Third Down Offense: Looking Back and Looking Forward

A great look at third downs from I_S.

-- Joel

Does anyone remember back at the beginning of the season, long before Tyler Bray became the next Heisman Trophy runner up, when we failed to convert about 173 3rd downs in a row? But then Gerald Jones came back, and things changed. Since he'll be gone next year, I thought I'd go through and see if I could determine what about his presence gave us the lift. Does he just convert third downs? Does he draw the defense? Does he just combine well with Tyler Bray? What will we need to do next year to replace him?

I went through the play by plays and noted each successful third down this season (not including the UTM game). Here are the numbers and the conclusions I drew from them.

***disclaimer: I did this by hand, so it's possible that numbers don't add up quite right. But it should be close.***

*****disclaimer 2.0: this is long. If you want the final conclusions, jump to the numbered list at the bottom.*****

3DO with Simms but without Jones: 6/43, 14%. Successful conversions occurred as follows:

• 2 Stocker receptions
• 1 Poole reception
• 1 Simms run (on 3rd and 1)
• 1 Poole run (on 3rd and 1)
• 1 Oku run (on 3rd and 1)

3DO with Simms and Jones: 20/48: 42%. Successful conversions:

• 6 Jones receptions
• 4 Poole runs (1 on 3rd and 1)
• 3 Hunter receptions
• 2 Moore receptions
• 2 Stocker receptions
• 1 Rivera reception
• 1 Poole reception
• 1 Oku reception

3DO with Bray: 35/83: 42%. Successful conversions:

• 10 Jones receptions
• 7 Moore receptions
• 5 Poole runs (3 on 3rd and 1)
• 3 Bray runs (2 on 3rd and 1)
• 2 Hunter receptions
• 2 Stocker receptions
• 2 Rivera receptions
• 1 Z. Rogers reception
• 1 Poole reception
• 1 D. Rogers run
• 1 Jones run

So what sort of conclusions can we draw from this? Since I'm on a roll with this bulleted list feature, I'll throw out another with numbers that I find interesting and/or significant.

• 0% of conversions without Jones involved wide receivers (50% to running backs, 33% to tight ends, 17% on QB keepers)
• 55% of conversions with Jones and Simms involved wide receivers (30% to running backs, 15% to tight ends)
• 63% of conversions with Bray involved wide receivers (17% to running backs, 11% to tight ends, 9% on QB keepers)
• Without Jones, we converted exactly zero third downs of more than a yard on the ground.
• With Jones and Simms, Gerald Jones was directly involved of 30% of conversions (next highest: Poole with 25%).
• With Bray, Gerald Jones was directly involved in 31% of conversions (next highest: Denarius Moore with 20%)

So what conclusions do I draw from this mess of data. These:

1. Our best third down strategy was letting Gerald Jones find the holes in coverage and getting him the ball. When healthy, he accounted for 30% of our third down conversions. Our conversion rate immediately jumped from 14% to 42% when he came back. That's incredible. In fact, I'd say it gives him a pretty good case for Team MVP this year. And it's something that we can't expect next year. We don't have that experienced guy who knows how to find the holes in coverage and pick up the first downs. Da'Rick Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett look like the sort of receivers who could fill that role, but neither will be Gerald Jones 2.0 by next year. Charlie Baggett has a lot of work ahead of him.
2. Tyler Bray played no part at all in improving our ability to convert 3rd downs. With healthy receivers, both Simms and Bray had the exact same conversion percentage. Now we did score a lot more points with Bray, but it wasn't because we were better at staying on the field in 3rd down situations. What Bray brought to the table was the ability to turn Tennessee into a quick strike offense. We didn't need to stay on the field as long because we could score faster.
3. In addition to being the go-to-guy in third down situations, Gerald Jones helped the team by opening up the defense. While he was injured, we couldn't run on 3rd and more than 1, and we couldn't pick up any first downs by passing to wide receivers. A couple throws to the tight end and a screen pass were all we had. When Jones came back, Denarius Moore and Justin Hunter suddenly became successful on 3rd down, accounting for 25% of our conversions. And the running game was (every once in a while, at least) able to convert from more than a yard. Unlike #1, this is something that can be duplicated next year if our wide receivers continue to grow and mature as they should. When Jones was gone, Zach Rogers was the second wide receiver. Defenses could key on Moore and Poole and forget about everybody else. When Jones returned, the defense had to be more honest, and it gave other people room. I'm confident that our second wide receiver in 2011 will be much better than Zach Rogers was in 2010.
4. In the last two months of the season, we only converted four 3rd downs on passes to Stocker. He was not the safety valve we all expected. In that same span, we converted three on passes to Rivera. I'm not going to say he'll immediately do everything that Luke could do, but it looks like he'll be just as good at giving Bray a safety valve and moving the chains.
5. From #3, we shouldn't expect 14% on third downs again (thankfully). But from #1, we can't expect the success through the air that gave us a 42% conversion rate in the last two months of the season. If we want to match that, we're going to need improvement in the ground game to pick up some of the slack left by the departure of our top two receivers--a step I do think we're ready to take, as the four freshmen on the line will be four sophomores in 2011. Should we again reach 42%, by the way, it will put us in the top 35 in 3rd down conversions.

That's all I got. Thoughts? Anyone?

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