I am sure by now you that you all are aware of how poorly the Bengals have fared on third down this year. Cincinnati ranks 31st in the NFL in third down conversion percentage at 24%, compared to the league average of 39%.
A deeper look into the data reveals some surprising trends. Without checking, I would have guessed the Bengals inability to run the ball well on first or second down has put them into difficult third-and-long situations, and put more pressure on Andy Dalton to throw the ball down the field. Surprisingly, this was not the case.
The Bengals actually rank 14th in the NFL in yards per play on first down (5.43) and sixth in yards per play on second down (6.44). Those numbers have enabled the Bengals to have the fifth-least average yards to go on third down in the NFL. That is absolutely shocking for a team that has been so poor at converting on third down.
Cincinnati must be positively horrible yardage-wise on third down then, right? Well, not exactly. The Bengals rank 18thin the NFL at 5.21 yards per play on third down. How is that even possible? How can a team that consistently sets itself up in third-and-manageable, then does a not-awful job of moving the ball on third down, be so rotten at actually cashing in the opportunities?
There are a couple obvious explanations. The first is a combination of sample size and general statistical randomness. We are still dealing with a limited amount of plays thus far this season, meaning that one big play can skew results. Taking out the Sanu touchdown pass, for instance, would greatly affect Cincinnati’s yards per play on first down. By the same token, the Bengals have only run 61 third down plays this year. It wouldn’t take more than a few extra first downs on those plays for the third down percentage to look much better.
The second reason could be a combination of play-calling or Andy Dalton checking down to take a short gain to improve field position. Dalton ranks in the middle of the pack in yards per pass on third down, so there is very little takeaway there.
I actually find this data very encouraging. In looking at how, and when, the Bengals are gaining yards, the poor third down percentage seems like something of a fluke. If Cincinnati can continue to put itself in manageable third down situations, the first downs should eventually follow.