Maybe good things don’t always come in threes, but for the Falcons, very good things have been coming on third downs. You might point to several factors in their three-game winning streak, yet their 65.9 percent conversion rate on third downs in those games has been huge.
It’s pushed the Falcons (7-4) to No. 1 in that category in the NFL, in fact, with a 48.09 percent conversion rate for the season.
This is not a new look.
When the Falcons won their final four regular-season games last season and dominated two playoff games to reach the Super Bowl, they converted 51.4 percent of their third downs on the way to a regular-season average of 43.6 percent that ranked No. 7 in the NFL.
No game this season was better than Sunday’s 34-20 win over the Buccaneers, when the Falcons converted 11 of 14 third downs, ranging from the bland to the grand. On the first one, a third-and-1, quarterback Matt Ryan snuck behind right guard for a yard. That drive ended in a field goal.
The Falcons passed on 11 of those 14 third downs against Tampa Bay, and nobody will soon forget the first of those, a third-and-1 from the Falcons’ 49-yard-line.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu’s touchdown pass to Julio Jones was far from the only unpredictable call by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The Falcons faced third-and-3 yards or less seven times, and passed on four.
Sanu’s pass was the first, and on the second, a third-and-3 from the Bucs’ 30, Ryan threw short right to Sanu for five yards.
On the very next play, Ryan connected with Julio Jones for a touchdown made possible by the most remarkable awareness and body control.
More third-down conversions mean longer drives, more plays, more opportunities to take shots downfield, it’s all good.
Asked Monday for the No. 1 reason for the Falcons’ surge, coach Dan Quinn didn’t hesitate.
“Third down and red zone were the areas that when we went into evaluate (and) say this part of the game is not up to standard,” Quinn said. “That’s why about four weeks ago, we added plays into our practices (on) areas that we wanted to add were red zone and third down. ...
“Over the last few weeks, that part has certainly had an uptick in production, but by no means do we feel like we’ve peaked in those areas.”
One of the very first things that Quinn said the day after his team’s dreadful evening in New England was that he would add time in practices to work on third downs and red-zone situations.
The Falcons have won four of five games since installing the extra third-down work, and in the Falcons’ three-game winning streak, they converted 7 of 13 against the Cowboys, 9 of 14 against the Seahawks and the whopping 11 of 14 against the Buccaneers.
To put up those numbers against Tampa Bay, when the average to-go distance on third downs was 5.8 yards with seven longer than that and seven shorter, borders on amazing.
The Falcons’ only failures were a third-and-15 where a Ryan passed to Taylor Gabriel netted 13, and incomplete passes on two third-and-8s.
The Falcons did convert a third-and-7, a third-and-9, and two more third-and-8s.
On the last third down of the game, with a yard to go, Terron Ward went 14 yards behind left guard. Two plays later, Tevin Coleman scored from 14 yards to ice the game.
And on a third down that doesn’t count toward conversion statistics, Matt Bryant made a 36-yard field goal to end the first half on third-and-10 from Tampa Bay’s 18-yard-line as time expired.
“You know, we really thought the third downs were such a big part of that in this game, and it allowed some drives to continue,” Quinn said. “For us, we were 11 of 14 on third down, and two of the three of those were in the red zone. We like when Matt (Bryant) kicks it, but we’d prefer if we kept moving the ball down the field.”