Stat Analysis
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2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

There is no forgetting how the 2014 NFL season ended, no matter how much the people of Seattle may want to try. The run-based Seahawks went away from Marshawn Lynch and threw an uncharacteristic slant from the 1-yard line with the Super Bowl at stake. Malcolm Butler beat Ricardo Lockette for the interception, prompting many fans to brand this the worst play call in NFL history.

At the very least, this serves as a great case study for short-yardage play-calling. Even though none of the first 108 passes thrown from the 1-yard line in 2014 were intercepted, we have to remember New England's defense was ranked 32nd against short-yardage runs. While the sample sizes on such plays are not very big for each team, the league-wide numbers show some clear trends. One of them is that running is more likely to convert than passing. Using a quarterback to run the ball, like on a quarterback sneak, is most effective.

However, despite its final play, 2014 was an effective season for the short-yardage pass. Offenses had their highest conversion rates since 2009 when passing on third-and-1, third-and-2, fourth-and-1, and fourth-and-2. Meanwhile, quarterbacks had their worst conversion rates since 2009 when rushing on third-and-1 and third-and-2.

The good news was the volume of quarterback runs improved in 2014. In 2013, there was a 35 percent decrease on third-and-1 runs by the quarterback compared to 2009-2012. In 2014, there were 134 quarterback runs on third down with 1 or 2 yards to go, the highest total since 2009.

In addition to updating previous data, we'll look at the short-yardage success of 2014 teams.

Note: All data is for the regular season only and excludes spikes, kneeldowns, intentional safeties, and botched kicks. Plays including offensive penalties that cause the down to be replayed are excluded. This happened three times in 2014, including two short-yardage runs by Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin against Dallas. Since the down is repeated, these plays do not officially count as a conversion attempt on third or fourth down. Passes include sacks. The only plays studied are on third or fourth down with 1 or 2 yards to go, because these are the most important short-yardage plays that essentially decide if the offensive drive will continue. Most data goes back to 2009.

Third Down

Our first table looks at the summary of plays on third-and-1 and third-and-2 since 2009:

3rd-and-1 Passes 3rd-and-2 Passes
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 190 112 58.9% 2009 325 176 54.2%
2010 211 122 57.8% 2010 355 187 52.7%
2011 200 114 57.0% 2011 352 169 48.0%
2012 241 126 52.3% 2012 356 186 52.2%
2013 244 121 49.6% 2013 357 174 48.7%
2014 214 127 59.3% 2014 353 196 55.5%
Total 1300 722 55.5% Total 2098 1088 51.9%
3rd-and-1 Quarterback Runs 3rd-and-2 Quarterback Runs
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 101 88 87.1% 2009 19 13 68.4%
2010 89 67 75.3% 2010 25 17 68.0%
2011 89 75 84.3% 2011 26 19 73.1%
2012 96 79 82.3% 2012 30 19 63.3%
2013 61 51 83.6% 2013 37 22 59.5%
2014 101 74 73.3% 2014 33 18 54.5%
Total 537 434 80.8% Total 170 108 63.5%
3rd-and-1 Runs (non-QB) 3rd-and-2 Runs (non-QB)
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 516 350 67.8% 2009 173 100 57.8%
2010 446 299 67.0% 2010 171 100 58.5%
2011 429 294 68.5% 2011 148 83 56.1%
2012 447 290 64.9% 2012 150 81 54.0%
2013 459 310 67.5% 2013 128 85 66.4%
2014 468 317 67.7% 2014 128 83 64.8%
Total 2765 1860 67.3% Total 898 532 59.2%

It is probably no coincidence the non-quarterback runs on third-and-1 have the most consistent conversion rate, working more than two-thirds of the time. They are the most common call with the most data, but what is it about offenses getting so pass-happy when an extra yard is needed on third-and-2?

Including scrambles as passes, teams run the ball 70.9 percent of the time on third-and-1 since 2009. When it's third-and-2, teams run the ball only 31.0 percent of the time. You expect to see a push towards the pass since the sneak really loses its effectiveness at two yards, but a drop of nearly 40 percentage points seems severe. With all of these short-yardage stats, we don't have data if "1 yard" really meant 1 inch or 54 inches. The spot of the ball would affect play-calling, but I still think 2-yard plays deserve more regular running calls than teams currently use.

