Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Feb 2010

Stat of the Day: Third-Down Rebound Effect

As part of our ongoing Stat of the Day series, we're digging deep into our
spreadsheets to run a new stat every weekday until Super Bowl XLIV. (For those wondering, I considered Bill Barnwell's post on Adjusted Games Lost to be Friday's Stat of the Day.)

Many longtime FO readers know that one of our most commonly discussed pieces of research is "the third-down rebound effect." The basic explanation, from the Football Outsiders Basics page:

Teams which are strong on first and second down, but weak on third down, will tend to improve the following year. Teams which are weak on first and second down, but strong on third down, will tend to decline the following year.

At the end of each season, we get questions asking which teams are in line for possible improvement or decline because of this effect, so I figured I would run the tables for you all as part of Stat of the Day. I am running five teams per list, except the first list which is seven teams because there's a much bigger gap between the seventh and eighth team than between the fifth and sixth team.

Obviously, there may be cases where certain players or teams really are better in third-down situations. Perhaps Aaron Rodgers is one of these players, as the Packers were much better on third down than they were overall for the second straight season.

On the other hand, you have the case of the Indianapolis Colts. This is the second straight year where the Colts were better on third down on both offense and defense. However, that's just a fluke, and the Colts don't have a special ability to resist the third-down rebound effect. In 2006 and 2007, the opposite was true, and the Colts were worse on third down on both offense and defense.

If you pay heed to the third-down rebound effect, the team to watch in 2010 is clearly the Pittsburgh Steelers. Everyone pretty much already expected them to rebound next season, right?

Offenses Better on Third Down vs. Overall, 2009

Offense

DVOA
3rd/4th

Rank

DVOA
All

Rank

Difference
GB 72.8% 1 22.5% 4 50.4%
TEN 47.4% 2 7.6% 15 39.9%
ATL 39.4% 4 8.7% 14 30.7%
MIA 36.8% 5 7.3% 16 29.5%
IND 45.3% 3 19.6% 6 25.7%
NYG 36.5% 6 11.3% 12 25.2%
JAC 30.8% 8 6.0% 17 24.8%
Offenses Worse on Third Down vs. Overall, 2009

Offense

DVOA
3rd/4th

Rank

DVOA
All

Rank

Difference
SEA -41.3% 31 -17.9% 29 -23.5%
BUF -39.7% 30 -16.4% 27 -23.3%
CHI -36.4% 28 -17.3% 28 -19.1%
DET -41.7% 32 -26.3% 31 -15.4%
PIT 3.8% 17 17.6% 7 -13.8%
Defenses Better on Third Down vs. Overall, 2009

Defense

DVOA
3rd/4th

Rank

DVOA
All

Rank

Difference
NE -22.1% 3 2.6% 17 -24.7%
IND -10.1% 7 1.8% 16 -12.0%
SEA 4.0% 18 14.3% 29 -10.3%
BAL -23.5% 2 -13.6% 3 -9.9%
ARI -9.5% 9 -0.1% 12 -9.4%
Defenses Worse on Third Down vs. Overall, 2009

Defense

DVOA
3rd/4th

Rank

DVOA
All

Rank

Difference
JAC 45.7% 32 14.1% 28 31.6%
PIT 26.6% 31 -2.9% 9 29.4%
ATL 23.1% 30 5.4% 21 17.7%
HOU 19.9% 28 5.2% 20 14.8%
DAL 13.9% 23 -0.7% 10 14.7%

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 01 Feb 2010

27 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2010, 5:05am by tuluse

Comments

1
by dk240t :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 6:06pm

As a Texans fan, I expected Houston to be on the Defense worse on 3rd down list. My gut feeling is that they actually closed the gap some as the season went on and that they were terribad at the start of the season. I remember wk 1 against the Jets, they had Sanchez in 3rd and long every 3rd play and he seemed like he completed them all. Then, in wk 2, Chris Johnson busted 2 huge scoring runs on 3rd and long.

