As a lifelong Jacksonville Jaguars fan, I have seen my fair share of failed third-down attempts. I can distinctly remember the collective groans as the run up the middle for three yards left the Jags at fourth-and-6, punting yet again. Last season was different though.
Plays started going our way, receivers were running routes a yard past the stick rather than two yards short, and first and second down plays felt designed to achieve the next first down. This inspired me to run an analysis on third-down scenarios, their importance in the NFL, and how the Jaguars fared in 2022.
Special cases when looking at the Jaguars success on 3rd downs
NFL Play-by-Play data from 2009-2018 was used for this analysis. To eliminate special game circumstances, I only included plays that resulted in a completed (not negated by penalty) run or pass play and were not a part of a blowout. Here's, what I, somewhat arbitrarily, defined a blowout as:
3rd down is the "money down" in the NFL
The third down, often called the “money down”, has a uniquely important position in the NFL (See Sharp Football Analysis for a more in-depth explanation):
Despite having approximately half of the number of plays as first and second down, the third down had nearly double the average absolute value of EPA (Expected Points Added, a statistic that essentially measures the importance of a play).
Of course, fourth down’s average absolute value of EPA is the highest, but making up less than two percent of total plays run, the fourth down does not hold as much importance in the grand scheme of a game as the third down does.
To further show the importance of third downs, the average EPA difference between successful and unsuccessful third-down attempts was 3.17. This means that the average third down results in a 3.17-point swing depending on whether the attempt was successful or not:
For this analysis, a third down attempt is considered “successful” if the play results in a first down. Of course, a team does have the option to attempt a fourth down, so gaining nine yards on a third and ten may be considered a success as it sets up a high-probability fourth and one, but I was unable to identify reliable criteria other than converting for a first down.
Chances of a Successful Third Down
With an average 26.4 third down attempts per NFL game, it will be unsurprising to most that the biggest indicator of third down success is the Yards to Go (the yards to get a first down):
Two spikes jump off the page. There are nearly twice as many third and ten attempts than there are third and nine attempts. As the typical drive starts with first and ten, two incomplete passes, a common play-result combination, would result in a third and ten.
However, the 8.3 percent and 11.1 percent conversion rate from thirty-three and thirty-four, equally as successful as third and eighteen, appears to be an anomaly. With only 21 plays between the two distances, I was not able to find any statistical explanation for why these distances were successful above expectation.
Overall, the third down is far-and-away the most important down in football. For this upcoming season, keep an eye on how Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson Pederson sets up “third-and-manageable” situations and how, if at all, his play-calling changes on these key downs.
How the 2022 Jaguars fared on third downs
In 2022, the Jaguars were the fourth-best at avoiding third downs.
Of the 237 3rd down attempts, the Jaguars converted 99 of them, or 41.8 percent (tenth in the league):
Throughout the season, the Jags, surprisingly, slightly decreased in third-down production, seeing the third-down conversion rate decrease from 42.1 percent to 41.4 while the average yards to go increased from 6.25 to 6.50 yards.
These numbers may have been inflated due to the horrific 3rd Down conversion rate in the Wild Card game against the Chargers (Trevor Lawrence threw two interceptions as well as an incompletion that set up Travis Etienne’s 4th-and-1 run on third downs in that game).
A notably successful game was Week 15 against the Cowboys. Of the third down attempts, the Jaguars passed on nine of those attempts, converting five of those opportunities while going 3-for-3 on the rushing attempts. Remarkedly, the last six third-down attempts in that game were all passes, and Lawrence went 5-for-6 with an average yards-to-go distance of 7.5 yards.
Whether that be an early sign of the “clutch” factor that Trevor possesses, a poorly managed situational defense by Dan Quinn’s Cowboys defense, or just pure luck, this game should be taken as an exception.