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13 Apr 2004

Pass Defense: Easy as One, Two, Three

by Aaron Schatz

You may remember from our Super Bowl preview, as well as the AFC Championship preview two weeks prior, a comment on how the Patriots' vaunted pass defense had some trouble with third receivers.  It wasn't a big deal against Indianapolis, but it was in the Super Bowl, when the Pats gave up 71 yards and a touchdown to Ricky Proehl.

I wrote that the Patriots had trouble with third receivers after going back and looking at each game, and how each receiver had done against them.  In particular, what I noticed was a few big catches by Troy Walters in the regular season Pats-Colts matchup.  There was no specific list of how each team did against third receivers, or a specific statistic to measure this.  But after the season, I thought, well, why can't there be?  Why not measure how each defense did against the opposing third receivers, first receivers, second receivers, whoever.  The extra advantage of this is that, while the top cornerback does not as a rule always cover the opposition's top receiver, a list of the best teams against first, second, and third receivers might give us some hint as to which teams had the best shutdown cornerbacks, or the most underrated nickel and dime packages.

I took the entire 2003 spreadsheet of pass receptions and denoted each receiver as the first, second, or third receiver.  For the most part, this was based on which wideout had the most intended passes in 2003.  There were some adjustments both based on injuries in particular week and on my subjective judgment -- for example, I deemed Joey Galloway, Plaxico Burress, Tim Brown, and Todd Pinkston to be "number one" receivers while Terry Glenn, Hines Ward, Jerry Rice, and James Thrash were "number twos."  On other teams, like Jacksonville and New England, the lineup changed almost every week due to injuries.  But for the most part, the receivers are slotted where you would expect.  All other wideouts were marked "four," with tight ends "five" and running backs "six."  (I did consider tossing in tight ends with receivers, which would have done things like make Tony Gonzalez the "number one" for Kansas City, but I decided that there are only a couple of tight ends of that magnitude who act like wide receivers in both amount of usage and type of pass pattern.)

Once I had given each receiver a number, I went and figured out DVOA (Read more here if you don't know what that is) for each defense based on the type of receiver involved.  This DVOA formula was the same used for receivers on offense, except that there was an adjustment for interceptions -- my system treats an interception as an incomplete pass for the receiver, but it made sense to count interceptions since we're now measuring defense.  Sacks and passes without a listed intended receiver, however, aren't included in these measurements.  Each play is adjusted based on the quality of that "receiver position" for the offense -- this way teams don't get a bonus for facing, for example, the number one receivers of the NFC East (Pinkston, Galloway, Toomer) instead of the number one receivers of the NFC West (Holt, Owens, Boldin).  Remember that since DVOA means more scoring, defenses are better when DVOA is more negative.

Enough explanation; let's get to the statistics.  I'll give the top eight for each position, then some comments.  Number one and two receivers appear today, with threes and fours along with tight ends and running backs next week.

Number One Receivers

Top 8 DVOA Passes Yards Catch% INT
NWE -64.1% 144 797 47% 11
BAL -26.9% 130 965 55% 8
STL -25.0% 136 1073 50% 7
WAS -24.9% 109 741 49% 6
DAL -24.4% 140 688 35% 3
TEN -23.4% 122 997 49% 7
CHI -21.7% 134 846 56% 8
MIA -16.5% 123 1085 58% 9

As Judge Dredd would say, "Nobody escapes the Law!"  Ty Law is an asshole, but he is a dominant shutdown asshole.  When it came to stopping the opposing team's top receiver, the difference between the Patriots and the #2 Ravens was bigger than the difference between the Ravens and the next 20 teams.  The Patriots held Kevin Johnson to 30 yards, Andre Johnson to 37 yards, Santana Moss to only 67 yards in two games, and Terry Glenn to eight yards, though it was the only game all year where he was the "number one."  Not a single top wideout had a 100-yard game against the Patriots this year, and only five top wideouts had what DVOA considers above-average games: Marvin Harrison, Laveranues Coles, Derrick Mason, Rod Smith, and Eric Moulds (Week 1).

Although this list for the most part matches up with our list of the top overall pass defenses, there are two big exceptions.  If our running back ratings seem to show that replacing Clinton Portis will be more difficult for Denver than expected, this rating seems to show that replacing Champ Bailey will be just as difficult for Washington.  Looking closely at the play-by-play, it looks like Fred Smoot and Bailey switched off coverage of the top opposing receiver more than you might expect, but I'm guessing Bailey covers the opposition's top receiver more often than Smoot.

Washington's DVOA against all other receivers except the "number ones" was +22.4% which was the worst in the league.  I mean, that's just absurd.  Need some examples?  Joey Galloway caught 1 of 8 passes for 13 yards over two games, while Terry Glenn caught 8 of 19 passes for 91 yards.  Mushin Muhammad caught 9 of 11 passes for 182 yards the same day Steve Smith caught 4 of 8 for 50 yards.  Darrell Jackson caught 4 of 8 passes for 50 yards the same day Koren Robinson caught 5 of 8 for 88 yards and Bobby Engram caught 6 of 6 for 63 yards.   The Redskins also kept Joe Horn to two catches for 10 yards and Santana Moss to three catches for 12 yards.  OK, that's enough, by now the Broncos fans have all clicked over to NFL.com where they are purchasing Champ Bailey jerseys.