Clearly, there is a bigger decline in success from 1 yard to 2 yards with running than there is passing, but running has produced a higher conversion rate in each of the last six years. One problem with running may be that too many teams telegraph the play by loading up a big formation, which the defense can counter with its own mass of humanity, making it hard to get a good push. If teams ran out of normal personnel more often in these situations, we may see even better results.

Does a faster pace help teams in short-yardage situations? I have no data for that. It should be stressed that no-huddle stats, especially for older seasons, are too unreliable to use without actually going to the tape to collect the data. From the plays I watched, there was no obvious connection between the pace of snap and success of the play. Sometimes the offense may catch the defense out of position, but other times the quick snap can lead to a disaster behind the line of scrimmage.

The quarterback's control of the snap is big, but so is his running in these situations. Why did quarterbacks only convert 73.3 percent of their third-and-1 runs in 2014? First, let's look at the summary of all quarterback runs on third-and-1 since 2009. The "Quarterback dive" is basically the play Cam Newton has mastered in Carolina. Some may call it "QB Power," and you know it instantly when you see him take that direct snap and plow ahead with little resistance.

NFL Quarterbacks: 3rd-and-1 Runs Since 2009
Type of run Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
Quarterback sneak 378 328 86.8%
Scramble 40 39 97.5%
Option/zone-read 29 20 69.0%
Quarterback dive 26 23 88.5%
Botched snap 17 0 0.0%
Bootleg 18 14 77.8%
Botched handoff 14 1 7.1%
Sweep 6 4 66.7%
Broken play 5 2 40.0%
Quarterback draw 4 3 75.0%
Total 537 434 80.8%

You have to love a play that works 86.8 percent of the time on third-and-1 like the quarterback sneak. In 2014, sneaks were 49-of-61 (80.3 percent), which is down from previous years, but still great. What also dragged the 2014 numbers down were nine botched snaps/handoffs. Yeah, the Colts actually turned a botched handoff into a first down against the Giants, but that's the highest total of botched plays in the last six years.

Notice the 39 conversions on 40 scrambles. How can you have a third-and-1 scramble for no gain that doesn't get counted as a sack? Mike Glennon showed it's possible against the 2013 Rams. I think the original play-by-play correctly said scramble, but the NFL changed it to a "left end" run to avoid giving Janoris Jenkins a 0-yard sack. Even though the game was played the week of Christmas, someone wasn't in the giving mood. Any failed scramble on third-and-1 should be a sack, which is why you could argue the numbers are a little misleading here in giving too much credit to the scrambling quarterback. Fortunately, there have only been 65 sacks on third-and-1 since 2009, so it's not a common play. We also know many of those 65 sacks did not include any kind of scramble.

The quarterback dive has been a very successful play, but only four different quarterbacks have used it since 2009. You know Cam Newton (12-of-14) has made it part of his arsenal, and it's no surprise that Tim Tebow (6-of-6) often used it as well. Michael Vick went 4-of-5 on the dive with the Eagles. Believe it or not, Matt Hasselbeck was the other quarterback to call his own number with the Seahawks in 2010. That play was a bit of a clusterfudge against San Diego. While Hasselbeck ultimately converted for the first down, Seattle was unable to get the field goal unit ready in time for the kick before halftime. If Seattle knew it had converted, Hasselbeck should have been able to spike the ball. Ron Winter's crew was not on top of the situation, as usual.

Quarterback bootleg runs have been a successful trick in the past, to which Peyton Manning can attest. They are the only two short-yardage runs he has attempted since 2009, excluding a botched handoff in 2013. But defenses were able to sniff out some pretty bad bootlegs in 2014 from Andrew Luck (vs. Houston), Ben Roethlisberger (vs. Indianapolis), Jay Cutler (vs. Atlanta) and Carson Palmer (vs. Washington). From 2009-2013, the bootleg worked on 29 of 33 (87.9 percent) short-yardage runs. In 2014, the bootleg only worked on five of nine (55.6 percent) plays. Cam Newton had three of the successes.

