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49ers vs. Rams: The 3rd Down Elephant in the Room

The 49ers just pulled off a heart-attack-inducing victory over the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday that saw more ups and downs than Kentwan Balmer running Mount Singletary.  The game saw a heroic late-game performance by Troy Smith along with crucial plays made by his receivers.  Smith threw for 356 yards on only 17 completions and was money when he needed to be.

Where Troy wasn't "money" though was on third down.  The team converted ZERO (that's one less than one, for those scoring at home) third downs out of ELEVEN attempts...ten of which were passing plays by Smith.

It's been discussed by a few, Mike Sando, Trent Dilfer, and I'm sure others: The 49ers and Troy Smith can't sustain this type of play forever.  Dilfer went on to say of Troy Smith, "he's not a very good drop-back quarterback."

Dilfer went on to talk about Troy converting third downs to keep drives alive, which we all can agree on.  There were ten (they went for it on fourth down in the 4th quarter) instances where the drive stalled in this game and only twice did the team end up with points from field goals.  The penalties were killer in this game but so were the third downs. 

That got me thinking about things a little and caused me to wonder something in my head (well, it's hard to say, only the dogs were here so no one could accuse me of talking to myself).  "Have the 49ers been passing WAY more on third down lately or is it just me?"

I dug around and found one of SBNation's own Matt Grecco from Stampede Blue, who wrote a piece back in June about third down run/pass mix.  I had been having a hard time finding the stats on this so I emailed Matt, who graciously provided me with a neat little spreadsheet for the 49ers' third down plays thus far in 2010.  We'll dig into this further, after the jump.

Offense Short (1 - 3 Yards) Medium (4 - 7 Yards) Long (8+ Yards) Total Total Total
Run Pass Run Pass Run Pass Run Pass
Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att Conv Att
49ers Seahawks 1 0 2 1 2 0 0 0 4 0 1 0 6 0 3 1 12 1 15
49ers Saints 2 2 3 1 1 0 1 2 3 0 0 0 1 2 4 3 5 5 9
49ers Chiefs 3 0 0 1 3 0 0 2 4 0 0 1 10 0 0 4 17 4 17
49ers Falcons 4 1 1 1 2 2 2 0 4 0 0 2 3 3 3 3 9 6 12
49ers Eagles 5 1 1 2 2 0 0 1 2 0 1 4 7 1 2 7 11 8 13
49ers Raiders 6 2 2 1 3 0 0 2 5 1 3 1 4 3 5 4 12 7 17
49ers Panthers 7 1 1 1 1 0 0 1 4 0 1 1 6 1 2 3 11 4 13
49ers Broncos 8 3 5 1 1 0 3 0 3 0 0 1 1 3 8 2 5 5 13
49ers Rams 10 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 7 0 1 0 10 0 11


As you can see, my thoughts betrayed me...we actually ran nearly 62% of the time on third down against Denver, Troy Smith's first start.  Still, I thought this table would be interesting to post and take a look at for everyone.  Back to Sunday's game vs. St. Louis...

You can see the team was in third-and-short only twice the whole game, and in third-and-medium only two more times.  Seven of the eleven (not the quickie-mart, stay focused here) third down attempts came in long (8+ yards) situations. 

This points to the fact that the team wasn't picking up enough (or any) yards on first and second down.  As I marinated on that (in a vinegar and herb dressing) I thought to myself again: I bet it's due to Troy's down-field, let-it-fly style of play!  There are going to be more incompletions when you take chances and that means zero yards gained on those downs.  Of course, the aforementioned penalties also contributed to some of the third-and-long plays.

Here are some snippets from the GameBook that show downs 1-3 leading to each third-and-long play:

1-10-SL 28 (8:54) F.Gore left end to SL 21 for 7 yards (O.Atogwe).
2-3-SL 21 (8:09)
T.Smith sacked at SL 29 for -8 yards (C.Long, J.Laurinaitis).
3-11-SL 29 (7:27)
(Shotgun) T.Smith sacked at SL 36 for -7 yards (J.Laurinaitis).

