Defenses and Pressure 2019
Last week, we went over some of the data included in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (still available!) -- specifically, which quarterbacks were best and worst at playing under pressure or from a clean pocket, and who was able to avoid pressure altogether in the first place. Today we're going to flip things around and look at them from a defensive perspective -- which teams had the most and least success pressuring opposing quarterbacks, what they did with that pressure, and how their secondaries held up when the pass rush didn't get home. Keen observers of the 2019 season may expect to see a lot of discussion of the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers here -- and they would be correct.
We begin, as we so often do, with a big ol' table full of numbers. Breakdown of these numbers to follow.
|Defenses and Pass Pressure, 2019|
We promised Patriots discussion, and we're delivering Patriots discussion. Bill Belichick's defenders pressured opponents a league-high 37.1% of the time last year. We have pressure data going back to 2010, and only two other defenses have pressured opposing passers more frequently: the 2018 L.A. Rams (37.6%) and the 2017 version of the franchise now known as the Washington Football Team (38.3%). As we noted in our quarterbacks piece, league-wide pressure rates have been climbing in recent years, and that's reflected in this data.
The bad news for New England is that the players who generated more than half of those pressures either signed elsewhere in free agency or have opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. That includes Kyle Van Noy, who led the Patriots with 46 pressures but is now in Miami, as well as Dont'a Hightower (28, opted out) and Jamie Collins (19, Detroit). Pressure rate for defenses isn't nearly as consistent from one year to the next as it is for offenses -- it's very much a quarterback-driven statistic -- but New England will be especially hard-pressed to repeat in this category this fall.
The Patriots were followed by the New Orleans Saints, whose pressure rate of 36.2% would have led the league in any season from 2010 to 2016. Then we find the Ravens, Packers, and Steelers. The first four of those teams all won their divisions with a combined record of 52-12; the fifth went 8-8 despite having the worst offense in the league. Pressure wins games.
Well, sometimes it does. Not always. Take the Seattle Seahawks, for example. Only two quarterbacks were under pressure more often than Russell Wilson, and only Miami had a lower pressure rate on defense than Seattle. The Dolphins went 5-11 largely because they had the worst pressure rate differential in the league, but the Seahawks were right behind them and they still won 12 games (including the wild-card win over Philadelphia). This Seattle team just can't do anything normal. Miami's leaders in hurries last season (Vince Biegel and Christian Wilkins) are still around, and they added Van Noy from New England. The Seahawks? They must find a way to replace their top three players in hurries: Jadeveon Clowney (41, unsigned), Quinton Jefferson (21, now in Buffalo), and Ezekiel Ansah (12, also unsigned). Jamal Adams, the newest Seattle defender, had 16 pressures last year with the Jets; he might need twice that many for the Seahawks this year.
Another playoff squad, Tennessee, finished just ahead of Seattle in defensive pressure rate. The next two teams in the table, Washington and Detroit, weren't so fortunate.
Tampa Bay's pressure rate went from 25.0% in 2018 to 32.4% in 2019, the biggest increase in the league; this is what happens when you get Shaquil Barrett from Denver and he goes crazy. Washington suffered the biggest decline in pressure rate; this is what happens when you lose Preston Smith in free agency.
Performance with Pressure
You may have noticed that the San Francisco 49ers were never mentioned in that discussion of pressure rate. Surprisingly, the 49ers were mediocre in pressure rate, failing to make the top 10. While they didn't get pressure very often, however, they really made their pressure count, with a DVOA of -105.1%. In the early part of the decade, it was common for defenses to have a DVOA of -100.0% or lower when getting pressure -- 10 teams did it in 2012 alone. Lately, however, it has been much more rare; San Francisco was only the fourth defenses since 2015 to do it. Three of those defenses (These 49ers, plus the Broncos and Panthers in 2015) reached the Super Bowl; the other (the 2017 Ravens) led the NFL in turnovers but still missed the playoffs at 9-7 because Joe Flacco. Nick Bosa led San Francisco (and was third in the league) with 62 hurries. Only two of his teammates even broke double-digits: Arik Armstead had 28 and DeForest Buckner (now in Indianapolis) had 25.
