The New Orleans Saints have a third-down problem.
If you see that the team has only converted on 38.4 percent of its third-down attempts, you might assume New Orleans isn’t getting into manageable situations and is sinking into a self-inflicted abyss.
There are times when this is true, of course, but it's not the problem. The real issue exists in what should be considered manageable third-down situations, which makes the Saints' struggles all the more peculiar: An offense that's been one of the NFL's best third-down teams over the past decade is suddenly pedestrian.
“I can’t really tell you, man,” wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “We know how important third down is. Everything can’t be perfect. We’re trying our hardest to be perfect, but sometimes the numbers don’t fluctuate as they should.”
The fluctuation is curious and hard to explain. With less than 2 yards to go, the Saints have converted 59.4 percent of their third downs. When needing 7 or more yards, they've converted 30.8 percent of the time.
The second stat, 30.8 percent on third-and-7 or longer, looks alarming — until you realize New Orleans was below that mark each of the past two seasons and has only converted in such situations 32.3 percent of the time dating to 2006, when Sean Payton took over as coach.
Where the real issues exist is when the Saints need between 3 and 6 yards. Those should be manageable situations — and yet New Orleans has only converted on 20 of 50 attempts.
The offense picked up a first down on 52.6 percent of those attempts last season. The conversion rate is 51.3 percent since the dawn of the Payton era.
So, what gives?
“It’s a lot of factors in it. The situation of the game, and how they’ve been playing different things might lead coach to call it different ways,” tackle Terron Armstead said. “We haven’t been as great on third down as we have been in recent years, and that’s been a focal point for us.”
Going deeper, nothing in the numbers initially pops out as troublesome. Drew Brees has completed 61.5 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and an interception in these situations, and New Orleans has run nine times for 31 yards. Last year, Brees hit on 67.2 percent of his passes for 532 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The Saints ran eight times for 35 yards.
The only big difference is that Willie Snead (eight catches for 89 yards and eight first downs) and Brandin Cooks (eight catches, 235 yards, seven first downs) haven’t been part of the solution this year.
Cooks now plays for New England, and Snead, who has struggled to get back into the offense, has only made two catches on third-and-intermediate plays this season. Both of those, however, turned into first downs.
Alvin Kamara (four catches, 28 yards, two first downs) and Ginn (five catches, 77 yards, four first downs) have helped pick up some of the slack, but overall, New Orleans hasn’t been able to get over the hump and get the rate up to par.
There isn’t anything eye-popping in the receivers' routes in these situations, either. There are some small differences, like Brees connecting on two go routes last season while not attempting any this year, or throwing five screens as opposed to two last year, but nothing that stands out as particularly notable.
The other differences are also small and probably inconsequential. Brees is averaging 3.38 yards per attempt through the air on these plays this year after being at 4.6 last year. In both seasons, New Orleans has used three receivers on almost every passing attempt.
There might not be a discernible answer, and that’s probably the point. If this were easy to diagnose, Payton would've addressed the symptoms, and this issue would no longer exist. Instead, over the last four weeks, the Saints are 4-of-12 on these plays.
As the final leg of the season approaches and the Saints prepare for a playoff run, they're still trying to find a way to tame what’s been an unmanageable situation.