O'Hara: Against Packers, Lions will have to be good on the 'money down'

Posted Nov 14, 2012

Pass rushers pad their stats and their bank accounts by sacking quarterbacks, and offenses keep drives alive by converting third downs into first downs.

Third down is the money down in pro football.  Pass rushers pad their stats and their bank accounts by sacking quarterbacks, and offenses keep drives alive by converting third downs into first downs.

The advantage of winning on third down most often goes to whichever side puts itself in the best position on third down.

There are no hard and fast rules, but a fairly simple equation determines which side has the advantage. Third-and-long favors the defense. Third and short – five or six yards or less needed for a first down – favors the offense.

The longer the yardage needed to gain a first down, the longer the odds are against the offense cashing in on the money down.

Overall, the Lions’ performance on third down has been slightly better than average on both sides of the ball this season. They rank 14th on offense (47-115, 40.9 percent) and 11th on defense (43/116, 37.1 percent).

They’ll have to be good in Sunday’s game against the Packers, who bring a four-game winning streak and a 6-3 record to Ford Field.

The Packers rank slightly higher than the Lions – 12th on offense (50-120, 41.7 percent) and seventh on defense (44-126, 34.9 percent).

The Lions’ last two games were clear examples of how an offense benefits from being in manageable situations on third down. The offense consistently had the advantage in a 31-14 win at Jacksonville and used it to convert eight out of 12 times on third down. The average gain needed for a first down was 6.4 yards.

In last week’s 34-24 loss at Minnesota, the  Vikings’ defense had the advantage all game. The average gain needed for the Lions to get a first down was 10.2 yards. They converted only one out of nine times.

Matthew Stafford sees defenses play differently when they have the advantage on third-and-long.

“Really, it’s in the defense’s favor,” Stafford said. “They can mix it up as much as they want. They can come after you. They can play soft and just rally up and tackle – not give you anything down the field.

“That’s kind of what Minnesota’s game plan was for us on third and 10 – rush and just try and hold up down the field.

“They were able to do that. That’s why as an offense, you try and get in third to medium and short.”

In the chess match between offense and defense, the more yards the offense has to gain to get a first down, the more time the defense has to arrange its pieces to win the battle.

“The first thing is, the longer you have, the more time it takes to get routes down the field and the more time your pass rush has to get there or your pass protection has to hold up,” Coach Jim Schwartz said.  “That’s the first part of it.

“Second of all, defenses know when it’s third down-and-12, third down-and-11, third down-and-15 -- and they’re not going to defend the four or five yard routes in those situations.”

The only conversion against the Vikings came on third and very short – a third-and-two with 3:44 left. Stafford hit tight end Brandon Pettigrew with a six-yard pass for a first down at the Lions’ 45. Five plays later, Calvin Johnson caught an 11-yard TD pass.

On the road against Jacksonville the previous week, the Lions converted eight of 12 times on third down.  The average gain needed on third down was 6.4 yards. There were two other conversions on penalties, but teams do not get credit for converting by penalty.

The Lions had third and four or less five times and got first downs four times. They only missed once – when Titus Young dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone on third and four in the fourth quarter.

Against the Vikings, the Lions put themselves in bad situations twice – once early, once late – that put them in long-yardage situations.

Scoring early has been a problem for the Lions all season. They have only 28 points in the first quarter.

They had a promising drive going on the first possession. Two first downs gave them first down at their 36. A 15-yard penalty against rookie receiver Ryan Broyles for an illegal penalty put the possession in reverse, with first down-and-23. The Lions wound up punting on fourth-and-14.

Another damaging penalty came in the fourth quarter, when the Lions had the ball at their 48 and were in position to drive to a tying touchdown with the Vikings holding a 24-17 lead.

On first down, a holding penalty on Jeff Backus wiped out a five-yard run by Mikel Leshoure. Three straight incomplete passes forced a punt on fourth-and-20.

Adrian Peterson’s 61-yard TD run blew the game open on the ensuing possession.

Incidentally, Peterson’s run was on first-and-15. He didn’t wait till third down.