Hidden Numbers #1: Drive Success Rate

Everyone knows that the New Orleans Saints have a dynamic offense and opportunistic defense. However, what does that really mean? Periodically, I’ll try to find a “hidden number”: some statistic or indicator that shows just where the Saints excel (or where they don’t). These things might not always be obvious, but they do contribute to wins and losses. After the jump, we’ll tackle the Saints’ penchant for having successful drives.

Successful Drives

One of the goals of football is, obviously, to score points. Another goal is to prevent the other team from scoring points. One way to achieve both of these goals simultaneously is to have sustained drives, preferably leading to points. After all, long, point-scoring drives add to your team’s score while preventing the other team from adding to their score. Not bad, eh?

One way of measuring the effectiveness of an offense at doing just that is “drive success rate”. Drive success rate, as defined by¬†[Football Outsiders][1], is the percent chance that any set of 4 downs results in a first down or a touchdown. In other words, for each set of downs, a team is successful if it gets a first down or touchdown, and is unsuccessful if it punts, turns the ball over, or gets a field goal.

For example, if the Saints get the ball on their 20-yard line after a kickoff and run a screen to Pierre Thomas for 14 yards and a first down, that’s a success. It’s now 1st and 10 on the 34. If the Saints run the ball twice and then pass it 40 yards downfield for another 1st down, that’s another success. Now, it’s 1st and 10 at the opponents’ 20 yard line. If the Saints stall on the next set of downs, but are able to kick the field goal (obviously, I’m assuming Hartley is out), then they get 3 points, but weren’t successful on that set of downs.

So, in our example drive, the Saints’ drive success rate was 67%: they had 3 first downs, 2 of which were successful. Divide 2 successes by 3 sets of downs, and you get 67%.

Generally speaking, the more successful your offensive drives are (and the less successful your opponents’ drives are), the better your team will do.

This is an area where the Saints’ offense excels: this year, the Saints have a 74% drive success rate. That’s third in the NFL, behind the Indianapolis Colts (75.1%‘they almost always lead this category) and the New England Patriots (77.4%, which is the highest in the league since the 2008 Patriots unbelievable 81.2%). The NFL average is usually around 68 or 69%.

Looking at some of the Saints’ per-drive numbers, you’ll see they’re gread in many areas. The Saints rank near the top of the NFL in yards per drive (averaging over 36), points per drive (2.3), and touchdowns per drive (0.263), and fewest punts per drive (0.2). Simply put, the offense has been very good at moving the ball down the field.

So, why hasn’t the offense been as explosive as last year’s? Looking at the drive statistics, there are a couple of hidden indicators related to drive success. The first: interceptions. The Saints rank 31st in interceptions per drive, averaging .131 interceptions per drive. That means that, every 8 or so possessions results in an interception. That’s not so good.

The second reason is average field position. The Saints rank 23rd in starting field position, starting their average drive at about the 29 yard line. That measn means the offense often finds itself digging out of a hole. While to offense is great a digging out of holes, doing so adds a degree of difficulty makes things like throwing interceptions more likely. The Saints’ special teams really haven’t done them any favors this year.

Still, the Saints’ offense is excellent at sustaining drives, one of the best in the league. That’s one of the many reasons that they keep defensive coordinators up at night.

An earlier version of this post appeared at Canal Street Chronicles

[1]: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/drivestats