Fourth Down

The following table looks at the summary of plays on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 since 2009:

4th-and-1 Passes 4th-and-2 Passes
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 58 31 53.4% 2009 42 15 35.7%
2010 46 25 54.3% 2010 50 25 50.0%
2011 35 19 54.3% 2011 42 13 31.0%
2012 48 26 54.2% 2012 39 20 51.3%
2013 50 27 54.0% 2013 32 17 53.1%
2014 42 24 57.1% 2014 36 20 55.6%
Total 279 152 54.5% Total 241 110 45.6%
4th-and-1 Quarterback Runs 4th-and-2 Quarterback Runs
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 54 46 85.2% 2009 1 1 100.0%
2010 44 36 81.8% 2010 1 0 0.0%
2011 30 25 83.3% 2011 4 3 75.0%
2012 34 27 79.4% 2012 5 4 80.0%
2013 32 22 68.8% 2013 3 3 100.0%
2014 36 28 77.8% 2014 3 3 100.0%
Total 230 184 80.0% Total 17 14 82.4%
4th-and-1 Runs (non-QB) 4th-and-2 Runs (non-QB)
Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 117 75 64.1% 2009 17 7 41.2%
2010 99 66 66.7% 2010 11 5 45.5%
2011 77 32 41.6% 2011 8 6 75.0%
2012 75 49 65.3% 2012 8 7 87.5%
2013 108 73 67.6% 2013 12 9 75.0%
2014 85 55 64.7% 2014 5 3 60.0%
Total 561 350 62.4% Total 61 37 60.7%

While we wait to see more fourth-and-1 attempts each season, at least teams are calling a wise split of plays in these situations. In 2014, offenses ran the ball on 73.6 percent of fourth-and-1 plays. The conversion rate on passing (57.1 percent) was the highest since 2004. The quarterback sneak was 25-of-30 (83.3 percent), though the overall percentage still trails the third-and-1 sneak.

QB Sneak on 3rd-and-1 QB Sneak on 4th-and-1
Year Sneaks 1st Downs Conv. Rate Year Sneaks 1st Downs Conv. Rate
2009 83 76 91.6% 2009 47 41 87.2%
2010 75 58 77.3% 2010 38 32 84.2%
2011 64 60 93.8% 2011 25 20 80.0%
2012 60 53 88.3% 2012 25 18 72.0%
2013 35 32 91.4% 2013 24 17 70.8%
2014 61 49 80.3% 2014 30 25 83.3%
Total 378 328 86.8% Total 189 153 81.0%

Here's the summary of all quarterback runs on fourth-and-1 since 2009:

NFL Quarterbacks: 4th-and-1 Runs Since 2009
Type of run Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
Quarterback sneak 189 153 81.0%
Bootleg 12 11 91.7%
Scramble 9 9 100.0%
Quarterback dive 6 5 83.3%
Botched snap 4 0 0.0%
Sweep 4 2 50.0%
Option/zone read 3 2 66.7%
Quarterback draw 1 1 100.0%
Broken play 1 1 100.0%
Botched handoff 1 0 0.0%
Total 230 184 80.0%

When 2 yards are needed, running is ignored even more on fourth down than it is on third down. In 2014, offenses called a pass on 84.1 percent of fourth-and-2 plays. Granted, time is usually more of a factor here, with 28 of the 44 plays occurring in the fourth quarter. Eight plays came in the final minute of a half, so teams are somewhat forced to throw and get out of bounds to stop the clock.

Regardless, passing has of course been less successful than running, with teams converting just 46.0 percent of their fourth-and-2 pass plays since 2000. The 2014 season rate was respectable at 55.6 percent.

While these are regular-season numbers, this is another case where the most memorable play from 2014 happened in the playoffs. The balanced Dallas Cowboys decided to go with an empty backfield and throw on fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter against the Packers. Dez Bryant caught the ball, and then he didn't. I refuse to bash that throw-and-catch effort, but it is baffling that rushing champion DeMarco Murray was not in the backfield on that play.

That's the problem with this pass-crazed strategy when a team needs 2 yards. We are not even seeing teams threaten the defense with a run. On last year's 36 passes on fourth-and-2, only three of them used play-action. The results were even harsher in 2013. On 32 fourth-and-2 passes, only one used play-action, while another play was a fake punt. The Steelers had both of those plays, and they had the only completion with play-action on fourth-and-2 in 2014: a touchdown pass to Matt Spaeth against Baltimore. So on 68 fourth-and-2 passes in the last two years, we saw teams use an empty backfield (five passes) more than they used play-action (four).

