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Third down, schmird down. The Saints punted just as often as Dallas did - except in overtime.

Tim's picture

Sometimes we get get a little too hung up on just one line in the stat sheet, and try to take more meaning from it than we should. For example, numerous commentators have been saying that the reason Dallas lost was that the Saints offense did a much better job converting third downs.

The numbers would seem to support that, with the Saints converting eleven of nineteen third downs, and Cowboys only two of ten. So the Dallas defense just couldn't get the Saints off the field - right?

Only there's another stat that tells us when a defense has gotten the other team off the field: punts. In regulation, each team punted five times. No matter how many times you read that Dallas couldn't take advantage of a flawed defense, or the Dallas defense couldn't get the Saints off the field, just remember that each team had 11 possessions in regulation (not counting the Saints kneeldown at the end of the fourth,) and each team punted on five of them.

But what about first downs? New Orleans had 33 of them, and Dallas had only 18. This is true (and important,) but it's also true that the Saints ran 91 offensive plays to the Cowboys' 56. Each team had a first down on about one third of their plays.

Dallas played much more explosively, and when they scored, they did so very quickly. While the Saints topped their season average of 6.1 yards per offensive play (second best in the NFL) averaging 6.2 against the Cowboys, Dallas averaged an eye-popping 8.0 yards per play, significantly above their season average of 5.8.

On their five scoring drives, Dallas faced third down a total of only three times. Yet some commentators say Dallas didn't take advantage of a flawed defense. Really?

The Dallas offense did not have a third down problem. They scored just as many times as New Orleans did in regulation, and punted just as many times, too. Both teams gave up one possession - New Orleans with a missed field goal attempt, and Dallas with a turnover. In the end, it was a failed third down in overtime that led to the loss, but by any measure, the Dallas offense stood toe to toe with a very prolific New Orleans offense.

Did the Dallas defense have a third down problem? You'd have to say yes, I guess, but then, no serious person could have expected the defense to win this one. They forced five punts. They gave the team a chance, and no overtime game is a blowout - by definition.

The NFL is always a game of inches, and in tied games, more than any others, it's easy to pick out one bad drive, one bad play or one bad decision that was decisive. Yesterday, those eleven third down conversions by the Saints had less to do with the outcome than one first down fumble by Murray, or Garrett's inexplicable clock management to end the first half. But if you want to blame the loss on the Cowboys' failure to convert on third down, you can. Just don't try to say it was because of "2/10 in the game." It was because of 0/1 in overtime.

It's a game of inches.

philyew3
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As ever, Tim, excellent analysis.
 
Delving a little deeper, only two of those failed 3rd down conversions were short yardage situations, both 3rd-and-3. The second one was part of the hideous clock management situation by Garrett that you mentioned. They needed 5, 6, 8, 10, 10, and 10 yards in the other six situations. The problem, if anything, wasn't failure on third down so much as getting into manageable 3rd down situations from the first two downs.
Here's how they got there:
1) 0-7: Pass-Pass-Sack-Punt
2) 14-14: Pass-Pass-Pass-Punt
3) 14-17: Run-Pass-Pass-FG
4) 17-17: Pass-Run-Pass-Punt
5) 24-17: Penalty-Pass-Pass-Pass-Punt
6) 31-17: Pass-Pass-Sack-Punt
7) 31-24: Pass-Pass-Pass-TD Pass on 4th
8) 31-31: Run-Pass-Pass-Punt
 
So, only three running plays in all of that. It made sense to go with the pass on some of those possessions, but definitely not early in the game.
 
Even when punting, Dallas marginally should have won the field position battle, with their five punts resulting in NO starting from their 2, 9, 20, 26, and 27. For their part, Dallas started from their 3, 16,20,25, and 36 after the ball was punted to them.
 
Unfortunately, the problem was that, while NO forced Dallas to turn the ball over on their own 3, which was followed by a swift offensive TD , they were also able to drive the length of the field from their own 2 to score another TD. NO also managed another TD drive from their own 10 in the first half. Had all things been equal, that field position battle should have resulted in a modest win for the Cowboys in regulation. Unfortunately, the defense hadn't a prayer of standing up to the NO offense, which meant the Cowboys offense had to score way above its average to stand a chance of winning.