The earlier item on third-down conversion rates sparked a conversation I'd like to continue here.
"Do you think the 49ers are relying too much on their receivers to gain YAC and pick up first downs?" DF4949 asked. "It seems that a significant number of their third-down throws are short of the marker. Otherwise, is is a case of Alex Smith regularly checking down on third down?"
ESPN Stats & Information charts where throws were made in relation to the first-down marker. That enabled me to produce the chart below showing NFC West quarterback production based on whether passes were thrown past first-down markers. The chart reads vertically. Shading separates one quarterback from the next.
What the numbers say about each quarterback:
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Smith has the division's highest completion rate on passes short of the sticks, and the lowest on passes to the sticks or past them. His yards per attempt on passes at or past the sticks is only 3.6. That ranks 32nd out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Smith, Russell Wilson and Blaine Gabbert are the only quarterbacks below 5.5 yards per attempt on these throws. The league average for qualifying quarterbacks is 7.9 yards. Smith was at 8.4 last season. Smith and Vernon Davis have remained productive on these to-the-sticks throws. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Braylon Edwards averaged between 9.3 and 12.0 yards per attempt on these throws last season. Davis has four of the five receptions on these throws in 2012. Crabtree has just one reception on four attempts, good for a 2.3-yard average per attempt. Smith has no completions on five additional targets to Mario Manningham, Delanie Walker and Williams. Sample size remains small for 2012. I'm guessing the 3.6-yard total will perk up.
Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals: Kolb has high completion percentages for both categories. The production is quite strong when Kolb is able to get rid of the football. He has taken eight sacks, too many. But the Cardinals would rather have him eat the football than share it with the other team through interceptions on desperation throws. Kolb had one touchdown, one pick, nine sacks and middling numbers on 87 third- and fourth-down dropbacks last season. His numbers weren't much different based on whether he was throwing past the first-down markers. This season, Kolb is playing with backup offensive tackles and diminished options at running back. No complaints here. Kolb and Andre Roberts have connected three times for 36 yards and a touchdown on throws to the sticks. Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet have been more frequent targets on the shorter throws.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Wilson's QBR score when failing to throw past the sticks outranks those for his NFC West rivals because Wilson has rushed for five first downs on 10 carries in these situations. QBR takes into account rushing. I'm struck right away by the absence of yards-after-the-catch on throws short of the first-down markers for these third- and fourth-down attempts. Robert Turbin has six yards after the catch. Doug Baldwin has four. That's it for Seattle on five completions short of the sticks. No wonder Seattle has zero first downs on these throws. Perhaps Wilson needs to set up his receivers better. Perhaps play design must improve. We just know Seattle needs more production after the catch. Justin Forsett contributed in this area out of the backfield last season, but Seattle still lagged in YAC. The overall production -- before and after the pass -- remains weak even when Wilson does get the ball past the first-down marker.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: The Rams lead the division in yards after the catch whether or not the ball is getting past the first-down marker on these third- and fourth-down throws. Bradford has completed 6 of 8 passes for 68 yards, one touchdown and six first downs when throwing to Danny Amendola past the sticks in these situations. The team already has six first downs on 16 attempts short of the sticks after collecting seven on 43 such attempts all last season. Having Amendola back from injury has been huge for the Rams' offense. Young depth at running back helps to a lesser extent. Amendola and Daryl Richardson have 48 yards after the catch and three first downs on nine attempts short of the sticks. Bradford has taken seven sacks on these third- and fourth-down plays. The Rams have obvious issues on their offensive line. Bradford seeks turnover avoidance over sack avoidance. That's one area for improvement.