The other interesting thing, Detroit's offense was much worse on 3rd down than other downs, but still terrible enough to be 31st in the league. Hard to see much of a rebound there...they'll likely go from unimaginably awful on 3rd down to merely downright terrible.

Pittsburgh on both lists is just amazing.

And its funny to see that Houston was on the Defenses worse on 3rd down, and all 3 of their division rivals are on the Offenses better on 3rd down list. Coincidence? I think not.

3
by Vince Verhei :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 6:35pm

The numbers agree with your observations -- the Houston defense was 31st on third-and-long, ahead of only Jacksonville.

9
by dk240t :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 8:22pm

I kept saying,"I don't know what the Texans defense is doing on 3rd and long, other than breaking my heart, but they need to stop."

11
by R. Carney (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 8:57pm

As a fellow Houston fan, it was blatantly noticeable that they couldn't get off the field on third down. With all that talent, you'd think the defense would be better...but they are very young (I don't know how they've hit on so many first rounders, but its insane), and I think they just need one more year to gel and mature. It was a team-wide trend/stigma. For some reason this team couldn't close games on either side of the ball. Schaub had great first halves several times this season and disappeared in the second (1st half stats: 2658yds, 19td, 6int., 2nd half stats: 2112yds, 10td, 9int) Running backs couldn't hold onto the ball or get in the end zone when they needed to. They're also in a very tough division Indianapolis is good every year and theres no door mat team in that division, so they don't get the gimme wins that the New Englands, Pittsburghs and San Diegos get. I think their defensive struggles on third down are one of the growing pains to learning how to win.

12
by R. Carney (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 9:00pm

Side Note: Schaub's rating by down 1st: 107.5, 2nd 97.7, 3rd 83.5...telling

13
by Adam Hobson (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 9:00pm

Speaking of that Jet game, it's the perfect single game example of the 3rd down rebound affect. I remember watching that game and listening to the announcers praising Sanchez for his amazing "poise" on 3rd downs. Instead of thinking the Jets found themselves some amazing 3rd down machine, all I'm thinking is that they're screwed the rest of the season when Sanchez continues to fail on first and second and reverts back to his norm on third down. And that's pretty much what happened...

15
by loneweasel (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 10:42pm

Nice narrative, but no.

The Jets got into all those 3rd and longs because they went into the game with the "protect the rookie quarterback" mentality. The running game was totaly ineffective on 1st and 2nd down in the first three quarters. Jones ended up with respectable numbers because of a long run in the fourth when the Texans D sold out and bit on a counter.

16
by Eddo :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 11:09pm

I don't see how your narratives are particularly conflicting, aside from perhaps the initial statement of Sanchez "continu[ing]" to fail on first and second down.

I think what Adam Hobson described was true of the Jets' season. Early, unsustainable third-down success by Sanchez game them a false sense of confidence in both the running game and the rookie. By midseason, Sanchez had reverted back to lowly rookie production, and the running game wasn't as good as raw numbers generated by sheer persistence.

From what I saw in the regular season (a few games, but not a lot), the biggest change during the Jets postseason run was that Sanchez was actually making the plays they asked him to, without making too many big mistakes. I wasn't impressed by the Jets' running game at all.

In summary, you're both right; Adam Hobson was correct in noting that sooner or later, the Jets' third-down passing success would falter. It did, and nearly cost the team a playoff spot.

And loneweasel, you're correct in that the Jets' running game wasn't very effective in the game against Houston, and others, and that they wouldn't have needed particularly great third-down passing play with a better rushing attack.

2
by Temo :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 6:30pm

Wow, Green Bay's 3rd down offense was amazing.

4
by Packerpalooza (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 6:36pm

Temo:

That's Rodgers. He was stellar on third down this season.

8
by stay firm (not verified) :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 8:20pm

Well, yes, and he's surely not likely to decline next season on third down, not at all.

20
by ammek :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 7:12am

Well that's what everyone said last year, when the Pack's third-down DVOA was a so-so 41%.

