The Value of Aggression on Third Down
Passing on third down is one of the most stressful and pressure-packed situations a quarterback can face, with little-to-no room for failure. Defenses blitz more and become mischievous with their coverages on third down.
Quarterbacks have to throw to or beyond the first down marker as often as they can on third down. Third-and-forever situations are exceptions, and maybe there will be times where an underneath receiver clearly has room to run, but quarterbacks have to attack the sticks. Quarterbacks who do not attack the sticks often fare worse at converting on third down than their more aggressive peers.
The NFL has coined their own statistics department titled Next Gen Stats. In short, Next Gen Stats features a handful of unique statistics that supplement more traditional statistical measures. “Average Air Yards to Sticks,” or AYTS, is one of a few unique stats they feature. AYTS measures the average distance between the intended receiver and the first down marker on third down passes. 2016’s data showed quarterbacks can range anywhere from -1.7 yards to +2.0 yards.
At first glance, there appears to be a trend where most good quarterbacks throw even with the sticks, at the very least. Only a handful of legitimately good quarterbacks fall below an even 0, in addition to a few more serviceable players. By and large, though, good quarterbacks throw to or beyond the sticks. Below is a tiered list of quarterbacks split between “above (+)” and “below (-)” an even 0. (Tom Brady and Eli Manning were at exactly 0, so they are not listed.)
|Good (+)||Mid-tier (+)||Subpar (+)||Good (-)||Mid-tier (-)||Subpar (-)|
|Cam Newton||Tyrod Taylor||Matt Barkley||Dak Prescott||Matthew Stafford||Carson Wentz|
|Jameis Winston||Carson Palmer||Josh McCown||Derek Carr||Andy Dalton||Cody Kessler|
|Ben Roethlisberger||Kirk Cousins||Ryan Fitzpatrick||Drew Brees||Ryan Tannehill||Brian Hoyer|
|Marcus Mariota||Brock Osweiler||Colin Kaepernick||Joe Flacco|
|Aaron Rodgers||Robert Griffin III||Sam Bradford||Alex Smith|
|Russell Wilson||Bryce Petty||Jared Goff|
|Andrew Luck||Jay Cutler|
|Philip Rivers||Blaine Gabbert|
|Matt Ryan||Trevor Siemian|
This list shows that more players in general are throwing to or beyond the sticks, and many more good quarterbacks are throwing beyond the sticks than not. Of course, a list like this can be trivial and subjective. In addition to the list, I compared each quarterback’s AYTS with their passing conversion rate on third down. The results don’t look much different than the list.
This scatter plot of the 39 quarterbacks tracked by Next Gen Stats shows a trend between being aggressive on third down and converting on third down. The correlation coefficient (r) comes out to .302, which signals a weak positive correlation.
A weak correlation doesn’t give the grounds to flatly say being more aggressive will make a quarterback convert more often. Rather, it lends to the idea that most quarterbacks who do and are able to be aggressive on third down tend to convert more often. That could mean their offenses allow them to more freely do so or they have better skill players who get open more often. It could also mean their aggression, coupled with the rest of their skill set, enables them to complete difficult passes when needed most, which I believe to be the case for top tier quarterbacks.
The average quarterback in 2016 threw for 0.25 AYTS and a 39.77 percent conversion rate on third down. The closest quarterback to those numbers was Russell Wilson, who posted 0.3 AYTS and a 38.10 percent conversion rate in 2016.
Ten of the 19 (52.63%) quarterbacks who threw over the average 0.25 AYTS converted better than the 39.77 percent average. Conversely, just 8-of-20 (40%) quarterbacks who threw below 0.25 AYTS converted at a higher than average rate. No different than the scatter plot, the over/under 0.25 AYTS splits show favor toward quarterbacks who are aggressive on third down.
No matter how the numbers are interpreted, aggressive quarterbacks reign supreme. Quarterbacks who attack their goal directly fare better than those who play it safe. Betting on a receiver to make someone miss is often tougher than trusting oneself to make a difficult throw. Circumstance plays a hand in a quarterback’s results, but quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota found ways to convert, despite not having the offensive line and/or wide receiver talent needed to comfortably convert. Good quarterbacks often made do with their situation and still converted at an average-or-better rate.
Given that 2016 was the first season in which AYTS was tracked, it will be interesting to follow the data through future seasons. 2016 could be an outlier or it could be part of a normal trend seen in third-down passing. If I were a betting man, however, I would put my money on 2016 being representative of what future data will show regarding being aggressive on third down.