Quarterbacks are paid a lot of money to make big throws, but you don't need a lot of big throws to gain a yard or two in this league. Here is the five-year summary of each short-yardage play type:

Short-Yardage Summary (2009-2014)
Type Plays 1st Downs Conv. Rate
Quarterback sneak 576 487 84.5%
Quarterback run (all) 954 740 77.6%
Run (non-QB) 4285 2779 64.9%
Pass 3918 2072 52.9%
Total 9733 6078 62.4%

Quarterback Effectiveness

When you look at these quarterback conversion rates since 2000 (minimum 20 attempts), it's impossible not to see overall quarterback talent has little to no impact on short-yardage rushing success (active players in bold):

NFL Quarterbacks: Short-Yardage Runs Since 2000 (Minimum 20 Carries)
Quarterback Runs 1st Downs Conv. Rate Quarterback Runs 1st Downs Conv. Rate
Chad Pennington 33 31 93.9% Matt Hasselbeck 38 31 81.6%
Tom Brady 103 96 93.2% Cam Newton 69 56 81.2%
David Garrard 65 60 92.3% Alex Smith 25 20 80.0%
Kyle Boller 21 19 90.5% Steve McNair 49 39 79.6%
Jay Fiedler 34 30 88.2% Ben Roethlisberger 53 42 79.2%
Josh Freeman 34 30 88.2% Joe Flacco 48 38 79.2%
Drew Brees 49 43 87.8% Michael Vick 61 48 78.7%
Aaron Rodgers 30 26 86.7% Matt Cassel 27 21 77.8%
Aaron Brooks 44 38 86.4% Daunte Culpepper 73 55 75.3%
Matt Ryan 29 25 86.2% Matt Schaub 32 24 75.0%
Jeff Garcia 42 36 85.7% Jay Cutler 25 18 72.0%
Brian Griese 27 23 85.2% Kordell Stewart 35 25 71.4%
Carson Palmer 40 34 85.0% J.P. Losman 21 15 71.4%
Philip Rivers 33 28 84.8% Jason Campbell 24 17 70.8%
David Carr 33 28 84.8% Mark Sanchez 24 17 70.8%
Donovan McNabb 58 49 84.5% Mark Brunell 20 14 70.0%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 38 32 84.2% Quincy Carter 20 14 70.0%
Brad Johnson 25 21 84.0% Jon Kitna 23 16 69.6%
Drew Bledsoe 31 26 83.9% Jake Delhomme 23 14 60.9%
Jake Plummer 31 26 83.9% Josh McCown 21 12 57.1%
Andy Dalton 34 28 82.4% Russell Wilson 21 12 57.1%

Tom Brady falls behind Chad Pennington in conversion rate, but he's still far ahead of everyone in attempts and conversions. Two botched snaps hurt Brady's numbers in 2013, but he was actually stopped twice on the quarterback sneak in 2014, by Denver and Minnesota. That hasn't happened to Brady since 2002, when Minnesota and Tennessee stopped him. He also had his first short-yardage scramble since 2007, snapping a streak of 36 short-yardage runs that were all sneaks. I would love to be able to break down the types of runs for everyone listed, but I currently only have that data back to 2009.

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Joe Flacco had a very successful 2014 season, converting 12 of 14 short-yardage runs. Cam Newton was right there with a 15-of-18 season. Newton's career conversion rate may not look impressive, but consider he is 14-of-16 on the sneak, and all but one of his seven scrambles were on third-and-2. He is 22-of-29 on the quarterback dive, so he definitely runs differently than most quarterbacks on this list.

Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley only called two quarterback sneaks in 2012-13 out of fear that Ben Roethlisberger would be injured. In 2014, Roethlisberger converted all three of his sneaks, but nearly damaged his masterpiece game against the Colts with an ill-advised bootleg in the final minutes.

Russell Wilson and Josh McCown were just added to the rear of the list. In Wilson's case, he had two botched handoffs last season, which is something you worry about with the read-option stuff. Wilson had a fortunate season in that Seattle recovered each of his 11 fumbles. Still, this is an area where Wilson's height may limit him. He doesn't have the big body to push the pile like a Newton or Roethlisberger. Wilson is 5-of-8 on the sneak in his career.

