First-down factors: Vikings' run vs. pass

The Vikings have been contrarians in their approach to first down this year. They buck the league trend, and when it comes to McNabb vs. Ponder, they buck the perception of fans. We go in-depth with the first-down numbers, looking at the successes and failures of Peterson, Ponder and McNabb.

So what are the primary differences between the Vikings with Donovan McNabb at quarterback and Christian Ponder? The answer may be how the coaching staff has approached first down.

The Vikings have been as predictable as just about any team in the league when it comes to how they approach first down. While coaches and players will preach about establishing the running game, through the first eight weeks of the 2011 NFL season, 18 of the league's 32 teams have thrown as often or more often than they have run on first down. The most lopsided teams have been the Seahawks, Saints and Eagles. Seattle has run the ball on first down just 38.1 percent, a fraction of a percent below the nearly identical 38.1 percent New Orleans has run that ball. Philadelphia isn't far behind, running of first down just 38.8 percent of the time.

Then you have the other side of the spectrum. Fourteen teams – the Vikings, along with Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco – have run the ball more than they have thrown on first down. In most cases, it has made perfect sense. They are teams that either have a power running game that is their mantra or they have a young quarterback that requires teams to run more often.

The Vikings have been one of the most run-heavy teams on first down in the league – running the ball on 57.7 percent of their first-and-10 plays. For the purposes of this analysis, first-and-goal situations or first downs impacted by penalties (either a first-and-20 or first-and-5) were eliminated. In those situations, only two teams have run the ball on first down with more frequency – Jacksonville (61.9 percent) and Houston (57.9 percent).

In all three cases, the rationale has made sense. The Vikings have Adrian Peterson as the centerpiece of its offense. The Texans have Arian Foster, as well as being without primary receiver Andre Johnson the last four games. The Jaguars have Maurice Jones-Drew and a rookie quarterback.

In each case, the decision to run on first down has been the right move. For the Vikings, however, it has been confusing to explain their run-pass selection on first down, when defenses have been conditioned to expect running plays. Primarily with Adrian Peterson on the receiving end of the handoffs, only four of them have popped for 15 yards or more and two of them haven't been from Peterson – a 23-yard run by Percy Harvin and a 23-yard scramble by Donovan McNabb. Peterson has had a 54-yard run and a 15-yarder, but, for the most part, running on first down has been bad news for the Vikings.

Of the 116 times the Vikings have run in first-and-10 situations, they have gained four yards or less on 83 of them – about three of every four times. On 51 of them – about 45 percent – they have gained two yards or less – setting up second-and-long situations.

For most offenses, running the ball results in two to four yards two-thirds of the time. Occasionally, a runner will break one – 15 of the 116 first-down rushes have gone for 10 yards or more – but the plan is to set up a second-and-5 or less for a first-down run to be successful. By that measure, the Vikings have been successful about 30 percent of the time.

So why have the Vikings run so much on first down? Because the passing has failed? Sadly, the answer is "no" – at least not when McNabb was quarterbacking. It would appear that it was the design of the play – short dump-offs, screens to running backs, quick-hitters on slants or bubble screens behind the line to wide receivers – that were the culprit for the lack of big-gainers with McNabb at quarterback.

Up until the time McNabb was yanked from the Chicago game and the future of the Vikings offense became the present, he had completed 34 of 48 passes in first-and-10 situations – an impressive 71 percent – for 343 yards with one touchdown and one interception, which came on his first pass as a Viking.

Whether by design or not, McNabb's passing numbers on normal first-down situations were spectacular, especially when compared to what he did in every other situation other than first-and-10 setups. The conventional wisdom would be that the first-down scenario would be much more wide open with a veteran quarterback than with a rookie, but, in the Bill Musgrave offense, the opposite has been true.

McNabb's numbers when passing on first-and-10 situations, using play-action with Peterson to freeze linebackers was incredibly effective. The week-to-week numbers bear this out. In the six games he played, McNabb's standard first-down passing numbers were as follows:

Att-Com-Yd-TD-Int
at San Diego—4-2-14-0-1

vs. Tampa Bay—12-9-105-0-0

vs. Detroit—11-8-62-0-0

at Kansas City—5-4-55-1-0

vs. Arizona—6-3-34-0-0

at Chicago—10-8-73-0-0

McNabb's passer rating on first down was 89, far better than his overall passer rating.

Given the repetitive nature of the NFL – if it works, don't mess with it – it would stand to reason that the Vikings would have continued the practice of throwing on first down. In a bizarro world, you set up Peterson by throwing on first down. Considering how inept the Vikings offense was during McNabb's run as the starter, the one thing he clearly had going for him was throwing on first-and-10.

