Third & Forever: your weekly third down stats for the Bucs and the rest of the league

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

After leading the league in average third down distance in Week 1, the Bucs improve slightly in Week 2 on third downs - but will third down improvement lead to more points?

After the Bucs led the league in average third-down distance last week, with a whopping 10.7 yards, I wrote a piece called "Third & Forever", specifically as that's a phrase Warren Sapp seems to love using when reminiscing about the Bucs glory days every now and then on NFL Network. While the Bucs did better in third down distance this week, I'm keeping the name, in quasi-tribute to Sapp, for a little research project.

There's no particular theory to test, since stats can be manipulated in many ways to try and prove hypotheses correct, so we're gonna go straight up inductive reasoning here: I'm just going to collate third-down stats over the course of the season, and we'll see if any obvious trends or patterns emerge - while of course seeing how the Bucs compared with the rest of the league each week.

But first, lets take a specific look at the Bucs game, and see what happened on each third down:

Distance Converted? Play Pass Completed?
1 7 No Play Yes
2 10 Yes Pass Scramble
3 3 Yes Run X
4 6 No Pass No
5 8 No Pass No
6 13 Yes Pass Yes
7 10 No Pass Sack
8 7 No Pass No
9 11 No Pass No
10 9 Yes Pass Yes
11 2 Yes Run X
12 6 No Run X

The first thing I notice compared to last week is that the Bucs actually called runs on third downs in order to try and pick up the first down - the only run that was called last week was the final third down the Bucs had to try and wind the clock down before a field goal. Again, a run was used for a similar reason this week, but at least it was also called on 3rd & 3 and 3rd & 2. That does, however, point to another noteworthy fact: aside from those two third downs, every other third down the team faced was six yards or longer. To me, that suggests that the Bucs aren't doing enough to pick up yardage on first and second down - it's not really a good look for your team when 83% of your third downs are six yards or longer.

The pleasant surprise among these stats is on the second third down the team saw on the day - Josh Freeman actually scrambling for the first down, something that we've barely seen since the 2011 season kicked off. On the nine passes that were called on third down, Freeman complete three of seven passes he actually threw, the other two ending in a scramble and a sack - though as we've discussed elsewhere, Freeman's four third-down incompletions came on two drops by Jackson, a route where Jackson tripped over the corner's feet as he broke his route, and that force-out by Jabari Greer where Williams might (ought to?) have been able to drag his second foot for the catch... but I'll let you make your own minds up on those four plays. In all, the Bucs converted a higher percentage of third downs than they did the previous week, picking up 5 of 12 (compared to 6 of 16 the the previous week).

Now let's look at the New Orleans Saints:

Distance Converted? Play Pass Completed?
1 5 Yes Pass Yes
2 3 Yes Pass Yes
3 17 No Pass No
4 3 Yes Pass Yes
5 6 Yes Pass Yes
6 8 No Pass No
7 17 No Pass Yes
8 2 No Run X
9 10 Yes Pass Yes
10 13 No Pass Sack
11 4 No Pass No
12 7 No Pass Interception
13 2 No Pass No
14 18 No Pass No

In a reversal of last week (where the Jets called three third-down runs, compared to the Bucs' one), it's the Saints who ran just once on third down compared to the Bucs running three times. When compared to Freeman, Brees had the better completion percentage on third down, with half of his passes being caught (not counting the one third down pass that was caught by Mason Foster, of course). While 50% of his passes may have been caught, however, in all the Saints converted five of fourteen first downs, giving them a slightly lower conversion rate than the Bucs. In at least one improvement on the last week for the Bucs defense, while they did still commit penalties to give the Saints a fresh set of downs, none of them came on third downs on plays that would otherwise have been punts - against the Jets, the Bucs twice gave their opponents a fresh set of downs when, had they not committed penalties, they would have forced punts instead.

Now, having looked in slightly more detail at the Bucs', and their opponents', third downs, let's look at the league-wide stats to see how the Bucs compare to the other 31 teams.

