Defense by Number of Pass-Rushers 2019
We're back with another look at the 2019 NFL season as seen through the charting data of our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Today we're going to look at defenses by the number of pass-rushers they sent after opposing quarterbacks -- who blitzed, who didn't, and who got the best results. We're also going to look at defensive back blitzes, which produced some of the most notable results, but we'll save that for last.
As a reminder, many of these statistics can be found in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (still available!). The short version: in 2019, the Lions didn't rush anybody, the Buccaneers rushed everybody, and the Ravens really loved to use blitzes out of the secondary.
The following table lists the results for every defense last season when using fewer than four pass-rushers. All the data in this article removes all plays from the 1- and 2-yard lines, as well as screens/quick ("smoke")/jet sweep passes. They include scrambles and defensive pass interference penalties, but not aborted snaps. Teams are listed by frequency of rushing three or fewer.
Three or Fewer Pass-Rushers, 2019
Matt Patricia's Detroit Lions used three or fewer pass-rushers on 27% of opponent's dropbacks, the highest rate in this category since at least 2011. There's a big gap between them and everyone else, but four other teams used fewer than four pass-rushers more than 15% of the time, and there's a pretty clear connection between the head coaches of most of those teams. You've got Patricia and Miami's Brian Flores, who are Bill Belichick's former defensive assistants; you've got Tennessee's Mike Vrabel, who is Bill Belichick's former defensive player; and you've got New England's Bill Belichick, who is, in fact, Bill Belichick. (The fifth team is Washington, whose defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has grown to love the three-man rush despite never working with Bill Belichick. Washington ranked first in this category last year; prior to that, Manusky's teams in both D.C. and Indianapolis were usually in the teens, though the Colts did rank fifth in 2016.)
There is more to emulating Bill Belichick, however, then simply rushing three over and over again and calling it a day. The Patriots were the only one of these teams to have a negative DVOA (meaning, better defense) when rushing with fewer than four. That's not when they were at their best, however -- New England's DVOA was actually much lower when they rushed four or more. The Lions and Titans had lower DVOAs with three-man rushes, so it made sense for them to be so conservative. (Washington's results were mixed, while Miami was just dirt-terrible no matter how many pass-rushers they used.)
The important takeaway for those looking to mimic Belichick's scheme is that "use a lot of three-man rushes" does not mean the same thing as "never blitz." As we'll see throughout these tables, the Patriots were in the top half of the league in all varieties of blitzes -- five-man rushes, big blitzes of six or more, and defensive back blitzes. The other teams that relied on three-man rushes were much more conservative overall. Relying on a three-man rush will typically get you killed. Using a three-man rush to set up your blitzes, disguise your schemes, and keep your opponents guessing will get you into the playoffs.
Teams that rely on four-man rushes typically have a pair of bookend rushers who are both capable of winning one-on-one matchups and don't need blitzers to help. The Chargers, with their dominant tag team of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, certainly qualify, and that's partly why L.A. used more four-man rushes than any other defense in the league.
Teams in the following table are sorted by four-man rush rate.
Four Pass-Rushers, 2019
The Chargers' division rivals in Oakland were right behind them in four-man rushes; thanks to veteran Benson Mayowa and rookies Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, the Raiders got 80% of their sacks from their edge rushers, the highest rate in the league. That's a common theme among teams that used four-man rushes a lot -- the Chargers were third in percentage of sacks from edge rushers. Going down the table here, we find the 49ers (ninth in edge rusher sack rate, led by Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa), the Eagles (14th, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett), and the Cowboys (10th, Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence). The big exception is Buffalo, who ranked sixth in four-man rushes but 31st in edge rusher sack rate. It's along the interior where the Bills were dominant; 16.5 of their 44 sacks were produced by defensive tackles Jordan Phillips, Ed Oliver, and Star Lotulelei.
As you might expect, there's a lot of carryover in this category from season to season. The Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, and 49ers were all in the top five in each of the last two seasons. The Bengals fell from the top five because new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo blitzed a lot more than his predecessor Teryl Austin did. Their spot was taken by the Raiders, who got a major talent injection at edge rusher after relying on Bruce Irvin and Arden Key in 2018.
The Patriots led the league in DVOA with four-man rushes, the best in that category since the 2016 Denver Broncos (-43.3%). The Miami Dolphins had the worst DVOA with four-man rushes (I told you they were dirt-terrible). The last team with a higher DVOA was … the Miami Dolphins, in 2017 (44.0%).
The Baltimore Ravens used the fewest four-man rushes in the league. They were the only team to use four-man rushes less than half the time, and the first to do that since the New York Jets in 2016. Obviously, most of the teams in the bottom of this table used a lot of three-man rushes and/or a lot of blitzes. And since we already discussed those three-man teams, let's talk about the blitzers.
