Get close, and third downs should be better

Posted by Darren Urban on November 6, 2013 – 11:41 am

The Cardinals want to get better on third-down conversions. It would allow them to keep the ball longer, it would put them in position to score more points. This is all Football 101.

Coach Bruce Arians said he was going to look at the issue during the bye week. There were not any stunning revelations. “It was pretty much what it thought it was—a conglomeration of mistakes, overthrows, bad balls, dropped passes, guys running wrong routes, not knowing each other quite well enough under some coverages, sacks, pressure,” Arians said. “It would’ve been a lot easier had I been able to put my finger on one or two things and just say ‘OK, this is what it is to fix.’ But, knowing that it’s a problem is one thing—identifying it—and then emphasizing every practice when there’s third down reps.”

The Cardinals started so well in the department — converting 7 of their first 12 third downs this season, playing the Rams — and then dropped off. Their conversion percentage of a little better than 31 percent is only a tad better than last season. Overall, the offense has been able to move the ball better than last year, in part because this team is better in generating a first down on more first- and second-downs this year. That speaks to an ability to gain yards on those early downs.

Here’s another point that will come as no revelation, but more as a factual backing to what everyone knows: The fewer yards the Cards need on third down, the better for conversions.

I know, shocking. But as frustrating as it has been to see the Cards throw a pass that gains two yards on third-and-3, the offense still gets those first downs much of the time. In the first eight games, the Cardinals have faced third down and less than four yards 23 times. They have gotten a first down on 15 of those, or 65.2 percent. When the Cards have third down and between 4-to-6 yards (26 times), they have 12 first downs ( 46.2 percent). On third down and between 7-to-10 yards, the Cards are only 7-for-33 (21.2 percent). And for the season, if the Cardinals have 11 yards or more to go on third down, they have yet to convert on 19 chances.

These numbers include a couple of kneel-downs and a couple of penalty conversions that don’t usually count in the third-down stats, but if the Cards can draw an offside on third-and-4, that counts just as much. As Arians said, there are a bunch of different reasons third downs aren’t working from an execution standpoint. An improved running game should help considerably. But weaving in the pass protection and Carson Palmer decision-making issues, and it isn’t surprising the numbers say the Cards have a tough time if they need seven or more yards on third down.


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12 Responses to “Get close, and third downs should be better”

  1. By Patrick Hoog aka Don't Take Losses on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Arians said. “It would’ve been a lot easier had I been able to put my finger on one or two things and just say ‘OK, this is what it is to fix.”

    Three takes, on the explanation:
    1) we’re not very good, period, on offense overall; and/or
    2) we need to stop so often wasting a down going for the chunk until after we’ve gotten as least 5 or 6 on first down (my belief, this is as much the issue as #1);
    3) we didn’t have Ellington in the lineup, Mendenhall was hurt, so we had too many 2 yard plays.

    One take on the fix: With 2 weeks for OL to work, with 2 weeks for Palmer and receivers to work, and with fewer 1-2 yard plays b/c Ellington is so elusive, we should see that % come up over 40%…imho…

  2. By jeffgollin on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Darren – Is our play calling less predictable on 1st and 2nd downs and (out of necessity) more predictable on 3rd downs (because we have one shot to achieve the objective of picking up a first down) as well as more prone to tipping off plays from a smaller 3rd down list of plays?

    Note – One notable exception to this dynamic that comes to mind is Mike Martz (who’d have no problem dialing up a deep pass on 3rd & inches at his own 10-yard line).

  3. By Darren Urban on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Jeff —

    RE: Predictability

    Maybe. But when you are in longer situations with struggling protection/passes, it’s pretty simple I think.

  4. By Cardsgirl on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Re predictability of offensive play calling: Each offensive series seems to follow a predictable pattern: Run, Pass. The occasional long pass on first down notwithstanding, this seems to be the reason the Cards often get only a couple of yards on first downs most of the time. Has anyone asked BA about this? Especially on the first scripted plays of the game.

    I understand that when the Cards get behind, play calling changes, but does anyone else share my observations for the first half of games?

  5. By Darren Urban on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Cardsgirl —

    RE: First downs

    I didn’t crunch the numbers, but there have been a bunch of times the Cards converted a first from first- or second-down, meaning they often have gotten a chunk on first. Not sure “a couple of yards” on first down is true “most” of the time.

  6. By georgiebird on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Very interesting subject- 3rd down conversions.
    We all can agree the shorter the yardage needed on 3rd (or 4th) down conversions, the better chance of converting.
    However, there is a less obvious 3rd down stat that might be helpful here: the team that has less 3rd and 4th down opportunities in a game is more likely to win the game.
    So, BA’s philosophy in getting closer may not be as solid as it seems. E.g. on 2nd and 6 yards to go, the Cards may try to be conservative and make it a 3rd and 2 rather than take a chance and make it a 3rd and 6.
    This type of a philosophy is going to make 2nd down a very unexciting down. A better philosophy might be doing those “little” things to avoid getting into 3rd and 4th down situations in the first place.

  7. By Darren Urban on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    Georgie —

    RE: third downs

    So you advocate taking more risks on second down and making it more likely to be 3rd-and-7 or longer?

  8. By jakeplummersghost on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    It comes down to not having enough talent on the OL, which is why we get to third and long so often in the first place, as is evidenced by the 65% figure for 3rd and short. Don’t expect things to get much better until the OL play or level of talent increases. End of story.

  9. By georgiebird on Nov 6, 2013 | Reply

    re:3rd downs
    my point is: avoiding 3rd down plays altogether should be the #1 goal followed by 3rd and short. The frequency of getting into 3rd down situations has a negative beta as concerns winning football games.
    Yes, I would advocate being more aggressive on 2nd down.

  10. By Darren Urban on Nov 7, 2013 | Reply

    georgie —

    RE: Third downs

    Well of course you want to avoid third downs altogether. But being too aggressive on second downs is going to put you in more difficult third-down spots more often.

  11. By MartinK on Nov 7, 2013 | Reply

    Third and long is a predictable passing situation.The OL buckles under pressure too quickly. The secondary can risk one on one because the receiver will not achieve separation before Palmer gets under pressure. That encourages the opposing defense to bring even more pressure.

    What the Cardinals are lacking are the classical screenplays, outlet passes, and option plays that would punish the defense for getting too aggressive. These are things that can be practiced in less time than it takes for an offensive line to improve protection and mature. Going deep on second is a luxury that can only be sustained if the team can convert on third and I don’t see that they have the right plays to do that with an offensive line that is less than exceptional.

  12. By Rich on Nov 7, 2013 | Reply

    Lotta new players, new QB, new systems, new coaches and scheme. On game day everything moves fast. These guys need a little time to make it all feel “natural”. Cards are gonna be a big 2nd half of the season team if they stay healthy.

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