Trends in the game: Rising first-down rates and declining defenses

As we reach the end of the first quarter of the season, solid trending information has surfaced, supplying us with an idea of what teams are doing, or trying to accomplish.

Scoring is up this season about a touchdown a game from the same point last year; the Bears have given up 58 points in the fourth quarter while scoring just one offensive touchdown in the final period; and the NFC is 8-8 against the AFC, which is an improvement from last year when it lost 62.5 percent of those games.

This week I am going to look at two trends that jump out at me at the season's quarter mark -- first-down success rates on offense and the downward spiral of last year's top-five defenses -- and try to explain why they are happening.

First-down success

The mission of every team is to gain at least 4 yards in first-down situations. After four weeks of games the average for teams gaining 4 or more yards on first down is 46 percent. In other words, almost half of the league's teams are consistently finding themselves in second-and-6 situations or less.

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Any football fan would agree that gaining 4 or more yards is a critical component to winning, but when I took a closer look at the numbers through four weeks, I discovered that the best first-down team and the worst first-down team were both undefeated.

The most successful? The New England Patriots, who gain 4 or more yards 60.4 percent of the time. They entered Week 4 hitting the 4-plus-yard mark 58 of 96 times and hit an almost identical percentage (17-of-28, or 60.7 percent) in their Monday night win over Cincinnati, if you throw out two kneel-downs by Tom Brady and backup Matt Cassel at the end of each half.

What made the Patriots' offensive performance on Monday even more impressive is the fact they gained 195 yards on their 28 first-down plays for a 6.9-yard average. They had seven first-down plays that went for at least 10 yards, blending the run and the pass.

The Patriots might be impossible to beat if the success rate of their first-down opportunities keeps up at its present pace.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Green Bay Packers, who surprisingly have the least amount of success on first downs, yet they, too, remain undefeated.

The Packers entered Week 4 hitting 4-plus yards on first down on just 26 of their 81 chances (32.1 percent), a success rate that normally would spell disaster. Last week against Minnesota the Packers stayed true to form, putting themselves in second-and-6 or less just 9 of 27 tries, or 33.3 percent of the time. For the season, Green Bay has generated a 4-plus-yard situation 35 of 108 calls for a 32.4 percent rate.

Can the Packers keep winning if they don't improve this first-down issue? They can if their defense keeps playing well and Brett Favre keeps the passing game rolling, but it is a lot tougher than what the Patriots have to deal with.

Top-five defenses in decline

What has happened to the top-five defenses from 2006: Baltimore, Jacksonville, Oakland, Miami and Chicago? Only one of them -- Jacksonville -- is in the top five today, and the Jaguars had a bye last week, which keeps them at three games. But the other four teams are not nearly as successful as they were a year ago (see chart).

All of them are giving up more yardage per game and more points (with the exception of Jacksonville), and all are worse on third downs. Beyond that, it is an individual problem with all five teams.

The Ravens aren't getting to the quarterback like they did last year, and consequently they are giving up more passing yards per game.

Oakland is playing better offensively and now the defense has to deal with more passing situations, hence the increase in passing yardage.

Miami is struggling against the run, giving up 98 more yards per game, and the lose of linebacker Zack Thomas really hurts them. But also, the Dolphins' sacks are way down and it may be time to wonder if age has caught up with them.

Chicago is surrendering more points but getting to the passer more with an increase in blitz calls for linebacker Brian Urlacher. But the Bears, missing several players on defense due to injury, aren't going to be right until they get healthy.

It is hard to stay on top in the NFL these days, and with the balance of talent around the league, it doesn't take much for a unit to slip from one year to the next. Right now, last year's top-five, with the exception of Jacksonville, would love to return to their 2006 form.

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