In case you haven’t heard, the NFL is on pace to shatter previous scoring records in 2020. Through eight weeks, the league has seen its most points (5,996) and touchdowns (692) than any other season since the 1970 merger at this point.

That would also mean we are hurtling toward historically bad scoring defense totals. But one subtle record the league’s defenses are on pace for is the third-down conversion rate. 

Through eight weeks, NFL defenses are allowing third downs to be converted at a 42.8% rate. That’s up from 39% just last season, and it will smash the record of 41.5% set in 1972, which is as far back as CBS Research and STATS LLC can track.

The 1995 Cleveland Browns’ ignominious mark of allowing 49.6% of all third downs is also being outpaced by three teams. The 5-2 Tennessee Titans are blazing a path to the record books with an eye-popping 61.9% conversion allowance this season.

So what gives? That’s what I asked Andy Reid. His Chiefs are a perfect example of what’s going on in the league. The offense has improved in its third down marks (from 47.6% in 2019 to 49.5% this year) while the defense has taken a slight step back from its 37.1% rate in 2019 to 38.5% this year.

Are third downs getting easier to convert, or are they getting harder to defend?

“That’s a chicken or the egg,” Reid said this week. “That’s a tough one to answer. Some weeks you feel like the defense is catching you, and the other times you feel you’re ahead of the defense and rolling. Third downs are still tough to get. I know the numbers are up, but I also know it’s the same feeling you have when you’re calling plays. Those are important downs and they know you’re going to normally throw, and those D linemen know and rushers are pretty good now. You’ve got to make sure you have all those bases covered. I can’t answer that. I can’t tell you how I feel either way, I just know the feeling I have when you’re calling them. Those are tough downs.”

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For the Titans, Bills and Panthers, they’d probably say it’s getting harder to defend third downs. Despite their combined 14-9 record, those three teams are ahead of the ’95 Browns’ all-time mark. After the seemingly implausible 61.9% conversion rate against for Tennessee, the young Panthers are in second at 54.2% and the AFC East-leading Bills are in third at 50.6%.

The Cowboys (49.5%), Lions (48.9%) and Giants (48.6%) are all within a percentage point of the all-time record.

In Tennessee, head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff are throwing just about everything they have at figuring out why they’re so bad at stopping teams on third downs.

“We look at the self-scout. There’s a lot of different things that are showing up. It’s zone. It’s man. It’s different down and distances,” Vrabel told reporters last week. “We need to continue to work, focus, make it an awareness, working it today to get 11 guys to execute the call, whichever one that may be, working together with somebody. If you’re in man and you have to combo and got a pass-rush gain and you’ve got a place where you need to be, getting there and being able to find ways to win, winning the rush and being able to challenge or to break. 

“We’re close. I know that that doesn’t mean anything, but when you’re tackling them at the sticks, or you get up there on third-and-4 and got a zone and they try to run a man-beater and the receivers able to fall forward for an extra yard – again, it’s challenging it and making sure that we’re sticks awareness and we have an idea of what we’re trying to do based on the formations that they’re coming out in, and how we can impact the quarterback.”

In the case of Carolina, the Panthers are allowing 75.4% of third downs between 1 and 6 yards to be converted while hovering around the league average of 28.4% on third and long (7 or more yards). But Tennessee has allowed 23 of the 43 third-and-long attempts to be converted this year, a stunning 53.5% clip that outpaces second-place Seattle by nearly 10 percentage points.

The Titans will keep tinkering with their defense while the rest of the league figures out their own issues. Between 2010-2019, defenses allowed third downs to be converted at 38.8%, four percentage points less than the 2020 explosion that’s ongoing.

When I asked Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians what’s going on, he provided the most logical answer yet.

“One thing [is] there’s fewer penalties,” Arians says. “I don’t think you’re seeing as many super-long [conversion attempts]. I think teams are playing the game in third-and-6 or less, which is going to promote better conversion rates. I don’t think there’s any rule changes or anything that have really sparked it analytically. Just probably better play offensively.”

