Alex Smith’s problems on third down

Take this for what it’s worth – Alex Smith has always been bad on third down.

Before I explain, let me define my terms. “Average” on third down would be a 38 percent conversion success rate and five conversions per game.

In 2006, Smith’s first full season starting, the Niners offense converted 34.45 percent of third downs and averaged 4.5 third-down conversions per game. Both figures ranked 26th in the NFL.

In 2009 Smith started ten games, and over that stretch the Niners offense converted a paltry 30.15 percent of third downs and averaged just 4.1 third-down conversions per game. Both figures ranked 29th.

In 2010 Smith started nine games and rebounded to his 2006 form – 34.09 percent third-down conversion rate, 4.6 third-down conversions per game, both ranking 25th.

Last season, Smith’s third-down play tanked inexplicably. He converted a mind-bogglingly low 28.11 percent of third downs and averaged 3.89 third-down conversions per game, ranking 31st. For reference, Tim Tebow averaged 3.92 third-down conversions per game in 2011.

Smith has historically converted roughly four third downs per game. That’s bad, but it’s not a killer – not on this great Niners team. Smith converted four third downs against the Saints in the playoffs and won.

Smith’s main problem on third down is his propensity to get shut out entirely. Over his last 26 starts, he’s converted two or fewer third downs nine times.

Does Smith deserve all the blame? No. Offensive linemen have to block and wide receivers have to get open and catch the ball, and Smith hasn’t had the best offensive line or wide receivers over the years.

Maybe Greg Roman should take the blame for Smith getting outplayed by Tebow on third down last season. After all, Roman routinely called ultra-ultra-conservative plays with leads or near field goal range.

Maybe it’s not Smith’s fault. I just can’t help but notice that while his interception rate and red zone effectiveness have fluctuated over the years, for whatever reason his third down results have always been bad.

On the other hand, Joe Flacco, who some might rank in the same QB tier as Smith, has always had good results on third down.

In 2008, Flacco converted 39.26 percent. In 2009, 42.8 percent. In 2010, 40.17 percent. And in 2011, 41.98 percent.

Mark Sanchez had his worst season ever on third down in ’11, converting 34.74, a higher rate than Smith has ever produced. Sanchez also converted 40.43 percent in 2010.

Matt Ryan converted 43.46 percent in 2011 and 46 percent in 2010.

Obviously third down conversions aren’t everything. What do you make of Smith’s bad third-down numbers?

Update: Here are more in-depth 2011 third-down stats for Smith, via the Washington Post, courtesy of our commenter BigP:

“#12 in NFC on 3rd down passing conversions, #23 overall.
#16 in NFC on 3rd and <3 yards, #32 overall.
#11 in NFC on 3rd and 3-7 yards, #23 overall.
#11 in NFC on 3rd and 8+ yards, #20 overall.
#12 in % First Downs/Attempt, #20 overall.”

Update No. 2: For another point of comparison, Shaun Hill converted 40.17 percent of his third downs as a Niner from 2007 to 2009.

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