Friday, November 14, 2008

First Down, the Most Important of All?

Perhaps it was because we were at the game, but last Sunday we walked away from Heinz Field with the distinct impression that the Steelers' offense was particularly ineffectual on first down ~ i.e. they were constantly faced with second- and third-and-long situations. So we decided to take a look at first down performance last Sunday and compare it with the other games the Steelers have played this season.

A brief disucssion regarding our methodology seems appropriate:
  • We used the official NFL Gamebooks for our information on plays run by the Steelers on first downs this season.

  • The great folks at Football Outsiders assess the success of a play based upon how much yardage was picked-up relative to the yardage to go for a first down or touchdown. We like that metric, but instead of a percentage we wanted to see the average distance remaining. So, by that standard, a play on 1-10 that gained 32 yards is a -22 (meaning that negatives are good). An average at or below zero is desirable (i.e. no yards remaining for a first down), and a first down play that gains three yards from the opponent's three yard line (i.e. scores a touchdown) does not negatively impact the average.

  • Finally, we noted whether a play was a running play or passing play.
Here's what the first down numbers look like:

OpponentW or L # of Runs# of PassesAverage Gain
HoustonW2044.04
ClevelandW1755.73
PhiladelphiaL6183.64
BaltimoreW1662.50
JacksonvilleW14168.40
CincinnatiW12134.52
N.Y. GiantsL9125.10
WashingtonW1674.22
IndianapolisL15122.85


We're not exactly certain what this tells us ~ certainly our perception that first downs versus the Colts were not productive is born out by the numbers; and would any one have expected the Colts' defense to have performed as capably as Baltimore's (we were amazed by the performance versus Jacksonville. On that night the Steelers' offense had 12 first down plays of 10 yards or more, including a 48-yard touchdown pass)?

Having said that we get the general sense that running more leads to better results, but the Steelers have won games in which they passed more than the ran, and lost games in which they ran more than they passed so if there is any correlation it is a weak one.

We heard a comment recently that third down was the most important down in football ~ we will check that and let you know what we find out.

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