Why our offense is what it is (part 2): First Down

This is meant to be a series of posts that looks at our offense and tries to better understand it. We got a lot of time to kill before the draft, and I can only read so many mocks, so let's mix it up. Anyway, part 1 dissected Greg Roman's resume. If you are interested here is a link: Greg Roman's Resume.

We established that G-Ro is a run first guy, and the most prolific seasons that he has been a part of, as an o-line coach or otherwise, were run first offenses. He has never coached in a high flying attack offense. His years under George Seifert in Carolina they did try to air it out, but the results were...well...not good.

If you are a run first team, there is probably no better down to analyze than first down. You want to run, the defense knows you want to run, and so it is mano-y-mano at its finest.

Here is a chart showing first down yardage on plays categorized (by me) as rushes. You can see a distinct drop of from 2012 to 2013.

Negative and zero yardage plays are up and 6-12 yard plays are down. In terms of averages, the standard for first down is to achieve 4 yards, so that you have 2nd and 6 or fewer yards for another set of downs:

First Down Performance 2012 2013
4+ Yards 51.9% 42.5%

We definitely dropped in 2013, but the league average from my dataset is 43.8%. So, in 2012 we were pretty strong, but in 2013 we fell back to average.

One of the reasons we may have fell back to average is we really tried to run the ball more:

Quarter Rushing on First Down 2012 Rushing on First Down 2013
1 58.7% 61.7%
2 39.0% 52.4%
3 52.2% 61.3%
4 73.2% 67.2%
Season 55.0% 60.6%

In 2012, we would try and establish the run but shy away from it in the 2nd quarter. At the end of the game we ran it down their throats. In 2013, we were more even keeled. Some may say "predictable," but I think that it is more complex then that. People tend to remember the guesses when they were right, so if you guess "run" on every 1st down then you are right 6 out of 10 times and think, "G-Ro is so predictable." It would be a fun exercise to actually keep track of your guesses, simply run or pass, and then compare at the end of each game. I may try that next year.

In 2013 rushing on first down was up and yield, or plays where we rushed for 4 or more yards, was down. This is a bad combo. It is worse when you consider passing performance.

The league average for passing on first down, and getting at least 4 yards, was 50.4%. For us, we were at 45.9%. We committed to the run, but then when we did decide to pass it we were below the league average.

Here is the game by game data:

Percent of First Downs for at least 4 yards

Rush Pass Overall
08-Sep-13 Packers 41.2% 56.3% 48.5%
15-Sep-13 @Seahawks 33.3% 45.5% 39.1%
22-Sep-13 Colts 45.5% 50.0% 47.8%
26-Sep-13 @Rams 38.1% 57.1% 42.9%
06-Oct-13 Texans 45.0% 25.0% 41.7%
13-Oct-13 Cardinals 52.9% 64.3% 58.1%
20-Oct-13 @Titans 35.3% 50.0% 40.0%
27-Oct-13 @Jaguars 26.3% 57.1% 34.6%
10-Nov-13 Panthers 54.5% 27.3% 40.9%
17-Nov-13 @Saints 25.0% 22.2% 23.8%
25-Nov-13 @Redskins 43.8% 71.4% 52.2%
01-Dec-13 Rams 43.8% 41.7% (Crab return) 42.9%
08-Dec-13 Seahawks 38.5% 46.7% 42.9%
15-Dec-13 @Buccaneers 42.1% 50.0% 45.2%
23-Dec-13 Falcons 66.7% 40.0% 56.0%
29-Dec-13 @Cardinals 58.3% 56.3% 57.1%
05-Jan-14 @Packers 42.1% 33.3% 39.3%
12-Jan-14 @Panthers 42.1% 25.0% 37.0%
19-Jan-14 @Seahawks 40.0% 25.0% 34.8%

What is interesting to me is that we clearly had a few good games against the Falcons and Cardinals before our tough playoff run. To be fair, our playoffs included a sub-zero game and two of the best defenses in football, and all on the road. Hopefully our performance in the Falcons and Cardinal games will be carried into 2014.

Finally, to understand the data, we need some context. Here is the league wide first down performance (pass and run together) for 2013:

team 4+ total first downs
Saints 305 555 55.0%
Cowboys 242 456 53.1%
Chargers 279 533 52.3%
Broncos 330 648 50.9%
Seahawks 246 507 48.5%
Patriots 280 583 48.0%
Eagles 248 518 47.9%
Packers 242 509 47.5%
Texans 223 474 47.0%
Redskins 230 489 47.0%
Steelers 213 453 47.0%
Dolphins 200 432 46.3%
Colts 237 515 46.0%
Titans 204 444 45.9%
Bears 216 473 45.7%
Cardinals 216 473 45.7%
Vikings 205 449 45.7%
Giants 199 437 45.5%
Lions 226 498 45.4%
Chiefs 226 502 45.0%
Bengals 230 514 44.7%
Falcons 201 457 44.0%
Jets 194 445 43.6%
Panthers 203 467 43.5%
Raiders 188 434 43.3%
Rams 183 423 43.3%
49ers 218 504 43.3%
Bills 206 478 43.1%
Browns 196 458 42.8%
Jaguars 180 435 41.4%
Ravens 186 463 40.2%
Buccaneers 166 414 40.1%

Anytime we are in the same sentence with the Raiders, Rams, and Bills can't be good.

OK nation, why do you think we were so bad on first down last year? What did you see on tape that supports, or disproves, these numbers? I have some ideas, but I'd like to get some of the site experts to chime in. Is this on Colin, our o-line, Frank Gore, G-Ro, or a combination? In multiple interviews players said our rushing game was down because teams were playing us differently. Did you see anything that supports that?

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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