Let’s take penalties first. We know the league officials are calling fewer offensive holding penalties than before, and that’s one of the leading anecdotal causes of increased offensive performance this season. 

It’s true that penalties as a whole are down. The average NFL team is on pace to be called for 91.5 penalties this year, which is down from 104.4 penalties per team from the average of the previous 10 seasons. In that same 10-year stretch, the average team was flagged for 47.6 offensive penalties in a season. This year, the average team is on pace for 38.9 offensive penalties. 

Offenses are getting away with more, and that makes converting a play—any play—that much easier. Similarly, it keeps a team out of third-and-long situations.

From 2010-2019, third-and-longs accounted for 49.4% of all third down attempts. But that has dropped to 45.4% this season. So Arians is correct in noting that third-and-7 or longer attempts are less frequent this season.

And finally, let’s address the argument of better offensive play. Teams are converting third downs between 1 and 6 yards at a higher rate than before. The 2010-2019 stretch saw teams converting 51.3% of third downs between 1 and 6 yards, while that number has grown to 54.7% so far this season.

I think Arians is right on every point, and I think they all work hand-in-hand. There are fewer offensive penalties being called this year, and that keeps offenses out of tougher third down situations. And with less fear of being flagged, offensive players are having greater success in more manageable situations. 

Sorry to these defenses.

Staying on top of COVID-19

The NFL has become much more comfortable living with COVID-19. One month ago if a team had a positive test we wondered if that week’s game would be played on schedule. Now, we just wait for the facilities to open up the next day and continue with the work week.

The reality is the league absolutely wants to play 256 regular-season games, and it’s a credit to the league’s and individual teams’ medical folks who are navigating what “high-risk close contact” means. It seems like every week I have a note about COVID-19, but it’s imperative that we keep an eye on the virus in the NFL and not get lulled to sleep.

Just because games aren’t getting rescheduled right now doesn’t mean at all we’re in the clear. In fact, a league source reiterated to me last week that now is the time to worry. It appears we are in (or entering) the second wave of coronavirus in the country, and couple that with teams realizing halfway through the season that their postseason chances are fading and players and staff may begin getting lax outside of the facility.

I went through each joint NFL/NFLPA statement for the last 11 weeks and found that there’s been almost gradual uptick each week in confirmed positive cases in the league since training camp. That’s not necessarily surprising, and it also may not be overly concerning. Yet.

The league is testing nearly 8,000 players and personnel daily. Roughly 2,500 players and just less than 5,500 personnel members are undergoing testing, and between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31 the league saw 63 players and 99 personnel members test positive for COVID-19. Over three months and across 32 teams in a pandemic, those are relatively good numbers in a profession that does not lend itself to physical distancing.

The numbers were good during training camp, with just five players and 19 personnel members testing positive between Aug. 12 and Sept. 5. That generally continued until the Titans outbreak the week of Sept. 27-Oct. 3, where the league had 11 player positives and 15 personnel positives. Since then, the NFL has seen eight players test positive in each of the past four weeks. Personnel numbers have crept up, too.

Sept. 6 to Sept. 12

2

5

Sept. 20 to Sept. 26

2

4

Sept. 27 to Oct. 3

11

15

Oct. 4 to Oct. 10

8

7

Oct. 11 to Oct. 17

8

11

Oct. 18 to Oct. 24

8

11

Oct. 25 to Oct. 31

8

17

The numbers for this week aren’t in yet, but already the Texans, Cowboys, Ravens, Packers, 49ers, Bears, Cardinals and Eagles have all had at least one positive test. I expect the final numbers released next week to show more than eight players.

It’s crucial that players and staff remain vigilant in their efforts to keep each other safe. The NFL is expanding the bench areas from the 20-yard line to the other 20, and players and highly encouraged (but not required) to wear masks on the sideline during the game. A continued uptick in numbers could derail games.

A Jets glimmer of hope

I think Joe Douglas took the best, obvious, first public step in his post-trade deadline press conference in showing people (i.e. Trevor Lawrence) that the Jets are a competent organization.

