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The Chiefs’ third-down success makes them a Super Bowl contender

In 2022, Kansas City has been good in a critical area.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

During the time I have been watching the Kansas City Chiefs at a deeper level, I have always looked for statistical trends. I love looking at where the Chiefs rank in statistical categories — and then compare that to what successful NFL teams have previously done. Depending on the metric, it can help us can draw conclusions about how Kansas City is doing in certain areas of the game.

I love looking at third downs — especially in the modern NFL. It’s my favorite bucket of plays because it eliminates most schematic factors; defenses are more likely to play tight man coverage, while offenses are more limited to true dropback scenarios. So third down represents a personnel battle rather than a schematic one; while system players can win on first and second down, it takes truly elite players to win on third down.

So I decided to see how the Chiefs have been doing on third down in 2022 — and some of the numbers are staggering. Let me show you why these numbers make the team a true contender this season.

Offensive success

Over the last few years, reading Arrowhead Pride film reviews inspired me to keep track of success rate statistics. I like to see what they are on both sides of the ball — and break them down by quarter and down and by down-and-distance.

Here’s how success rate is determined in different situations. Penalties are not included.

  • On first down: the play gains at least 50% of the yards required to convert
  • On second down: the play gains 70% of the yards required to convert
  • On third and fourth down: the play gains 100% of the yards required to convert

Here’s how that looks for Kansas City in 2022.

Quarter Yds Yds/Ply Success
Q1 531 5.6 52.63%
Q2 783 6.1 50.78%
Q2 2 Min 175 6.5 40.74%
Q3 890 7.6 52.14%
Q4 624 6.4 41.84%
Q4 2 Min 36 4.5 37.50%
Down Yds Yds/Ply Success
1st Down 1168 5.7 44.66%
2nd Down 891 6.0 52.03%
3rd Down 757 9.7 52.56%
4th Down 12 3.0 75.00%
Distance Yds Yds/Ply Success
1st and 10+ 44 5.5 37.50%
1st and 10 1089 6.2 43.75%
1st and 6-9 23 3.8 33.33%
1st and 5-less 12 0.8 62.50%
2nd and 12+ 111 10.1 45.45%
2nd and 8-11 437 7.0 48.39%
2nd and 7-4 265 5.8 54.35%
2nd and 3-1 78 2.5 51.61%
3rd and 12+ 126 14.0 33.33%
3rd and 8-11 294 16.3 61.11%
3rd and 7-4 223 8.9 48.00%
3rd and 3-1 114 4.4 57.69%
4th and 12+ 0 0.0 0.00%
4th and 8-11 0 0.0 0.00%
4th and 7-4 0 0.0 0.00%
4th and 3-1 12 3.0 75.00%
TOTAL 2828 6.5 48.85%

After seven games, the one area that stands out is third down. On offense, the Chiefs are averaging 9.7 yards per play on third down — with a 52.6% success rate that is second only to the Cincinnati Bengals. In EPA (expected points added) per play, Kansas City leads the league on third down.

The Chiefs are very efficient on third down with between four and seven yards to go. There, the team has been averaging 8.9 yards per play — with a 48% success rate.

But what’s even more jarring is what Kansas City has done when even more yardage has been required. On 18 third downs at distances between eight and 11 yards, the Chiefs have converted 61.1% of their attempts. While that — by itself — is an insane figure, the Chiefs have also been averaging an astonishing 16.1 yards per attempt in these situations.

It’s just not normal for a team to be more efficient on longer third downs — but the Chiefs’ offense breaks math.

Then I decided to look at the third-down EPA and success rate numbers for teams that made a conference championship game in each of the last 10 years. I chose this criterion because if a team makes it to a conference championship game, you can reasonably say it was a Super Bowl-caliber team in that season.

Here are the offensive numbers for those teams.

