The NFL's Best and Worst Teams on Fourth Down in 2015

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has shown an affinity to gamble on fourth downs, but just how good was Carolina on them this year?

Where were you, Riverboat Ron, when you were needed the most?

There were some moments in Super Bowl 50 that were extraordinarily bad for the Carolina Panthers, such as the offensive line doing nothing to hold up the Denver Broncos’ pass rush multiple times and kicker Graham Gano missing a manageable field goal in a tight game.

The playcalling was just as egregious, though, as head coach Ron Rivera -- who earned his Mississippi steamboat moniker thanks to his penchant for “risking it” on fourth down -- punted the ball away three times on fourth-and-short in what could have been tempo-changing situations.

Punters are people too, but  giving away the ball means giving away points.

If the Panthers had played with a little more risk in the game, perhaps their fortunes would have been different.

Because of all this, I got to wondering which teams were the best and worst at attempting and defending fourth-down attempts in 2015.

Was this safe play defensible after all, or should Riverboat Ron have rolled the dice?

Four-Down Territory: Fourth-Down Offense

One of the most crucial decisions in a game can be whether or not to “go for it” on fourth down, especially when the outcome of the game hinges on the play. We’ve seen previously, however, that it usually makes more sense -- both in terms of probability and value -- to play with four downs instead of punting the ball away.

Which teams excelled with this strategy, and which fell flat?

By using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can suss out exactly which teams added the most value on fourth downs this season.

NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team fared versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If a team gains five yards on 4th-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 4th-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the top 10 teams in the NFL in Total NEP per-play on fourth downs, as well as their fourth down Success Rate (percentage of plays with positive NEP added).

Team NEP Per Play Success Rate
Jacksonville 2.00 (1st) 53.33% (12th)
Seattle 1.94 (2nd) 88.89% (1st)
Indianapolis 1.28 (3rd) 53.85% (11th)
Carolina 1.28 (4th) 60.00% (5th)
Kansas City 1.23 (5th) 66.67% (2nd)
New York Giants 1.14 (6th) 56.25% (10th)
New Orleans 0.86 (7th) 62.50% (3rd)
Washington 0.85 (8th) 58.33% (8th)
Cincinnati 0.80 (9th) 61.54% (4th)
Minnesota 0.68 (10th) 45.45% (22nd)
NFL Average 0.30 49.17%

Somewhat shockingly, it appears that the Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the best teams on fourth down this season, as they put up big per-play value both when passing and rushing. The context to this is that they were tied for second in most touchdowns scored on fourth down (3), and those scores came thanks to the Jaguars trailing big in a ton of games this year. The 54.55 percent Passing Success Rate and 50.00 percent Rushing Success Rate is fairly damning of both quarterback Blake Bortles and the running game, led by T.J. Yeldon. Their big value is undermined by their lack of consistency.

The second-best team in value is by far the best team in terms of consistency, as the Seattle Seahawks’ 88.89 Total Success Rate was almost 25 percent better than the second-place team in this metric. They contributed a per-play Total NEP value near the Jaguars’ lofty mark, but they did it a reliable eight times out of nine in 2015. The ‘Hawks and quarterback Russell Wilson had the only 100 percent Passing Success Rate on fourth down in the NFL this year, but this was partially due to their tied-for-lowest total attempts on fourth down (9).

The Panthers, too, did admirably in fourth-down conversions, with the fourth-most per-play value added, and the fifth-best conversion rate for positive NEP. Why they didn’t attempt at least one fourth-down swing is beyond me, with solid rates like this.

The table below shows the five worst teams in Total NEP per-play on fourth downs.

Team NEP Per Play Success Rate
Oakland -0.53 (28th) 38.46% (27th)
Pittsburgh -0.59 (29th) 33.33% (31st)
Arizona -0.65 (30th) 44.44% (23rd)
Houston -0.83 (31st) 31.58% (32nd)
St. Louis -1.03 (32nd) 35.71% (29th)
NFL Average 0.30 49.17%

Hold the Line: Fourth-Down Defense

We know now who was the best in the biz on converting their own fourth down attempts, but we still don’t know which teams were the best at stopping other fourth down attempts. The table below shows the ten teams that allowed the lowest Total NEP on a per-play basis on fourth downs in 2015. Were there teams that truly outperformed the others?

Team NEP Per Play Success Rate
Seattle -2.77 (1st) 14.29% (1st)
Atlanta -1.47 (2nd) 33.33% (t-4th)
Miami -1.18 (3rd) 33.33% (t-4th)
St. Louis -0.95 (4th) 26.67% (3rd)
Pittsburgh -0.83 (5th) 34.62% (6th)
Chicago -0.58 (6th) 41.67% (9th)
Tennessee -0.46 (7th) 38.46% (8th)
Buffalo -0.35 (8th) 23.08% (2nd)
Denver -0.24 (9th) 35.71% (7th)
New England -0.16 (10th) 42.11% (10th)
NFL Average 0.30 49.17%

The Seahawks were clearly the league’s best team on fourth down, whether it was offensive or defensive. Sure, the fact that only seven fourth down plays were attempted against them helps (second-lowest count), but they allowed no Passing Successes with a series on the line. Cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas, strong safety Kam Chancellor, and the Legion of Boom deserve our praise -- and they definitely deserved the paydays they got recently.

The Atlanta Falcons were arguably the NFL’s second-best defense on fourth down, with their secondary also holding up well in these situations. Their -2.13 Defensive Passing NEP per play ranked third-lowest in the league, and their 18.18 percent Passing Success Rate allowed was the fifth-lowest. There are no superstars in that cast of characters, but it appears that defensive end Vic Beasley is starting to help key the pass rush after all.

The Broncos also make an appearance on a top-10 list here on the defensive side. That said, they’re certainly not a ridiculous defense for the Panthers to try to exploit, ranking just ninth on fourth down Total NEP allowed per play. The Panthers would have been ill-advised to attempt to pass on them (fourth in Defensive Passing NEP per play, third in Passing Success Rate allowed), but the Broncos were allowing the second-most Rushing NEP per attempt and had a 100.00 percent Rushing Success Rate allowed. The Panthers ranked sixth in Rushing NEP per attempt on fourth down but had a middling Rushing Success Rate.

The five worst teams in Defensive Total NEP per play on fourth down are below.

Team NEP Per Play Success Rate
Tampa Bay 1.72 (28th) 66.67% (t-27th)
Detroit 1.93 (t-29th) 62.50% (26th)
Indianapolis 1.93 (t-29th) 71.43% (30th)
New Orleans 1.98 (31st) 76.92% (31st)
San Diego  2.86 (32nd) 87.50% (32nd)
NFL Average 0.30 49.17%


While it’s clear that the Panthers had been strong on fourth downs this season, the Denver Broncos had quarterback Cam Newton's number all game and might have unleashed an even heavier blitz (somehow) on fourth down to blow up any play the Panthers would have called.

Could the tide of this game have shifted with a few choice conversions or risks taken? Yes.

Are we sure it would have? No. But with the odds high enough -- and the stakes so much higher -- it was a risk worth taking.