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The Rams offense on third down

Running back Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams tries to break outside of linebacker Mario Haggan of the Denver Broncos.
Running back Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams tries to break outside of linebacker Mario Haggan of the Denver Broncos.

Sports Illustrated conducted a poll of NFL players, asking which running back they'd hand off to on third-and-three.

St. Louis Rams RB Steven Jackson got 6 percent of the vote. Topping the list was Adrian Peterson with 32 percent followed by Chris Johnson with 21 percent and Brandon Jacobs with 10 percent, then SJ39. 

You can almost guarantee that the Rams would pass on third-and-three this season, but the poll provides a good pivot into just how the Rams are doing in similar situations. 

Let's take a look.

First, let's start with the Rams offensive DVOA for passing and running on third downs, from Football Outsiders which lumps fourth downs into the mix too. 

Third down rushing DVOA: -17.8 percent, ranked 27th
Third down passing DVOA: 12.2 percent, 16th

Now, let's take a look at third down DVOA based on distance.

Third-and-short (1-3 yards to go): -6.2 percent, 17th
Third-and-medium (4-6 yards): -15.5 percent, 22nd
Third-and-long (7 yards or more): 21.0 percent, 18th

And just how often are the Rams running versus passing on third downs?

The Rams have 27 third down rushing attempts versus 135 passing attempts. 

Here's a distance breakdown with rushing vs passing attempts and conversions:

1-2 yards: 6 conversions on 11 rushing attempts; 10 conversions on 12 passing attempts
3-5 yards: 0/6 rushing, 10/31 passing
6-10 yards: 2/3 rushing, 24/65 passing
11-15 yards: 0/4 rushing; 3/20 passing
16+ yards: 0/3 rushing; 4/7 passing

As we've said before, the run blocking, especially in the middle of the line, hasn't been as good this season as it has in the past. The middle just isn't getting as much push as they used to against defensive fronts and the Rams aren't using the FB/RB combination very much this season. Add to that, the fact that defenses load the box in those situations, and lots of others, because Jackson demands that kind of attention. 

Against Denver last week, the Rams faced third-and-short just three times, and each time they passed the ball, converting two of the three, including a TD. Why pass on third-and-short? Steven Jackson. Like I said above, defenses respect him, and lesser defenses - of which the Broncos are one - have a harder time defending both Jackson and the pass. Denver consistently chose to stack the box against Jackson, lending more credence to the decision to pass in those situations. 

Jackson still has the ability to burst through on third-and-short, but the combination of those two factors mentioned above are limiting his effectiveness this season. Nevertheless, his mere presence on the field in those situations makes the quarterback and his receivers more effective. It's a trade off. 

Ideally, the Rams will address some of the run blocking issues so that they have both options, something that will be especially important when they face much better defenses.