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Searching for answers to Sam Bradford’s third-down woes

Dec 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) passes an interception to the Indianapolis Colts but also gets roughed and keeps the ball on a play in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Colts win 34-6. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t matter which statistical category you prefer – whether it’s points per game, yards per play, total yards, touchdowns, scoring percentage etc. – the Minnesota Vikings are consistently at the bottom of the list in every offensive ranking. While their 32nd ranked run game certainly played a role, the Vikings’ struggles sustaining drives and putting up big point totals can be traced back to failures on third down.

The most difficult question about third down success is whether it was just one part of a wholly bad offense which can be improved as the team gets better or if there is more to the problem. In the case of the Vikings, there might be more to it.

In third down passing, the only quarterbacks in the NFL with a lower Yards Per Attempt than Sam Bradford (all stats per Pro Football Reference) were Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blake Bortles. The top quarterbacks in the NFL on third down were Tom Brady (10.5 YPA), Aaron Rodgers (9.1) and Ben Roethlisberger (8.4). Bradford averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt on third down.

What tips us toward third downs being a specific issue is that the Vikings were quite good on first and second down.  Have a look at Bradford’s stats compared to the league on all first and second downs:

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That’s right. Bradford had a better quarterback rating and Yards Per Attempt than Rodgers, Brees, Stafford, Roethilisberger etc. on the first two downs.

Why would the passing offense fall so far from first and second to third down? Most of the Vikings’ issues stem back to the offensive line in some way or another and Bradford was sacked 17 times on third down, tied for the third most in the NFL.

But last year, Bradford’s back side was protected by should-be future Hall of Famer Jason Peters and he averaged just 5.5 Yards Per Attempt. In fact, for Bradford’s entire career, his YPA on third downs is the same as this year at 5.8 per throw.

Part of the answer comes in who Bradford targeted on third down.

All third down receiving

Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Kyle Rudolph 41 15 36.6% 185 4.5
Adam Thielen 27 12 44.4% 255 9.4
Stefon Diggs 24 12 50.0% 144 6.0
Cordarrelle Patterson 22 6 27.3% 109 5.0
Matt Asiata 15 5 33.3% 97 6.5
Jerick McKinnon 10 4 40.0% 30 3.0
Charles Johnson 6 2 33.3% 21 3.5
Jarius Wright 3 3 100.0% 30 10.0
Laquon Treadwell 3 1 33.3% 15 5.0
Rhett Ellison 1 0 0.0% 6 6.0
Zach Line 1 0 0.0% 0 0.0
Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Diggs + Thielen 51 24 47.1% 399 7.8
Everyone else 102 36 35.3% 493 4.8

When Bradford was able to connect with his No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, his numbers were very strong. When he went to his other options, the results were abysmal, especially to tight end Kyle Rudolph and No. 3 receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Diggs’ numbers stack up pretty well compared to Steelers star Antonio Brown, who catches 46.2% of third down throws for 6.8 Yards Per Target and a 41.0% first down percentage. So it isn’t an issue with the No. 1 target, although Roethlisberger threw in Brown’s direction 39 times on third down to Diggs’ 24 times.

But why were the other Vikings’ receivers/tight ends/running backs so bad on third down? Because they were often the “right” play.

If you’ve ever heard football coaches say, “We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” well, Bradford takes that sentiment to the extreme. Vikings opponents began approaching third downs the same way most teams would play in the fourth quarter up by two touchdowns. They rarely blitzed, played two deep safeties and on third downs longer with more than five yards to go, they dropped linebackers into zone coverage.

Here is one example against the Indianapolis Colts. On 3rd-and-7, the Colts drop both safeties and only have one linebacker on the field. Rudolph is open underneath because the dime corner was playing far off the line of scrimmage. It’s an easy completion, but not close to a first down.

Notice that Bradford was not enduring a collapsing pocket or pressure off the edges.

On third downs between 7-10 yards, Bradford completed 69.2% of his passes, but only gained 17 first downs in 53 total plays. Notice below that passes to Rudolph between 5-10 yards on third down were only successful for a first down three times.

Between 3rd-and-5 and 3rd-and-10:

Receiver Targets First downs First down % Yards Yards per target
Adam Thielen 18 8 44.4% 158 8.8
Kyle Rudolph 15 3 20.0% 71 4.7
Cordarrelle Patterson 11 3 27.3% 35 3.2
Stefon Diggs 9 4 44.4% 42 4.7
Matt Asiata 8 2 25.0% 51 6.4
Jerick McKinnon 5 2 40.0% 21 4.2
Jarius Wright 3 3 100.0% 30 10.0
Charles Johnson 3 2 66.7% 21 7.0
Laquon Treadwell 2 1 50.0% 15 7.5

Going through the Vikings’ third downs this year, there are plenty of times in which Bradford is pressured, but far too many where he has time to extend the play by moving within the pocket and instead he chooses to check down.

On this third down against Dallas, Bradford looks to his first read, then dumps off immediately without realizing that he not only had a clean pocket, but a lane to step up in the pocket and make a throw.

Now, without making this a Bridgewater vs. Bradford battle, the difference in the two on third downs is noticeable. In 29 games between 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater threw 240 passes on third down and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.

Here is a similar play to the GIF above in which Bridgewater works his eyes across the field, steps up into the pocket and finds Adam Thielen instead of checking down to Kyle Rudolph.

The difference shows up in those 3rd-and-7 to 3rd-in-10 situations. Bridgewater converted 39.2% and averaged 9.5 Yards Per Attempt compared to Bradford’s 32.1% and 6.7 YPA.

The funny thing about the Vikings’ third down stats is that their success rate was 37.0% overall, which was dead on league average. A big part of that is because Bradford converted 62.1% of third downs under five yards, the second best in the NFL behind the Patriots. Anything over five yards, the Vikings were 27th in conversion percentage.

You might wonder if a running game would have helped create more 3rd-and-5 or less situations, but they were 15th in that category with 66, which was 13 more than in 2015 when Adrian Peterson won the rushing title.

So what have we learned from all of this?

The first takeaway is that the offensive line probably played some role in the Vikings’ struggles on third down and long, but they were not the entire problem.

The other is that new full-time offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s biggest challenges is to find ways to counteract opponents dropping into deep zones and rushing four against Bradford. And maybe it’s just the reality of who Bradford is as a quarterback that he isn’t going to take a risk and throw downfield into double coverage or move around in the pocket so he can get to his third read. Maybe it’s something to consider as the Vikings go forward.





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