The other team that comes out much better against number one receivers than against receivers in general is Chicago, and I'm not even sure who to give the credit.  Seriously, who is the main cornerback over there?  Rookie Charles Tillman?  Kick returner stud Jerry Azumah?  R.W. McQuarters, listed as "biggest bust" in Mike's article on the 1998 draft, is listed third on the depth chart.  How much of this is Urlacher?  This was a pretty big surprise to me but the Bears kept the opposing number one receiver below 40 yards ten different times this season, and we're talking big names like Moss (27 yards in Week 2), Boldin (33 yards), and Horn (30 yards).

Dallas broke up the most passes to number one receivers -- Terence Newman had a very good year, and of course their safeties are studs -- but didn't pick many off.

Minnesota, who are not thought of as a good defense, would actually make the top eight if we didn't adjust for the strength of opponents.  They still end up with an above-average DVOA against number one receivers, -3.1%, but it would be -20.0% without adjusting for the fact that they didn't face many stud wideouts. (Hakim!  Price!  Booker stuck catching passes for Kordell Stewart!)  The flipside is Cleveland, who would be average without adjusting for their opponents but come out ninth (-11.2% DVOA) once you adjust for a schedule featuring Marvin Harrison, Chad Johnson twice, and the NFC West.

The worst pass defense against number one receivers belonged to New Orleans (+39.4%), followed by the New York Jets, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Houston.  Houston was actually worst before adjusting for schedule, but with the co-MVPs throwing to stud wideouts like Harrison and Derrick Mason, the AFC South wasn't a fun place to play in the secondary last year.

Number Two Receivers

Top 8 DVOA Passes Yards Catch% INT
MIN -46.5% 97 678 49% 10
SFO -38.0% 105 794 46% 8
KAN -36.3% 109 698 46% 7
TAM -32.8% 86 503 50% 5
NWE -30.4% 125 699 42% 8
PHI -26.4% 91 438 48% 2
IND -24.4% 81 601 53% 5
STL -20.4% 99 703 55% 6

OK, raise your hand if you expected to see that Minnesota had the best defense in the league against anything.  Interceptions are a big part of this rating but still, the Vikings were very good at keeping second receivers in check.  They kept Koren Robinson to 4 of 10 passes and 32 yards, Ashley Lelie to 3 of 9 passes and 43 yards, Johnnie Morton to one 13-yard catch and Jerry Rice to one 20-yard catch.  What's interesting is that the Vikings were amazing against number two receivers, but, as you will see next week, one of the league's worst teams against number three receivers.

San Francisco and Kansas City, both among the worst defenses against number one receivers, were the second and third best against number two receivers.  That's a real head-scratcher, and there are reasons to discount these numbers.  The Chiefs, for example, got creamed by the best second wideouts on their schedule -- Hines Ward and Peter Warrick -- but ate up some pretty bad "number twos" who didn't really deserve to be "number twos," including Frank Sanders, Corey Bradford, and Reche Caldwell.  The 49ers did a better job against their tougher competition, mostly because their interceptions tended to come on passes intended for the better number two receivers on the schedule, like Isaac Bruce and Keenan McCardell.

You have to wonder why San Francisco and Kansas City gave up so many yards and first downs to opposing top receivers, and so few to the guys on the other side of the field.  Underrated second cornerbacks, or safeties?  Bad game planning that put inferior defenders on the other team's stud?  A cursory look at the interceptions intended for second receivers show that San Francisco's eight interceptions were picked off by a bunch of different guys, so nothing to learn there; five of Kansas City's seven came from safeties Greg Wesley and Shaunard Harts, though I'm not sure what we learn from that.

The number two receivers shut down by Tampa Bay and New England are more what you expect from leading pass defenses.  The Bucs thwarted Justin McCareins, Tai Streets, Javon Walker, and Jerome Pathon twice (combined 2 of 5 passes for 13 measly yards).  The Patriots shut down Reggie Wayne, Ashley Lelie, and Rod Gardner.

Denver's numbers against number two receivers are somewhat interesting.  Less than half of passes intended for number twos were caught against the Denver defense, which should put the Broncos up with the Vikings, Bucs, and Patriots.  But the Broncos only picked off one pass intended for a number two receiver, and they were awful at stopping number twos on third down.  They ended up at +6.3% DVOA.

The worst pass defense against number two receivers, by a good amount, belonged to San Diego (+39.9%), followed by Cleveland, Seattle, the Giants and the Jets.  The team that stands out at the bottom, however, is just above the Jets, and that's the Tennessee Titans at +25.5% DVOA against number twos.  The Titans were -- and this is not a phrase that can be applied to many teams -- eaten alive by Corey Bradford of Houston, who in two games caught 8 of 14 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns (he only had two in his other 14 games).

As you see above, the Titans were one of the better teams against number one receivers.  And, as I'll show next week, they were the league's best team against number three receivers (in effect, making them the anti-Vikings).  Part of the problem is that they only had three interceptions off passes intended for number twos, but in general they just had a habit of giving up yards to number two receivers even when shutting down the top dog and the guys in the slot.  The best example came against New Orleans, where they let Jerome Pathon gain 89 yards and a touchdown while holding Joe Horn to one five-yard catch and Donte Stallworth to 22 yards on two catches, one of which he fumbled and lost.

NEXT WEEK: Number three receivers, who are the reason we started this in the first place, plus fours, tight ends, and running backs.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 13 Apr 2004