Team EPA/Ply Rnk Success Rnk
2012 Patriots 0.292 1 52.70% 1
2012 Ravens -0.025 17 41.50% 19
2012 49ers -0.038 18 40.00% 24
2012 Falcons 0.120 8 48.80% 6
2013 Broncos 0.235 3 49.30% 3
2013 Patriots -0.047 19 44.40% 11
2013 Seahawks -0.117 23 41.20% 17
2013 49ers 0.077 9 40.70% 20
2014 Colts 0.101 11 44.20% 17
2014 Patriots 0.115 9 48.50% 8
2014 Seahawks 0.111 10 46.50% 11
2014 Packers 0.345 1 52.70% 2
2015 Patriots 0.003 12 41.80% 21
2015 Broncos -0.184 25 38.90% 28
2015 Panthers 0.152 4 47.60% 5
2015 Cardinals 0.238 2 50.00% 2
2016 Steelers 0.092 8 44.10% 14
2016 Patriots 0.375 1 51.50% 1
2016 Packers 0.26 2 50.00% 3
2016 Falcons 0.163 6 48.70% 8
2017 Jaguars -0.111 21 41.10% 23
2017 Patriots 0.085 6 46.50% 5
2017 Vikings 0.111 4 46.30% 7
2017 Eagles 0.215 1 48.30% 3
2018 Chiefs 0.436 1 52.70% 2
2018 Patriots 0.002 14 46.00% 12
2018 Rams 0.096 9 47.90% 8
2018 Saints 0.152 6 52.40% 3
2019 Chiefs 0.304 1 50.90% 2
2019 Titans 0.000 17 42.90% 18
2019 Packers 0.004 15 44.20% 15
2019 49ers 0.191 7 52.10% 1
2020 Chiefs 0.332 2 53.70% 3
2020 Bills 0.220 6 54.00% 2
2020 Packers 0.442 1 55.20% 1
2020 Buccaneers 0.331 3 51.30% 4
2021 Chiefs 0.338 1 57.30% 1
2021 Bengals 0.062 15 46.00% 14
2021 Rams 0.129 7 48.60% 8
2021 49ers 0.124 8 46.90% 13
2022 Chiefs 0.537 1 52.56% 3
Average 0.153 8.2 47.80% 9.0

Over the last 10 years, 38% of teams that made conference championship games were ranked in the top 5 for offensive EPA on third down. If we expand that to the top 10, 70% of teams fit the criteria. We see similar results with success rate, with 45% of teams ranking in the top 5 and 60% in the top 10.

Over the last decade, 14 championship-game offenses have been top 5 in both EPA and success rate. Seven of those teams made the Super Bowl — including four winners (the 2016 New England Patriots, 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, 2019 Chiefs and 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers). With the Chiefs ranked currently ranked first in EPA and third in success rate, they’re well set up to make another Super Bowl.

Defensive numbers

Here are the 2022 numbers for the Kansas City defense.

Quarter Yds Yds/Ply Success
Q1 620 6.1 47.52%
Q2 635 5.2 59.50%
Q2 2 Min 162 4.2 69.23%
Q3 514 5.8 35.96%
Q4 789 5.4 51.72%
Q4 2 Min 179 5.3 55.88%
Down Yds Yds/Ply Success
1st Down 1077 5.4 55.50%
2nd Down 986 6.5 47.37%
3rd Down 368 4.1 57.30%
4th Down 127 7.9 43.75%
Distance Yds Yds/Ply Success
1st and 10+ 56 5.6 60.00%
1st and 10 1011 5.6 54.19%
1st and 6-9 2 1.0 100.00%
1st and 5-less 8 0.9 66.67%
2nd and 12+ 114 7.1 62.50%
2nd and 8-11 393 6.7 42.37%
2nd and 7-4 288 6.9 47.62%
2nd and 3-1 191 5.5 40.00%
3rd and 12+ 74 6.7 90.91%
3rd and 8-11 79 5.6 50.00%
3rd and 7-4 90 3.3 70.37%
3rd and 3-1 125 3.4 40.54%
4th and 12+ 0 0.0 0.00%
4th and 8-11 0 0.0 0.00%
4th and 7-4 13 6.5 0.00%
4th and 3-1 114 8.1 53.85%
TOTAL 2558 5.6 52.74%

So it’s not just the Chiefs' offense that is playing well on third down. Kansas City has been successful on 57.3% of its defensive third downs, which ranks 12th in the league. The team is also 10th in third-down defensive EPA per play at -0.098. (In defensive EPA, negative numbers are better than positive numbers). While the defense hasn’t reached the same lofty heights as the team’s offense, the third-down defense has nonetheless been good this year.

This aligns with what prior defenses under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Since 2019, the Chiefs’ defense has ranked 12th, 11th, 12th — and now 10th — in third-down EPA. In defensive success rate, Kansas City ranked 15th, 15th, 10th — and now 12th. While the defense hasn’t been a top-tier unit on third down, it has consistently performed above average.

