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Examining the Bengals’ defensive struggles on third down

The numbers tell us how opponents’ success on third down impacted the Bengals defense

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NFL: Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine 100 football coaches were polled for an episode of Sportsball Family Feud on ESPN 8: The Ocho. The question host Steve Harvey would ask: “What is important for winning football games?”

The episode is recording, and it’s just the first round. Harvey asks the question to a venture capitalist from North Carolina and a 9th-grade Social studies teacher from Missouri going against one another representing their families. Harvey just finished letting the word “games” roll off his tongue and the social studies teacher slams her hand down on the button. She says with confidence “Success on third down Steve!”

Harvey shouldn’t even have to turn around to check because success on third down is one of the most important aspects in the game of football. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis certainly emphasized it late last year to the Cincinnati Enquirer amid one of his squad’s losing streaks:

“We have to keep looking at how we’re (going about third downs), what we’re doing with them, and how we can convert them better,” he said. “And also, understand how we’re being defended in each game. (It helps with) the adjustments that need to be made in the play-calling or formations, or whatever we need to do to get us a better opportunity to convert.”

On offense, the Bengals finished the season ranked 29th in the NFL in converting third downs (33.7%). This explains a few other telling statistical rankings. Fittingly, they ranked 29th in number of punts with 88, and dead last in the NFL in percentage of drives ending in a punt (50.9%). In those 89 drives (one punt was blocked), the Bengals offense ranked:

  • T-22nd in average number of plays per drive (4.1)
  • T-16th in average yards per drive (10)
  • T-29th in average time per drive (1:59)

Struggling to extend drives was just one of the persisting issues the Bengals offense faced. Without more than one explosive playmaker in the passing game and competent blocker on the offensive line, the unit underwhelmed and rarely clicked consistently throughout the season.

Those struggles put the offense well behind the defense in terms of reputation and overall proficiency, yet the defense ended up being just as bad on third down.

Only one defense in the NFL gave up more first downs on third down than the 99 the Bengals defense allowed, that team being the Buccaneers who allowed 106. This 31st ranking varies a bit differently from their T-25th ranking in third-down stoppage rate (40.7%) mainly because no other defense played more on third down than the Bengals, 243 times to be exact. Digging deeper, more context reveals itself.

The Bengals were amongst the worst in the league in forcing turnovers. When they couldn’t force the offense to punt, they remained on the field until the offense was in at least field goal range. This kept the defense on the field for the most plays out of any unit in the NFL (1390) and by a great margin comparatively.

The dynamic of not making big plays before the first down marker and not capitalizing on loose balls and errant/contested throws was half the reason why the Bengals defense was overworked more than any other.

The other half? The offense was simply giving the ball back to the opposition so quickly, proven by their own third down data.

But this aspect doesn’t tell the whole story of the defense, and it shouldn’t.

The Bengals allowed more than their 40.7% third down conversion rate in a game six times, and four times did they end up losing. In Week 1, the Ravens converted 42.9% of their third downs against the Bengals in their shutout opening win.

In Week 3 and Week 10, the Packers and Titans both converted on third down 46.7% of the time, each in a close one-score victory. And in Week 9 against the Jaguars, the Bengals allowed a whopping 66.7% conversion rate in a blowout loss.

Initially, I thought looking back I’d find that the majority of the third down failures occurred in the second half due to the offense putting them back on the field so quickly, but the opposite was revealed. Of the 31 first downs allowed in these four contests, 17 of them occurred in the first half compared to 14 of them in the second half.

Whichever half it was, the defense was equally poor on third down, posing the league’s eighth-worst conversion rate in the first half, and sixth-worst in the second half. It wasn’t just a issue in stopping one phase of the offense either. Against the pass, they were 22nd. Against the run, they were 19th.

The more data that’s uncovered, the clearer the picture becomes. The defense ranked T-7th in yards per play and allowed the 5th-least amount of explosive plays (20+ yards) per play. Big chunks of yardage were not being given up by this unit. Additionally, they were a top-10 defense in limiting first downs despite a poor ranking on third down alone, and they were in the top-10 in points per play. All of this data tells us one thing.

The Bengals defense was the ultimate bend but don’t break defense.

They limited offenses to minimal explosive plays, but didn’t create a lot of negative plays to capitalize off that. They would allow teams to drive down the field for extensive periods of time, but ultimately didn’t allow many scores on a per play basis.

Going into this season, the Bengals can improve on third down if the two components they were lacking last year regress back to the mean, those two being an increase in explosive plays on offense, and turnovers on defense. More explosive plays from the offense will extend drives and give not only the defense time to rest on the sideline, but potentially cushion on the scoreboard. As for why the defense turning the ball over more helping, that should speak for itself.

With a solid front four and backend to work with, the Bengals defense is in a good position to improve upon its efforts from the 2017 campaign. A big jump on third down would potentially elevate them from a good unit to a great one.