One of the downsides of throwing on first-and-10 is that, if the pass is an incompletion and the clock stops, you now face second-and-10, and the last thing any offensive coordinator wants to do is face the prospect of three straight incompletions and punting after allowing less than 30 seconds to roll off the game clock. As a result, second-and-10 running plays happen about 80 percent of the time. Don't take our word for it, just notice what happens on second-and-10. Every defense knows it's coming. How those runs gain yards is hard to fathom given the propensity to be runs, but, failure on a first down pass come with significant consequences.

To his credit, McNabb had just 14 incompletions in those situations. Ponder hasn't been as fortunate.

In his relief appearance at Chicago, Ponder came in the game in the fourth quarter and had nothing to lose. He knew the play calls were going to be pass-heavy. So did the Bears. He threw five times on first down, completing two of them for 19 yards. Not good. Not dismal. As players are wont to say, it is what it is.

Then came Green Bay. If ever there was a time that one would think it would be the redundant A.D. all day, that was it. Peterson early. Peterson late. Peterson everywhere in the middle. Instead, the Vikings went with the classic "You know that I know that you know that I know" approach. The Packers were expecting a heavy dose of Peterson on first down. Instead, Ponder threw in standard first-and-10 situations a season-high 13 times. He completed just three of them. The first was the 73-yard "let's roll" bomb to Michael Jenkins on the first play of the game. The other was a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins midway through the fourth quarter with the Vikings down by 13 points. The rest of the day, he completed one of 11 passes for zero yards – actually, he completed two of them, but one was to Charles Woodson.

Fan memories of that game were based more on Ponder converting third downs – a problem for McNabb for his tenure as starter – not his woeful first-down passing numbers (outside of a "catch them sleeping" gimmick play and a prevent defense-inspired touchdown).

The problem with first-down incompletions is obvious. They will run on second down. It will get bottled up. It will set up a third-and-long play call with the clock ticking – the reason for the second-down run. Third-down conversions should be broken down by the reasonable assumption that they should be converted. Third-and-5 or less? Those should be converted. Third-and-6 or more? Not so much.

The Vikings dialed back against the Panthers and, for the first time in his NFL career, Ponder was an effective first-down passer. He completed four of seven passes for 86 yards – converting all four of his first-down completions into subsequent first downs.

If Ponder has learned anything from McNabb, it should be how to move the ball forward on first down. To date, Ponder has completed 9 of 27 passes (33 percent) for 192 yards with one touchdown and one interception on first-and-10 plays. That's a 56.4 passer rating. In all other circumstances, he has completed 31 of 50 passes (62 percent) for 362 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for an 88.9 rating. McNabb completed 34 of 48 passes on first down for 343 yards with one touchdown and one interception. In all other circumstances, he completed 59 of 108 passes (50 percent) for 704 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

