WR Michael Clayton and the Buccaneers are more likely to reach the first-down marker if they're in fewer third-and-long situations
It was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first possession of the game. The Ravens had just driven 80 yards on their opening possession and taken the early lead, 7-0.
With 5:44 left in the first quarter, this was the Bucs' chance to respond to the Ravens with a touchdown drive of their own. After a Chris Simms scramble and an incomplete pass on the following play, Simms dropped back to throw on third-and-seven but his quick out to TE Alex Smith lost a yard, resulting in fourth down. The Bucs would come up short on nine of their 12 third downs on the day, and that plus the game's finally tally underscored an important NFL lesson: It's hard to win a game when you don't win often enough on third down.
Need more proof? Consider the fact that last weekend's losing teams combined to convert only 30.1 percent of the 193 third downs they faced while their victorious counterparts converted 41.2 percent of their third downs. And just four of those losing 16 teams actually converted more third downs than their opponent.
Part of the problem for the Buccaneers is that they found themselves facing too many third-and-long situations. For all intents and purposes, "long" qualifies as instances where the marker is more than five yards away.
Case in point: Last Sunday, the Buccaneers needed four yards or less on third down five times. They converted three of those third downs. They faced third-and-five or greater seven times and failed to register one conversion. That's rather clear evidence.
"Percentages don't lie in this league," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "You just don't convert a whole lot of third-and-ten-pluses, third-and-nines."
It won't get any easier Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons who last weekend held the Carolina Panthers to merely two third down conversions out of 12 tries. That's nothing new for the Falcons. Last year, they were tops in the league in opponents' third-down conversion success, limiting their opposition to 58 of 192 total attempts, or a 30.2% success rate. The Falcons' defense was so good that the Panthers never even got a chance to convert a third down in the red zone because they never drove that deep.
Key to finding success on third down against the aggressive Falcons defense will be gaining decent chunks of yards on first and second down, thereby avoiding those third-and-long situations that have been so unkind to offenses league-wide. Much of that responsibility will fall on running back Cadillac Williams. After only carrying the ball eight times against the Ravens, Williams should be itching to do some damage in the Georgia Dome. Last year, he ran for 266 yards in two games against the Falcons. If he can find running room early, the Buccaneers are far more likely to turn third downs into first downs, keep drives alive and chew up the clock – something that will keep the explosive Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn off the field.
The Falcons will look for the same from Dunn, whose 132 rushing yards last week, led his team and seemed to serve as a catalyst for the Atlanta offense. His chain-moving abilities aren't lost on the Buccaneers.
"You've got Warrick Dunn out there and he's pretty good," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "Our focus is to stop the run. A lot of people talk about Vick but the engine really doesn't run without Warrick, let's be honest. All due credit to Warrick – we have to get after him, we have to eliminate him and then we'll move on to Mike [Vick]."
If the Buccaneers are successful containing Dunn, they should force the Falcons into a few third-and-long situations of their own – and that could prove big in what should be a hard-fought, close contest between two bitter division rivals.
"They have a heck of a team and they always come to play," said wide receiver Michael Clayton, who should have a few chances to move the chains himself. "We've got the best of them the last three times we've played them, so we know going into their house they're going to be up for it. It's always close when we go up there or they come to us. We're definitely preparing ourselves to be in a dogfight and play it to the end, until the clock reads zero, and see how it comes out."