The New England Patriots have made a habit of converting on third-and-long situations this year, with either a receiver like tight end Rob Gronkowski picking up just enough yards for a first down...
...or quarterback Tom Brady pulling a miracle out of his pocket and delivering a perfect strike to an open receiver down the field.
The Patriots have converted on 9 of their 27 third-and-10+ situations this year. Those 9 conversions are the second-most in the NFL and their 33.3% success rate is tied for fourth-best. With such an impressive track record, the Patriots must be dedicating more practice time on these long situations, right?
“Just as much on third-and-long as we do on the rest of those situations,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels shrugged. “You’re obviously hoping to experience that situation less, but you need to be prepared, one, for what you want to do in that situation if it comes up in the game in a critical situation, and also be familiar with what the defense chooses to do in those situations, as well.”
“Third-and-long is directly correlated to what you do on the first two plays of the series,” he added. “If you’re doing OK and moving the ball towards the goal line, moving it forward, then hopefully you can try and avoid a whole bunch of those in the game. You definitely have to put effort towards that situation during each week of practice in preparation for the opponent that you’re playing. This week will be a huge challenge if we find ourselves in that situation.”
The Patriots actually saw a decline in production on first and second downs from weeks 1-4 and weeks 5-7. Their first down yardage dropped from an average of 6.81 to 6.13 and from 5.19 to 5.14 on second down- but they increased from 6.81 to 7.21 on third down.
Despite the high conversion rate, McDaniels noted that -and-long situations are the result of prior negative plays and that should be the focus of the team, not their ability to make-up for the errors.
“We’ve had more [third-and-longs] than I would like, which is a focus for us to try and eliminate penalties offensively and any kind of negative situations that put us in those situations,” McDaniels said. “No matter what it is, it’s not a good play for the offense.”
This week’s opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers, should be the Patriots biggest challenge yet on third-and-long according to the Patriots coaching staff.
“They create a lot of negative plays [on the defensive interior], very good on third down,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “Third-and-long's basically just a sack and turnover reel. They create a lot of bad plays in those situations. Obviously, we need to try and stay out of as many of those as possible.”
The Chargers have defended against 25 third-and-10+ plays this year and they’ve forced more fumbles (3) than they’ve allowed first downs (2). They have 5 sacks and 1 interception, too. If there’s any defense in the NFL that’s capable of ending the Patriots miracles on third-and-long, it’s the Chargers with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
“I would say this week we're playing the best team in the league on third-down and ten-plus,” McDaniels said. “They do a tremendous job of getting off the field, creative negative plays on third-and-long when they get the offense in that situation, which even makes the situation worse. So, it’s going to be imperative for us to try and avoid that situation if we can and play good football on first and second down to keep it out of third-and-long.”
The difference in third conversion rate against the Chargers defense based upon yards to go is staggering.
1-3 yards to go: 67.7%, t-24th in the NFL.
4-6 yards to go: 44.4%, 16th in the NFL.
7-9 yards to go: 35.7%, t-12th in the NFL.
10+ yards to go: 8.0%, 2nd in the NFL.
The Patriots will need to put themselves in favorable short-yardage situations if they ever reach third down because the Chargers are one of the least-forgiving teams in the league. Success on first and second down is imperative for a New England victory.