Stat Analysis

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Pressure by Number of Pass Rushers, 2018

by Scott Spratt

Quarterback pressure splits show how important it is for defenses to generate pressure, but that calculus can change depending on the resources it takes for teams to do so. Four- and especially two- and three-man fronts that disrupt a quarterback enjoy the best of both worlds, forcing mistakes and leaving plenty of players in coverage to take advantage of them. Blitzing teams improve their odds of a big play but also improve the odds that a big play will be made against them, and so a blitz can be either a good or bad strategy depending on factors like the game situation and offensive and defensive personnel. To make sense of those vagaries, we can compare teams' reliance on and effectiveness with different numbers of pass-rushers.

Four-Man Rushes

Defenses with Four Pass-Rushers, 2018
Defense Frequency Rk Pressure Rate Rk DVOA Rk
CHI 70.2% 16 35.1% 3 -22.1% 1
BUF 72.8% 13 33.8% 6 -15.1% 2
DEN 61.4% 22 31.3% 15 -10.2% 3
WAS 58.5% 27 30.2% 20 -10.1% 4
JAX 75.4% 9 34.1% 5 -6.4% 5
LAR 76.2% 6 38.5% 1 -2.0% 6
SEA 75.4% 10 30.9% 18 -0.5% 7
LAC 80.3% 2 31.8% 11 0.8% 8
BAL 53.0% 32 32.5% 9 1.0% 9
CLE 53.7% 31 26.5% 28 4.0% 10
PHI 80.5% 1 32.9% 8 4.9% 11
HOU 60.6% 25 32.2% 10 6.7% 12
KC 66.6% 19 33.4% 7 9.2% 13
MIA 75.6% 8 29.6% 23 9.9% 14
MIN 71.4% 15 31.6% 12 11.3% 15
PIT 54.2% 30 35.1% 4 11.4% 16
NE 59.7% 26 35.4% 2 13.0% 17
IND 76.0% 7 29.9% 21 13.0% 18
NO 64.0% 21 31.4% 14 14.8% 19
NYG 72.3% 14 30.9% 19 16.1% 20
CIN 76.7% 5 28.9% 24 16.6% 21
TEN 60.6% 24 26.8% 27 17.6% 22
NYJ 55.4% 29 27.8% 26 17.6% 23
DAL 78.5% 3 31.5% 13 17.8% 24
DET 66.8% 18 26.0% 29 18.5% 25
ARI 61.2% 23 28.5% 25 20.1% 26
GB 57.0% 28 29.6% 22 21.0% 27
SF 77.1% 4 31.0% 17 22.0% 28
CAR 65.1% 20 31.0% 16 22.9% 29
ATL 68.9% 17 24.9% 31 25.4% 30
OAK 74.2% 11 20.9% 32 31.2% 31
TB 73.7% 12 25.9% 30 33.5% 32

The Bears easily outpaced the other 31 teams in overall defensive DVOA last season and were the eighth-best defense in DVOA history. With excellent and flexible players at all three levels, they led all teams in DVOA when they sent the usual four rushers and when they blitzed. And since they were good at both strategies, they didn't have to rely on either to an unusual degree. They finished just a few percentage points away from the 67.7 percent league-average rate of four-man rushes.

The Eagles were the most frequent user of a four-man rush in 2018 and have been among the leaders each of the last three years. In that time, they have consistently generated pressure without a blitz on about one-third of their opponents' pass plays. They have done a tremendous job of building and replenishing quality defensive line depth by signing players such as Chris Long, trading for players such as Michael Bennett, and drafting players such as Derek Barnett to complement their core duo of Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. In 2018, the Eagles were the only team with three players -- Cox, Graham, and Long -- with 30 or more hurries.

I mentioned in my previous article that the Ravens really ramped up their blitzing in 2019, increasing from 26.4 percent to a league-leading 39.0 percent. One would assume that strategic change would follow an inability to generate pressure with a four-man rush, but that wasn't the case for the Ravens. They finished top-10 in both pressure rate and DVOA when they didn't blitz.

The Ravens' pivot from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson at quarterback set off radical changes to the team's strategy and effectiveness that reverberated to the defensive side with differences in typical play totals and game scripts. But from the first half of last season to the second, the Ravens didn't change their frequency of four-man rushes or blitzes. And with both strategies, the team enjoyed similar 10- to 15-percent improvements in their pressure rates and 25- to 30-percent improvements in their defensive DVOA after their Week 10 bye.