Similar to the Chiefs’ offense, the Kansas City defense has also been great on third down with between four and seven yards to go. On 27 such downs, the Chiefs have surrendered only 3.3 yards per attempt, with an outstanding 70.4% success rate.

Considering some of the injuries the Chiefs have had in their secondary, those numbers are remarkable.

Here’s how Super Bowl-caliber defenses have performed on third down during the last decade.

Team EPA/Ply Rnk Success Rnk
2012 Patriots -0.041 13 58.00% 13
2012 Ravens -0.214 4 58.70% 9
2012 49ers -0.225 2 62.80% 2
2012 Falcons -0.094 8 58.70% 8
2013 Broncos 0.140 27 57.90% 15
2013 Patriots 0.116 25 55.00% 25
2013 Seahawks -0.307 2 57.70% 17
2013 49ers -0.129 8 61.00% 7
2014 Colts -0.201 4 61.40% 3
2014 Patriots 0.087 22 54.10% 21
2014 Seahawks -0.201 5 59.00% 9
2014 Packers -0.102 7 55.00% 17
2015 Patriots -0.135 11 59.60% 10
2015 Broncos -0.187 7 60.20% 9
2015 Panthers -0.111 12 55.70% 19
2015 Cardinals -0.261 3 60.70% 8
2016 Steelers 0.038 22 55.70% 18
2016 Patriots -0.101 9 59.40% 5
2016 Packers 0.025 19 54.40% 24
2016 Falcons 0.036 21 55.00% 20
2017 Jaguars -0.340 2 62.20% 3
2017 Patriots -0.08 14 56.40% 18
2017 Vikings -0.428 1 69.60% 1
2017 Eagles -0.247 3 61.70% 4
2018 Chiefs 0.126 23 52.80% 25
2018 Patriots -0.101 13 59.80% 7
2018 Rams -0.055 15 56.60% 17
2018 Saints 0.134 25 52.00% 26
2019 Chiefs -0.067 12 56.70% 15
2019 Titans 0.013 17 59.60% 6
2019 Packers -0.094 10 56.90% 13
2019 49ers -0.127 5 59.90% 4
2020 Chiefs -0.004 11 55.10% 15
2020 Bills -0.115 6 56.40% 9
2020 Packers 0.007 15 54.00% 16
2020 Buccaneers 0.038 17 56.70% 6
2021 Chiefs -0.061 12 57.40% 10
2021 Bengals 0.014 18 54.70% 14
2021 Rams 0.025 19 52.40% 23
2021 49ers 0.117 23 52.80% 22
2022 Chiefs -0.098 10 54.60% 12
Average -0.078 12.2 57.50% 12.8

Using the same criteria, 42.5% of all teams had a top-10 defensive EPA on third-down, while 47.5% were within the top 10. Here, the Kansas City defense is only slightly out of range.

14 championship-game defenses have ranked in the top 10 in both third-down EPA and success rate. Seven have made Super Bowls, including four winners (the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2015 Denver Broncos, 2016 Patriots and 2017 Eagles).

10 teams have been top 10 in third-down EPA on both offense and defense. Four have made Super Bowls, but only two have ended up winning it (the 2016 Patriots and 2017 Eagles). Using third-down success rate, nine teams have ranked top 10 in both offense and defense. Four of those made the Super Bowl. Those same two Patriots and Eagles teams won it.

While the Chiefs are slightly out of the top 10 on defense, some defensive improvements and better health could give the team a good chance to crack the top tier by the end of the season. If Kansas City can do that, it will be in even better shape for another Super Bowl.

The bottom line

Examining third-down stats allow us to remove some of the schematic crutches that coaches can present, helping us see which teams have better personnel. The differences between the good and great offenses come down to third down. On defense, the trends are similar: the best ones are able to get off the field on third down.

To begin the season, the Chiefs have been successful in both offensive and defensive third-down situations. In third-down offense, Kansas City is in historical territory. Having Patrick Mahomes will tend to help your third-down stats — but this season, he’s been at another level, posting a .698 EPA per dropback on third down. By far, that’s the best in the NFL.

It’s not just the offense, though. The defense once again is approaching the top 10 in EPA and success rate on third down. There are issues with Spagnuolo’s scheme, but it’s still been good on third down every season. Once some defensive players return from injury after the bye, there’s even a chance those numbers could improve.

Statistically, Kansas City is set up well to make another championship game. After that, the matchups will likely determine how the season will end. Still, statistical indications show the Chiefs have a great chance at making another deep postseason run.

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