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Was Your Team Better Off Running or Throwing in Short Yardage Situations in 2015?

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Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The conventional wisdom is that teams are better off running than throwing in short yardage situations. If you need one yard, it should not be tough to pick it up on a run. Throwing it risks an incomplete pass.

I was wondering whether or not this was actually true. Since most defenses think this way, are they particularly vulnerable against the pass? And running might be tougher than you think. Since the quarterback and running back aren't blocking anybody, you have two defenders potentially unblocked. On most plays, the defense has to leave people deep to guard against the big play so that isn't a big deal. In a short yardage situation, though, the defense can use less caution and commit more defenders to the line of scrimmage.

With this in mind, I plugged into Pro Football Reference's Game Play Finder every time a team faced a third or fourth and one in 2015.

The results will probably not excite you much. Sometimes you find the conventional wisdom is wrong. In this case, it was right. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Teams converted 69.8% of their short yardage downs when they ran it against just 59.8% of their passes.
  • On the whole, teams ran the ball 72.2% of the time in these situations so the pass should have caught them off guard, while the run was expected.
  • The Jets actually were one of eight teams to convert at a higher rate throwing it than running it. Gang Green converted 71.4% throwing it against 62.5% running it.
  • The other teams to be more efficient passing it than running it were Seattle, Atlanta, Cleveland, Arizona, Miami, Jacksonville, Baltimore, and the Giants.
  • You can only read so much into this since the Jets only threw it 7 times in these situations. One thing dragging down the rushing number might have been Chris Ivory. Ivory was over 70% converting in his career entering 2015 but only converted 46.7% of the time last year.
  • San Francisco and Tennessee were the only teams to throw more than they ran in these situations.
  • St. Louis was the only team to not throw once in these situations.
The full results are posted below so that you can play around with the numbers further.
Tm Run Plays Run Tm Pass Plays Pass
ARI 21 66.70% ARI 12 75.00%
ATL 22 72.70% ATL 10 80.00%
BAL 31 51.60% BAL 10 80.00%
BUF 22 68.20% BUF 3 0.00%
CAR 27 81.50% CAR 5 60.00%
CHI 22 68.20% CHI 4 50.00%
CIN 21 61.90% CIN 5 60.00%
CLE 15 66.70% CLE 14 71.40%
DAL 18 66.70% DAL 5 20.00%
DEN 18 66.70% DEN 6 33.30%
DET 16 68.80% DET 13 61.50%
GNB 25 60.00% GNB 9 44.40%
HOU 15 80.00% HOU 8 75.00%
IND 22 63.60% IND 10 40.00%
JAX 16 56.30% JAX 8 87.50%
KAN 26 73.10% KAN 4 25.00%
MIA 15 60.00% MIA 6 66.70%
MIN 13 76.90% MIN 2 50.00%
NOR 22 77.30% NOR 5 60.00%
NWE 27 74.10% NWE 12 50.00%
NYG 18 50.00% NYG 11 54.50%
NYJ 24 62.50% NYJ 7 71.40%
OAK 16 75.00% OAK 5 60.00%
PHI 26 88.50% PHI 7 57.10%
PIT 16 62.50% PIT 10 60.00%
SDG 23 73.90% SDG 7 57.10%
SEA 29 79.30% SEA 5 100.00%
SFO 15 73.30% SFO 16 62.50%
STL 15 73.30% STL 0 N/A
TAM 18 77.80% TAM 7 57.10%
TEN 12 50.00% TEN 15 46.70%
WAS 21 71.40% WAS 8 62.50%