The Panthers' Best Run Defense Might Be A Good Offense

Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Regular readers of mine know that I never pass up a chance to point out that the Panthers had an historically bad 18.6% run defense DVOA last season. At first, it was a coping mechanism for a fan sad to see the team's Cam Newton era crumble one loss at a time. But when players such as Tevin Coleman, Aaron Jones, and Latavius Murray enjoyed career performances one Sunday after the other, the decline of the Panthers' run defense transitioned from merely sad to very relevant for fantasy players like myself who like to play weekly matchups.

That realization came too late for me to take full advantage. At the start of the season, I didn't expect the Panthers to have so porous a run defense. In 2018, they were better against the run (-7.0%, 18th) than the pass (14.8%, 24th), and they maintained a core of run-stopping defensive starters in Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, and Eric Reid from one year to the next. Still, I benefited from enough plus performances from backs such as Chris Carson and Marlon Mack to offset the occasional miss of a Brian Hill.

At the time, I had a theory that the Pro Bowler Short was a lynchpin for the team's run defense and thereby the reason the team became a plus matchup for opposing running backs. He tore his rotator cuff in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season. But a broader testing of my projection system this offseason made me question whether I had missed the mark entirely. Short's injury may have sabotaged the team's run defense, but I now suspect it was Newton's injury that made the Panthers a plus matchup for opposing backs by virtue of damaging their overall quality.

Backs on bad teams had success against the Panthers last season. Washington runners combined for 242 yards and three touchdowns against them in Week 13, and Hill and his recovered teammate Devonta Freeman had 146 yards and two scores in Week 14. But Hill's earlier letdown in Week 11 was a part of a subtle trend of worse teams enjoying smaller benefits from the plus Panthers matchup. Split simply by whether a team had a below-average or above-average DVOA at the time of the matchup -- relying on DAVE in the early season and weighted DVOA in the late season -- bad teams gained just over half as many extra running back carries against the Panthers as good teams.

RB Carries Over Projected Total,
Panthers Opponents, 2019

Week Team DVOA Proj Att Att Surplus Att
1 LAR 14.6% 22.6 26 3.4
2 TB -16.7% 20.1 27 6.9
3 ARI -13.2% 16.7 14 -2.7
4 HOU 7.4% 20.0 18 -2.0
5 JAX -6.0% 19.2 24 4.8
6 TB -4.3% 21.7 13 -8.7
8 SF 25.2% 28.7 33 4.3
9 TEN -8.7% 20.7 17 -3.7
10 GB 14.2% 19.3 26 6.7
11 ATL -19.4% 20.0 22 2.0
12 NO 23.9% 22.4 18 -4.4
13 WAS -32.8% 19.0 26 7.0
14 ATL -13.7% 20.8 30 9.2
15 SEA 18.2% 24.0 31 7.0
16 IND -9.4% 25.3 26 0.7
17 NO 36.5% 21.1 27 5.9
Above-average DVOA teams per game 3.0
Below-average DVOA teams per game 1.7
Projections adjusted for venue and weather but not defense

In theory, my venue- and weather-adjusted attempt projections should capture considerations such as offenses' pass and run tendencies. Subsequent opponent adjustments should then offset any remaining attempt surpluses and do so evenly for all teams over big enough sample sizes. The 16 teams that played the Panthers last season are hardly a big sample size, but if the split those teams showed last season exists for all teams, then it illustrates that opponent adjustments of carries based solely on run defenses will remain biased by team quality.

That bias seemed strange to me until I reframed it around the more familiar concept of game script. Game script was a major talking point of my non-fantasy previews of the Titans' playoff run last season. Those Titans upset the Patriots and Ravens because their early leads allowed them to run the ball, a relative strength for the team. Had they trailed instead, the Titans would likely have been forced to rely heavily on the pass to try to score a lot of points with less use of the clock. That play-calling pattern shows up broadly in a steadily decline from a 60% run ratio for teams with three-score leads to a 30% run ratio for teams with three-score deficits.

I tend to think of it as an in-game concern, but game script is at least somewhat predictable before games by the relative quality of the teams involved. It may not have been the case for the Titans, Patriots, and Ravens in January, but better teams tend to build leads and move the game script to favor rushing attempts. Pretty much every team that played the Panthers last year was better in overall quality. By season's end, Carolina was the NFL's second-worst team with a -26.7% DVOA. But their better opponents enjoyed relatively more surplus carries, and that trend existed for all teams last season with DVOA differential serving as an approximation of their relative quality.