The Ravens may find it difficult to maintain those excellent numbers after losing their top two pass-rushers -- Terrell Suggs (36.0 hurries) and Za'Darius Smith (30.0) -- to the Cardinals and Packers, respectively. But with defensive talent evaluation and development that is the envy of the league, the Ravens tend to find a way. Perhaps recent draft picks Tyus Bowser or Jaylon Ferguson can emerge, or maybe Pernell McPhee can return to the peak play he showed in his previous stint with the team.

Blitzes (Five or More Rushers)

Defenses with Five or More Pass-Rushers (Blitzes), 2018
Defense Frequency Rk Pressure Rate Rk DVOA Rk
CHI 17.7% 27 50.4% 7 -46.3% 1
ARI 35.0% 3 45.2% 15 -38.6% 2
MIN 27.6% 10 52.4% 3 -34.0% 3
BUF 21.4% 20 46.2% 14 -31.8% 4
BAL 39.0% 1 41.9% 20 -26.6% 5
DAL 19.4% 24 54.7% 2 -17.6% 6
NE 28.5% 9 42.0% 19 -14.6% 7
SF 19.6% 23 47.6% 12 -13.6% 8
TEN 27.2% 11 40.1% 23 -9.0% 9
NO 26.6% 12 40.6% 22 -6.2% 10
KC 22.2% 17 41.3% 21 -5.8% 11
LAC 14.6% 31 55.1% 1 -3.0% 12
DEN 34.8% 5 36.5% 31 0.1% 13
NYG 21.5% 19 49.2% 11 2.6% 14
CLE 37.2% 2 39.6% 24 2.6% 15
CAR 32.4% 6 47.1% 13 2.8% 16
ATL 23.1% 14 39.4% 26 10.6% 17
JAX 22.1% 18 51.8% 5 13.9% 18
PIT 34.8% 4 42.1% 18 14.3% 19
WAS 18.0% 26 49.5% 10 15.0% 20
DET 14.5% 32 44.0% 16 15.5% 21
IND 17.0% 28 50.0% 8 16.7% 22
LAR 19.2% 25 51.4% 6 16.7% 23
NYJ 29.4% 7 37.2% 30 18.0% 24
CIN 19.9% 22 36.0% 32 18.2% 25
HOU 22.4% 16 42.9% 17 19.1% 26
SEA 20.3% 21 49.5% 9 19.9% 27
TB 23.3% 13 38.2% 28 20.8% 28
GB 29.1% 8 52.2% 4 21.7% 29
PHI 16.8% 30 38.1% 29 25.4% 30
OAK 16.8% 29 39.0% 27 29.9% 31
MIA 22.8% 15 39.5% 25 71.9% 32

By and large, the teams that relied most heavily on the blitz in 2018 were also effective with it. The Ravens, Cardinals, Patriots, Vikings, Titans, and Saints were all top-12 in both blitz percentage and DVOA with a blitz. But a handful of teams showcased some interesting contradictions.

The Chargers are the easiest such team to explain. Despite generating pressure on a league-leading 55.1 percent of their blitzes, they brought an extra rusher less often than every team but the Lions. But the Chargers were also a top-12 pressure and DVOA team with a four-man rush, so they were justifiably content to let Melvin Ingram and eventually Joey Bosa pressure the quarterback from a traditional look.

The Jets were the seventh-heaviest blitzing team but did not enjoy commensurate success, finishing 30th in pressure rate and 24th in DVOA on blitzes. Of course, they weren't particularly effective with four-man rushes, either, which is part of why they'll have an all-new coaching staff in 2019. Big-money free agent addition C.J. Mosley won't add much to their pass rush directly, but according to Sports Info Solutions, he offered a 10 percent advantage in coverage success rate in 2018 over incumbent Avery Williamson. That will help the Jets avoid big plays against them when they blitz but fail to generate pressure. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will likely shift Williamson to weakside backer and possibly take him off the field on third downs to better align his responsibilities with his strength as a run-stopper.

The Packers are the anomaly among these teams. They pressured opposing offenses on more than half of their blitzes, which was good for top five of all teams. But that pressure didn't result in the success one would expect as they finished bottom-five in DVOA on blitzes. The primary culprit for that dissonance was in the secondary, where cornerbacks Davon House, Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, and in-season addition Bashaud Breeland missed 30 combined games with various injuries. With second and third options in coverage, opponents converted a lot of big plays on the pressure plays that didn't result in sacks. Improved injury luck should inspire a 2019 turnaround, which regression already suggests is likely because of the team's excellent pressure rate.

