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Winning On First Down Will Be Key To Success For Cowboys @ Seahawks

Traditional narratives focus on third downs as the key to success, but for the Cowboys and Seahawks on Sunday, the game will be decided by which team wins on first downs.

Tom Pennington

Third down is often called the money down in football, because what happens on third down usually determines whether the offense gets a new series of downs. Which is why we talk about third down conversion rate so much in football, and why third down performance is such a big topic in the lead-up to games. So let's get the third down stuff out of the way immediately:

Third Down Performance, 2014
Dallas Cowboys Seattle Seahawks
Offense (3rd downs made) 55.6% (1st) 38.0% (22nd)
Defense (3rd downs allowed) 43.1% (15th) 43.9% (17th)
Third down differential +12.5% (1st) -5.9% (22nd)

Heading into Sunday's game, the Cowboys have the best third down differential of any team in the league, driven largely by an outstanding offense. The Cowboys defense, like the Seahawks defense, is around league average in third down conversion percentage allowed, but the Seahawks offense doesn't come close to the Cowboys offense on third down conversions. On paper, this is an advantage for the Cowboys, though the numbers don't factor in the quality of opponents played so far, and don't factor in the home field advantage the Seahawks will undoubtedly enjoy on Sunday.

But as much as we talk about third down conversion rates, for the Cowboys and Seahawks on Sunday, the game will come down to each team's success on first down. Here’s why.

The Seahawks and Cowboys are ranked number one and number two in the league on the ground. The Seahawks have averaged 167.3 yards per game over four games, the Cowboys have averaged 160 yards over five games. And in DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch the game will feature two of the leading rushers in the league right now. Both teams are expected to lean heavily on their running game on Sunday, and that's where the Seahawks may have a distinct advantage thanks to their defense.

Rushing Performance, 2014

Dallas Cowboys Seattle Seahawks
Offense (yards per rush attempt) 4.9 (6th) 5.4 (1st)
Defense (yards allowed per rush attempt) 5.2 (31st) 2.6 (1st)

Both teams have very strong rushing offenses, but where the Seahawks also have a great rushing defense, the Cowboys do not.

The key to a successful third down defense is an effective first and second down defense that puts opposing offenses in unfavorable third-and-long situations. Because if an offense gains six yards or more on first down, it has more options on the next two downs, which puts defenses at a disadvantage.

Through the first five weeks of the season, the Cowboys have allowed opposing offenses an average of 6.66 yards per play on first down. That’s terrifying: The league average is just 5.41 yards per first-down play, and the Cowboys rank second-to-last in this metric, only ahead of the Cleveland Browns, who are allowing 7.3 yards on every first down.

Back in 2006, when Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, Zimmer remarked on the disadvantage defenses have when they are in second-and-short:

"When it's second-and-4, it's tough to make (defensive) calls," Zimmer said. "You're behind the eight ball."

For the Cowboys defense, winning on first down will be key to keeping the game competitive. And that's a tall order for the second-worst run defense. But if they are going to let Marshawn Lynch regularly rip off runs of six or more yards on first down, the Seahawks defense will make them look silly on second and third downs.

Last Sunday, the Cowboys forced four three-and-outs against the Texans. Here are the second down situations the Texans found themselves in on all four three-and-outs:

2nd-and-15 | 2nd-and-10 | 2nd-and-11 | 2nd-and-8

If the Cowboys were to succeed in holding the Seahawks to short or no gains on first downs, the Seahawks would be much more limited in their offensive options, to the point where their offense could become lopsided and strongly favor the pass - in principle.

Excluding the fourth quarter of games, when teams have faced second-and-six or longer this year, they've thrown the ball 65% of the time. The Seahawks have a lower ratio of 58%, in part because they have Russell Wilson. When defenses anticipate a pass on second-and-long, they often line up in their nickel or dime defenses and send their pass rushers screaming upfield, but sometimes forget to account for one specific player: the running quarterback.

The Cowboys do not have such a running quarterback, and where Seattle's 58% run/pass ratio ranks them 26th in the league, the Cowboys are much more predictable on second-and-long, ranking second in the league with a run pass ratio of 80% (39 pass attempts, 10 runs) behind only the Saints and ahead of the Colts.

Which means that winning on first down is just as important for the offense as it is for the defense. The Cowboys are so successful on third downs in part because they are winning on first down, where they are averaging 6.35 yards per play, the fifth highest value in the league. And the Cowboys are achieving that success with an unprecedented level of commitment to the run. Nobody runs more often on first down than the Cowboys; they've run the ball on 104 of 155 first downs for a league-leading run percentage of 67% - and now that offense is up against the league's best run defense.

Something will have to give. And more likely than not, that will be on first downs.


[Shortly after I finished this post, Dave and I had a short conversation about the post.]

dhalprin123: you just totally depressed me :-(

OCC: ha ha ha. Why, because of that first down post?

dhalprin123: yup

OCC: You've got to look at it this way: The run is way overrated in NFL. :-)

dhalprin123: If you can do it effectively, it's easy money

dhalprin123: I'm still depressed, but we tend to forget, Dallas actually throws the ball pretty damn well, too...see the last few years

OCC: On Sunday, we playaction them to death. We've been building to this for 5 games.

dhalprin123: I could see that happening, you know the Seattle defense is going to be hyped up to prove Dallas can't run on them...probably be very aggressive attacking the line

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