2019 Slot vs Wide: Defenses
Over the past few weeks, we've looked at the league's slot-wide splits for wide receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs and tight ends, all in an effort to showcase just a small fraction of the data available in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020.
Today, we finish up by flipping to the defensive side of the ball with the help of the data that comes from the charting done by our friends at Sports Info Solutions. As a reminder, each player's position is based on where they were they lined up on the field, rather than relative to other wideouts. The outside receiver in a bunch formation close to the offensive line is still considered a slot receiver, as opposed to an outside receiver.
2019 Defense: Overall Slot v. Wide
Our first table looks at all targets each defense faced that were thrown to any player in the slot or out wide. We have listed each team's DVOA and number of passes against both slot and wide targets; the rate of passes to players in the slot as a share of passes to either slot or wide receivers (Slot%); and the difference in DVOA from wide to slot. As a reminder, negative DVOA means better defense.
Overall Defense, Slot vs. Wide, 2019
One thing to keep in mind when parsing this table is that defensive slot DVOA is more consistent from year-to-year than wide DVOA. The slot correlation between 2018 and 2019 was on the low end, historically -- just 0.15. That still was significantly higher than the 0.02 correlation in wide defensive DVOA, mind you.
Why the difference? Some of it might be sample size issues, with every team but Philadelphia facing more targets in the slot than out wide. Some of it may be the relative ease of avoiding a top boundary corner; if a defense has a particularly stellar defender on the outside, offenses can alter their play calling to attack the other side of the field, which is more difficult to do when facing nickel or dime corners or safeties up the middle. But I think the best theory comes from reader "Pat" last year, who posited that it's an issue of the number of players involved in defending each type of route. To massively oversimplify defensive strategy, a receiver split wide is often matched up against one wide corner, possibly with safety help over the top. A receiver in the slot might match up in man-to-man against a corner, or a safety, or a linebacker; against zone, their routes could take them past half the defense.
SIS charting listed 533 different players as being the primary defender against routes in the slot, including 120 players with at least 20 targets. Out wide, they listed 408 players in coverage, with 77 players with at least 20 targets. It would stand to reason that slot defense is more consistent from year to year because it has more component parts; losing or gaining one player or having one breakout or substandard season inside would have less impact than having one change to wide defense. I would doubt, strenuously, that this is the entire reason for the difference; football is more complicated than that. But it's likely at least playing a role here.
What that means going forward is that teams that struggled on the boundaries but had success inside may have reason to hope for improvement, so step forward, Minnesota, Denver, and Chicago -- you may be due for better pass defense seasons in 2020!
For the Vikings, replacing Xavier Rhodes and his league-worst 32% success rate with a wet dishrag would probably be an improvement, never mind replacing him with first-round pick Jeff Gladney. Then again, they're also replacing their two most prolific slot defenders (Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander), so it's fair to say that their defense is somewhat in flux going forwards. Denver's replacing Chris Harris (who struggled last season as primarily a wide defender) with A.J. Bouye, and it's possible the return of Bryce Callahan will help as well, though he was primarily a slot corner for Vic Fangio in Chicago. As for those Bears, well, I'm not sure replacing Prince Amukamara with Artie Burns exactly counts as an upgrade, but a bounce-back season from either Burns or Kyle Fuller could provide an outsized boost to Chicago's already eighth-ranked pass defense from a year ago.
This also means that some regression may be incoming for the defenses that were really bolstered by solid play out wide a year ago. The numbers make it a little unclear why offenses would ever attack Washington or the Giants on the boundaries; why bother Deandre Baker or Quinton Dunbar out wide when each team had DVOAs above 30.0% inside? It should be noted that the most common Washingtonian charted covering plays from the slot was "uncovered," while second and third for the Giants were "uncovered" and "hole in zone," indicating a more substantial problem to deal with than a poor nickel corner situation. And of course, this isn't the first time this offseason that Baker and Dunbar have come up in the same sentence. Baker's on the commissioner's exempt list, and Dunbar has moved on to Seattle, so neither New York nor Washington are likely to be bailed out by the solid cover corners.