Two- and Three-Man Rushes

Defenses with Two or Three Pass-Rushers, 2018
Defense Frequency Rk Pressure Rate Rk DVOA Rk
JAX 2.5% 28 38.5% 3 -99.5% 1
DAL 2.0% 30 36.4% 8 -70.8% 2
IND 7.0% 16 18.9% 26 -70.4% 3
ARI 3.8% 23 15.8% 31 -49.8% 4
CLE 9.1% 12 27.3% 14 -18.8% 5
DEN 3.8% 22 38.1% 4 -10.3% 6
MIN 1.0% 32 20.0% 25 -6.3% 7
CHI 12.1% 7 23.4% 21 -2.5% 8
HOU 17.0% 3 21.8% 23 -2.4% 9
BAL 8.0% 15 34.0% 10 -1.2% 10
NYJ 15.2% 4 30.3% 13 0.1% 11
LAR 4.6% 20 40.0% 2 2.3% 12
TB 3.0% 26 18.8% 28 9.0% 13
GB 13.9% 5 17.1% 30 9.9% 14
PIT 11.0% 10 31.8% 12 10.6% 15
LAC 5.1% 19 37.0% 6 11.3% 16
CIN 3.3% 25 26.3% 16 25.1% 17
NYG 6.3% 17 20.0% 24 28.1% 18
OAK 9.0% 13 36.6% 7 28.7% 19
ATL 8.1% 14 18.8% 27 32.7% 20
PHI 2.7% 27 23.5% 20 36.8% 21
NO 9.5% 11 35.1% 9 38.8% 22
WAS 23.5% 1 33.3% 11 41.2% 23
TEN 12.2% 6 25.8% 17 42.3% 24
BUF 5.8% 18 37.9% 5 50.9% 25
KC 11.2% 9 26.4% 15 51.8% 26
NE 11.8% 8 25.0% 18 52.9% 27
SEA 4.3% 21 17.4% 29 57.5% 28
DET 18.7% 2 23.7% 19 62.1% 29
MIA 1.6% 31 62.5% 1 64.8% 30
CAR 2.5% 29 23.1% 22 72.6% 31
SF 3.4% 24 11.1% 32 213.4% 32

As mentioned, the Bears were the No. 1 DVOA defense whether they blitzed or sent their normal four rushers. It is a bit odd, then, that they sent just two or three rushers 12.1 percent of the time, seventh-most in football. Of course, their moderate success of -2.5% DVOA with a normal rusher dropped into coverage was still in the top 10. Perhaps their pass-rushers grew bored of getting to the quarterback and wanted to challenge themselves in coverage?

The Jets and Packers pop again on this leaderboard, and likely for the same reason as before. The teams that struggle to cover have two recourses. They can either blitz to try to reduce the amount of time they are in coverage or they can drop extra defenders into coverage. For those two teams, the latter choice led to better results. It just may not have been feasible for them to increase their already-top-five frequencies since a two- or three-man rush relies so much on the confusion it creates.

Two- and three-man rushes are niche strategies for many teams, so it can be difficult to know whether incongruous pressure rates and DVOA totals point to genuine oddities or simply capture randomness over small samples. The Dolphins embody that conflict. They generated the most pressure but suffered the third-worst success with an extra defender in coverage, but spread across a handful of plays, neither extreme can predict their 2019 results with any certainty. The Lions were the one team that certainly seemed to over-rely on two- and three-man rushes. But even that is unclear when you consider they finished among the bottom third of teams in DVOA on four-man rushes and blitzes as well.

Defensive Back Blitzes

Defenses with a Defensive Back Blitz, 2018
Defense Frequency Rk Pressure Rate Rk DVOA Rk
BUF 9.9% 12 46.9% 21 -87.9% 1
ARI 17.2% 1 52.9% 14 -78.5% 2
LAC 6.6% 23 57.1% 6 -56.2% 3
HOU 9.8% 13 48.3% 20 -51.1% 4
LAR 3.8% 31 76.2% 1 -49.5% 5
ATL 5.7% 26 52.9% 13 -43.7% 6
SF 9.3% 15 52.0% 17 -42.6% 7
CIN 5.1% 30 41.4% 30 -37.2% 8
CAR 11.8% 8 61.3% 4 -35.3% 9
MIN 10.0% 11 53.8% 12 -34.6% 10
JAX 10.3% 10 56.6% 8 -34.5% 11
CLE 11.6% 9 52.9% 15 -32.9% 12
CHI 5.5% 28 62.9% 2 -27.1% 13
GB 14.8% 3 61.7% 3 -20.7% 14
BAL 13.8% 5 51.9% 18 -15.7% 15
TEN 12.0% 6 56.9% 7 -15.0% 16
NYG 12.0% 7 52.2% 16 -10.9% 17
NYJ 16.4% 2 41.7% 29 -7.6% 18
IND 8.1% 18 46.5% 22 -7.3% 19
DET 3.1% 32 37.5% 31 -3.6% 20
PIT 14.0% 4 42.9% 26 -2.6% 21
WAS 6.1% 24 55.9% 10 -0.9% 22
DAL 5.9% 25 56.3% 9 -0.1% 23
DEN 5.6% 27 61.3% 5 3.0% 24
KC 5.4% 29 54.3% 11 10.0% 25
NE 9.5% 14 44.8% 24 15.2% 26
NO 9.0% 16 44.4% 25 21.8% 27
TB 7.2% 21 42.1% 28 22.4% 28
PHI 6.7% 22 45.2% 23 35.0% 29
SEA 7.3% 20 51.3% 19 40.1% 30
OAK 7.6% 19 42.9% 27 47.7% 31
MIA 8.8% 17 36.4% 32 56.6% 32