No defense was anywhere near as successful as the 49ers when generating pressure. The drop-off to the second-place Vikings (-86.4%) is bigger than the gap between the Vikings and 13th-place Seattle (-66.8%). Minnesota is followed by the Buccaneers, Ravens, and Steelers.
The New York Giants didn't generate pressure as often as the 49ers did, but they had a far more diverse pass rush -- eight players on the team had at least 10 pressures, led by the 45 of Markus Golden. It didn't do them much good however -- they had the worst DVOA when generating pressure at -20.8%. That's partly why defensive backs Antoine Bethea and Janoris Jenkins are not on the roster anymore. Just above the Giants in this ignominious statistic were the Dolphins, Chargers, Jets, and Cowboys.
Not surprisingly, the 49ers had the biggest improvement in this category -- their DVOA with pressure in 2018 was just -48.3%. The biggest decline was suffered by the Denver Broncos, whose DVOA with pressure rose from -97.6% in 2018 to -57.5% in 2019.
Performance without Pressure
Hey, we haven't mentioned the Patriots in over 300 words. Let's get back to them! As noted, New England had the highest pressure rate in the league. And even when opposing quarterbacks weren't pressured, it hardly mattered, because the Patriots led the NFL in DVOA without pressure. This is a huge credit to New England's defensive backs -- Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, and of course Defensive Player of the year Stephon Gilmore.
The Patriots were only the fourth team of the decade to post a negative DVOA (i.e., good defense) without pressure. The others, with some of their more notable defensive backs:
- the 2016 Denver Broncos at -8.8% (Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Darian Stewart);
- the 2013 Buffalo Bills at -0.3% (Aaron Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Jairus Byrds, and -- yes -- Stephon Gilmore);
- and the 2012 Chicago Bears at -8.8% (Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Major Wright, Chris Conte).
(No, the Legion of Boom Seahawks never made it to a negative DVOA, though they came close several times. They were in the top three in this category every year from 2011 to 2015, with a DVOA between 1.5% and 17.1% every season.)
The Patriots were followed by the 49ers, Bills, Steelers, and Ravens. In a related note, those five teams produced six Pro Bowl defensive backs.
The worst team in this category -- as was the case in so many categories in 2019 -- was the Miami Dolphins. It was a very tight race to the bottom, however -- the Raiders, Bengals, and Cardinals all had DVOAs without pressure of 60.0% or higher too. Before last year, only three teams in the 2010s had a defense so bad when opposing quarterbacks were throwing from a clean pocket. The last to do it was … the Miami Dolphins in 2015, with a secondary led by Reshad Jones, Brent Grimes, and Brice McCain. The Saints that year (Delvin Breaux, Brandon Browner, Kenny Vaccaro) also did it, as did the 2014 Washington team (Bashaud Breeland, Ryan Clark, David Amerson).
Anyway, back to 2019, this is why the Dolphins signed Byron Jones and drafted Noah Igbinoghene; and why the Raiders acquired Prince Amukamara and Damarious Randall; and why the Bengals got Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes; and the Cardinals … well, let's talk about the Cardinals.
Difference in Performance with and without Pressure
As noted, the Cardinals were one of the NFL's worst defenses when they didn't get pressure, with a DVOA of 63.3%. However, they were pretty good when they did get pressure; their DVOA on those plays was -71.1%, 12th best. The gap between those two rates -- 134.4% -- was the largest in the league, and the largest since 2015 (four teams topped it that year). Really, Chandler Jones was Arizona's most important player. He led the club with 43 pressures -- nobody else had even half as many -- and when he didn't make it into the backfield, the Cardinals were screwed.
Other teams that saw major drop-offs with and without pressure included the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Falcons, and 49ers.
The team with the smallest gap between pressure and non-pressure plays was the L.A. Chargers. They were 30th with a DVOA of -36.8% when they did get pressure, but 14th with a DVOA of 31.3% when they didn't. Other teams with relatively small gaps between pressure and non-pressure plays include the Giants, the Jets, the Patriots, and Washington.