Commentary

Third-down efficiency propels Schaub, Texans

Originally Published: October 27, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

Some events in the NFL are incredibly useful but not at all repeatable or predictable. These plays or series of plays can significantly impact a team's likelihood of winning a game without meaning anything for a future matchup.

Take third-down performance, for example. In our research at Football Outsiders, we've discovered that teams that play significantly better on third down than they do on first and second down in a given year tend to see that third-down performance regress to similar to their performance on the first two downs in the following season.

The opposite is true as well: Teams that underperform on third down tend to see a positive bump the year after. A prominent example would be the 2007 Titans' defense. In the Football Outsiders advanced DVOA stats, the 2007 Titans ranked second in the league on first down and third on second down, but only 17th on third down. In 2008, they're sixth on first down, second on second down and fifth on third down.

On a smaller level, a player's performance on third down plays a huge role in his team's success in a given week. Converting third downs keeps drives alive and the opposing offense on the bench. It allows the quarterback in question to dictate the pace of the game to his team's needs. It brings the team closer to scoring. It's an impossibly important aspect of any quarterback's performance, but it's not a skill. Quarterbacks who do well on third down over the long term are the quarterbacks who also do well on first and second downs.

Enter, then, Matt Schaub, who had the best performance of any quarterback on Sunday. The biggest reason for that: Schaub converted on six of seven third downs. His one failure came after the Texans had scored 35 points. Before Sunday, Schaub had been an unimpressive 17-for-50 on third downs.

