Third down is often considered the money down for quarterbacks in the NFL. Even including third and short situations, the pass-to-run ratio was four-to-one in 2017 on third down. The ball is in the quarterback’s hands for the vast majority of the time. The last thing a defense would want to do is make it easier for a quarterback to convert.
No defense is making it easier than the Bengals defense.
This week, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin addressed his unit’s notable struggles getting off the field on the money down:
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Austin said. “That’s the best way to say it. There’s times I wish I had calls back. There’s times we could’ve played it better. There’s all kind of different things. It’s easy if it was just one thing. We’ll clean it up. We’ll get it, but it’s not just one simple solution.”
He’s right. It isn’t just one thing. In fact, it may not even be specifically about third down.
The narrative surrounding Austin’s arrival in Cincinnati was that he would run a more aggressive and opportunistic defense. Turnovers and impact plays in general have been far from prevalent in the Bengals defense since Mike Zimmer left for Minnesota, despite the unit still fostering superb talent on all three levels.
Through the first two games of the season, it seemed like Austin’s impact was realized. The defense forced five turnovers during the team’s 2-0 start. But they allowed a whopping 54.5% first down percentage on third down, the most in the league.
Two games later, that number has increased to 57.4%, still the most in the league. But there’s a bigger picture here:
The Bengals third down defense is failing because their first and second down defense is also failing.
The average third down distance the Bengals have had to defend is 5.8 yards. No other team is below six yards. This means the Bengals are allowing 4.18 yards on first and second down alone, which is also the most in the league. The average distance to go on third down is 7.21, so the Bengals, on average, have had 1.41 less yards of space between the line of scrimmage and the invisible yellow line.
It’s only logical that the team that has to deal with these circumstances would understandably have the highest third down conversion rate allowed. It’s never been easier for offensive coordinators to move the ball down the field, and the league is experiencing a boom in average passer rating as well.
Richard Sherman: "An average quarterback's passer rating is like 92. And that used to be Hall of Fame numbers. But now it's not Hall of Fame numbers, that's the average quarterback." https://t.co/FOcY3XUgn2— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) October 5, 2018
So yes, the Bengals defense isn’t getting off the field on third down enough, that’s fair. But they’re also not making it easy on themselves.
Yards per carry and yards per attempt are traditional metrics that measure efficiency for running backs and quarterbacks, but they can be misleading. You can throw in completion percentage in there for quarterbacks as well. They tell us on average how much yardage they gain per attempt and the percentage of their attempts that resulted in a completion. But what’s more indicative for team success is play success rate.
If you are unfamiliar with success rate, it boils down to this:
A play is successful when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.
The Bengals are giving up a lot of ground on first and second down because of two important factors. They stink against the run on first down, and they stink against the pass on second down.
Per sharpfootballstats.com, the Bengals defense has the 29th best success rate against the run on first down (53%), and the 29th best success rate against the pass on second down (57%). Lower percentages are better.
Translation: teams are successful 53% of the time running on first down and 57% of the time passing on second down against the Bengals defense. That is no bueno.
So when their defense is defending on average 5.82 yards, opposing offense’s have a 71% success rate running the ball and 53% success rate passing the ball. The success rate is the same as converting the first down, and those percentages rank 28th and 32nd in the league.
Ultimately, the Bengals defense has been lacking on all three downs. They haven’t been allowing a bunch of long third down conversions, offense’s have simply been chipping away at them. The conventional emphasis on third down has taken the heat, but opposing success rate prior to third down is indeed one of the many things Austin alluded to.
The solution to this problem is simple: make more defensive stops early in the series. The pass rushing unit has just four sacks on first and second down, and only five teams have less. The defense overall has made 20 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage prior to third down, only four teams have less. The unit has been bending on the hopes they don’t break when it counts but sure enough, they’ve been broken many a time.
There’s no doubt that the absence of linebacker Vontaze Burfict has negatively effected the defense and his presence usually spurs more impact plays. He himself is typically the primary contributor, and his mental capacity to get others in the proper position to do so was dearly missed. His return today will hopefully improve these numbers, but there’s only so much one man can do.
Until further notice, the Bengals still have a third down problem, and that’s because they have a first and second down problem.