Team 3rd Down Distance Rank 3rd Down Conversion Percentage Rank 3rd Downs Faced Rank
PHI 4.7 1 45.5 7 11 =27
IND 5.2 2 40 =11 15 =12
CHI 5.3 =3 63.6 2 11 =27
MIA 5.3 =3 38.5 15 13 =20
BUF 5.7 5 40 =11 15 =12
STL 6 6 58.8 3 17 =4
NYJ 6.1 =7 27.8 22 18 =1
SD 6.1 =7 66.7 1 15 =12
MIN 6.2 9 43.8 8 16 =8
ATL 6.3 10 58.3 4 12 =22
CIN 6.4 =11 38.9 14 18 =1
NE 6.4 =11 22.2 27 18 =1
CAR 6.5 =13 41.2 10 17 4
WAS 6.5 =13 27.3 =23 11 =27
BAL 6.9 =15 53.3 =5 15 =12
DEN 6.9 =15 53.3 =5 15 =12
ARI 7.4 17 7.7 32 13 =20
DAL 7.6 =18 18.2 29 11 =27
HOU 7.6 =18 35.3 =18 17 =4
KC 7.7 =20 35.7 16 14 =18
OAK 7.7 =20 20 28 15 =12
TB 7.7 =20 41.6 9 12 =22
CLE 7.8 =23 31.3 =20 16 =8
DET 7.8 =23 27.3 =23 11 =27
TEN 7.8 =23 25 =25 16 =8
NO 8.2 26 35.6 17 14 =18
JAX 8.5 27 35.3 =18 17 =4
SF 8.6 28 25 =25 12 =22
NYG 8.9 29 8.3 31 12 =22
GB 9 30 40 =11 10 32
PIT 9.1 31 16.7 30 12 =22
SEA 9.4 32 31.3 =20 16 =8
AVG 7.1 36.1 14.2

Instantly, we see a significant improvement in the Bucs' third-down average distance, from 10.7 in week one to 7.7 this week. More importantly, that was just .6 of a yard above the league-wide average for week 2, where they were three full yards above the league average last week. Likewise, their third-down completion percentage improved from 37.5%, which right around league average last week, to 41.6% in week 2, ninth best this week and 5.5% better than the league average. A new stat I've tracked this week is the number of third downs each team faced, where the Bucs faced fewer than the league average - just 12 third downs. (BONUS STAT: for the second week in a row, winning teams on average faced a longer third down than losing teams this week, but again with a far smaller distance than I would have expected - just a .2 yard difference, with winning teams averaging 7 yards and losing teams averaging 7.2 yards.)

Of course, it's not facing third downs that wins games - it's converting them (or at least, so the conventional wisdom goes; but there's an interesting trend emerging that we'll discuss later). So, let's see what the stats look like around the league on converted third downs:

Team Average Distance of Converted 3rd Downs Rank # of 3rd Downs Converted Rank
DET 2.3 1 3 =25
DAL 2.5 2 2 =29
PHI 2.6 3 5 =16
BUF 3.2 4 6 =11
CIN 3.3 =5 7 =5
NYJ 3.3 =5 6 =11
STL 3.7 7 10 =1
CLE 4 =8 5 =16
SF 4 =8 3 =25
MIN 4.1 10 7 =5
MIA 4.2 11 6 =11
CHI 4.6 12 7 =5
ATL 4.7 =13 7 =5
CAR 4.7 =13 7 =5
ARI 5 =15 1 =31
NE 5 =15 4 =22
IND 5.3 =17 7 =5
SD 5.3 =17 10 =1
NO 5.4 19 5 =16
TEN 5.8 =20 4 =22
SEA 5.8 =20 5 =16
PIT 6 22 2 =29
GB 6.5 =23 4 =22
HOU 6.5 =23 6 =11
JAX 6.5 =23 6 =11
BAL 6.6 =26 8 =3
DEN 6.6 =26 8 =3
OAK 6.7 28 3 =25
KC 7.2 29 5 =16
TB 7.4 30 5 =16
WAS 7.7 31 3 =25
NYG 8 32 1 =31
AVG 5.1 5.25

For the second week in a row, the average distance of a converted Bucs' third down is one of the longest in the league - but more significantly, in my opinion, is the fact that the Bucs are the only team in the NFL whose average distance of converted third down has been 7 or more yards in both weeks of the season so far. You can interpret that in different ways, but to me, it makes it even clearer that the Bucs really, really need to start doing a better job on first and second downs (it probably didn't help that, this week, on 17 of the 21 first downs the Bucs faced, Sullivan called a run play. Not that I'm saying the playcalling was predictable or anything).

