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First-down success is the key to third-down conversions

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Larry Johnson and the Chiefs love to run on first down, but they gain 4 or more yards only 20 percent of the time.


I Love the expression, "You've gotta win on third down." Of course, you have to win on third down, but your chances of converting on third down have a lot more to do with what happens on first down.

Conversion rates

When you examine the success rate of converting second and third downs over the past three years, you can see why getting 4-plus yards on first down is the key:
Down/distance Success Pct.
Second-and-1-5 yards 56
Second-and-6-9 yards 27
Second-and-10-plus 17
Third-and-1 67
Third-and-2 52
Third-and-3 49
Third-and-4 47
Third-and-5 42
Third-and-6 41
Third-and-7 37
Third-and-8 32
Third-and-9 32
Third-and-10 or more 20

Through the first two weeks of the season teams have averaged 26 first-down plays, 20 second-down plays and 13 third-down plays a game. The best plan isn't to win on third down, but rather try to avoid third downs -- and that really means winning on first down.

This season, teams are passing on first down 47 percent of the time. In 2007, the league averaged 48-percent passing on first downs; in 2006, the year-end average was 46 percent. As usual, the league is currently on schedule after two weeks of play. That means, on average, teams run the ball on first down 53 percent of the time. The real question becomes: How many times can your favorite team gain 4 or more yards on first down, regardless of which way it tries to get it done?

Teams facing big deficits will skew the numbers because they have abandoned the run in an attempt to catch up, but you can go back and look at their first-down rushing production for clues as to how they got in trouble in the first place.

Take a look at Detroit, for example. The Lions desperately want to be a running team but have only 18 rushing attempts in 55 first-down plays, because they have fallen behind 21-0 two weeks in a row. When you drill down further into their first-down runs, you'll note they have gained 4 or more yards only five times in those 18 attempts. Detroit runs on first down 33 percent of the time and it gains 4 or more yards 28 percent of the time.

The Lions aren't alone. The Chiefs, who need to run the ball to survive as they continue a major youth movement, hit the NFL average by running it 52 percent of the time on first down. Problem is, they have the worst success rate for gaining 4 or more yards -- making it 20 percent of the time. The same holds true for the Dolphins.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans love to run it on first down. The Steelers have run the ball on 40 of their 50 first downs (80 percent), but have only gained 4-plus yards on 12 of those attempts (30 percent). Conversely, Denver has only run the ball on first down 44 percent of the time, but it has 17 runs of 4 or more yards on those plays (61 percent).

The Vikings are known as a running team, and their early success on first-down runs might suggest even more calls in that direction. Minnesota has called 32 run plays out of their 57 first downs and hit the 4-plus-yard mark 20 times. Any team that can get to second down and less than 6 yards to go 63 percent of the time should stay on the ground.

Going through the air has been good to some teams on first down. Once again, Denver shows up as an excellent first-down passing team. The Broncos throw it 56 percent of the time and have connected for 4 or more yards on 62 percent of those throws. Only Peyton Manning and the Colts have the same number of first-down passes of 4-plus yards (22), but they have been scrambling to stay in games.

A very interesting team after two weeks is the Buffalo Bills. They are conservative in their first-down play-calling and have only gone to the air on 42 percent of their opportunities -- but they have hit on 62 percent of those passes to create manageable second downs.

It's worth a look at the Jets' first-down play selection with Brett Favre under center. Last year with the Packers, Favre threw on first down 51 percent of the time and connected for 4-plus yards on 56 percent of those passes. Right now, the Jets run the ball 68 percent of the time on first down and are only hitting the 4-plus-yard mark 46 percent of the time. Some would think Week 3 may be time for more first-down passing from the Jets, but the numbers don't back it up just yet; the Jets with Favre have only gained 4-plus yards on five of their 14 first-down pass attempts (36 percent).

It's no surprise the Eagles and Cowboys fared well on first downs in their high-scoring affair on Monday night. After two weeks, the Cowboys average 6.0 yards on all first-down plays and the Eagles average 5.2 yards. Good teams convert on third downs because more of those situations are third-and-short as opposed to third-and-long -- and the best offenses manage to avoid any third-down situation as much as possible.

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