There’s so much focus in NFL analysis these days on third-down success that we forget to evaluate the importance of early-down success. Any team’s success on third down has a lot to do with how effective it was on first and second down. Taking a closer look at first-down success may help us draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of an offense. One way to evaluate a team’s success on a particular down is by looking at their success rate.
Success Rate is a tool that was developed to measure the success of every given play in a game. The 33rd Team measures success as gaining 50% of the necessary yardage on first down, 50% on second down and 100% on third and fourth. This study looks at a team’s success on first down.
Success Rate & Records
Assessing all teams in the NFL, the average success rate on first down is 44% through 12 weeks of play (Pittsburgh-Baltimore game not included):
18 teams come in above the average (44% success or higher):
● Their combined record is 111-88
● 11 of the 18 teams have a winning record – 61.11%
14 teams fall below the average (43% success or lower):
● Their combined record is 63-87-2
● 10 of the14 teams have a losing record – 71.43%
Certainly, success on first down doesn’t tell the whole story. What happens on subsequent downs, and the other two phases of the game, weed out the good teams from the bad. It is important to note, however; that performance on first down can give us an idea of how well an offense is setting itself up for success. Those who find success on first down are constantly putting themselves in more manageable late-down situations. Being effective on first down, opens up the play calling and leaves the defense guessing. Good teams are always putting themselves in a position to win — effectiveness on first down can’t be ignored, as it’s another stepping stone that determines success.
A look at the best
Here’s a closer look at the teams that have the most success on first down this season:
The Rams have had success on first down by possessing a balanced attack.
● L.A.’s run/pass ratio on first down is 52% run (178 runs) and 48% pass (164 attempts)
● They are averaging 7.7 yards/pass and 5.1 yards/carry (5.1 is fourth-best in NFL)
● 62% successful pass rate (third-best in NFL) and a 57% success rate on the ground (T-second best in NFL)
● EPA on first down: .07
It’s no surprise that the Bills have found their success on first down through the air.
● The Bills have the highest passing rate on first down – through 12 games they have elected to pass 59% of the time (196 attempts) and run the ball only 41% (136 runs)
● 8.8 average yards/pass on first down (T-third-highest)
● Have a 64% successful pass rate on first down, the best mark in the NFL
● EPA on first down: .09
The Vikings have won 4 of their last 5 games, and have been solid on first down all season.
● With a running back like Dalvin Cook, it is no surprise the Vikings have favored the run over the pass on first down – Run/Pass Ratio: 55% (175 runs), 45% (144 attempts)
● Whether pounding the ball on the ground, or throwing the ball through the air Minnesota has found success – they have a 60% success rate passing, and a 54% success rate rushing
● 9.6 average yards/pass on first down (first in the NFL)
● EPA on first down: .15 (T-first)
Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes and the passing attack have been a problem for defenses all season long; first down hasn’t been any different.
● With Mahomes playing as well as he has, the Chiefs have unsurprisingly chosen to throw the ball more on first down – their run/pass ratio is 45% runs (150), 55% pass (182 attempts)
● K.C. is averaging 7.4 yards/pass and 4.3 yards/rush on first down
● The Chiefs have found more success passing the ball as opposed to running the ball on first down (successful pass rate 58%), but not by much (successful run rate 54%)
● EPA on first down: .11 (sixth in NFL)
New Orleans Saints
Kamara and the run game have resulted in the Saints relying heavily on the run on early downs.
● Run/Pass Ratio: 54% run (178 runs), 46% pass (150 attempts) – running the ball 54% of the time on first down is tied for eighth-most in the NFL
● When the Saints have elected to pass on first down, they have been very effective – they are averaging 8.0 yards/pass and have a 60% successful pass rate
● EPA on first down: .12 (fifth best in NFL)
A look at the worst
Here’s the breakdown for the five worst teams when it comes to first-down success:
Injuries and subpar QB play have plagued the Eagles so far this season.
● Even with all of Carson Wentz’s struggles, the Eagles have largely relied on him throwing the ball on first down – their run/pass ratio is 44% run (129 runs) and 56% pass (167 attempts)
● Whether they have elected to pass or rush on first down hasn’t mattered much – their successful pass rate is 50%, while their successful run rate is 47%
● EPA on first down: -.15 (2nd worst in the league)
Despite being undefeated, the Steelers are among the worst teams in the NFL in terms of success rate on first down.
● Through 10 games, Pittsburgh nearly mirrors itself in the run and pass game – they have a 50/50 run/pass ratio with 143 rushing attempts and 144 passing attempts
● The Steelers have a 47% success rate passing the ball on first down (T-3rd worst mark in the league) and only a 41% success rate running the ball
● Pittsburgh is averaging less than 4 yards/carry on first down (3.9)
● EPA on first down: 0.00
Their lack of production on first down is made up for on later downs, particularly on third down. The Steelers are tied for fourth in terms of EPA on third down (.22). They have the second-highest successful passing rate across all teams in the league on third down (47%), behind only the Chiefs (52%).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The inconsistency of the run game has contributed to Tampa’s struggle on first down.
● Tampa’s run/pass ratio is 51% run (177 runs), 49% pass (168 attempts)
● The Buccaneers, like the Steelers, are only averaging 3.9 yards/carry
● Tampa’s successful pass rate is 50%, while their successful run rate is only 42%
● EPA on first down: -0.02
The inability to gain adequate yardage on first down has put more pressure on Brady and the passing game on later downs. The Buccaneers pass the ball 69% of the time on second down (second most) and 88% of the time on third down (most in NFL).
The Broncos have had trouble moving the ball and scoring points all season long; they are currently 31st in points/game (19.0)
● Run/Pass Ratio: 52/48; 157 runs and 147 passing attempts
● The Broncos have been found almost no success running the ball on first down – they have the lowest successful run rate in the league at 36%
● EPA on first down: -.17, worst in the NFL
Despite Herbert’s brilliant play, the Chargers have failed to set him up for success.
● L.A. has been one of the more run-dependent teams on first down – running the ball 54% of the time (189 runs) and only electing to pass on 46% of plays (159 attempts)
● Only Chicago and Denver have been worse running the ball on first down – the Chargers have a 41% successful run rate
● EPA on first down: -.07