Usually when the New England Patriots accomplish something last achieved more than 25 years ago it is a positive. Most consecutive this, first to do that and so on. On Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, however, the team went the opposite direction and tied the 1991 Patriots – a squad that would finish the season with a 6-10 record – by converting a franchise-low in third downs in a single game.
Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The Patriots offense was unable to extend its drives once Tom Brady and company reached third down territory and therefore finished the game in Miami with an 0-for-11 mark. And while two third downs were technically converted via defensive penalties, the story remains the same: New England failed to keep drives alive and as a result held the football for not even 24 minutes – putting pressure on both its offense and its defense.
Going through each of the team's third down attempts means finding the following results: New England went to the passing game on all 11 of its third down attempts but could not get over the first down marker due to incompletions (five), connections short of the sticks (three), interceptions (two) and at one point in the fourth quarter a sack. The continued lack of success is not the only thing to stand out, however.
What also can be found by taking a look at the Patriots' 11 third downs is the distance between line of scrimmage and new set of downs. Only four of New England's conversion attempts came from closer than five yards away, the rest happened in the 6-20 yard range. Take the team's first third down of the day, a play that resulted in an interception when Brady unsuccessfully targeted wideout Brandin Cooks.
The Patriots found themselves in a 3rd-and-10 after a stuffed run for no gain on first down and an incompletion on the ensuing second down. This sequence of plays was no outlier: Failing to gain significant yardage on the first plays of a drive haunted the team all game long and put it in a disadvantage when it came to approaching third down.
On first down, New England gained an average of 5.0 yards; on second down the team gained 5.9. Not particularly bad numbers per se but when compared to the yardage needed, they show how the Patriots played from behind the sticks almost the entire time: On first down, New England gained 53.2% of yardage needed for a new set of downs (5.0 of 9.4 yards).
On second down that number decreased to 50.0%, which is noteworthy as the Patriots on average needed to gain more yards on second down to get a fresh set of downs: 11.8 (the equivalent of 2nd and 12ish). The inconsistencies on first down consistently put New England in second-and-long situations and the team failed to gain significant ground to put itself in favorable third downs.
Add it all up and the struggles on down number three do therefore not come as a surprise.
The Patriots needed 8.9 yards to extend their series on the average third down. However, they gained only 1.0 yard per play (or 11.6% of the needed yardage) as they exclusively relied on the pass due to the long-yardage situations they found themselves in. Even for a team that gains 6.0 per play over the course of the season – 8.0 per pass – and features one of the NFL's premier offenses, this obstacle proved to be too big to overcome.