The Chiefs weren't too shabby against the slot, ranking 12th with a 1.3% DVOA, but they were extraordinarily stingy outside, second to only New England. Accordingly, teams mostly didn't attack the Chiefs outside, where Bashaud Breeland and Charvarious Ward mostly locked things down. The Chiefs return both Breeland and Ward, so they are probably among the teams more likely to repeat their slot performance, but it's worth noting that both Breeland and Ward had career-best seasons in 2019, although it was Ward's first time qualifying for the leaderboards. If you're looking for a spot for some reversion to the mean for the Super Bowl champs, that's probably where you start.
The Eagles jump out, too; the only team to face more targets out wide than in the slot. That's really bizarre, because the Eagles were better out wide than in the slot; at first glance, teams were hurting themselves by not attacking Avonte Maddox and Malcolm Jenkins more inside. Splitting the season into two halves helps shine some light on the subject. Over the first eight weeks, the Eagles had a 5.8% DVOA in the slot and a 5.9% DVOA out wide; opposing offenses went to the slot just 45.9% of the time, but on the whole, that's much of a muchness. When you consider the opponents in the first half of the Eagles' slate included Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs, John Brown, and Davante Adams, perhaps it makes sense that opposing offenses opted to go outside more; that's where their talent was. Over the second half of the season, however, the Eagles wide DVOA improved to -18.6%, while their slot DVOA climbed to 24.4% as injuries and demotions changed the makeup of Philadelphia's secondary. Over that period of time, opposing offenses went to the slot 50.3% of the time -- still not a ton, but it has the Eagles join the rest of the league in facing more slot targets than wide targets.
2019 Defense vs. Wide Receivers
This next table will feature the same data as the previous table, but limited to just targets that went to wide receivers.
Defense vs. Wide Receivers, Slot vs. Wide, 2019
This is, of course, very similar to the first table, for the simple fact that wide receivers get the majority of pass targets. 76% of slot targets and 91% of wide targets went to wide receivers in 2019, so for most teams, the differences were slight; 24 defenses finished within five percentage points of their overall wide DVOA against wide receivers.
Where you will find some difference is in the slot, where some teams had substantially different results against tight ends than they did against wideouts. Both the Vikings and especially the Steelers see their slot DVOA get significantly worse when you take tight ends out of the equation; they were the No. 1 and No. 3 defenses against tight ends, respectively. Both teams had excellent safeties and linebackers that could match up very well against the Jimmy Grahams and Mark Andrewses of the world, but not quite as well against speedier slot receivers with more complicated route assignments. The Steelers, in particular, fall from ninth to 28th when looking at just wide receivers, a drop of 22.2%. This is probably where we turn and look at Terrell Edmunds, who looks to be much more of a linebacker in safety's clothing than a cover guy.
The Patriots had the opposite problem, with the caveat that a "problem" for the Patriots' defense still had them best in the league. Their DVOA against wide receivers in the slot was -33.8%, which fell to -22.0% when you include everyone else. Both those totals are best in the league, but that hides New England's actual performance against tight ends in the slot -- worst in the league at 33.6%. The Patriots were ranked seventh against tight ends in general over a much larger sample size, but a handful of tight ends were able to do some significant damage out of the slot: Travis Kelce caught five of six passes for 63 yards, Zach Ertz was 5-for-7 for 56 yards, and Mike Gesicki was 4-for-6 for 34 yards and a touchdown in the Week 17 game that knocked the Patriots out of a bye and into a wild-card loss, which included a couple key Anthony Firkser catches. Slot tight ends, the Kryptonite to the Patriots' stellar 2019 defense? I'd hesitate to go that far, though I think matching up against Patrick Chung rather than Jonathan Jones out of the slot is a more favorable scheme for most teams. With no Chung in 2020 and Jones likely moving to Chung's old spot, I'm dubious as to how useful this note will be projecting this upcoming season.
