METAIRIE, La. — There might not be a single NFL statistic this year that makes less sense than the New Orleans Saints’ third-down numbers.
The Saints rank 19th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (37.6 percent). And they rank a stunning 31st when it comes to converting third downs of 3-5 yards (34.8 percent). The Saints led the NFL in both of those categories throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era from 2006 to 2016.
And it’s not as if the Saints’ offense has suddenly become less efficient. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Saints led the NFL in both yards per pass attempt (7.5) and yards per rush (4.7) while ranking second in the league in total yards per game (391.2).
Brees set the NFL record for completion percentage in a single season (72.0 percent). Sure-handed receiver Michael Thomas set a franchise record with 104 catches. And running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first duo in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
“It’s kind of tough, really. Our offense is known for being one of the top offenses, and you look at our third-down numbers and we’re in the bottom third of the league,” said offensive tackle Terron Armstead, who was explaining that the key is getting into more favorable third-and-short situations by avoiding penalties and negative plays on first and second downs.
But then when it was pointed out how bad the Saints have been on third-and-3 through third-and-5, Armstead was flummoxed.
“Oh. … Really? Yeah that is [crazy]. That doesn’t make any sense,” Armstead said. “We look for those.”
Regardless of whether it makes any sense, Armstead and everyone on the Saints’ offense and coaching staff is well-aware of how important it is to turn things around in that area. It has been a huge point of emphasis for months.
“We’ve focused on it. We’ve put a conscious effort to improve those third-down numbers. And we’ll have to in these playoffs in order to make a legitimate run,” Armstead said.
Brees is confident that the Saints aren’t that far off. He said that, looking at every third-down play, there might be one or two in each game that “we should’ve made” — plus the times in field-goal range or victory formations when the Saints didn’t need to force anything.
“And if we make those, tack on the percentage points and we would be the No. 1 third-down offense in the league, which is what we’re used to being,” Brees said. “But the bottom line is I’ll focus on the ones that I know from game to game — hey, there was one or two that we should’ve had there.
“And obviously when you talk about attention to detail and room for error, when you get into the playoffs, you want to be as efficient as possible in those areas because that can be the difference between winning and losing.”
One obvious difference from years past is that receiver Willie Snead has had a down season and become a very minor part of the offense after leading the team with exactly 25 catches on third down in both 2015 and 2016.
Thomas (a team-high 28 catches on third downs this year), Kamara (21) and new receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (14) have helped pick up some of the slack. But defenses swarm Thomas in those situations, so Brees could use as many go-to options as possible.
That’s not the only issue, though, because Brees’ numbers aren’t actually that bad on third downs. He ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Info (94.2) with a completion percentage of 67.8, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We’ve got to do a better job of emphasizing it at practice and putting the right plan together,” Payton said. “When you look at the cut-up of the whole season, it’ll be a number of reasons. It might be a route error, it might be protection, it might be throw. Whatever it is, though, we’ve got to look closely at it and look to get to the things that we think [will succeed].
“One week you might get more man [coverage], and one week you might get more zone coverage. So there’s a handful of things teams will play in that down and distance. It might be more pressure. So being able to have a plan that handles all the above, and then executing it, is the priority.”