that resulted in touchdowns.

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