Last week we had an article about the point after try and the trend towards a more aggressive approach that coaches were taking when faced with that opportunity. This week we look at another more aggressive tendency that is on display in the 2018 NFL season, 4th down attempts.

Whenever I watch a game with an “NFL rookie” observer I’m often posed with the simple question, “why do teams always kick the ball away on 4th down?” The simplistic answer is that failing to obtain the distance required for a fresh set of downs would lead to the ball being handed over to the opposition from that very point on the field. The wider answer though is a little more complex. Field position, time remaining and the score will all play into the decision process but in today’s NFL having an aggressive head coach can be a big difference maker.

The winners of last year’s Super Bowl the Philadelphia Eagles were praised for their aggressiveness on fourth downs. Analytics has long indicated that it is a smart play to go for it more often and Doug Pederson made it a point of his offence. He was often praised for his approach last year with the Eagles converting 17 such opportunities a year ago keeping drives alive. Now as I have suggested above there will be factors that move a coach away from a 4th down try, but assuming it is a reasonable distance to gain then why not roll the dice? Is it a coincidence that the Eagles lead the league in 4th down conversions and went on to win the big one last year?

One thing that any NFL team is never shy in doing is reproducing what works well for other teams, whether that be individual plays or tendencies. One of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history; “the philly special” has been replicated on several occasions by more than 1 team already this season. The sight of Baker Mayfield wide open in the end zone to catch a pass from Jarvis Landry against the Jets is still a thing of beauty 9 weeks on. That was an individual play call but 4th down conversion attempts are also up across the league as teams try to get more points onto the scoreboard.

In 2017, there were 485 attempts on 4th down of which only 223 were successful for a 46% conversion rate. Fast forward to this year, we have already seen 349 attempted plays with 197 being successful at a conversion rate of 56.4%. That pace would see last years numbers being surpassed with around 65 more successful conversions being secured.

In simple terms and without all of the numbers it just means that teams are getting a little more aggressive when faced with fourth down and are becoming more efficient at moving the chains when they do so. Coaches have often been asked in press conferences about the importance of 3rd down plays, maybe in the years ahead the questions will focus on the significance of their fourth down preparations. Again the stats would suggest that teams are indeed putting in more work on the training field to convert the opportunities.

Only 14 teams across the league had a conversion rate in excess of 50% when attempting to make the plays last year. This year that number is at 26 teams across the league, with the lowly Cardinals ranking at the bottom with just a 22% conversion rate. Who is the best team at converting fourth down plays? That would be the New Orleans Saints who have converted both the most with 11 successful attempts and the highest efficiency rate with a 91.7% success rate, missing just 1 try.

If the omens are anything to go by then the Saints are really looking good for that big game in February. Take a moment to feel for the poor punter though. Thomas Morstead has only had to launch 24 punts this season after signing a new contract that pays him just shy of $6 million this year. At $400,000 a punt they better be bloody good!

Do you like your teams chances on 4th down? Let us know by commenting on our article.

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