Game Theory

Why NFL teams are rethinking fourth down; plus, my favorite upset pick for Week 7

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

In this weekly column, I will assess current trends through the lens of analytics, as well as spotlight a few of my favorite -- or least favorite -- projections.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

TREND TO WATCH: The lowdown on fourth down

Thus far in the 2021 NFL campaign, a whopping 23 games have included winning scores in the last minute of regulation or overtime. Yep, that's a record through the first six weeks of a season, per NFL Research. We've also seen 11 overtime games -- tied for the second-most in league history during this time span.

Long story short: The league's competitive parity is as strong as ever. Inherently, every single potential edge is crucial. Which leads us to the increasing trend of going for it on fourth down. More and more teams are keeping the offense on the field in these do-or-die spots, and they're doing so earlier in games than we've seen before in the modern era.

Through the first six weeks of this season, 11 teams attempted at least 10 fourth-down conversions, with an average success rate of 52.2 percent. Many of these teams are not highly rated offenses, either, with the Giants (15th in total offense), Jaguars (16th), Lions (27th) and Dolphins (30th) among them. Ahead of this week's Thursday Night Football game, Denver was the most successful team in this go-for-broke group, boasting a 75 percent conversion rate (9 for 12). And although the Broncos lost to the Browns on Thursday, 17-14, they did convert their lone fourth-down attempt.

I'd also like to call attention to another group of teams, ones that have led the way in this trend with exemplary results. Their decisions to go for it on fourth down typically either added the greatest percentage to their win chances (e.g., getting the first down that seals the game) OR didn't harm their win chances (e.g., going on fourth down deep in enemy territory, with ample time left in the game and a lead/close deficit). These teams are the Chargers (8 for 12 on fourth down), Bengals (6 for 8), Panthers (5 for 7) and Cardinals (4 for 4). Remember, this includes fourth-down to-go distances that are greater than just 1 yard.

The teams that have been the least successful, with at least two fourth-down conversion attempts: The Eagles and Bears are both 2 for 9, while the Steelers (0 for 5), Seahawks (0 for 2), Buccaneers (2 for 5) and Chiefs (1 for 3) are similarly deficient. Now, those last two teams are interesting. Not only are Tampa Bay and Kansas City the reigning champions of their respective conferences, but they also field two of the highest-powered offenses in the game.

The Bucs, to be honest, haven't really needed to leverage this so far, as evidenced by their 5-1 record and solid point differential of +51. However, if injuries keep mounting and Leonard Fournette continues to operate like a premier back, they could benefit from early strategic chances. The Chiefs are a different story ...

At 3-3 with a point differential of just +9 and a league-high 14 turnovers, Kansas City could benefit greatly from fourth-down gains. The Chiefs are currently tied for 27th in total drives (at 57, with the Bears and Jets), but they've run the eighth-most plays (414) and have the highest average of first downs per game (27.5), ultimately meaning they are running more plays per drive. Meanwhile, their defense is struggling, giving up the most yards per play (6.71) and fifth-most points per game (29.3). Now, I expect Kansas City's turnover rate will regress to the mean -- especially if the Chiefs start operating with more of a go-for-it mindset on fourth down, lowering the urgency of third-down plays. And if you give K.C.'s offense every reasonable opportunity to overwhelm the opposing defense, opponents will be forced into one-dimensional attacks, thus making life easier on Kansas City's suspect defense. To simplify: Keeping Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on the field as much as possible is a winning game plan for Andy Reid.

Two other teams of interest on this subject: Baltimore and New England. The Ravens and Patriots haven't gone for it much, but they've enjoyed success when they've kept the offense on the field: Baltimore is 3 for 4 on fourth down, while New England's 2 for 3. Both should go for it more.

I expect the Ravens' rate to stay strong, even if there's an uptick in attempts going forward. One of the better predictors for success on short downs is possessing the threat of the run and pass. Who provides this more than Lamar Jackson? The Ravens quarterback leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.1) and ranks fifth in yards per pass attempt (8.7).

While the Patriots clearly lack a quarterback with dynamism in the same stratosphere as Lamar, they could also benefit from going for it more often. New England likes running the football and using heavier personnel. Meanwhile, rookie QB Mac Jones has proven his quick-passing prowess, as well as the ability to execute different-tempo drives. The advantage of treating fourth down as an additional regular down, especially with a less-seasoned quarterback, is that defenses are more likely to be thrown off balance. For example, you can run on third-and-long to achieve some of the needed yards, then have both the pass and run available on fourth down. And like Baltimore, New England plays a kind of defense that complements the quarterback in a way that lessens the risk of loss if the fourth down isn't converted.

