Pressure by Number of Pass-Rushers 2017
by Scott Kacsmar
After looking at quarterbacks and defensive performance with and without pass pressure in 2017, the final part of our pressure study focuses on the splits by the number of pass-rushers. After all, a three-man rush is not as likely to produce a pressure as a blitz.
With the help of charting from Sports Info Solutions and ESPN Stats & Info, we broke pass-rushing splits into four groups: standard four-man pressure, blitzes (five or more pass-rushers), rushes of two or three players, and all plays with a defensive back (DB) blitz. We also keep track of big blitzes (six-plus rushers), but that's the least commonly used strategy, with a frequency of 6 percent. The 2017 Saints had last year's highest rate of big blitzes at 12 percent. Data and references to big blitzes can be found in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, but we are not going to run a table below for that strategy.
The four-man rush is used 66 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent for blitzes of five-plus rushers. The three-man rush was only used 8 percent of the time, but six teams used it at least 15 percent of the time last year. The tables below show the frequency, pressure rate, and DVOA for each different type of rush. The tables are sorted by descending DVOA. Note that "DB blitzes" cross over with the other three categories. Sometimes they have four pass-rushers, sometimes five or more, and very rarely they have three.
It is always nice to be able to pressure without blitzing, but the coverage still has to be there for that to work. For example, Dallas had the best pressure rate (35.4 percent) with a four-man rush, but was a mediocre 16th in DVOA after a season that saw none of its defensive backs (save for Byron Jones) chart well in coverage. It was somewhat surprising to see the Rams have a below-average pressure rate (ranked 21st) with a four-man rush, but they still finished No. 2 in DVOA. One would assume the coverage can only get better after adding Marcus Peters (ball magnet) and Aqib Talib (ranked third in adjusted yards per pass last year), but Ndamukong Suh has never played in a Wade Phillips' style 3-4 defense before. It will be interesting to see if Suh and Aaron Donald attack as well when lined up as defensive ends instead of pairing together in their more natural position of defensive tackle.
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Cincinnati and Jacksonville were the only defenses to use a four-man rush more than 80 percent of the time, but the Bengals were nowhere close to being able to cover as well as Jacksonville's secondary. That's why the Bengals were 20th in DVOA despite the fourth-highest pressure rate with a four-man rush. With veteran Adam Jones gone, this is a big year for those three former first-round picks (Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson) to step up.
Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay had the weakest pass rush with a four-man rush, which it used 77.3 percent of the time. That strategy should be more viable this year with the defensive line additions of Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, and Vita Vea. If we're still writing next year about Tampa Bay's pass rush disappointing, then you can guarantee we'll also be writing about replacements for head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith. No pressure, guys.
Blitzes (Five or More Rushers)
|Defense||5+ Pass Rushers (Blitzes)|
Jacksonville's four-man rush was obviously effective, with the third-best pressure rate and best DVOA. That's why they used a standard four-man rush more frequently than any other defense at 83.7 percent. They blitzed the least frequently of any team in the league, (14.3 percent) but they were very impressive when blitzing too, producing the second-highest pressure rate and third-best DVOA. The coverage of the Ravens and Vikings helped them to the top two spots in DVOA when blitzing, because neither had an impressive pressure rate (ranked 25th and 26th). The Eagles didn't blitz often (26th in frequency), but when they did it was very effective, with a No. 4 ranking in both pressure rate and DVOA.
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Carolina was the blitz-happiest defense at 42.7 percent, but produced mediocre results with the blitz, especially compared to the four-man rush where the Panthers ranked ninth in DVOA. To get back to Cincinnati, the Bengals probably should have considered blitzing more as they ranked sixth in pressure rate and fifth in DVOA, but only used it 15.2 percent of the time (ranked 31st).
Two of the least effective blitzing defenses last year also featured two of the youngest secondaries: Cleveland (25th in snap-weighted age) and Green Bay (29th). Those were the only two defenses to rank in the top 12 in blitz frequency, but in the bottom 12 in DVOA. The Browns liked to send pressure (No. 2 in frequency) in chasing that elusive first win, but that's also a common trait of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Green Bay was No. 7 in frequency, but just 24th in pressure rate and 26th in DVOA. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a disciple of Rex Ryan, may want to dial things back a bit this year given the inexperience still in that secondary. The revamped defensive line (Muhammad Wilkerson joining Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels) may have to become the strength of the pass rush.
The following plays include plays where just two defenders rushed, but we are generally viewing this as a three-man rush.
|Defense||2-3 Pass Rushers|
Some trends from 2016 carried over into 2017. Namely, the Patriots love the three-man rush more than anyone, and the Eagles are great at it (best DVOA), but rarely ever use it. Part of New England's interest in it is to protect leads, but the Colts and Giants -- two teams that combined for seven wins -- were also among the top five defenses in using that strategy.