Yes, of course it will decline. But by how much? So far, Rodgers has made much better/quicker decisions knowing that he has to get the ball away quickly, especially in a spread offense and out of the shotgun. On first down, especially, he dithers, and the line doesn't give him time to do that. He is very accurate on mid-length throws, and has five or six competent receivers who can all work the middle of the field.

Also, he has avoided throwing interceptions on third down. That is probably fortunate.

5
by matthewglidden :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 6:54pm

Conflicted about SEA trending better OFF and worse DEF for 2010, yet placing 29th overall in both this year.

Have FO folks checked if a new coaching staff impacts 3rd down performance trending? I feel like you have, just can't find a relevant article. :-/

6
by pm :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 7:03pm

The Colts defense has the 2nd worst 3rd down% defense in the league yet they are 7th here in 3rd down DVOA. Explain the difference?

7
by Aaron Schatz :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 7:13pm

Hmmm. That is interesting.

Turns out it is the difference between tracking "performance on third down" and simply "preventing third-down conversions." The Colts allowed opponents to convert on 45 percent of third downs and 43 percent of third/fourth downs. However, they rarely allowed long gains -- they allowed an average of 73 percent of needed yardage on these plays, compared to the NFL average of 79 percent.

Colts also faced more third-and-short than any other team. 35 percent of third downs against them were 1-3 yards to go. DVOA treats these different than longer third downs. Simple third-down conversion rate does not.

Add on a little bit of opponent adjustment because their offensive opponents were generally better than average on third downs, and you get the DVOA rank of seventh.

18
by Bobman :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 2:30am

Wow, color me stunned. Thanks for the explanation.

25
by ABW (not verified) :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 12:48pm

Wow, it's not that often that one of the actual Outsiders wins the thread by dropping actual statistics, but there it is. Here's hoping it happens more.

10
by Duke :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 8:27pm

I'd be excited about the Bears' offense being listed on the "likely to improve" list, but the hire of Martz makes me wonder if that effect will be mitigated.

22
by Dean :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 10:12am

I was thinking the opposite. Martz may be a megalomaniac, but he can coach some offense. If, that is, he doesn't get Cutler killed sending 5 guys out into patterns behind THAT line.

14
by Key19 :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 9:53pm

I knew Dallas would be in the bottom five for defensive performance on 3rd down. They were horrible all year, even when they'd stuff the opposition twice in a row to start a drive. I'd never actually feel safe that we were going to get a stop until the ref actually signaled 4th down, no matter what the distance on 3rd was.

17
by Arson55 :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 11:22pm

I felt just the same way. I felt like punching someone each time they gave up a 3rd and 12. It seemed like they gave up a first down on a 3rd down over 10 yards at least once a game, especially through the first several games.

19
by foobar (not verified) :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 4:19am

What's with the NE 3rd/4th down stop machine. Don't remember that. Eleven teams beat New England's 61.9% stop rate on 3rd/4th down, and following close behind are SF at 61.8%, Washington at 61.5% and NO at 61.3%.

21
by dryheat :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 10:10am

That's what I was thinking. My recollection is of a defense that gave up 3rd down conversion after 3rd down conversion.

23
by loki (not verified) :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 10:35am

They had some really dominating wins against some crap teams, they played Mark Sanchez twice - and he was not good, and the defense did make a bunch of plays against the Colts on 3rd down, as i recall, not that it helped much. I think the reason the success on third down was overlooked was probably because they managed to find other ways to lose. Also against the Saints i don't know if there was a period in the game when two consecutive plays went for *less* than a first down.

24
by Temo :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 11:56am

Read above. If they gave up a bunch of 3rd and shorts, they're not going to be penalized as much as teams that give up 3rd and long situations.

26
by Paul A (not verified) :: Wed, 02/03/2010 - 9:54pm

I can't believe the Skins are not on the Offense worse on 3rd down list. I guess that Campbell guy is not as bad as everyone thinks. (chirp)

27
by tuluse :: Thu, 02/04/2010 - 5:05am

Well this is only a list of teams worse on 3rd down than other downs. So theoretically Campbell could just be sucking equally on all downs.