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Post Was 3rd-and-Grantham really a thing?

Friday September 22, 2017

tl;dr: Yes.

Have you heard? Todd Grantham is returning to Athens this weekend. I’m nothing if not a sucker for a good storyline, and this one…rates about a 2 out of 10.

Still, all of this Grantham returns! coverage got me wondering whether “third and Grantham” was a legitimate gripe or just more “run the damn ball Bobo” blathering where confirmation bias magnified any third down conversion. How did Grantham’s defenses really rank on third down?

  • 2010: 79th (41.86%)
  • 2011: 3rd (28.93%)
  • 2012: 37th (36.54%)
  • 2013: 64th (39.49%)

Grantham supervised the transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, and 2010 saw some growing pains that began to pay off with consecutive division titles in 2011 and 2012. 2011 stands out. Georgia went from a 6-7 team in 2010 to the SEC championship in Grantham’s second year thanks in large part to a top ten defense which, as you might expect, did very well on third down (or on most any down.) The amazing first half against LSU in the 2011 SEC Championship game was Grantham’s defense at its best. The 2012 defense was stacked with talent – Jones, Ogletree, Commings, Rambo, and on. Though the whole 2012 team was probably more well-rounded and in a better position to compete for a national title due to a more potent offense, the 2012 defense showed a fatal flaw against the run. Georgia’s rushing defense dropped from an impressive 11th nationally in 2011 to 81st in 2012. The Tennessee game was a track meet, and we won’t discuss the South Carolina game. It wasn’t until the Florida game and November that the defense really began to look like the sum of its parts (thanks Shawn Williams!)

So, yes, Georgia’s defense was excellent on third down in 2011 and decent in 2012, but they were decidedly average or below-average in Grantham’s other two years in Athens. The slide from 3rd to 37th to 64th on third down didn’t do much to quash the “third and Grantham” meme. In the eyes of many fans, his departure after the 2013 season just saved someone from making a decision a year or two later.

“Third and Grantham” didn’t just come about because of third down conversions – it was about third and long. Is there anything behind that? For answers we can look at opponents’ performance on passing downs.
(Stats are from Football Outsiders who define Passing Downs as “second down with 8 or more yards to go or third or fourth down with 5 or more yards to go.”) In other words, how well does the defense do when they might reasonably be expecting a pass? Grantham’s defenses were never (relatively) terrible in those situations and were never ranked worse than 47th on passing downs. At the same time, with the exception of Grantham’s first year in 2010, the defense’s performance on passing downs was worse than on standard downs. In 2012 and 2013, it was much worse.

Year Std. Downs S&P+ Rank Pass. Downs S&P+ Rank
2010 38 29
2011 9 17
2012 23 47
2013 23 44

When you do a fairly good job on standard downs to set up longer conversions, you expect to be in good shape to get off the field. That didn’t happen. Again, Georgia did better than most on passing downs, but they were relatively weaker in those situations than on standard downs. In 2013, Georgia allowed conversions on nearly 40% of third downs and ranked in the mid-40s on passing downs. It’s clear why the “third and Grantham” meme that appeared during his first season really took hold towards the end of his time in Athens.

Did “third and Grantham” come along to Starkville? Not in the way we think of it. The MSU defense has been impressive on third down in 2017. They are currently among the top ten in the nation, allowing conversions on just 21.4% of third downs through three games. Their defensive success rate on passing downs is 10.7%, good for 4th in the nation. When you’re that adept at stopping drives, you give your offense more possessions, and it’s no surprise then that MSU is among the highest-scoring teams in the nation. If Georgia wants to slow Fitzgerald and his productive offense, there isn’t a much better solution than maintaining possession and moving the chains. Georgia’s challenge on offense is to find success against a defense that has, so far, made “third and Grantham” something to anticipate rather than dread.



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