Why did Schaub succeed in Week 8? The easy answer is that he played the Bengals, a muse to struggling offensive coordinators worldwide. The real answer, though, is that Schaub's third downs came with an average of 5 yards to go. Before Sunday, Schaub had required an average of 7 yards to move the chains on third down. See? Good play on first and second down begets easier opportunities on third down. As a result, Schaub finds his way to the top of the leaderboard this week.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of Week 8, according to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement statistics. Note that with seven weeks played, opponents' adjustments are currently at 80 percent strength.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Matt Schaub HOU
24/28
280
3
0
207
209
-2
451
Of course, Schaub was excellent on first and second down this week, too. He had four gains of 18 yards or more on first down and converted for a first down or a touchdown on seven of his 11 second-down attempts.
2.
Philip Rivers SD
25/40
341
3
1
193
193
0
465
Rivers' two most impressive conversions of the game were both to LaDainian Tomlinson. He converted a third-and-12 in the second quarter for LT's first receiving touchdown of the year, then completed a first-and-20 dump-off for 32 late in the game when the Chargers' line held off the rush for approximately seven minutes.
3.
Kurt Warner ARI
35/49
381
2
1
167
167
0
513
Carolina came into its game against Arizona with the best defense against No. 1 receivers in football. What does Kurt Warner do? Go 18-of-25 for 154 yards, two touchdowns and eight first downs to Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Can't cover them all.
4.
Chad Pennington MIA
22/30
314
1
0
161
161
0
384
Although Pennington has significantly fewer weapons at his disposal, he has ranked ahead of Brett Favre every single time each has played on Sunday (and qualified for Quick Reads) this year. How? By doing simple things effectively. Pennington had successful dropbacks on 11 of his 16 first-down attempts, picking up 6 yards or more and putting the Dolphins in very manageable situations or picking up first downs.
5.
David Garrard JAC
25/42
283
2
0
141
117
24
487
Garrard had 24 rushing DYAR on seven attempts; the other Jaguars had -22.7 rushing DYAR on 22 attempts. Garrard had as many first downs on the ground (three) as the entire rest of the roster combined. Garrard's ability to run shouldn't surprise anyone: He was fourth among quarterbacks in rushing DYAR heading into this week and fifth last year.
6.
Drew Brees NO
30/43
339
3
2
139
139
0
446
Brees would have had a third pick if a magnificent interception by Eric Weddle had not been overturned based on a dubious replay decision. Weird directional quirk: Brees was 8-of-10 on short passes to the left but 12-of-18 (plus a pass interference call) on short passes to the right.
7.
Seneca Wallace SEA
15/25
222
2
0
126
126
0
291
What a funky day. Bobby Engram was 3-of-8. Koren Robinson was 4-of-4. Keary Colbert caught his only attempt, but it was for zero yards. Jordan Kent was 0-of-2. Julius Jones was 2-of-2. Leonard Weaver was 4-of-6, including two 40-plus-yard touchdowns.
8.
Tyler Thigpen KC
26/37
312
2
0
122
119
3
392
Thigpen had a stretch during this game when he completed seven consecutive passes; those passes went for five first downs and a touchdown. Alas, before he could wrangle the watch sponsorship away from Eli Manning, he threw two incomplete passes to someone named Brad Cottam.
9.
Eli Manning NYG
19/32
199
1
0
119
113
5
345
Speak of the devil! For those wondering, Manning's 3-yard pass to Brandon Jacobs that ended in a defensive pass interference wasn't the DPI closest to the line this year. Chicago's Desmond Clark drew a pass interference penalty in Week 7 that actually netted his team zero yards.
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
10.
Jake Delhomme CAR
20/28
248
2
0
101
101
0
292
No thanks to Muhsin Muhammad. We'll get to him later.
11.
Dan Orlovsky DET
21/35
223
1
0
78
73
5
305
Orlovsky threw passes to 10 different receivers. That sounds good until you realize that four of them had oh-fers.
12.
Jason Campbell WAS
23/28
328
1
0
70
86
-16
241
13.
Matt Ryan ATL
23/43
277
2
2
54
53
1
310
We swear that Ryan's slant to Roddy White that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown had eyes. It went through approximately four Eagles defenders.
14.
Donovan McNabb PHI
19/34
253
0
0
47
45
2
273
Last year, McNabb's sailing throws were blamed on discomfort after knee surgery. This year, it's just common practice. He has done it mostly to the outside, but it becomes a problem when he overthrows someone in the middle and the pass gets picked off.
15.
Joe Flacco BAL
12/24
140
1
0
45
28
17
190
16.
Brett Favre NYJ
28/40
290
2
3
32
32
0
272
The interception in the red zone that gave the Chiefs the lead was like some sort of comical abstractionist image of a Brett Favre interception; the eluded rush, the panicked throw, the tumbling end-over-end ball, and then the desperate, flailing attempt to make a tackle on the sideline.
17.
Derek Anderson CLE
14/27
246
1
0
25
25
0
196
18.
Shaun Hill SF
15/23
173
1
0
25
14
11
191
Beating up on an awful pass defense in a blowout!
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
19.
JaMarcus Russell OAK
16/34
229
1
1
24
17
7
242
20.
Marc Bulger STL
18/34
309
1
1
10
10
0
185
21.
Brad Johnson DAL
17/33
112
1
0
8
8
0
188
Johnson stayed pick-free in this game solely because Derrick Brooks doesn't own a time machine. Johnson put a pass in the red zone on Brooks' fingertips, only for the aging linebacker to come up an inch short.
22.
Jeff Garcia TB
28/44
230
0
0
6
9
-3
256
Garcia was victimized by a number of drops, but his two-minute drill to try to win the game was ugly, ugly stuff.
23.
Trent Edwards BUF
21/35
228
0
1
-11
-6
-5
197
24.
Matt Cassel NE
21/33
267
1
2
-13
-9
-4
187
Say what you want about the man's performance this year, but that lob to Kevin Faulk for the winning touchdown was magnificent. Tom Brady couldn't have made a better throw if you were to have spotted him a clean set of knee ligaments and a year to prepare.
25.
Ryan Fitzpatrick CIN
20/32
155
0
2
-81
-84
3
118
26.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT
13/29
189
1
4
-137
-136
-1
-37
With 4:23 left in the third quarter, Roethlisberger completed a pass to Heath Miller for a first down. After that pass, Big Ben went 2-for-12 for 14 yards with two sacks and two picks. If you believe in clutch performance as a consistent skill -- and we don't, for the record -- how could you ever make such a claim about Roethlisberger?
27.
J.T. O'Sullivan SF
13/21
131
0
1
-139
-139
0
-65
At least he wasn't sent to his room like Vernon Davis.
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Brian Westbrook PHI
167
2
42
0
78
53
26
248
Westbrook was 0-for-1 running the ball on third down, so how did he get here? Six gains of 13 yards or more in the running game, and six catches on six attempts receiving the ball. He picked up three first downs in the process.
2.
DeAngelo Williams CAR
108
1
15
0
58
53
5
156
Williams, on the other hand, was 2-for-2 on third down. He picked up 15 yards each time, getting a touchdown and a conversion on a crucial third-and-13 late in the game.
3.
Ray Rice BAL
66
0
37
0
50
26
24
122
Rice had five successful runs in the first half but zero successful runs in the second half.
4.
Marshawn Lynch BUF
61
1
34
0
37
24
13
140
For those of you curious as to what Marshawn Lynch means by "Beast Mode," check out his touchdown run from Sunday. If that doesn't make you want to ghost-ride the closest vehicle to wherever you sit, well, we don't know what to tell you.
5.
Frank Gore SF
94
0
65
0
36
22
14
182
You get the feeling he deserves better than this. Gore had 18 carries and was targeted 13 times in the passing game -- none of the passes was farther than 5 yards away from the line of scrimmage. That's a lot of dump-offs.
Least valuable running back
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Willis McGahee BAL
58
1
-1
0
-44
-29
-15
16
McGahee played the Raiders, so 58 yards and a touchdown isn't very good. He converted all three third-and-1s he faced, but he fumbled and caught two of three passes for -1 yard.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Anquan Boldin ARI
9
12
63
7.0
2
76
215
Five first downs and two touchdowns. No one can question his toughness, but it's even more impressive that he had such a great game under the circumstances.
2.
Andre Johnson HOU
11
12
143
13.0
0
63
172
When Marvin Lewis' postmortem is written in Cincinnati, one of the reasons given for his demise will be the fact that he spent first-round picks on CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. Neither can cover Kevin Walter, let alone Johnson. In particular, Joseph's two-handed tag shove on Walter was appalling and embarrassing. The Johnson who was struggling a few weeks ago appears to be gone, thanks to a favorable schedule.
3.
Roddy White ATL
8
15
113
14.1
2
56
182
Not a great game for White, despite the big numbers. A lazy break on an in pattern early in the game led to an Asante Samuel interception, and although he had that big play for a touchdown, it was virtually all Ryan; White just had to accelerate.
4.
Ted Ginn MIA
7
9
175
25.0
0
46
122
Before we start holding Ginn up as a successful draft pick and the Dolphins' savior at wide receiver, let's remember that the 175 yards he gained were more than he had during the first six games combined. He averages a respectable 13.0 yards per catch.
5.
Antonio Gates SD
6
7
96
16.0
1
45
139
Six completions, four first downs and one touchdown. Although he gets nowhere near the volume of White, he has almost as much success.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
5.
Muhsin Muhammad CAR
5
8
38
7.6
0
-36
0
A fumble, a bunch of catches that went nowhere and a drop in the end zone. Dwayne Jarrett couldn't have done that. You need a veteran for that kind of performance.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.