METAIRIE - Win, lose or draw, “Captain Efficiency” typically fixates on one telling statistic after a game.
“I look at red-zone efficiency. I look at time of possession,” New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But third down (efficiency) is the first thing I look at when I flip open the stat book. Third down, red zone and time of possession will tell you a lot about how your day went.”
In Sunday’s 30-27 comeback win against the Carolina Panthers, the Saints’ third-down conversion rate boggled the mind. Brees and Company converted 12 of 17 third downs for a 70.6 success rate in Bank of America Stadium.
That third-down efficiency rate has fallen below 50 percent only once this season. In Week 2, they converted eight of 17 third-down plays (47.1 percent) in a 30-13 victory over the Chicago Bears at the Superdome.
But even in defeat, the Saints have been efficient on third downs - converting 64.3 percent (9 of 14) in their 42-34 loss at Green Bay in Week 1.
Even the distance doesn’t seem to matter. On third-and-4 yards or less, the Saints have converted an NFL-best 73 percent. On pass attempts of third-and-6 or longer, they are 20 of 36 (55.6 percent) - including nine of 19 on third-and-10 or longer (47.7 percent).
No wonder the Saints (4-1) lead the NFL in third-down efficiency for a sizzling 58.7 percent (44 of 75) - the league-wide average is 39.0 - going into Sunday’s key NFC South clash against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) in Raymond James Stadium.
“The one thing that we’ve been able to do in the last three weeks is mix in some runs on third down, and I’m not talking about (just) third-and-1,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We separate third-and-1 as short yardage. As soon as we get to third-and-2, we kind of put in third down as opposed to short yardage.
“So, we’ve made some conversions in rushing the football. And, Drew does a real good job of distributing the ball to a number of different players. I think it’s a combination of the quarterback playing very efficiently and very accurately and very decisively.”
Through the first five games, Brees arguably has been all three - efficient, accurate and decisive - while helping the Saints establish themselves as a Super Bowl XLVI contender.
Granted, they have not been as efficient as nearly two-thirds of the league inside the red zone. The Saints rank 22nd league-wide, scoring touchdowns at just a 45.8 percent clip on 11 of 24 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
But they do rank fourth in the NFL in scoring (31.4 points per game) and fifth in time of possession (33 minutes per game), which is further evidence of the Saints’ overall offensive efficiency.
“It keeps us on the field and it keeps drives going, and it keeps our defense on the sidelines and gives them a chance to rest,” Saints wide receiver Marques Colston said. “If you continue to convert third downs, eventually, you get into the red zone and you score and you keep pressure on the opposing team.”
Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks said the Saints’ repeated success on third down doesn’t happen by accident.
“I think we have to attribute a lot of our success to how we practice,” Nicks said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and coach Payton emphasizes it daily about third downs. It’s a good feeling to know it’s in Drew’s hands, and we’ve got a good chance to get it.”
There’s a reason for that as Brees leads the NFL in third-down passing. He’s completed 42 of 54 attempts for 566 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Brees has completed 77.8 percent of his third-down throws and has a passer rating of 149.9
“I don’t know if (consistently converting third-down plays) demoralizes our opponent, but they kind of start to look tired and it’s like, ￔAgain?’” Nicks said. “So, I guess it can be a little demoralizing.”
Not to mention deflating, destructive and downright disheartening for the other team.
“Any time your team is successful, it gives you life,” Evans said. “It keeps you fresher, and it takes more time off the clock. It gives you better field position and gives you opportunities to score and gets your defense some rest.”
Said Saints running back/return specialist Darren Sproles: “When you start making third downs, that’s when teams start blitzing. And that’s what you don’t want to do against us.”
Payton issued his final injury report for the meeting with the Bucs following Friday’s practice and declared three players out - right tackle Zach Strief (knee), tight end David Thomas (concussion) and strongside linebacker Will Herring (hamstring) - after they did not participate. Wide receiver Devery Henderson (calf), strongside linebacker Martez Wilson (neck/shoulder) and tight end John Gilmore (neck/shoulder) all participated fully and were listed as probable, while middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) was limited but is also probable. For the Bucs, leading rusher LeGarrette Blount (knee) missed his third consecutive practice Friday and was listed as doubtful by coach Raheem Morris. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle), tight end Luke Stocker (knee) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) also did not work and were ruled out of the game by Morris. Linebackers Mason Foster (ankle) and Zac Diles (hamstring) are questionable even though Foster practiced fully after not participating Wednesday and Thursday. Diles was limited Friday.
Advocate sportswriter Sheldon Mickles contributed to this report.
Saints third-down conversion percentages under Sean Payton since he became head coach and play caller in 2006. In 85 regular-season games, the Saints have converted 47.4 percent of their third-down plays (539 of 1,137). Ranking is in NFL.
Year Percentage Rank
2006 44.9 3rd
2007 46.3 4th
2008 48.5 2nd
2009 44.7 6th
2010 48.8 1st
2011 58.7* 1st
* through five games
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