Matthew Stafford does not have enough attempts to qualify yet, but he is 13-of-13 on short-yardage runs in his career (converted all 10 sneaks). Maybe he should run more. Someone who should probably run less is Robert Griffin, who is only 7-of-15. He is the only quarterback I ever tracked (minimum 10 runs) that was under 50 percent. Griffin only has two sneaks (one successful), so his runs are usually from the option/zone read.

No matter whether you're tall or short, fast or slow, lean or JaMarcus, quarterbacks should subscribe to the "shortest distance between two points is a straight line" theory and run more sneaks on crucial downs. We know the goal sometimes in the game is to break tendencies and hit a bigger play, but when you absolutely need to convert the first down, more runs and more quarterback runs are the solution.

2014 Results

Finally, we close with a look at the short-yardage results for 2014 offenses and defenses. For the sake of sample sizes, I combined both downs and distances together for an average of 47 plays per team. For offenses, the pass ratio (Pass%) includes scrambles as passes. Teams are ranked by conversion rate (best to worst).

2014 Offenses: Short-Yardage Plays
Rk Team Plays 1st Downs Pct. Yds/Play Rk DVOA Rk Pass% Rk
1 DEN 59 44 74.6% 7.6 1 52.2% 1 49.2% 12
2 PIT 47 35 74.5% 6.2 3 42.6% 2 42.6% 19
3 SEA 48 35 72.9% 5.1 9 40.2% 3 31.3% 30
4 DAL 49 35 71.4% 4.1 16 18.5% 9 38.8% 23
5 PHI 44 31 70.5% 4.1 17 24.3% 7 38.6% 24
6 CIN 49 33 67.3% 3.3 24 11.9% 10 28.6% 32
7 NYJ 52 35 67.3% 3.4 23 10.0% 11 28.8% 31
8 ARI 39 26 66.7% 4.3 13 21.6% 8 51.3% 9
9 HOU 56 37 66.1% 4.1 15 -3.8% 19 35.7% 27
10 CHI 50 33 66.0% 2.8 29 -13.0% 26 42.0% 20
11 CLE 32 21 65.6% 4.8 11 7.6% 13 40.6% 21
12 SD 43 28 65.1% 3.1 26 6.3% 14 55.8% 5
13 SF 48 31 64.6% 5.1 8 26.6% 5 39.6% 22
14 GB 45 29 64.4% 6.4 2 26.5% 6 48.9% 13
15 MIN 42 27 64.3% 4.3 14 -6.8% 20 35.7% 28
16 NYG 51 32 62.7% 4.7 12 3.9% 16 51.0% 10
Rk Team Plays 1st Downs Pct. Yds/Play Rk DVOA Rk Pass% Rk
17 BUF 48 30 62.5% 5.4 7 3.3% 18 47.9% 14
18 BAL 60 37 61.7% 3.6 20 -8.7% 23 43.3% 17
19 TB 39 24 61.5% 2.8 27 -10.3% 24 38.5% 25
20 IND 51 31 60.8% 6.0 4 9.5% 12 52.9% 8
21 MIA 50 30 60.0% 4.1 18 3.5% 17 50.0% 11
22 DET 45 27 60.0% 3.3 25 -7.6% 22 46.7% 15
23 OAK 47 28 59.6% 2.7 30 -10.5% 25 61.7% 2
24 STL 34 20 58.8% 5.6 6 -7.1% 21 61.8% 1
25 ATL 46 27 58.7% 2.2 32 -19.0% 28 60.9% 3
26 CAR 50 29 58.0% 3.5 22 -14.4% 27 44.0% 16
27 KC 44 25 56.8% 5.8 5 27.5% 4 43.2% 18
28 JAC 43 24 55.8% 2.2 31 -19.6% 30 32.6% 29
29 NE 58 32 55.2% 3.5 21 -19.3% 29 36.2% 26
30 NO 55 30 54.5% 2.8 28 -34.9% 31 54.5% 7
31 TEN 38 20 52.6% 4.8 10 5.0% 15 60.5% 4
32 WAS 42 22 52.4% 4.0 19 -37.3% 32 54.8% 6

The top (Denver) and bottom (Washington) offenses in conversion rate have the same ranking in DVOA, but the Chiefs oddly rank fourth in DVOA and 27th in conversion rate. Kansas City played the sixth-toughest schedule in 2014 and tied for second in the league with seven touchdowns on short-yardage plays.

