Converting on third downs is critical in the NFL – so much so that the league keeps statistics on third-down conversion rates. Last year, the Vikings offense was among the worst in the NFL on converting third downs, with only Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and San Francisco being worse than Minnesota's 34.5 percent conversion rate.
One of the stress points of the preseason has been to increase the team's offensive productivity on third down, a task which falls more on quarterback Tarvaris Jackson than anyone else. Saturday night in the Vikings' 23-15 win over Baltimore, not only did Jackson succeed in that regard, but so did Gus Frerotte and Brooks Bollinger, as third-down conversions became the Turning Point of the Game.
On the first drive of the game, Jackson was put on the hot seat – not only being asked to convert third downs, but to do so with conversion chances in which the numbers say the offense shouldn't usually succeed. On the first set of downs, the Vikings were in danger of going three-and-out. Faced with a third-and-11 from his own 29, Jackson scrambled away from a blitz and ran 13 yards for a first down. Two plays later, the Vikings were again faced with a third-and-11. This time, Jackson rolled to his right and connected with Visanthe Shiancoe for 19 yards and a first down on the Ravens 40. Five plays later, Jackson faced his third third-and-long of the drive. With a third-and-8 setup, Jackson correctly read a blown coverage and found Martin Nance alone in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown that gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
After the Ravens tied the game, Jackson covered a third-and-5 play from his own 35 with a 9-yard strike to Bobby Wade and, three plays later, Adrian Peterson converted a third-and-1 with a 1-yard run. By the time the Vikings didn't convert on third down – a draw play from Peterson with a third-and-goal from the 8-yard line – it appeared as though the team was content to add three points, which they did to take a 10-7 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
On the third drive of the game, it was much the same story despite different personnel. With Frerotte in the lineup, he faced a third-and-7 from the Ravens 49-yard line. He found Nance on a nicely timed deep pass down the right sideline for a 32-yard gain to the Ravens 17. After Chester Taylor picked up a first down with a pair of 6-yard runs, Frerotte again faced a third-down conversion situation. With third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Frerotte bought himself some time in the pocket and lobbed a touchdown pass to Robert Ferguson on a drag route across the field to give the Vikings a 17-7 lead.
With the score 20-7 in the third quarter and Brooks Bollinger in the game, the offense faced a similar dilemma. The team had botched a field goal attempt on the previous drive and didn't look particularly sharp. Faced with a third-and-1, running back Albert Young plowed for the needed yard and moved the chains. Two plays later, faced with a third-and-11, Bollinger threw a rope to Jaymar Johnson, who made a diving catch on the sidelines for 11 yards and a first down in Baltimore territory. Two plays later, looking at third-and-1, Bollinger crossed up the Ravens with a 5-yard pass to Naufahu Tahi for another first down. The Vikings nearly had an identical hookup between Bollinger and Johnson on the next third-down opportunity, but a strong defensive play forced an incompletion. But, thanks to the trio of third-down conversions, the Vikings were close enough to get another field goal and open the lead to 23-7.
If the preseason is an attempt for teams to practice the situations they will face when the games are "for real," Saturday's mastery of the third down by the Vikings offense is a strong sign that things are moving in the right direction and, in the case of the 23-15 win over Baltimore, provided the Turning Point of the Game.
All totaled, the Vikings finished the game converting 11 of 19 third downs and 7 of 10 in the first half.
Turning Point: Clutch on Third Downs
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