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The key to success -- stopping teams on first down

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Each week I try to explore a league trend that is developing or has led to a team's success or failure.

This week I am looking at first-down defense. If a team isn't winning on first downs, bigger problems are just a few plays down the road.

I will also look at rookie running backs possibly hitting the wall. More than one coach has suggested his young ball carrier is starting to fatigue, while others have already cut back on the work load.

Keep in mind there are no more byes to rest players or go back to evaluate play calling.

First-down defense after 10 weeks

First-down defense can include an assortment of factors, but regardless of how it's done, the objective is containing the opponent and getting to second-and-long.

The first thing I ask when I break down first-down defensive production is how many first-down situations are teams dealing with per game.

The teams with the highest frequency of first downs are probably the ones that can't prevent offenses from moving the chains. The teams with the lowest number of first downs should be the teams that get off the field. The results confirm the problems with first-down defenses. Here are the seven worst and best -- the records prove there is a solid correlation between winning and frequency of first downs defenses are subjected too.

An indicator of success
Team Most first downs Record Team Least first downs Record
Oakland
161
2-7
Arizona
98
6-3
Detroit
155
0-9
Pittsburgh
99
6-3
Kansas City
151
1-8
N.Y. Giants
99
8-1
Indianapolis
148
5-4
Washington
100
6-3
Cincinnati
144
1-8
Tennessee
103
9-0
St. Louis
144
2-7
Minnesota
105
5-4
Cleveland
143
3-6
Baltimore
106
6-3
Seattle
134
2-7
Atlanta
110
6-3


Only the Indianapolis Colts have a winning record and are a bottom seven team. The next question: How do these defenses fare with their first-down situations?

The NFL average for first-down production after 10 weeks is 4.2 yards per first down play. If you look at every first-down play, the reality is on average opponents are looking at second-and-6.

The top five first-down defenses surrender an average of 3.08 yards. The combined record of those teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Jets, Giants and Bears) is 31-14 and they all own a piece of first place in their division.

The five worst teams on first down give up just over 5 yards per first down. The combined records of those teams (Detroit, Denver, Jacksonville, KC and Cleveland) is 13-31. The difference of just two yards on first down defensive production can be the difference between winning and losing.

The last thing I looked at was which defenses see the highest proportion of runs on first down. As you can imagine, the teams that see the most run plays on first downs are usually the teams that can't stop the run.

Here are the six defenses that see the most first-down run plays and their record. Keep in mind, the numbers may be slightly skewed. The Colts, for example, get run on more because teams are attempting to keep Peyton Manning off the field. In the case of some of the other teams, they may be getting blown out early, so opponents will rush more often to run out the clock. Nonetheless, if teams are willing to run it at you close to 60 percent of the time, it doesn't say much for your first-down defense.

An indicator of failure
Team Percent of first-down runs Record
Oakland
62.3
2-7
Kanas City
60.4
1-8
Cincinnati
60.2
1-8
Houston
59.4
3-6
Indianapolis
59.1
5-4
Detroit
58.6
0-9


Teams that see the least amount of successful passing against their defense on first downs are the Eagles, Giants, Jets, Packers and Saints. These teams all give up the fewest number of completions of 4 yards or more. They have a combined record of 27-18, but the Packers and Saints are now under .500 so it's tough to tell what the results indicate. However, I did learn a few things about first-down defenses after 10 weeks of play.

You better keep the opponent under 4 yards, or you are going to be in trouble. The difference between a 5-yard gain and a 3-yard gain means the difference between first place and last place in the division. Keep an eye on your favorite team's first-down defense this week and see if the numbers hold up.

Hitting the wall

Rookies come from a college world where they typically play a maximum of 13 college games with no preseason.

Rookies on the run


Matt Forte and Chris Johnson are having spectacular seasons to this point, but the proverbial rookie wall could hit them at any time. Look at their 2008 stats:

Matt Forte
Carries: 189
Rushing yards: 713
Rushing TDs: 4
Catches: 37
Rec. yards: 282
Receiving TDs: 3


Chris Johnson
Carries: 160
Rushing yards: 723
Rushing TDs: 5
Catches: 26
Rec. yards: 179
Receiving TDs: 1

Well, in the NFL, they play four preseason games and have now played nine regular season games, the point at which their college season would be over.

Instead, they have at least seven more games to go and fatigue can set in. I talked to a number of second- and third-year players who believe there is such a thing as the "wall" and they recall hitting it.

Gary Kubiak of the Texans suggested that rookie running back Steve Slaton may be a little worn down.

I asked his teammate, offensive tackle Eric Winston, about the rookie wall and he made a few smart observations. He pointed out that when he was a rookie he wasn't even going to go to the trainer's room to complain of any minor injuries for fear of losing a job he just secured. Winston also pointed out that a rookie runner in the NFL is being hit by a lot more defenders on every run than he was in college and that they are all stronger than college guys. That can be part of the equation for hitting the wall.

John Fox of the Panthers backed up the concept of a wall when he told me it takes time to develop a pro body. A rookie running back who preferred to remain nameless felt he was up against the wall but was going to "fight through it."

This has been a great year so far for rookie running backs. By my count, 20 rookies have carried the ball during the 2008 season. None more exciting than Matt Forte in Chicago and Chris Johnson in Tennessee.

Forte has 226 touches (189 carries and 37 receptions) to say nothing of the pounding he is taking in blitz pickups. At this pace, he will have 175 more touches this season than he did in college. He may not have hit the wall yet, but he's on pace for 400 touches and there is a wall waiting for him.

Johnson shares time with LenDale White but he's still on pace for 330 touches and there's a wall waiting for him as well.

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