Pittsburgh had the top short-yardage passing offense, converting 16-of-20 plays (80.0 percent) with a league-best 11.9 yards per play. The Patriots actually ranked last with an 8-of-20 conversion rate (40.0 percent) and only 3.8 yards per play.

The Broncos and Giants were the only teams not to have a quarterback run, so there's a Manning brother thing. Five teams converted all of their quarterback runs with Oakland (seven plays) and rookie Derek Carr standing out. Don't say I never wrote a good thing about him. The Bengals were also good with a 12-of-16 rate as Andy Dalton did the sneak well and the offense that was the league's most run-heavy unit in short yardage (71.4 percent). Jeff Fisher's Rams threw the ball the most (61.8 percent).

It's no wonder the Panthers asked their quarterbacks to go 17-of-20 on short-yardage runs. The regular runs were just 3-of-9, tied with Oakland (4-of-12) for the worst conversion rate in the league.

Go figure, but Seattle led the league with a 26-of-30 conversion rate (86.7 percent) on short-yardage runs. I know, the Super Bowl was second-and-1, but it might as well have been fourth-and-legacy. Yet Ricardo Lockette got his number called over Marshawn Lynch.

Here are the defenses.

2014 Defenses: Short-Yardage Plays
Rk Team Plays 1st Downs Pct. Yds/Play Rk DVOA Rk
1 KC 52 27 51.9% 4.2 17 -18.6% 4
2 CHI 58 31 53.4% 4.9 24 -8.8% 10
3 IND 43 23 53.5% 2.7 3 -44.0% 1
4 BUF 44 24 54.5% 5.0 25 -19.6% 3
5 ARI 50 28 56.0% 4.1 16 -4.8% 17
6 STL 37 21 56.8% 4.4 19 -6.6% 14
7 PHI 45 26 57.8% 4.3 18 -16.8% 6
8 CAR 38 22 57.9% 3.8 12 -2.2% 21
9 CLE 60 35 58.3% 3.5 8 -7.1% 11
10 NYJ 48 28 58.3% 3.8 13 -6.7% 13
11 DEN 46 27 58.7% 5.3 27 -7.0% 12
12 BAL 49 29 59.2% 4.4 20 -10.9% 8
13 PIT 43 26 60.5% 3.9 14 -5.6% 16
14 CIN 49 30 61.2% 4.0 15 -24.4% 2
15 GB 57 35 61.4% 3.6 9 -4.1% 18
16 HOU 34 21 61.8% 2.4 1 -10.7% 9
Rk Team Plays 1st Downs Pct. Yds/Play Rk DVOA Rk
17 TB 41 26 63.4% 3.5 7 -12.1% 7
18 MIA 58 37 63.8% 3.2 6 -3.0% 19
19 DET 39 25 64.1% 3.1 5 -17.7% 5
20 SEA 46 30 65.2% 2.8 4 -5.7% 15
21 WAS 49 32 65.3% 5.6 29 8.1% 23
22 SD 45 30 66.7% 5.4 28 20.7% 27
23 ATL 51 34 66.7% 4.7 21 1.3% 22
24 SF 49 33 67.3% 3.7 10 15.2% 25
25 OAK 48 33 68.8% 4.7 22 25.7% 29
26 NYG 33 23 69.7% 4.8 23 18.5% 26
27 MIN 51 36 70.6% 2.5 2 -2.7% 20
28 TEN 41 29 70.7% 5.8 31 27.8% 31
29 DAL 50 36 72.0% 5.2 26 24.8% 28
30 JAC 58 42 72.4% 5.6 30 25.8% 30
31 NO 47 35 74.5% 3.8 11 12.6% 24
32 NE 45 34 75.6% 6.3 32 37.7% 32

Yep, the Patriots ranked dead last in conversion rate, DVOA and yards per play allowed, yet came away with the biggest goal-line stand you could imagine.

Kansas City looks good again, with the DVOA to match the conversion rate. There weren't any huge discrepancies here like on offense, but Detroit is fifth in DVOA compared to 19th in conversion rate. It helps when you don't allow many big plays.

Carolina allowed five conversions on 16 passes, but I'm more impressed by the Colts only allowing 0.5 yards per play on 15 passes (five conversions). Green Bay was the next closest team in lowest yards per play (2.7). Surprisingly, Seattle allowed the worst rate of conversions at 77.8 percent (14-of-18). Right ahead of them was Gus Bradley's Jaguars, so that may say something about taking advantage of the Pete Carroll scheme with short passes.

