After the first game of the 2017 season, a blowout loss to the Chiefs, I pointed out that it was first down where the Chiefs did most of their damage and prescribed simple improvement on first down as a key for a defensive turnaround.
Checking back in on first down now, after six weeks, there hasn’t been much improvement. In fact, for a defense mired near the bottom of the league in almost every category, their poor work on first down is some of the most glaring.
Here are the numbers from the past four years:
|Avg. Yards Gained||NFL Rank||First Down %||Touchdowns||Pass/Run Ratio|
|2017 (6 games)||7.61||32nd||30.2%||11||110/81|
The jump in average yards allowed on first down is what is most striking. Of the 31 big plays of 20-plus yards this season, 15 of them have come on first down and 13 of them have been passes. For reference, the Pats defense gave up 20 big-play first down pass plays in all of 2016.
But the Pats don’t exactly stand out in terms of big plays on first down when you compare them to the rest of the league. Yes, they’re tied for 31st, but they’re not glaringly standing out like when you compare their total average-yards-allowed to the rest of the league. In that regard, they’re a full yard-per-play above the 31st team, and giving up more than two-and-a-half yards more than the league average.
So this isn’t something we can just chalk up to a handful of big plays. They’re consistently worse than the rest of the league on first down.
It’s an interesting problem for the Pats, and one whose answer is not readily apparent. You could say they prefer a non-penetrating front to stop the run on early downs and that is ripe for the picking via the pass because there won’t be much pass rush. Or you could just say they’re generally playing sloppy and unfocused on first down for some unknown reason.
They’re 26th on third down so it’s not exactly like they’re lighting it up on the most critical down either, but it’s easily apparent, first down continues to be the worst down for this edition of the defense.