The box-score stats tell one story about the Los Angeles Chargers’ third-down defense this season.
Head over to any stats landing page, and you will see the Chargers near the top of the third-down defense standings: 20 conversions allowed on 60 third downs, a 33.3 percent rate that is tied for fourth-best in the NFL.
“We’re one of the top third-down teams in the NFL,” coach Brandon Staley said after Monday’s night’s 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
That’s not the whole truth, though.
What this 33.3 percent figure does not take into account is penalties. And you guessed it: The Chargers lead the league in third-down penalties this season. They have 10 total, seven of which have led directly to conversions. The other three were personal fouls tacked onto the end of plays that already resulted in conversions — a Joey Bosa facemask against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, a Kenneth Murray Jr. roughing the passer against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 and a Raheem Layne unnecessary roughness against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3.
Using TruMedia’s play-by-play data, we can calculate what we will call True Third Down Conversion Rate, which factors penalties into overall third down efficiency. The Chargers’ third-down conversion rate allowed jumps from 33.3 percent to 42.2 percent with penalties incorporated. That 42.2 percent ranks 17th in True Third Down Conversion Rate — bottom half of the league.
One reason for this substantial increase is what amounts to misleading statistical representation. In the Chargers’ case, three of the 60 third downs they have faced actually resulted in first-down penalties. However, the on-field play result was short of the sticks, and so it is marked down as a failed conversion.
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For example, on a third-and-11 in the third quarter against the Vikings, quarterback Kirk Cousins scrambled for 10 yards before being tackled by safety Derwin James Jr. Cornerback Michael Davis was flagged for defensive holding, resulting in a first down. This play is included in the 60 third downs but not included in the 20 conversions. Same with the unnecessary roughness call on James in the red zone in the second quarter of that Vikings win. And same with the illegal contact penalty on Ja’Sir Taylor on a third-and-18 in Monday’s loss. With those three penalties included, the numbers are 23 conversions on 60 third downs.
Add in four third-down penalties on plays that were technically negated, and you get 27 conversions on 64 third downs — 42.2 percent. Those four plays:
• Sebastian Joseph-Day roughing the passer against the Titans on a third-and-6.
• James unnecessary roughness against the Titans on third-and-13.
• Davis illegal use of the hands against the Vikings on third-and-11.
• Morgan Fox neutral zone zone infraction against the Vikings on third-and-4.
Taylor and Davis were both called for illegal contact on the third-and-18 on Monday night against the Cowboys. It was a massive play in the game. The conversion kept the Cowboys’ drive alive, and they later converted on what ended up being the game-winning field goal from kicker Brandon Aubrey with 2:19 remaining.
The Cowboys declined Davis’ penalty and accepted Taylor’s. The tape clearly shows Taylor making contact with Dallas receiver Jalen Tolbert 10 yards downfield. By the book, it is a fair call. In another game, referees might have let this contact slide. But with the way the refs were calling the game Monday night, it ended up as a game-shifting mistake from Taylor.
“We’re not going to make any excuses about any type of call, one way or the other,” Staley said Monday. “We need to play with cleaner technique in the secondary. It continues to be an emphasis and will always be an emphasis, especially with the way things are being officiated in the league. And so we need to continue to do better.”
Allowing a conversion on a third down of this length is just unacceptable. For Staley’s defenses, these letdowns have become commonplace. This season, including penalties, the Chargers have allowed conversions on 8 of 12 third downs with at least 11 yards to gain — a 66.7 percent True Conversion Rate. No other team is above 43 percent.
Dating back to last year, the Chargers have allowed a True Conversion Rate of 37.8 percent on third downs of 11 or more yards to gain. No other team is above 28 percent.
And since the start of 2021, when Staley took over as coach and defensive play caller, the Chargers are allowing a league-high 28.6 percent True Conversion Rate on third downs with 11 or more yards to gain. No other team is above 25 percent.
The Chargers have been called for nine first-down penalties on third down with at least 11 yards to gain over the last three seasons.
Yes, that is the most in the league.
“Penalties make the conversions sort of a much different story,” Staley said. “That’s where I think we’ve been focusing as coaches and where we need to continue to put the emphasis on, is just playing with the right technique and taking advantage of the leverages that we give you. And if you do that, then you will stay penalty-free.”
The other big issue with the Chargers’ third-down defense is when they are allowing these conversions.
After the third-and-18 penalty Monday night, the Chargers allowed a third-and-6 conversion to receiver CeeDee Lamb after quarterback Dak Prescott escaped the pocket. Lamb beat Taylor. The Chargers then allowed a third-and-9 conversion to Brandin Cooks on a comeback route that moved the Cowboys firmly into field goal range. Cooks beat Asante Samuel Jr.
The Chargers defense has a True Conversion Rate of 60.9 percent in the fourth quarter and overtime this season — 14 conversions on 23 third downs. No other teams is above 55 percent. One of those conversions was Tony Pollard’s 60-yard catch-and-run Monday night after breaking a tackle from Davis early in the fourth quarter on a third-and-11.
“We’re capable of being an elite unit that needs to stop fouling,” Staley said. “We’re in premium coverages and leverages, and our guys got to play clean football. But I think that we’re playing with the right variety. I think we’re rushing the passer at a high level. I think we’re covering people up, taking away their targets.”
The Chargers are fourth in the league in third-down pressure rate, according to TruMedia. They have created pressure on half of opposing dropbacks on third down this season.
The coverage, though, has to be better. And the Chargers must stop committing penalties on crucial third downs.
This is a three-year trend now, and Staley must find a way for his message to land.
“Our guys are executing the defenses well,” Staley said. “What I’m seeing is a unit that’s playing a high level, and we’d be feeling convincingly positive if we hadn’t had the fouls.”
(Top photo of Chargers tackling CeeDee Lamb after converting a third-and-8 play: Harry How / Getty Images)
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