New England Patriots: Picking Up the Pieces on 3rd Down

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IOctober 28, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 16: Albert Haynesworth #92 of the New England Patriots chats with fans after a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on October 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Who knew that one down could come into such heavy scrutiny for one team, but the Patriots have made quite an intriguing story out of their third-down defense.

Last year, they let opposing offenses convert 47.14 percent of their third-down tries. It's almost hard to believe that with a 42.47 percent conversion rate allowed and the 23rd ranking in the league, they are actually improving on third down, but the improvement has even taken place over the course of the season.

The first question among many is, how did it get to that point?

  • Against the Chargers, the Patriots went 10-of-12 on third down. Nine of them came via the pass. Philip Rivers was a combined 9-of-10 for 139 yards and a touchdown on third down. He also had one play break down, where he ended up scrambling for a one-yard gain on 3rd-and-2.
  • Against the Raiders, the Patriots went 8-of-13 on third down, with six of those conversions coming through the air. 

Twenty-five of New England's 31 third-down conversions allowed have come through the air. In the past two weeks, though, they've given up just five third-down conversions via the pass.

The next question is, how has it improved?

  • The Patriots forced seven three-and-outs against the New York jets, including four in a row to start the game. Their third-down total was 3-for-11 (27.27 percent). The Patriots held Mark Sanchez to 5-of-9 for 48 yards, a touchdown and two sacks on third down. Two completions didn't go for first downs, and one of the sacks came on the final play of the game.
  • The Patriots allowed the Cowboys to just for 4-for-12 (33.33 percent) on third down in Week 6. Tony Romo was 5-for-9 for 40 yards, an interception and a sack. Two of those completions were completely moot: One was a 14-yard pickup on a 3rd-and-18 dump-off pass to Tashard Choice; another was a shovel pass of minus-three yards.

The pass defense has been both the problem and the solution. The Patriots have yielded 25 third-down conversions through the air, but just five of those have come in the past two games. They have forced incompletions on third down like they weren't able to do in the first four games of the season. The opponents' decreased completion percentages on third down are incredibly indicative of their improvement.

What's changed to cause such a stark difference? They have played less press coverage and more to their comfort in zone defense. It may not be helping out Devin McCourty much, as pointed out by Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, but statistics are showing that the change has helped on third down.

Now, of course, comes the real important question: Why do we care? The answer is simple: The ripple effect of improved third-down defense spreads across the defense as a whole.

This is highlighted by Christopher Price of WEEI, who points out that Vince Wilfork has been the subject of increased snaps across the board, but that the defense as a whole had also been on the field for more downs through four games than they had through the same number in 2010.

[Up] until two games ago, the Patriots had actually played more defensive snaps this season than they have had in years’ past, so everyone’s defensive snaps have seen some sort of boost across the board.

However, the defensive improvements that have been flashed the last two weeks -- improved performance on third down (the Patriots are 7-for-23 the last two weeks) and yardage allowed (overall, the last two games, the Patriots have gone from 477.5 total yards allowed per game allowed to 423.7 yards allowed per game) -- have allowed the New England defense to get off the field faster than they had in the four previous games. That means fewer snaps for everyone.

Of course, it's easy to say that improved third-down defense helps fight fatigue, but Wilfork's case is also magnified by injuries.

There are two notable differences in the roster since the improvement began. The most important, and the ones that stand out are the absence of Jerod Mayo and the return of Albert Haynesworth. One has to imagine that the return of Mayo will only help even further, since he's the one making the calls before the snap and he knows the defense better than any other linebacker on the field.

As for Haynesworth, while it's obvious that he's not the only reason behind the improvement, his return coincides perfectly with the improved play on third down, and that has also been where he's contributed the most. During his two-week absence, the Patriots defense gave up 50 percent (12-of-24) of third-down conversions. Since returning to the lineup, they have allowed just 30.43 percent (7-for-23) of their third-down conversions. 

From here, the Patriots will have their work cut out for them. The Pittsburgh Steelers are ranked fourth in the league with a third-down conversion percentage of 48.89.

Something has to give in the Steel City on Sunday. Who will win the war on third down? This will be a huge matchup to watch.

Erik Frenz is the co-host of the PatsPropaganda and Frenz podcast. Follow Erik on Twitter  @ErikFrenz.