Success on first or second down is defined by how often a team can gain at least 50% of the yards “to go” to get a first down on that play. For third and fourth downs, success is only achieved if the first down is converted. For this study, we wanted to focus only on early-down success rate, or the rate of success on first or second down.
On a typical drive starting with first-and-10, success would be achieved by gaining five or more yards on first down to create a second-and-5. On this same drive, success would again be achieved on second down by gaining more than half of the remaining yardage, creating a third-and-2 situation, which would give the offense a good chance to convert on third down. Thus, the early-down success rate is the percentage of run and pass plays on first and second downs that are successful.
Having early-down success is critical for the offense, as third-down conversion rates are much higher when the yards needed are lower. It gives the offense more flexibility in play-calling. In 2019, when facing third-and-2 or less, NFL teams converted on an average of 65% of plays. When facing third downs needing 5-7 yards to convert, the conversion rate dropped to 39%. The difference of just a few yards can make it 25% harder to convert a third down. That is why early-down success is so important.
Through six weeks of the season, the Seattle Seahawks lead the league in early-down success rate, creating successful first and second down plays about 56% of the time. This ability to have success on early downs is a big reason why the Seahawks are one of just three remaining undefeated teams and it reflects the terrific season quarterback Russell Wilson is having.
Two of the three remaining undefeated teams (Seattle and Tennessee) are in the top five of early-down success rate, while the Pittsburgh Steelers are near the bottom. Thanks to their stellar defense, the Steelers have been able to find success despite facing a high percentage of longer third downs. This low success rate is likely due to their tendency to run the ball. Pittsburgh runs the ball 55% of the time on first down and 49% of the time on second down — both top 10 rush rates in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys take the second spot in the rankings despite a tough showing on Monday night. This high ranking reflects how valuable Dak Prescott is to the organization – the team’s Week 6 early-down success with Andy Dalton under center was well below the standard set by Prescott.
The Green Bay Packers ranked last in early-down success rate for Week 6, converting a first down only six times on early downs, compared to the Buccaneers’ 13 early-down conversions. Their low early-down success rate also affected their third-down conversion rate, as the Packers only converted seven of 17 third-down situations. The Buccaneers’ stifling defense forced some uncharacteristic plays from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the offense struggled mightily as a whole.
At the end of the graph is the Denver Broncos. A rotating cast of quarterbacks has not helped their offensive production, and the return of Drew Lock in Week 6 did not create an improvement in this metric. The loss of top WR Courtland Sutton for the season with an injury along with disciplinary suspension of starting RB Melvin Gordon have contribute to their offensive struggles. An upcoming matchup with the defending champion Chiefs does not bode well for their immediate improvement.