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The fantasy relationship between down-and-distance and scoring

Nov 12, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (7) hands the ball off to running back Jamaal Williams (30) during the second half at Soldier Field. The Packers won 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

You always hear about teams needing to “get ahead” of the down-and-distance markers. In theory, it sets the team up for success in a handful of important ways: It makes gaining a new first down easier, which in turn leads to longer drives, which in turn leads to keeping the opposing offense off the field. This gives your team more chances to score and the other team fewer chances to score.

So which teams are the best at “getting ahead” of the marker on third downs?

The league average: 3rd down and 7.3 yards to go

I was surprised to learn that, on average, when a team had a third down in 2017, they had gained only 2.7 yards on the two previous down (assuming 10 yards to go for a first down, which isn’t always true, of course, but is an easy shorthand). This made the average third down last year a 3rd and 7.3.

  • Average first down: 10 yards to go
  • Average second down: 8.1 yards to go
  • Average third down: 7.3 yards to go
  • Average fourth down*: 4.9 yards to go
    • *when the offense stays on the field and goes for it

The worst: At least 10 percent worse than league average

These three teams were the worst in the league in terms of falling behind the down-and-distance markers:

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