Carolina was wise to almost never use the three-man rush, because it produced the second-worst pressure rate (18 percent) and the worst DVOA (81.7%) when doing so. In the category of "ass-backwards coaching," John Fox's Bears had the worst pressure rate (16 percent) with a three-man rush, but still used it more than all but five defenses. Let's hope that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio fixes that, because he is the one staying after Fox was fired.
Defensive Back Blitzes
This includes any play where a defensive back rushed the passer, no matter how many pass-rushers the defense actually used.
|Defense||Defensive Back Blitzes|
The DB blitz was very much an AFC North thing with the Browns (16.0 percent), Steelers (14.8 percent), and Ravens (14.2 percent) all ranking among the top four in frequency. Baltimore was the most successful by DVOA. The Seahawks had the best pressure rate, but they only used DB blitzes on 3.5 percent of plays, less than any team except Atlanta (2.4 percent). That's not likely a coincidence given that Atlanta coach Dan Quinn used to be Pete Carroll's defensive coordinator in Seattle. We'd say that maybe Seattle should blitz more defensive backs this year, but we'll first have to learn who those players are after the departures of Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
The Colts had the third-highest pressure rate on DB blitzes, but finished 32nd in DVOA. This is similar to the overall pressure results where the Colts were No. 9 in pressure rate, but 30th in DVOA with pressure. Only Dallas (second in pressure rate, 25th in DVOA with pressure) had a bigger difference, so the Colts' coverage was still exposed even when the rush got there. It is worth noting that Indianapolis' new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus just spent the last seven seasons coaching linebackers in Dallas. Hopefully he'll shake this trend from his defenses last year.
8 comments, Last at 19 Jul 2018, 3:15am
#1 by Mountain Time … // Jul 07, 2018 - 4:03am
That JAC D won't ever get the recognition they deserve unless they do it again in 2018 and/or '19, and maybe not even then. The franchise had been the Browns for so long it's still funny thinking of them as good. I don't really go to bars anymore so I didn't ever get to see a Jags game last year until the playoffs, but I'm rooting for them now that they ditched the awful helmets.
#3 by Bright Blue Shorts // Jul 08, 2018 - 5:00pm
That's a rather harsh knock on Jags.
Four years before the Browns, Jacksonville were an expansion team that had to compete with the Panthers for what was going in the expansion draft. They were very successful in their first five years and then had another good spell under Jack Del Rio - in tough a division with Peyton Manning. That opening decade or so is nothing like the Browns.
Yes, the 2010s have been dire and the team held onto Gus Bradley too long but equally you can argue that at least they haven't done the Browns thing of changing HC/GM every 1-2 years. Even in his worst season Bradley still managed two wins which is something Hue Jackson aspires to.
#2 by ssereb // Jul 07, 2018 - 8:41pm
People keep talking about the Baltimore pass rush collapsing as soon as Suggs decides to hang it up but from what I'm seeing, their coverage seems to hold up no matter who's rushing, and the rushers don't find their target all that frequently.
#4 by coboney // Jul 08, 2018 - 10:33pm
Because while they don't get a ton of sacks they do generate above average pressure - as shown above there in the stats. So if they lose Suggs will that fall down from around 13 to say 20 and then that means the coverage has to hold longer.
#5 by ssereb // Jul 09, 2018 - 12:45pm
The article from last week about how defenses performed with and without pressure had their overall pressure rate at 30.6%, 21st in the league. Not bad, but still below the median. When they didn't get pressure, they were a respectable sixth in the league, just behind teams like the Jags, Vikings, and Rams. When they got pressure, they became unstoppable (first in the league, -100% DVOA), but they did pretty well regardless. This article shows that they were somehow the best defense in the league when blitzing either from the front seven or with defensive backs, even though their blitzes only created pressure about as frequently as the Dolphins, Lions, or Jets. They also did extremely well with the standard four rushers, despite only getting pressure at a league-average rate. The only time they had an above-average pressure rate was when they only rushed two or three guys, and like every other team except the Patriots, they didn't do that very often. What all this says to me is that it's a defense that excels when it gets pressure but thrives regardless.
#6 by ChrisS // Jul 09, 2018 - 1:28pm
Useful and interesting work. One small criticism, in the 2-3 man rush table including all the teams is probably obscuring any useful information. There should be a minimum number of plays to be included. The distribution is so wide (160% DVOA) and the best and worst teams each used this defense about 2% of the time (about 12 plays based on avg pass plays per team) so their results are likely skewed by 1 or 2 extreme plays. So if you set the bar at 30 or so plays (about 5%) you might get a table that more reflects team ability and down plays luck.