Just when it appeared the New Orleans Saints had managed to bandage their third-down deficiency, the covering was ripped off.
In a three-victories-in-four-games stretch – New Orleans' most successful stint of the season – the Saints held Tampa Bay, Detroit, Green Bay and Carolina to a combined 17 for 45 on third down, 37.8 percent.
But in the three games since – losses to San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore – the Saints have been on the wrong end of a 24-for-41 conversion rate on third down, 58.5 percent.
It has been a defensive statistic that has been telling this season for New Orleans, which is 4-7 entering Sunday's game against the Steelers (7-4) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, and has allowed a 47.9 percent conversion rate on third down, more than 13 percent higher than last year's mark of 34.2 percent.
"The biggest thing is, you're not going to beat anybody – even as great as Drew Brees and our offense is – if we can't get off the field on third down, it makes it almost impossible to win a game," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said Friday. "Obviously, we've put a huge emphasis on it. Two weeks in a row (Cincinnati and Baltimore were 9 for 13 in the last two games), we were very poor and that has to change. We have to play better and we're working hard to do that.
"At the end of the day, we have to execute better and I've got to call better third downs."
When the Saints have executed, the results has mirrored the execution.
In victories, opponents have converted 16 of 45 third-down attempts (35.6 percent). In defeat, opponents have converted 52 of 97 third-down attempts (53.6 percent).
In short, when the Saints get off the field defensively on third down, they win. When they haven't, the losses have piled up, and it has been especially difficult for the Saints to win when they haven't converted defensively on third-and-7 or more.
In those situations, considered favorable for the defense, opponents have converted 32 of 82 attempts (39 percent). By contrast, 11 teams haven't allowed an overall conversion rate of 39 percent this season.
"The one thing I think you see specifically is the third downs," Coach Sean Payton said, referencing the recent defensive slide. "I think you make an emphasis and talk about getting off the field. The down and distance, regardless of what it is, you get someone to third down, I think we have to be better in that area.
"That's something we'll look closely at and continue to prepare for these guys. Because you can play first and second down real well and then on third down, you give up a conversion and you're right back at the beginning. That down and distance, I would say, specifically has to be better."
But improving is a work in progress that isn't aided by the caliber of offenses the Saints are facing.
"Every week, you're tested," Ryan said. "This is the best of the best – they're the best players and the best coaches you go against every week. You have to be on point and those third downs are absolutely critical. That's something that we've been harping on, we have to get better at for us to go forward.
"We've got to hold up our end and we haven't done it. But it doesn't mean that we're not going to work like hell to get it fixed, because we are."
A good place for the success to resurface will be Heinz Field on Sunday, where the Saints will attempt to end their first three-game losing streak since the team lost the first four games of the 2012 season.
"The point is that there's that consistency where we haven't been as sharp," Payton said. "We haven't been as sharp on getting off the field on third down and so that's the thing that we have to address and correct. It's one of a few things. There are several specific things but that's one thing."
Photos from New Orleans Saints practice on Thursday, November 27, 2014. Photos by Alex Restrepo. (New Orleans Saints photos)