Chart 1

Their relationship has a weak coefficient of determination of just 0.0115 -- a common refrain of the statistical research of so random a sport. But DVOA differential still does a slightly better job of predicting carry surpluses than my yards-per-attempt opponent adjustments did.

Chart 2

And it does a dramatically better job than my touchdown-per-attempt opponent adjustments.

Chart 3

And perhaps most importantly, relative team quality is easier to predict. As Aaron writes every year in the Football Outsiders Almanac, "offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance." A healthy Short could be transformative for the 2020 Panthers' run defense. So too could top draft pick Derrick Brown. We project the team to have the worst total defense this season, but its 11.0% DVOA projection is just half the outlier from average as the best (Kansas City, 20.4%) and worst (Washington, -17.8%) teams in projected offensive efficiency. All things considered, we're much more confident that the Panthers will be a bad team in general than a specifically bad defense or run defense. And while you may not care why it is that your running backs continue to produce big fantasy numbers when you play the Panthers matchup, that knowledge can help you make the right matchup plays when your backs' opponents are not quite so extreme.


12 comments, Last at 21 Aug 2020, 5:21pm

1 Correction

Every Teams* Best Run Defense Might Be A Good Offense.

Example #1: the SB Champs and their 29th best run D

3 not so fast

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

Both the Texans and the 49ers - the latter with a great run offense - had full opportunity to grind out a win with the running game. A la the one Peyton Colts team that won the Big Banana, the Chiefs' run defense improved massively in the postseason.

6 But we're talking about run defense.

In reply to by BigRichie

IE the Packers shouldn't combat the 49ers by investing in run defense (that was 6 spots better than the Chiefs btw) but the offense. Both the Chiefs and Pack were down by 10+ vs the 49ers in the 'offs but the Chiefs offense (again w/a worse run defense) were the ones able to complete a(nother) comeback. Why? Because they had a better offense. The Chiefs erased multiple leads while the Packers struggled to get back into in all their Cali games. The Chiefs run defense only improved by .1 yards per rush in the playoffs. Still well below the 4.3 ypc the whole league averaged in the regular season. So they were still poor, just not as poor, in that metric. 

The 06 Colts had THE best offense. And they had THE worst run defense. They beat the 6th ranked run defense (pretty good) in the SB. Why? Because the 20th ranked Bears offense couldn't keep up despite having a MUCH better run D. 

My point: don't really worry about run defense. If you're getting ran over, just get a better offense to keep up (yes, it doesn't ALWAYS work). Much more sustainable in the end though.

10 That's probably the exception

Usually 46 points gets it done. But it's not like SF had a bad offense though. But the Saints were the one with the better run D. GB got blown out twice too. Probably in good part to their worse offense.

Maybe you cant invest a little more in run D if you have the best offense but the gains in offense are generally more impactful and sustainable, as the article mentions. You don't think so?


12 Not quite

but yeah exactly, their run offense was better but it didn't matter because they couldn't run because they were behind. So SF didn't have to worry about run d.  And the chiefs didn't have to worry when they were ahead the next game either. Because they had the better offense despite a MUCH worse run d

Idk what you're arguing for anymore lol

9 At the risk of sounding like…

In reply to by BigRichie

At the risk of sounding like Pete Carroll, you can't grind out a win in the first half. The Texans had the ball once up 24-7, and by the time they got the ball back on offense after the failed fake punt it was 24-21 with 36 minutes still to play.

I guess we could go back to debate whether the 49ers should have tried running the ball more in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. But they scored 10 points on their first two drives of the second half. From there they started their next drive up 10 with 11:57 to play and punted it back after 5 plays, with 1/2 successful rushing plays, then they went three-and-out up 3 with 6:13 left but were successful on their only rush. From there the 49ers were playing from behind and it was late in the game. It was obviously crucial that the Chiefs got those two stops, but the run defense didn't have much to do with it.

2 Saints of Carolina

Carolina currently has former 9 Saints on their Roster:

Teddy Bridgewater, Eli Apple, Kieth Kirkwood , Tommylee Lewis, Coach Joe Brady, Natrell Jamerson,Chris Manhertz,Woodrow Hamilton,T.J. Green.


8 Saints on CAR roster

So, 1 is a coach, who did not come directly from the Saints last year.

Also, I am a big Saints fan, and have never heard of the last 4--are they training camp/workout-type players?

Recognize that the Saints roster is/was so stacked that the first 4 were backups. Both Bridgewater and Apple started games last year, but Kirkwood and Lewis are 4th/5th receiver types. 

[If other posters don't recognize the name, Lewis is the receiver that Brees targeted on the famous non-DPI call against the Rams in the 2018 NFCCG.]