And then you have the Houston Texans, who somehow had a massive split in their wide DVOAs, falling from -12.8% to -2.6% when you only look at wide receivers. That's not normal! The Texans faced 18 wide targets to not-wide receivers. They resulted in one interception, six incomplete passes, three completions for zero or fewer yards, four failed completions with positive yardage, and five completions that actually produced valuable plays for the offense. That results in a DVOA of -120.4%, second-best in the league; even over only 18 targets, that's enough to boost Houston's wide DVOA by 10 percentage points and to shoot them ten spots up the ratings. The Texans are weird.
2019 Defense vs. Running Backs
These last two tables are here mostly for completeness. The average defense faced 9.8 pass attempts all season against running backs in the slot and just 7.9 split out wide; more than 15% of all running back targets out of the backfield belonged to just five players. We've ranked defenses by DVOA here for you, but this is small sample size theatre at its finest.
Defense vs. Running Backs, Slot vs. Wide, 2019
Tampa Bay putting up a -151.5% slot DVOA in a 15-play sample size is actually marginally impressive; most times when you see one of these comically large DVOA splits, it's on one or two passes -- and we'll get to that in a minute. The Bucs had to deal with Alvin Kamara twice and held him to just 13 yards on five slot targets with an interception; that's pretty good! Just don't ask how they handled him coming out of the backfield; it's less flattering. Poor Nyheim Hines had an underthrow and a fumble on a screen when lined up in the slot against the Bucs. A couple of major negative plays can have a huge impact on DVOA when talking about a handful of snaps, so we won't linger on this too much longer.
2019 Defense vs. Tight Ends
Tight ends split out wide are essentially not a thing; the clue is in the name. Only four tight ends -- Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, Gerald Everett, and Tyler Eifert -- hit double-digit targets split out wide in 2019. The slot column is a little more meaningful; it's still small sample sizes but every defense had at least 30 targets to go on.
Defense vs. Tight Ends, Slot vs. Wide, 2019
I do not believe we have ever published a DVOA number as extreme as the Raiders' -1,082.7% DVOA against tight ends split out wide. That's not a typo. Four digits. Even when it comes to small sample size theater, that's an insane number. To put that into perspective, if you just looked at plays where the offense turned over the ball -- interceptions and lost fumbles -- Oakland led the league with a -863.5% defensive DVOA. You still don't hit quadruple digits. Yes, this stat doesn't mean anything with a sample size of two, but I got to run a table with a four-digit DVOA, and that makes me happy inside.
For the curious, the Raiders got to that mark on two batted passes: an incomplete dig to Jack Doyle, and then this batted screen to Jonnu Smith that became a career highlight for Mo Hurst.
— Cold Blooded Sports Pod (@ColdBloodedChat) December 8, 2019
Buffalo didn't face a single target to a tight end split wide in 2019 after facing six the year before. This is despite facing Tyler Eifert, Evan Engram, and Zach Ertz, all of whom had at least five wide targets in 2019. Sometimes you roll snake-eyes.
The most useful information that can come from this table is probably seeing which teams were notably better or worse guarding tight ends in the slot than they were overall. We've already discussed the Patriots, and no one can come close to their 44.2% drop-off against slot tight ends. You do have the Browns falling from -6.4% to 13.7%, or the Falcons going from -11.0% to 4.4%, but these are dwarfed by the size of the Patriots' fall.
Really, the only team in the Patriots' league was the Miami Dolphins, a sentence which makes very little sense in most 2019-related contexts. While the Patriots' DVOA dropped against slot tight ends, the Dolphins rocketed up, going from an 11.3% DVOA against tight ends in general to -30.7% in the slot. What gives? Well, it's mostly the tale of Eric Ebron and the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day. Ebron was targeted 11 times in the slot against the Dolphins in Week 10, seven more than in any other game as Colts backup Brian Hoyer tried to force-feed him the ball. That resulted in Ebron going 4-for-11 for 52 yards, with two interceptions and a failed fourth-down conversion on his ledger. Take out that one game, and Miami's slot tight end DVOA drops to 11.3%, exactly the same as their performance against tight ends in general. Small sample sizes can be misleading.