Douglas owned to not re-signing Robby Anderson, who is flourishing in Carolina on a two-year, $20 million contract. Anderson would be the Jets top receiver by a mile this season, and Douglas let him walk in free agency for a rather simple contract with the Panthers. Here’s what Douglas had to say this week.

“I’ve thought about Robby a lot. As you guys know, there’s thousands of decisions that come across your desk during the year,” the second-year GM said. “And I go back, and I look at what I could have done better in that specific situation. I thought our guys did a fantastic job of really analyzing every position group’s market value leading up to free agency last year. I think what went wrong with us and Robby, we thought Robby’s value was going to be even greater than he signed for in Carolina. And so, I think that’s on me ultimately, and that’s on us moving forward to get a better handle on every player’s market value. Honestly, we would all love to see Robby here, doing what he’s doing, but I tip my hat to the success he has. But obviously, we don’t want to be in the business or losing good players.”

Is it easier for Douglas to own the mistake since he’s just 18 months into a six-year contract? Obviously. But it’s still refreshing to hear a GM own a mistake. And I think it sends a signal to future Jets that there can be accountability at top levels there, even if other massive issues still exist.

I think we’re in for a rumor-filled draft season for the Jets, especially if they wind up with the No. 1 overall pick. I and several agents I spoke with took Lawrence’s “I could return to school in 2021” to mean he was exercising whatever bit of leverage he currently has. Lawrence isn’t going back to school, but it felt like he was starting to lay the groundwork for a 2004 Eli Manning move. 

The Jets will not retain Adam Gase next season, and the Jets will need to hire a coach that will ease some of Lawrence’s worries. There’s also the transition of power that will likely take place at the very top of the organization. Chris Johnson has been guiding the team the last three years since his brother, Woody, took over as United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. 

Should Joe Biden become the 46th President, Woody Johnson would (very likely) no longer hold that post and return to his seat atop the Jets organization. Lawrence would be well within his rights to learn all he can about team ownership and the direction of the franchise.

The Jets have a strong public face in Douglas who needs to be in every meeting room and on every call with Lawrence should the Jets want to secure the QB. But it’s going to take some convincing. 

Picks

How do you follow up an 11-3 week? Well, with an 8-6 Week 8 if you’re me. A disappointing result, but there were just a few games I didn’t see coming. I’m now 77-40-1 on the year, and I think that’s pretty solid. But I moved to 1-6 on Thursday Night Football (after I broke out this week by picking the Packers!) Let’s go to the games.

Lions at Vikings 

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

When I first saw this game I wanted to take the Lions. Then I dug deeper into their loss to the Colts and realized the run we all thought Detroit would go on may have been fugazi. The Lions had 29 rushing yards last week and now face the 11th best rushing defense. Matt Stafford was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week but should be able to play Sunday. And the Lions only had possession for 22 minutes against Indy. Meanwhile, did you see what the Vikings did to Green Bay last week?

The pick: Vikings

Bears at Titans

Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX

The Bears façade is finally crumbling. They’re a team needing an average quarterback to not turn the ball over and for the defense to play at an elite level. In the last two games (0-2) the Bears have one takeaway and three turnovers. The Titans may give up third downs to Nick Foles, but they’ll also take the ball away from him. Tennessee is eighth in the league with 12 takeaways this year.

The pick: Titans

Saints at Buccaneers

Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC

I absolutely love the way Todd Bowles’s defense is playing right now. The Saints are getting healthier and it’s a blessing to all football lovers that we get to see these teams healthy midway through the year. The Bucs were never going to be ready in Week 1 against a Saints team that kept its core together for years, but now the Bucs are a well-oiled machine. 

The pick: Buccaneers

The rest

Falcons over Broncos

Seahawks over Bills

Ravens over Colts

Chiefs over Panthers

Texans over Jaguars

Giants over Football Team 

Raiders over Chargers

Cardinals over Dolphins

Steelers over Cowboys

Patriots over Jets

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