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Cowboys vs. Bengals: Why Winning On First Down Will Be Key To Success

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

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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.

Heading into Sunday's game, the Cowboys enjoy a strong third-down advantage over the Bengals, as the numbers below illustrate.

Third Down Performance, 2016
Dallas Cowboys Cincinnati Bengals
Offense (3rd downs made) 50.0% (1st) 27.8% (31st)
Defense (3rd downs allowed) 43.5% (22nd) 36.5% (11th)
Third down differential +6.5% (7th) -8.7% (28th)

On paper, this looks like a clear advantage for the Cowboys, though the numbers don't factor in the quality of opponents played so far. But as much as we talk about third-down conversion rates, for the Cowboys and Bengals on Sunday, the game will come down to each team's success on first down - and especially on defending the first down. Here’s why.

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 four weeks of the season, the Cowboys have allowed opposing offenses an average of 6.37 yards per play on first down. That’s terrifying: The league average is just 5.42 yards per first-down play, and the Cowboys rank 28th in this metric. By contrast, the Bengals rank fifth-overall with just 4.53 yards allowed per 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. Because if they're going to let the Bengals rip off six or more yards on first down, Andy Dalton will make them look silly on second and third downs.

If the Cowboys were to succeed in holding the Bengals to short or no gains on first downs, the Bengals offense 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.

On offense, both teams look similar on first downs, as you can see in the table below.

First Down Performance, 2016

Dallas Cowboys Cincinnati Bengals
Yards gained (offense)
5.52 (13th) 5.50 (14th)
Yards allowed (defense) 6.37 (28th) 4.53 (5th)

On first down, the Cowboys rely more on their league-leading ground game to get them into manageable situations, the Bengals like to throw the ball a little more. If the Cowboys are successful on first down on Sunday against a very good first-down Bengals defense, odds are they'll come out on top, because once the offense gets into manageable third-down situations, no team is currently better at converting those situations than the Cowboys.

There'll be a lot of discussion about third-down performance before, during, and after the game on Sunday. But keep an eye on first downs; what happens on first down will ultimately determine what happens on third down - on offense and on defense.

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