What do the numbers tell us? Unless Ponder can be more McNabb-like on first down, keep running Peterson – good, bad or otherwise.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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\r\n\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":" So what are the primary differences between the Vikings with Donovan McNabb at quarterback and Christian Ponder? The answer may be how the coaching staff has approached first down. The Vikings have been as predictable as just about any team in the league when it comes to how they approach first down. While coaches and players will preach about establishing the running game, through the first eight weeks of the 2011 NFL season, 18 of the league's 32 teams have thrown as often or more often than they have run on first down. The most lopsided teams have been the Seahawks, Saints and Eagles. Seattle has run the ball on first down just 38.1 percent, a fraction of a percent below the nearly identical 38.1 percent New Orleans has run that ball. Philadelphia isn't far behind, running of first down just 38.8 percent of the time. Then you have the other side of the spectrum. Fourteen teams – the Vikings, along with Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco – have run the ball more than they have thrown on first down. In most cases, it has made perfect sense. They are teams that either have a power running game that is their mantra or they have a young quarterback that requires teams to run more often. The Vikings have been one of the most run-heavy teams on first down in the league – running the ball on 57.7 percent of their first-and-10 plays. For the purposes of this analysis, first-and-goal situations or first downs impacted by penalties (either a first-and-20 or first-and-5) were eliminated. In those situations, only two teams have run the ball on first down with more frequency – Jacksonville (61.9 percent) and Houston (57.9 percent). In all three cases, the rationale has made sense. The Vikings have Adrian Peterson as the centerpiece of its offense. The Texans have Arian Foster, as well as being without primary receiver Andre Johnson the last four games. The Jaguars have Maurice Jones-Drew and a rookie quarterback. In each case, the decision to run on first down has been the right move. For the Vikings, however, it has been confusing to explain their run-pass selection on first down, when defenses have been conditioned to expect running plays. Primarily with Adrian Peterson on the receiving end of the handoffs, only four of them have popped for 15 yards or more and two of them haven't been from Peterson – a 23-yard run by Percy Harvin and a 23-yard scramble by Donovan McNabb. Peterson has had a 54-yard run and a 15-yarder, but, for the most part, running on first down has been bad news for the Vikings. Of the 116 times the Vikings have run in first-and-10 situations, they have gained four yards or less on 83 of them – about three of every four times. On 51 of them – about 45 percent – they have gained two yards or less – setting up second-and-long situations. For most offenses, running the ball results in two to four yards two-thirds of the time. Occasionally, a runner will break one – 15 of the 116 first-down rushes have gone for 10 yards or more – but the plan is to set up a second-and-5 or less for a first-down run to be successful. By that measure, the Vikings have been successful about 30 percent of the time. So why have the Vikings run so much on first down? Because the passing has failed? Sadly, the answer is \"no\" – at least not when McNabb was quarterbacking. It would appear that it was the design of the play – short dump-offs, screens to running backs, quick-hitters on slants or bubble screens behind the line to wide receivers – that were the culprit for the lack of big-gainers with McNabb at quarterback. Up until the time McNabb was yanked from the Chicago game and the future of the Vikings offense became the present, he had completed 34 of 48 passes in first-and-10 situations – an impressive 71 percent – for 343 yards with one touchdown and one interception, which came on his first pass as a Viking. Whether by design or not, McNabb's passing numbers on normal first-down situations were spectacular, especially when compared to what he did in every other situation other than first-and-10 setups. The conventional wisdom would be that the first-down scenario would be much more wide open with a veteran quarterback than with a rookie, but, in the Bill Musgrave offense, the opposite has been true. McNabb's numbers when passing on first-and-10 situations, using play-action with Peterson to freeze linebackers was incredibly effective. The week-to-week numbers bear this out. In the six games he played, McNabb's standard first-down passing numbers were as follows: 4-2-14-0-1 12-9-105-0-0 11-8-62-0-0 5-4-55-1-0 6-3-34-0-0 10-8-73-0-0 McNabb's passer rating on first down was 89, far better than his overall passer rating. Given the repetitive nature of the NFL – if it works, don't mess with it – it would stand to reason that the Vikings would have continued the practice of throwing on first down. In a bizarro world, you set up Peterson by throwing on first down. Considering how inept the Vikings offense was during McNabb's run as the starter, the one thing he clearly had going for him was throwing on first-and-10. One of the downsides of throwing on first-and-10 is that, if the pass is an incompletion and the clock stops, you now face second-and-10, and the last thing any offensive coordinator wants to do is face the prospect of three straight incompletions and punting after allowing less than 30 seconds to roll off the game clock. As a result, second-and-10 running plays happen about 80 percent of the time. Don't take our word for it, just notice what happens on second-and-10. Every defense knows it's coming. How those runs gain yards is hard to fathom given the propensity to be runs, but, failure on a first down pass come with significant consequences. To his credit, McNabb had just 14 incompletions in those situations. Ponder hasn't been as fortunate. In his relief appearance at Chicago, Ponder came in the game in the fourth quarter and had nothing to lose. He knew the play calls were going to be pass-heavy. So did the Bears. He threw five times on first down, completing two of them for 19 yards. Not good. Not dismal. As players are wont to say, it is what it is. Then came Green Bay. If ever there was a time that one would think it would be the redundant A.D. all day, that was it. Peterson early. Peterson late. Peterson everywhere in the middle. Instead, the Vikings went with the classic \"You know that I know that you know that I know\" approach. The Packers were expecting a heavy dose of Peterson on first down. Instead, Ponder threw in standard first-and-10 situations a season-high 13 times. He completed just three of them. The first was the 73-yard \"let's roll\" bomb to Michael Jenkins on the first play of the game. The other was a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins midway through the fourth quarter with the Vikings down by 13 points. The rest of the day, he completed one of 11 passes for zero yards – actually, he completed two of them, but one was to Charles Woodson. Fan memories of that game were based more on Ponder converting third downs – a problem for McNabb for his tenure as starter – not his woeful first-down passing numbers (outside of a \"catch them sleeping\" gimmick play and a prevent defense-inspired touchdown). The problem with first-down incompletions is obvious. They will run on second down. It will get bottled up. It will set up a third-and-long play call with the clock ticking – the reason for the second-down run. Third-down conversions should be broken down by the reasonable assumption that they should be converted. Third-and-5 or less? Those should be converted. Third-and-6 or more? Not so much. The Vikings dialed back against the Panthers and, for the first time in his NFL career, Ponder was an effective first-down passer. He completed four of seven passes for 86 yards – converting all four of his first-down completions into subsequent first downs. If Ponder has learned anything from McNabb, it should be how to move the ball forward on first down. To date, Ponder has completed 9 of 27 passes (33 percent) for 192 yards with one touchdown and one interception on first-and-10 plays. That's a 56.4 passer rating. In all other circumstances, he has completed 31 of 50 passes (62 percent) for 362 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for an 88.9 rating. McNabb completed 34 of 48 passes on first down for 343 yards with one touchdown and one interception. In all other circumstances, he completed 59 of 108 passes (50 percent) for 704 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. What do the numbers tell us? Unless Ponder can be more McNabb-like on first down, keep running Peterson – good, bad or otherwise. 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