Last week, we took a look at the down and distance chart for the Patriots big win over the Texans, and found that New England was very good at converting long first downs. But until their late comeback against this weeks 49ers, the Patriots seemed unable to sustain long drives. In fact, they kept many drives alive by going for it on 4th down, converting 5-6 such downs. Now I know that turnovers were a big part of this game, spotting the 49ers easy field position (you'll see that effect later). And you'll also remember that the Patriots erased a 28 point lead in the second half, mainly when the 49ers started playing a soft zone and allowed Brady to complete the short stuff that he likes. But the truth is the 49ers defense was outplaying Tom Brady's offense the majority of the time, and really had control of the game.
The play-by-play shows only one New England drive longer than five plays in the first half, and that drive resulted in only a FG. It would take until 10:21 left in the 3rd quarter before the Patriots started converting on third down with any consistency. For the game, they were 2/15, or 13.3%, compared to over 50% in the Texans game. So why the lack of success? Which downs hurt the Patriots the most? Let's look at the chart. First, the chart from their win over Houston:
Now from last Sunday's game:
You'll notice that I added some statistics. More on those later. The big play numbers look similar. In both weeks, they had 9 big plays, and while 20.8 yards is obviously more than 16.6, it really has nothing to do with the Patriots' ability to sustain drives. The Patriots gained about the same amount of yards leading to a 2nd down conversion (1st row), and while they converted more 2nd downs (13 to 9), this may be attributable do the increased pace of the game (more possessions overall).
When looking at the 3rd down-related stats, the Patriots were actually more successful on 1st downs that lead to a 3rd down situation, almost a full yard better. However, there average 3rd down distance was about half a yard worse, suggesting that on 2nd downs, when they didn't convert, they were often stuffed or threw incomplete. But the big difference was on the 3rd downs themselves: the Patriots were able to convert long 3rd downs against the Texans, but averaged only 3.385 yards/3rd against the 49ers, including several incompletions, sacks, and runs for little gain. The weather no doubt had a hand in this, making both catching and cutting difficult.
But what about the 49ers? Didn't they play in the same weather? Let's look at their chart (I took out numbers from the very end when they were basically running into the line to drain clock):
I was surprised that Team Harbaugh only converted three 2nd downs the whole night. And while they had a similar number of big plays on 1st down, more of these shots resulted in points due to favorable field position from turnovers, kick returns, etc. But where the 49ers really killed the Patriots was on 3rd down, where they faced dire situations, needing on average 7.14 yards to convert. Instead of faltering against the odds, the 49ers gained on average 7.46 yards per 3rd down, more than double the rate of the Patriots. Now, this stat is somewhat misleading, as the 49ers converted several 1st downs for big yardage in the 1st half; actual run-rate 3rd downs were far less successful. However, their big 3rd down conversions did lead to 10 points, which when included with the points off turnovers, helped them to their 28-point lead.
In essence, the 49ers made big plays on 3rd down in the 1st half, including a 24 yard TD throw and 19 yard Kaepernick scramble, showing their confidence to be aggressive on 3rd down. The Patriots can't be faulted for trying, but their offense, while potent, isn't built to pass protect and go down field a ton (Lloyd, their best deep threat, has been a shell of himself, though he did have one long completion in this game). Big 3rd downs, along with some turnover luck and a huge LaMichael James punt return, helped the 49ers stay one step ahead of the Patriots.
A few random notes:
The Patriots were correct in sending the cover zero big blitz that led to the last 49ers TD. With that field position, the 49ers would likely have been able run a ton of clock before taking the lead with a TD or a FG. Even allowing the TD wasn't terrible, because the Patriots got the ball back with plenty of time, but were unable to keep Brady clean.
And the 4th and 1 play was the right call. If you can't convert 4th and 1, how are you going to drive down the length of the field with little time after punting?
Note: in the No. of Plays column for the 49ers, they ran only 13 3rd down plays versus 14 3rd down situations due to the decision to kick a FG on 3rd and 2 to end the 1st half.