NFL Analysis: Should Teams Pass or Rush When Backed Up Against Own Goal Line?

It's a common practice in the NFL that when your team is backed up against your own goal line, you run the ball to "give some breathing room." Often you'll see either a QB sneak or a handoff right up the middle. In fact, since 2000, teams have run the ball on 1st down from inside their own 3-yard line on 72.4% of all occasions.

We know that passing is the much more efficient option in today's NFL, so should teams actually be running the ball, using up one of their precious downs? A quarterback still has around 10 yards to work with when backed up against his own goal line, whereas a running back needs to ensure positive yardage -- plus he starts 5-7 yards behind the line-of-scrimmage on most occasions.

We're going to look at the track record in the league on passing and rushing plays using both EPA per play and safety percentage (% of plays on which a safety was recorded).

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As mentioned, teams run the ball 72.4% of the time on 1st down. On 2nd down, it's a lot closer to even where the rushing rate is 56.4%.  And on 3rd down, as expected, passing becomes the obligatory option, where teams run the ball only 34.8% of the time. 

Looking at efficiency, rushing efficiency goes from -0.36 EPA/P on 1st down to -0.24 on 2nd down and settles at 0.012 on third down. This could be due to a selection bias where teams are in more appropriate rushing situations on third down when they actually rush the ball. Passing, on the other hand, goes from -0.04 on 1st down to 0.02 on 2nd down to a respectable 0.13 on 3rd down. In other words, passing is the more efficient option on every single down.

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Similarly, pass safety percentage is significantly lower on 1st and 2nd down than run safety percentage. most passing safeties come on either penalties (often holding) or on a sack. On 3rd down, however, there is a steep increase in pass safety percentage. Teams are especially desperate on 3rd down, and in truth, taking a safety is not the worst case scenario in that situation. In fact, Bill Belichick is known for purposely taking a safety. Rather than punting and likely giving your opponent great starting field position, taking a safety is worth only 2 points -- not extremely significant in the high-flying touchdown league that is the NFL.

One thing to note is that you cannot tell from play-by-play exactly how close a team is to their own end zone. In the game, there is a large difference between having the ball on your 1-inch line versus having the ball on the 1-yard-and-1-inch line.

The numbers reveal, however, that like most situations, passing is the superior option. Who knows, you could even score a touchdown.

Keith Goldner is the creator of Drive-By Football, and Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform.  Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook.

Get more great NFL analysis over at Advanced NFL Stats.


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