- Bill Barnwell
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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.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.