Before the Saints’s Week 16 matchup vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, they currently sit at second in the league in three-and-outs per drive according to Football Outsiders at .133. This means that the Saints face the second fewest three-and-outs in the league, second only to the Kansas City Chiefs. On top of that, the Saints also convert on 44.4% of their third downs over the course of the full season so far.
From that perspective, New Orleans has done very well when it comes to third down offense. However, over the last few games, they’ve struggled quite a bit on third down converting only 36.1% since Week 13. In Week 13 alone they also surrendered four three-and-outs against the Cowboys. So what is it about the last three games that’s caused them to struggler on third down? I went through each of their last six games and catalogued whether or not the play were runs, throws before the line to gain, or throws at or beyond the line to gain and found that, as of later, the Saints are having trouble in one of those particular areas in the last three games in comparison to the three before.
In Weeks 13-15, the Saints went 13 – 36 on third downs. Of those 36 attempts, seven were run attempts, 10 were throws at or beyond the line to gain (L2G), and 18 were throws short of the first down marker. Here’s how those broke down conversion – attempt:
Run: 3-8 (37.5%)
Pass before L2G: 3-18 (16.4%)
Pass at or beyond L2G: 7-10 (70%)
Let’s look at that again by third and long (+5 yards to gain):
Run: 0-2 (0%)
Pass before L2G: 1-14 (07%)
Pass at or beyond L2G: 4-6 (66%)
Knowing this, it’s clear to see that the Saints have been most successful throwing the ball on third down at or beyond the line of scrimmage and struggle when they go short and try to pick up the yardage after catch. This is much different when you look at Weeks 10-12:
Run: 5-10 (50%)
Pass before L2G: 4-9 (44.4%)
Pass at or beyond L2G: 7-15 (46.6%)
Third and long:
Run: 0-4 (0%)
Pass before L2G: 4-6 (66.6%)
Pass at or beyond L2G: 1-3 (33.3%)
First of all, we have to point out the different in total third-and-longs faced. 22 in Weeks 13-15 and only 13 Weeks 10-12. But you can also see the even production out of all third downs faced in which the team was balanced on their third down conversions separated by only 5.6%. A lot of that has to do with winning on first and second downs, setting up more manageable third downs.
Last week against the Panthers, the Saints went 4-13 on third downs. Of which 10 were third and longer than five yards. They converted only two of those, both by throwing beyond the third down marker. The struggle has come from those those and longs, not attacking the sticks on third down, and not being able to create yards after catch in pivotal moments.
One of the big keys to winning is always going to be ball control and converting on third downs makes that happen. The Saints will need to get back to their previous success throughout the playoffs where they’ll be playing mostly if not entirely at home.
Follow Ross on twitter @RossJacksonASC