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CoachSpeak: The Lions on third-and-short

Examining the triumphs and failures of the Detroit Lions offense in a specific situation.

Leon Halip

Every week, a Detroit Lions coach will make an offhand comment during an interview, and I will spend an inappropriate amount of time dissecting that statement. Welcome to CoachSpeak.

I can't look at Jim Schwartz's quotes this week. I can't stomach any platitudes that "every game is a must-win," nor can I bring myself to examine the roiling typhoon of sorrow that is this year's New York Giants. (Although I will point out that on a bright note, two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning is making a run at the all-time single-season INT record. ELITE. Cheer up, Matt Stafford!)

Instead, let's take a trip back through time for this week's quote. Come with me to a better period in Coach Schwartz's life, when he was a simpler man -- a mere defensive coordinator, content to champion the virtues of statistical analysis and Queensryche:

"With the Titans, Schwartz once encouraged the former offensive coordinator Norm Chow to run more on third-and-short because his research indicated that it was more effective than passing."

I came across this New York Times article during a discussion with my brothers this week -- it's an interesting read, in that it encapsulates so much of my problem with Schwartz since he became the head coach. But I'll save that for another time. What I'd really like to talk about is that quote. (I know it's only hearsay, but work with me.) Let's talk about third-and-short. How do teams around the league approach it? How do the Lions approach it? What works?

(We're about to enter the realm of STATS STATS STATS, so if that's not your thing, no worries -- I'll get back to film next week.)

Locking down league-wide data on specific situations is a laborious task, particularly for people like me, who don't do this sort of thing professionally. Thankfully, a fine gentleman by the name of Matt Grecco worked up something to that effect over at Stampede Blue, SB Nation's Indianapolis Colts blog.

Matt's data tracks third down statistics through the first 14 games of the 2012 season. So, while we're admittedly comparing different time frames, we can also reasonably assume that there hasn't been a total sea change in third-down conversion rates since last year. (If you have this year's data, please share!)

Here are the league-wide statistics on third-and-short (defined as less than 4 yards to go) conversions last year:

  • Overall: 55.9 percent (840 for 1502)
  • Passing: 50.3 percent (434 for 863)
  • Rushing: 63.5 percent (406 for 639)

So, at a glance, Schwartz was right -- rushing attempts tend to convert short-yardage third downs at a higher rate. Of course, part of that can likely be attributed to differences in yardage -- teams are less likely to convert third-and-3 than they are third-and-1, and teams are also more likely to pass in those situations. But, I don't think that difference accounts for 13 percentage points.

The 2013 Lions have been remarkably effective in third-and-short situations, converting 38 of 54 such attempts, or 70.4 percent. That number tops literally every team from last year's chart. Pretty good! Clearly, Schwartz has brought that knowledge of what drives short-yardage success and implemented it into the Lions' offensive game plan.

Or... perhaps not. Of those 54 third-down attempts, 36 of them have come through the air. Still, given the Lions' strengths on offense, one would expect them to pass more than the average team. Besides, the successful stats speak for themselves, right?

Wrong, fictitious straw man! As it turns out, while the Lions have been very good at converting third-and-short through the air this year, they have been unfathomably good at converting on the ground:

  • Passing: 61.1 percent (22 for 36)
  • Rushing: 88.9 percent (16 for 18)

I am well aware of the dangers of small sample sizes, and 18 attempts certainly fall in that category. But... it's not that small. And, I mean, 88.9 percent. That conversion percentage is Carolina Panthers-esque. That has to be good on a historic level.

Let's go even further, though. Instead of comparing the Lions to league trends, let's see what specifically has worked for them during this great run. The results will surprise you.

Just kidding! They won't. At all. The Lions have enjoyed monumental success on third-and-short doing two things: handing the ball to Joique Bell (10 for 12) and throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson (8 for 9). The last time Joique Bell didn't convert a handoff on third-and-short, I was still planning my Halloween costume. Here's an effective comparison:

  • Players named Bell or Johnson: 86.4 percent (19 for 22)
  • Players not named Bell or Johnson: 59.8 percent (19 for 32)

We are talking about the difference between a slightly above-average short-yardage offense and one for which the concept of "short-yardage defense" barely exists.

Before I get to my main point, there's one other thing I'd like to discuss, and that's the absence of a particular player in third-and-short passing situations. For all the talk about tight ends providing the "safety blanket" for quarterbacks in these scenarios, the Lions simply do not use Brandon Pettigrew, for one reason or another. Pettigrew has only seen two passes on third-and-short (both of which he converted, including one for a touchdown, by the way). Hell, Tony Scheffler got more action in these situations, and he hasn't been on the team for what, two months?

So, let's revisit Monday night, as much as it pains me to do so. The Lions faced two third-and-short situations that game. To be specific, they faced a third-and-2 and a third-and-1.  What did they do? Did they run Joique Bell up the middle? Perhaps the old reliable slant to Megatron?

For the first play, the Lions lined up with an empty backfield. This seems questionable, given the fact that Matthew Stafford was noticeably uncomfortable in the pocket after getting hit by a blitzing linebacker earlier in the game. After the ball was tipped by Reggie Bush and landed in the hands of a Baltimore defender, hindsight made that decision extremely questionable.

But any good coach should be able to learn from his mistakes, and sure enough, Joique Bell lined up in the backfield for the second third-and-short situation of the night, leading to the play everyone expected -- A BROKEN PICK ROUTE TO KRIS DURHAM FOR ANOTHER INTERCEPTION.

There are arguments to be made against being too predictable. I do not believe those arguments apply here. These play calls seemed bad on Monday night, and after looking deeper, they seem downright inexcusable. A season's worth of data has shown that the Lions do two things remarkably well in third-and-short situations, and facing the biggest game of the season, they chose to ignore those options.

You can make a number of broad arguments against Scott Linehan -- the inconsistent offense, Stafford's lack of development -- but these two plays were absolute disasters from start to finish and they occurred at the worst possible time. If a handful of plays eventually come to define a season, and thus a coach's tenure, I'd be hard-pressed to look at these two and argue for Linehan coming back. With two games left, I'm just hoping he proves me wrong.

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