A while ago — I can give you the exact dates, from my chat archives: October 6 and October 7 — a friend and I talked in fascinated detail about how well the New Orleans Saints' defense was doing on third down.
"It's the only down we don't give up over ten yards per pass attempt," my friend said.
I said, "Yeah, we're actually good on third downs, when we get them."
My friend said, "Once we get them to third down, man, WATCH OUT!"
Of course, we were both mostly amused, because the Saints were so bad at everything
else about playing defense that their third down success seemed mysterious and inexplicable. Some sort of random deviation. A joke from the football gods.
Imagine my surprise when, after the Saints fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with assistant coach Dennis Allen, ESPN's Ed Werder reported:
We might still dismiss the Saints' third down success as a somewhat random deviation. Maybe, despite the seemingly logical connection, there is no correlation between good defenses and good third down
defenses. In other words, maybe the Saints aren't the only terrible overall defense that is also among the ten best third down ones.
Let's take a look.
The vertical axis represents overall defense. The horizontal one represents third down defense. I'll give you a wild guess which team is represented by that outlying blue dot.
In list form, here's what it looks like (top ten third down defenses, overall ranking in parentheses):
- Houston (12)
- St Louis (6)
- Minnesota (9)
- Kansas City (13)
- Seattle (2)
- New Orleans (32)
- Denver (1)
- Carolina (10)
- Cincinnati (11)
- Arizona (3)
The short version of it is every top ten third down defense is also one of the NFL's top 13 overall defenses, except for the Saints, who are the NFL's worst
overall defense. This is such a dramatic result that it simply must
mean something, or it at least certainly feels that way. It just seems unlikely that the Saints would be this
much of an exception to what seems like a pretty clear rule: Good defenses are also good third down defenses, and bad ones are not.
But what? The Saints still have big personnel problems on defense, and Dennis Allen can't manufacture better players over the bye week. Right?
Maybe. But he can certainly deploy the ones he's got more effectively. It seems he's already been doing that. Rob Ryan may have still been calling
the third down plays, but more than likely he has been calling plays selected for the situation by Allen, week by week.
Here's what I think will happen: The Saints' defense will
improve under Dennis Allen. Over the short term, it may improve significantly. Here's one of those predictions everyone makes and forgets about: The Saints will hold the Houston Texans, their next opponent, to under 20 points. They will repeat that heretofore impossible achievement the week after against the Carolina Panthers.
Allenmania will take hold of New Orleans. Headlines will be written that incorporate the phrase "Dennis the Menace." And, just when the first round of well-researched football articles breaks down the how and why of the Saints' sudden and significant defensive improvement, their deeper talent issues will return, and the bottom will fall away again.
Or, you know, none of this will happen at all, and we'll keep getting more of the same.
But have you seen
that third down defense chart?