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Denver faced five quarterback runs and stopped them all cold, including an aforementioned Brady sneak. That's impressive. Oakland was the only defense unchallenged, and no team saw more quarterback runs than Cleveland (eight conversions on 13 runs). Eight teams failed to get a stop, but Tampa Bay was the worst offender with six plays.

Even the best defenses against short-yardage runs still allow a first down half the time. Kansas City (13-of-26), St. Louis (7-of-14) and Arizona (8-of-16) all tied for the lead, but the Rams had the lowest yards per carry (1.6). New England was actually not last in conversion rate, but ranked 31st (85.7 percent on 18-of-21 plays). The Falcons bring up the rear, allowing a conversion on 19-of-20 short-yardage runs. Man, just last week we had the Falcons as the worst defense at forcing failed completions.

We might only be talking about 1,500 plays in a season, but these are crucial moments in games. The 2014 season will go down as the year where the best short-yardage running team threw an interception from the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl against the worst short-yardage defense.

At least that should be the last time we see anyone make that call. Learn the hard way.

Comments

11 comments, Last at 06 Apr 2015, 8:23pm

2 Re: 2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

but what is it about offenses getting so pass-happy when an extra yard is needed on third-and-2?

This article from the old PFR Blog addressed that very question

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=50

7 Re: 2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

It's a bit simplistic to believe that the success rates on 3rd and 2 should be the same for both passes and runs: the goal of the game isn't to gain a first down, it's to win the game.

You'd naively expect something like equal win percentage added. My instinct is that even with good decision making, trying to quantify that using the current naive models would probably still show what looks like poor decision making (in favor of passing) because of the low average scoring in the league - that is, you only score ~2-ish touchdowns a game, so the number of times when you're playing versus an opponent that an opportunity for a touchdown is more valuable than normal happens more than the reverse.

That being said, the observed difference is too big for something like that. It just looks like impatience on the part of the play caller.

10 Re: 2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

It's likely a semantics issue.

My 18-of-21 figure is for non-QB runs on 3rd/4th down with 1-2 yards to go.

duh's 19-of-22 average appears to be for the same thing, but includes a converted run by QB Geno Smith.

The 81% against power runs on DL page is using this definition: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. QB runs included.

So it's the inclusion of QB runs and goal-to-go runs on 1st and 2nd down that adds up to 22 of 27, or 81.5%. The Patriots stopped Ahmad Bradshaw on consecutive runs in the fourth quarter before Luck just threw a touchdown to Castonzo.

Hope that clears everything up.

5 Re: 2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

How can you have a third-and-1 scramble for no gain that doesn't get counted as a sack?
That could happen when the play gains inches, but not enough to change the yards to go. Imagine having 36 inches to go, and getting stopped with 6 inches to go. If the player crosses the line of scrimmage, it cannot be a sack. But it would still be a zero yard gain.

You could even have a scramble that loses yardage but is not a sack, provided the scrambling QB crossed the line of scrimmage and then retreated under his own power, say, to get around a defender.

I never knew that this
http://www.nflgsis.com/gsis/documentation/stadiumguides/guide_for_statisticians.pdf
existed. It looks to be official NFL guidelines.

Like you, I thought all zero-yard scrambles would be sacks. Go figure.

6 Re: 2014: Year of the Short-Yardage Pass

Well Russell Wilson's about the only QB I would expect to cross the LOS twice on one play.

I looked at 2014 and every charted scrambled gained 1+ yard. I found four 0-yard scrambles in 2013, though we have a special note on that Glennon play against St. Louis. The other three were all negated by penalty.

Cam Newton's 0-yard scramble against the Jets was a play-by-play error. No wonder Rex Ryan took the holding penalty to make it 1st-and-30 instead of 2nd-and-20. Newton gained at least 8 yards on the scramble.

Similarly, Terrelle Pryor took off for a good 4-5 yards against Philly, but the PBP says no gain and the Raiders accepted the offsides penalty.

Carson Palmer also got the corner on his scramble against Houston that probably gained a yard, but Arizona took the offsides penalty.

Hopefully the NFL's PBP will be improved next season.