1-3-SL 3 (13:04) F.Gore up the middle to SL 3 for no gain (C.Dahl).
2-3-SL 3 (12:15)
T.Wragge reported in as eligible. T.Smith pass incomplete short right to V.Davis (C.Long).
3-3-SL 3 (12:11)
(Shotgun) PENALTY on SF-T.Smith, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at SL 3 - No Play.
3-8-SL 8 (12:11)
(Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete short left to Del.Walker (F.Robbins). Ball knocked down by Robbins

1-10-SF 44 (3:32) F.Gore left end to SF 45 for 1 yard (G.Selvie).
2-9-SF 45 (2:47) F.Gore up the middle to SF 46 for 1 yard (C.Dahl).
3-8-SF 46 (2:00) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete short left to T.Ginn.

1-10-SL 48 (13:27) F.Gore left tackle to SL 45 for 3 yards (F.Robbins).
2-7-SL 45 (12:49) F.Gore up the middle to SL 48 for -3 yards (C.Ah You).
3-10-SL 48 (12:05) (Shotgun) T.Smith sacked at SL 48 for 0 yards (J.Hall). FUMBLES (J.Hall), recovered by SF-A.Snyder at SF 45. A.Snyder to SF 45 for no gain (C.Long).

1-10-SF 20 (6:38) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete short middle to J.Morgan (J.Cudjo).
2-10-SF 20 (6:34) T.Smith pass incomplete deep right to J.Morgan.
3-10-SF 20 (6:27) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete short left to T.Ginn.

1-10-SF 15 (2:42) F.Gore up the middle to SF 17 for 2 yards (C.Dahl).
2-8-SF 17 (2:07) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass short left to V.Davis pushed ob at SF 22 for 5 yards (C.Dahl).
PENALTY on SF-J.Morgan, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at SF 22. Caught at SF 14.
2-13-SF 12 (1:36) (Shotgun) T.Smith scrambles up the middle to SF 18 for 6 yards (G.Selvie). SL-O.Atogwe was injured during the play.
3-7-SF 18 (:54) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete deep right to D.Zeigler (C.Ah You).

1-10-SL 23 (10:11) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass short left to B.Westbrook to SL 19 for 4 yards (B.Kehl). SF-J.Staley was injured during the play. Caught at SL 24.
2-6-SL 19 (9:28) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass short left to M.Crabtree for 19 yards, TOUCHDOWN NULLIFIED by Penalty.
PENALTY on SF-A.Davis, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at SL 19 - No Play.
2-16-SL 29 (9:21) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete deep middle to J.Morgan (C.Dahl).
3-16-SL 29 (9:14) (Shotgun) T.Smith pass incomplete deep left to V.Davis (C.Dahl).

You can see a lot of incompletions, sacks, and penalties contributed to third-and-long, which are difficult plays to convert.  You can also see that sacks were the reason for two failed third down conversions from the above list...although we can't guarantee those would have been converted had Troy not been sacked.

Still I think it's fair to say that protection, penalties, holding onto the ball, and receivers not being open (ahem, Ted Ginn) all combined to create the third-down-poo-storm we witnessed on Sunday.  To me that says that it was just a case of Murphy's Law, anything that can go wrong, did go wrong...when it comes to third down anyways.

Yes, the O-Line can play better (man Chris Long is a beast!), Troy can speed up his mental clock a bit, and the receivers can start running the right routes...or Zeigler could just play 3rd WR.  But the fact that all of this went wrong at the same time means it wasn't all Troy's fault for being in third-and-long, though he probably did have a chance to convert a few of them and didn't.

Incidentally I was not able to contact Mr. Murphy to further discuss his law.  Perhaps our own David Fucillo (Fooch) can shed some light on this section of the law-books?