In a league where the difference between winning and losing often comes down to a handful of plays, it makes sense that more teams are keeping the ball in their court on fourth down.

Projection Section

NOTE: The figures cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 3 p.m. ET on Friday, Oct. 22.

WEEK 7 UPSET PICK: Indianapolis Colts (+4) over San Francisco 49ers

Colts QB Carson Wentz has been markedly better over his past three contests, with a 123.4 passer rating (up from 85.1 in his first three outings with Indy) and a TD-to-INT ratio of 6:0 (up from 3:1). Not coincidentally, the Colts have averaged nine more points per game in Weeks 4-6 than they did in Weeks 1-3. While that's obviously cause for optimism, it's also worth noting that Jonathan Taylor has been deployed using zone concepts on 52.9 percent of his rushes and ranks first in yards per rush (6.3) and second in touchdowns with four on those runs. The Niners have allowed just 2.8 yards per rush against the outside zone, but they have yielded more first downs versus inside zone than they have against any other concept (15, per Pro Football Focus, with two touchdowns). With Jimmy Garoppolo limited in practice due to his calf injury and Trey Lance still sidelined, San Francisco's injuries at quarterback mitigate the Colts' woes in the secondary enough for Indianapolis to snag the road upset.

THING I LIKE: Panthers WR D.J. Moore accumulating more than 78.5 receiving yards against the Giants.

After starting the season at 3-0, Carolina has dropped its last three games. Earlier this week, second-year head coach Matt Rhule told the media the Panthers needed to "redefine" themselves on offense. One area that offers high-probability upside? When and where D.J. Moore is used. Next Gen Stats show that Moore ranks fifth among pass catchers in air yards per target this season at 11.2. Put differently, Carolina has used the dynamic receiver on deep targets -- though this has faltered over the past two games. Second down seems to be Moore's down -- that's where he's received 27 of his 63 targets -- but only two of those second-down targets have come from Moore aligning in the slot. Overall, Moore has only been targeted from the slot nine times, catching seven of those passes for 57 yards. In this matchup with the Giants, look for Moore to be targeted on higher-probability routes (perhaps those from the slot alignment?) as the Panthers reshape their Christian McCaffrey-less offense and passing game to keep Sam Darnold turnover-free. The Giants' best cover corner, former Panther James Bradberry, doesn't always travel into the slot, even when he shadows No. 1 receivers (something he's done with four wideouts thus far, per Pro Football Focus). So piecing the logic together, it might serve Carolina well to line Moore up in the slot, maybe on first or third down, to create the best opportunity for Darnold and Moore. Moore has had more than 78.5 yards in four matchups so far this season, though he's fallen short in each of the past two weeks.

THING I LOVE: Rams QB Matthew Stafford passing for more than 289.5 yards against the Lions.

The Lions' defense allows 252.3 passing yards per game (19th in the league), and this contest doesn't project to be competitive late. So why do I love Stafford to trend above Detroit's average in pass yards allowed? For starters, Stafford has achieved his 1,838 pass yards (fourth-most in the NFL) off of 200 attempts (18th). That means Stafford, who averages 306.3 yards per game, shouldn't need all that many attempts to surpass 289.5 yards. Now, compound that with the Lions' defense allowing the highest passer rating in the league (113.8), and the case for Stafford becomes even stronger.

THING I DON'T LIKE: Titans RB Derrick Henry rushing for more than 117.5 yards against the Chiefs.

Henry has eclipsed 117.5 yards on the ground in four of six games in 2021, and he averages a league-best 130.5 rushing yards per game. His 783 yards rushing this season eclipses the ground totals of 26 NFL teams heading into Week 7. The Chiefs' defense is allowing 133.2 rushing yards per game (27th in the league).

So, why on earth am I making the argument that Henry will not surpass 117.5 yards on the ground?

Well, there's no denying it's a tough task for Kansas City, but I expect the Chiefs' strategy will be to create fronts that address the problems Henry causes. It's worth noting that Henry also leads the league in rushing yards when facing a stacked box (eight or more defenders) with 249. However, the Chiefs should be especially prepared to stop the Titans' zone concepts to continue their improvement in limiting teams from earning rushing first downs. They started Juan Thornhill over Daniel Sorensen at safety last week against the Washington Football Team and the change paid off. Kansas City limited Washington to a season-low 13 points and surrendered just six rushing first downs. (K.C.'s season average is 8.7 allowed per game, ranking 31st.)

The Titans' banged-up secondary will provide an opportunity for Patrick Mahomes and Co. to score, which means the Titans could be forced to throw the ball more than they'd like to. All this to say, Henry could be targeted as a receiver more than usual, but projects to finish with less than 117.5 rushing yards.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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