For the final stats of week 2, I looked specifically at touchdown drives, to see if there was a difference in third downs compared to on non-touchdown drives. Last week, the stats were mentioned within a paragraph of text, but to keep it nice and neat I've given it it's own table this week:

First downs gained on TD drives Third downs faced on TD drives Average third down distance on TD drives
2.8 1.1 4.8

The most interesting thing here, in my opinion, is how theses statistics were almost identical to last week's - teams still averaged 1.1 third downs on a TD drive, and even the number of first downs gained (i.e. not including the first drive that began each series) was almost the same - 2.8 this week vs. 2.9 this week. Most unexpectedly was the average distance of third downs on touchdown drives - 4.8 yards, exactly the same as last week. (Of course, there was a very marginal difference, but in deference to universal convention of referencing NFL statistics, everything is rounded up to one decimal place)

So, while it's still very early in the season, there does seem to be one potential trend emerging from our data - teams still score touchdowns more often when they don't get bogged down on third downs, but rather get a fresh set of downs on first and second downs instead. We'll see if that's a trend that continues throughout the season, but it's a promising initial read.

Did you see anything in the statistics that suggest a trend to you, or do you have your own theories to explain some of these stats? Let us know in the comments below!

Finally, for the sake of completeness, here's the accumulative third-down stats for the season so far:

Team Average third down distance Average converted third down distance Third down conversion percentage
ARI 6.6 (=8) 4.5 (10) 28.9 (28)
ATL 8 (23) 6.1 (=24) 42.8 (12)
BAL 7.4 (17) 6.5 (28) 46.2 (8)
BUF 6.1 (4) 3.4 (1) 35.4 (19)
CAR 6 (3) 4.7 (=12) 43.4 (11)
CHI 5.9 (2) 6.1 (=24) 53.3 (2)
CIN 6.6 (=8) 4 (=5) 51.3 (=4)
CLE 9.2 (=29) 4 (=5) 19.2 (32)
DAL 7.8 (=20) 4.3 (=8) 25.8 (29)
DEN 6.6 (=8) 6.3 (27) 51.7 (3)
DET 7 (=15) 3.5 (2) 32.9 (22)
GB 8.6 (=26) 5.9 (21) 40 (14)
HOU 8.2 (25) 7.2 (=30) 44.3 (=9)
IND 6.9 (14) 5.8 (20) 50 (6)
JAX 9.5 (=31) 5.5 (17) 30.8 (=26)
KC 7 (=15) 5.2 (15) 34.5 (20)
MIA 6.3 (5) 4.7 (=12) 44.3 (=9)
MIN 6.5 (=6) 3.8 (4) 31.9 (24)
NE 6.6 (=8) 5.7 (=18) 38.6 (17)
NO 7.9 (22) 6.1 (=24) 40.9 (13)
NYG 8.1 (24) 6.9 (29) 31.4 (25)
NYJ 6.6 (=8) 4.3 (=8) 33.4 (21)
OAK 7.6 (18) 6 (=22) 30.8 (=26)
PHI 6.5 (=6) 3.6 (3) 51.3 (=4)
PIT 7.7 (19) 7.2 (=30) 23.8 (30)
SD 6.8 (13) 5.7 (=18) 61.9 (1)
SEA 9.5 (=31) 5.3 (16) 38.8 (16)
SF 8.7 (28) 4.7 (=12) 37.5 (18)
STL 5.8 (1) 4.2 (7) 47.6 (7)
TB 9.2 (=29) 7.2 (=30) 39.6 (15)
TEN 8.5 (=26) 6 (=22) 32.5 (23)
WAS 7.8 (=20) 4.6 (11) 23.7 (31)
AVG 7.4 5.3 38.7
First downs gained on TD drives Third downs seen on TD drives Average third down distance on TD drives
2.9 1.1 4.8
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