by Scott Spratt
The league DVOA with pressure had improved for three straight seasons before it plateaued in 2018, but it could have increased for years to come before they threatened the axiom of modern defensive football that pressure is king. Pressure can turn even Patrick Mahomes into an unpressured Josh Rosen, so it's little wonder that the lion's share of the league's best teams were also among the leaders in defensive pressure rate.
The following table shows each defense's success with and without pressure from the 2018 regular season. Pressure plays include sacks, hurries, and forced scrambles. Aborted snaps and coverage scrambles/sacks are not included, but defensive pass interference penalties are. The table is sorted by pressure rate.
|Defenses with and without Pass Pressure, 2018|
Sean McVay may have revolutionized what the Rams do on offense, but he and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips have also sparked subtle defensive improvements. Aaron Donald was already a force in 2015 and 2016, and the Rams were an above-average pressure team with 28.3 and 28.4 percent pressure rates those seasons. But since McVay's and Phillips' arrival, the Rams have jumped to 32.4 and 37.6 percent pressure rates -- while also cutting their blitz rates -- the last two seasons. Last year's mark comfortably led the league.
Overall, the Rams defense declined to a middle-of-the-road 0.8% DVOA in 2018, but their top-tier pressure rate bodes well for a bounce-back 2019. Pressure rate is more consistent year to year than either DVOA with or without pressure, and pressure rate predicts a team's future DVOA with pressure about as well as its previous DVOA with pressure does.
|Year-to-Year Correlations, 2010-18|
|Pressure Rate to Pressure Rate||+0.52|
|Pressure Rate to DVOA w/ Pressure||+0.19|
|Pressure Rate to DVOA no Pressure||-0.02|
|DVOA w/ Pressure to DVOA w/ Pressure||+0.25|
|DVOA no Pressure to DVOA no Pressure||+0.29|
It seems unlikely that the Rams will repeat their 19th-ranked DVOA with pressure performance from 2019 given how frequently they generate pressure. Their trade and subsequent re-signing of defensive end Dante Fowler and development of linebacker Sam Ebukam has added a pair of impact pass-rushers to complement Donald. Fowler and Ebukam were both top-50 players with 26.5 and 27.5 respective hurries last season—Donald led all players with 59.0—and should lighten the loss of Ndamukong Suh to the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay will need Suh's 30.0 hurries and then some since they pressured their opponents on just 25.8 percent of their pass plays, second-worst of all teams. The only team with a lower pressure rate was the Raiders, who it won't shock you to learn saw their pressure rate and DVOA with pressure crater without Khalil Mack.
|Bears and Raiders Defenses with and without Khalil Mack|
|Season||Chicago Bears||Oakland Raiders|
Oakland's loss was Chicago's gain as the Bears jumped from 22nd in both pressure rate and DVOA with pressure in 2017 to third and second in those stats in 2018 despite blitzing less frequently. That plus a modest improvement in DVOA without pressure made them the top overall defense with a -25.6% DVOA.
Like the Rams, the Bears bring pressure from a lot of places, not just from their star player. Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, and Roy Robertson-Harris all contributed more than 20 hurries, and Hicks added three forced fumbles. Mack had six of those, and the Bears ended nearly a fifth of their opponents' drives with a turnover, best in football. Turnovers are not very consistent from year to year, but the Bears are bringing back their entire band of pass-rushers and should be a strong defense again in 2019.
The Rams and Bears were the second- and fourth-biggest pressure rate gainers from 2017 to 2018, and the rest of the top five -- the Bills, Patriots, and Ravens -- have their own compelling narratives. Head coach Sean McDermott needed just two years to turn the Bills into a top-10 pressure defense. Between the Bills and the Panthers when he was their defensive coordinator, McDermott has had a top-10 DVOA with pressure defense every season after his first with his teams.
|Sean McDermott's Defenses, 2011-18|
Ninth overall draft pick Ed Oliver adds another weapon to a front seven already stacked with Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander, each top 50 in 2018 with 38.5 and 26.5 respective hurries. Hughes' and Alexander's ages shorten the window of potential success for the team's defense as it is currently constructed. But if sophomore quarterback Josh Allen can bridge some of the gap between what was last year's second-worst offense with its second-best defense, then the Bills could recover their 2017 status as a playoff dark horse.
The Bills' playoff hopes presumably hinge on a wild-card berth since the Patriots have won the AFC East in 15 of the last 16 seasons. In a sport seemingly designed to prevent it, the Patriots have been consistently successful. For the bulk of the previous decade, the Patriots found that success without much assistance from their defense. From 2011 to 2017, the team finished in the bottom half of the league in both pressure rate and DVOA without pressure every season. But last year, they flipped the script, finishing sixth in pressure rate and ninth in DVOA without pressure. They may need to maintain those improvements to remain among the league's elite teams given Rob Gronkowski's retirement, but their defense also lost players, most notably its hurries leader Trey Flowers (42.5). No one schemes their way to success better than Bill Belichick, but his current personnel may make this his most difficult division title bid yet.
Looking only at defense, the Ravens have become the NFL's model franchise. It's something they've achieved with excellent talent evaluation and development and typically with discipline. Well last year, the Ravens ratcheted up their blitz rate from 26 to 39 percent -- highest in football -- and transformed from a bottom-10 pressure-rate team to a top-10 one. That metamorphosis carried obvious benefits, but no doubt it also cost them when they blitzed and failed to pressure the quarterback … no, wait, the Ravens had the No. 1 DVOA defense without pressure, too. I guess there are a lot of ways to finish top five in overall defensive DVOA, at least if you have the Ravens' infrastructure.
After three consecutive top-10 such seasons, the Bengals suffered the biggest decline in pressure rate of any team in 2018. Perhaps that was the impetus the team needed to fire the seemingly un-fire-able Marvin Lewis. They seem on the precipice of a rebuild, much like Washington and Oakland, the second and third-biggest pressure rate decliners.
Atlanta is fourth on that list, and more than any other faller, they seem best-equipped to rebound. Last year's Falcons were devastated by defensive injuries, headlined by middle linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal, who both landed on injured reserve. With better injury luck and the further development of third-year pass rusher Takkarist McKinley -- who already paced the team with 26.5 hurries in his sophomore season -- they could return to form. That form may be closer to average than exceptional, but even an average defense would propel them to contention with their now-perennial top-10 DVOA offense.
As dangerous as Atlanta could be, the team that the league's ruling class should fear is Indianapolis. The Colts already enjoyed a leap from 31st to ninth in DVOA from 2017 to 2018 thanks to the healthy return of Andrew Luck and breakouts of rookie offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith and middle linebacker Darius Leonard. Their major limitation from a year ago was a lack of a pass rush. They were 24th in the league in pressure rate and 30th in DVOA with pressure. Clearly, the team recognized that deficiency and attempted to address it with the signing of Justin Houston. The 30-year-old Houston's pass-rushing efficiency declined in 2018 even accounting for the time he missed for a hamstring injury. But Houston's career back-nine performance is still pretty good. He finished 55th in the league with 25.5 hurries in just 12 games last year, and he closed the season strong with 5.0 of his 9.0 total sacks in his final four games. He could be the final piece of their puzzle, and as a bonus, the Colts took him away from a Chiefs team that figures to be one of a small handful of their competitors in the AFC.