The term "blitz" can be a little hard to define. The following table lists data for five-man rushes as well as those with six or more, but it's sorted by the last group, which totals them together into pass rushes of five or more.
|5-Man Rushes||6-Plus Rushers||5-Plus Rushers|
The Baltimore Ravens loved the five-man blitz, using it on 37% of opponents' dropbacks. That's the highest rate since at least 2011, surpassing the 36% mark of the 2011 Packers. (The 2017 Panthers were also at 36%, but a few decimal points behind Green Bay.) As it turns out, they were not alone -- the five-man blitz was a staple of football in the AFC North, where the Steelers ranked second, the Browns sixth, and the Bengals seventh.
After the Ravens and Steelers, the top five is finished by the Cardinals, the Buccaneers, and the Jets -- also known as the last three teams to employ Todd Bowles, who went from defensive coordinator in Arizona to head coach in New York to his current role as DC in Tampa Bay. That's interesting because it indicates teams might keep a coach's philosophies even after he moves on. Bowles hasn't coached in Arizona since 2014, an entire NFL generation ago, but the Cardinals last year still somewhat resembled his current Buccaneers squad. Is there something about Bowles' schemes that his employers are looking for even after he's gone? Or is this just an interesting coincidence?
Again we see a lot of teams repeating from year to year at the top of the tables; Arizona, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh were all in the top five in 2018 as well. Denver dropped out with Vic Fangio replacing Vance Joseph as head coach; so did Carolina, though their decline was not dramatic. Those two teams were replaced by Tampa Bay, who were much more aggressive in their first season under Bowles, and the Jets, who were much more aggressive in their first season under Gregg Williams after firing Bowles.
The Detroit Lions were last in five-man rushes, and just the third team to use them less than 10% of the time along with the 2011 Eagles and 2017 Jaguars. (That was the Jacksonville team that led the league in defensive DVOA and dragged Blake Bortles to an AFC Championship Game. They're going to pop up a few times in the next few paragraphs.) The Raiders, Eagles, Chargers, and Titans fill out the bottom five here; we have already discussed how they eschew blitzes in favor of rushing four or fewer.
The Patriots and Bills were neck-and-neck for best DVOA with a five-man rush. They both had better DVOAs than any defense since 2017, when those Jaguars hit -54.5%. Oakland's DVOA on five-man blitzes was the worst since … last year, when the Dolphins had a mind-bending 85.3%. (Really, the Dolphins have been dirt-terrible for several seasons now.)
As it turns out, most teams that like to blitz with five also like to blitz with six or more -- the correlation between the two stats is 0.326, and that is skewed low by a pair of extreme outliers in the Pennsylvania teams. The Steelers were second in five-man blitzes but second-to-last in rushing six or more; the Eagles were in the top five in six-man rushes but 30th in sending exactly five. Take those two teams out and the correlation between the two stats soars to 0.545.
Besides Philadelphia, the other team that ranked high in six-man blitzes but low in five-man blitzes was Cleveland. The Browns defense was run by Steve Wilks, who took over for … Gregg Williams. The NFL is an ouroboros.
The Chargers almost completely ignored the big blitz, using them on only four snaps, less than 1% of opposing dropbacks -- 0.85%, to be precise. Those are both the lowest marks on record, passing the eight snaps and 1.27% rate of the 2016 Dallas Cowboys.
All told, only one team since 2011 has ever blitzed less frequently than last year's Chargers: last year's Lions. Before 2019, the lowest rate on record was the 14% of the 2017 Jaguars, but L.A. and Detroit both fell below that threshold. Baltimore led the NFL with a blitz rate of 48%, the highest since the Jeff Fisher Rams hit 49% in 2014.
It's not how often the Ravens blitzed that really set them apart, however. It's who was doing the blitzing.
Defensive Back Blitzes
The following table shows all plays where a defensive back blitzed, regardless of the number of pass-rushers. Obviously, these plays will overlap with the numbers we have already discussed. Teams that like to blitz in general are typically the same teams that blitz DBs; the correlation between blitz rate of five or more pass-rushers and blitzing with DBs is 0.687. The Baltimore Ravens finished first in both categories, but they were especially dominant in the use of the DB blitz. Defensive blitz data comes from ESPN Stats & Information.
DB Blitzes, 2019
We're nearly 2,000 words into this story and we've kind of buried the lede, but Baltimore absolutely destroyed the record for DB blitz rate at 28.4%. The prior record was just 21.8% by the 2012 New York Jets. Only three other teams this decade have even topped 20%, none since 2015. The Ravens called a raw total of 153 DB blitzes last season, nearly 10 per game. The Jets were the only other team in triple digits, and they just got there with 101. There were 11 DBs last season who had at least 10 pressures; four of them (Brandon Carr, Chuck Clark, Marlon Humphrey, and Earl Thomas) were Ravens. And that's not even counting the half-dozen sacks Baltimore defensive backs had.
And as you can see from those hurries and sacks, it was effective. Only New Orleans got pressure more frequently on DB blitzes, and they only blitzed about half as often. Only San Francisco had a better DVOA, and they only blitzed about a quarter as often.
The Ravens won a league-high 14 games in 2019, and they did it by asking players on both sides of the ball to perform outside the typical confines of their position. You're probably aware that the offense was built around a quarterback who ran like none ever has before, but let's not forget that the defense revolved around a secondary that was as effective rushing the passer as it was in coverage.