The Cardinals easily set the pace with a 17.2 percent rate of defensive back blitzes and were the second-most effective team in that alignment. Part of that success stemmed from a pair of disruptive safeties in Budda Baker and Antoine Bethea, who each finished top-10 among defensive backs with 9.5 and 7.0 respective hurries. But it also relied on defensive backs who could handle the resulting one-on-one coverages. Patrick Peterson is really the perfect player to enable a team to aggressively blitz its safeties. He was top-10 among qualified corners with a 60 percent success rate in coverage.

It will be fascinating to see if the Giants maintain their 12.0 percent defensive back blitz rate or even increase it next season. Even though they lost Landon Collins and his 7.0 hurries, they added two pass-rushing safeties in Bethea and Jabrill Peppers (8.5 hurries). But they will likely need either first-round rookie corner Deandre Baker or last year's third-round supplemental pick Sam Beal to quickly ascend to shutdown corner status because incumbent No. 1 corner Janoris Jenkins struggled with a 45 percent success rate in coverage. Otherwise, they could languish as a middle-tier team in pressure rate and effectiveness on defensive back blitzes like they did in 2018.

The Chargers were nowhere near as aggressive with defensive back blitzes as the Cardinals, but they were similarly effective when they used them. Most of that success can likely be attributed to rookie safety Derwin James. His total of 12.5 hurries was 2.5 clear of Jets safety Jamal Adams in second place among defensive backs, and the Jets blitzed their defensive backs almost as much as the Cardinals did. Combine his success as a blitzer with a 60 percent success rate in coverage that put him in the 75th percentile of qualified strong safeties, and James is poised to defend his maiden All-Pro selection for years to come.

Defensive back blitz data comes to us courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information. The rest of the data here comes from our partners at Sports Info Solutions.

Comments

7 comments, Last at 24 Jul 2019, 11:28pm

1 Gents - Who / how / what…

Gents -

Who / how / what did NE create so much 4 man pressure? I only saw their playoff games last year, which isn't much sample.

What did y'all see?

Thanks

Bill

2 Trey Flowers is a really…

Trey Flowers is a really good edge rusher who doesn't always get a ton of sacks.  I might also add that New England's coverage abilities were good last year- the safeties were ok to good, the undrafted free agent did well (can't remember if he was the 2nd or 3rd corner), and Gillmore was the best corner in the league last year, probably because Ramsey talked too much so he occasionally blew it during games.  As someone pointed out on the other thread, pass rush and coverage are connected in that an abundance of one will help the other.

4 And Yet...

The Pats weren't particularly successful with a three-man pass rush, which I would have expected from having a really talented pass rusher. Much of their pass rushing success came from stunts and delayed pass rushes which were effective throughout the season.

5 This is the answer as I saw…

In reply to by RobotBoy

This is the answer as I saw it; Over the lasts ~3 years BB has put together a real diversity of pass rushes, using stunts, unbalanced fronts, delay blitzes, LB Supplements (out of 6 man fronts with 2 LB's & SS right at the line), to create a lot of blocking-scheme breakdowns. Some of this is abetted by personal (Flowers really is a great DE), but a lot of this has come from the strategic decision to ignore the threat of running between the tackles regularly because so few teams can/will do it well enough and consistently enough to punish this kind of approach (especially in a league of escalating offensive expectations). Obviously the loss of Flowers will have an impact on the Pat's pressure rate this year, but I expect that the effectiveness of the schematic choices will also make this years group disproportionately effective for it's level of talent.

6 Thanks to all, good data!…

Thanks to all, good data!

Found this point - but a lot of this has come from the strategic decision to ignore the threat of running between the tackles regularly because so few teams can/will do it well enough and consistently enough to punish this kind of approach - a lot like "the refs can't call holding every down"!

 

Bill