2014 Play-Action Defense
by Sterling Xie
Last week, we looked at offensive play-action numbers from 2014. Now we'll flip to the other side of the ball and look at defensive play-action numbers. Again, we would like to thank ESPN Stats & Information, from which we get our data on play-action.
Prior renditions of this column have often come with lots of shoulder shrugs. We know by now that there's very little year-to-year correlation regarding how defenses perform against play-action. This year's league-average DVOA against play-action was 15.9% -- slightly higher than the 12% to 14% range we have found in the past, but not enough to raise eyebrows. Defenses continued to fare worse against play-action (the league-average DVOA against non-play-action passes was 5.4%), but 13 teams fared better against play-action, suggesting that a mass increase in play fakes wouldn't really ambush defenses.
This also highlights the surprisingly low correlation between play-action DVOA and non-play-action DVOA, something Scott Kacsmar discovered last year. The 2013 correlation of 0.38 was virtually unchanged this year, falling slightly to 0.34. Even though a relationship still appears to exist, it's hard to reconcile why the Seahawks pass defense that was so great against play-action in 2013 would be just average one year later, while the dreadful Jets and Bucs units each transform into a competent above-average defense against play-action.
There's no "magic bullet" formula that encapsulates how a defense will fare against play-action, but we can look at particular characteristics and see if they provide any hints. One idea here could be to search for a connection between play-action defense and teams that have great pass rushes. Last year's article illustrated how the average depth of play-action passes was significantly longer than non-play-action passes, a finding that's hardly surprising. With slower developing routes featuring deep dropbacks, strong pass-rushing defenses should theoretically have a better shot at disrupting these big-play opportunities. So going back to 2007, I took a look at the correlation between adjusted sack rate and both play-action DVOA and percentage of play-action passes faced:
|Correlations with Adjusted Sack Rate, 2007-14|
||PA DVOA||PA Pct.|