Around the NFC West: Third-down outlook

Third-down conversion rates aren't everything.

The New Orleans Saints led the NFL in that category last season. They lost a shootout in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, who ranked 31st.

Around the NFC West: Oct. 4, 2012

The top five teams in third-down conversion rate through Week 4 this season aren't exactly enjoying universal success. The Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2), Atlanta Falcons (4-0), Kansas City Chiefs (1-3), Denver Broncos (2-2) and Buffalo Bills (2-2) have a combined record of 10-9.

And in one of the oddest stats I've run across this season, the otherwise impressive Andy Dalton has produced only five first downs on 31 third-down drop backs, giving him the NFL's lowest conversion rate among regular starting quarterbacks. His top receiver, A.J. Green, has an NFL-best 27 receptions -- but none on third down. Strange.

NFC West teams currently own a 9-3 record outside the division despite ranking no higher than 17th in third-down conversion rate. The St. Louis Rams, who ranked 32nd in that category last season, lead the way with that No. 17 ranking. The 49ers (23rd), Arizona Cardinals (25th) and Seattle Seahawks (27th) lag well behind.

Imagine how much better NFC West teams might become if they could sustain drives more consistently. There are signs of progress.

The Rams' Sam Bradford completed all nine third-down passes, seven for first downs, against Washington. Last week, he hurt Seattle on third-and-long in particular. His third-down NFL passer rating (102.2) ranks seventh in the league. He does have seven sacks on third down, however, one reason he ranks only 18th in Total QBR for third down. Still, the progress is undeniable.

The 49ers have suffered only four three-and-out drives this season, the second-lowest figure behind New England. And they were certainly better on third down during critical moments of a Week 2 victory over the Detroit Lions. So there is hope in San Francisco as well.

The Cardinals' Kevin Kolb has a 120.2 NFL passer rating on third down, trailing only the 145.1 for Ben Roethlisberger. The league-high eight sacks Kolb has taken on third down help explain why he ranks only 26th in Total QBR for that category. But the Cardinals can live with that 120.2 passer rating, for sure.

Remember, also, that Kolb threw the tying touchdown pass Sunday on fourth down. Kolb has completed 21 of 30 passes for 198 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions on third and fourth downs this season. That works out to a 127.5 passer rating -- second, again, only to the 146.8 for Roethlisberger on those downs.

Which brings us to the Seahawks. There's nothing good about averaging 2.9 yards per pass attempt with six conversions in 36 third-down drop backs. Those are the stats for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times has more in his report on the matter, focusing specifically on the team's inability to get Doug Baldwin involved in the offense.