DVOA by Route: How Bills Built NFL's Best Defense

Buffalo Bills CB Tre'Davious White
Buffalo Bills CB Tre'Davious White
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Preseason Week 3 - Earlier this month, we looked at the 2021 Buffalo Bills defense and their record-setting performance against deep passes. Today we're going to break that performance down in more detail, using DVOA by route to show where they dominated, where they were more vulnerable, and why other teams would be wise to follow their schemes. Thank you again to Sports Info Solutions, which provides this route data.

First, the numbers. Buffalo had the best defense in the league in 2021, and here's how they fared against the 12 most common routes in the NFL last year. The table is sorted by DVOA, but we have also included target rate to show the Bills' ability to prevent certain passes from being thrown in the first place.

Buffalo Bills Defense by Route, 2021
Route DVOA Rk Tgt% Rk
Go/Fly -155.2% 1 1.6% 3
Post -98.4% 1 1.2% 2
Slant -55.4% 2 7.8% 25
Curl -43.1% 1 14.1% 16
Drag -39.5% 6 7.0% 32
Broken Play -35.0% 9 6.4% 28
Dig -22.7% 10 8.8% 32
Flat -13.7% 10 3.9% 2
Corner -13.0% 6 2.3% 13
WR/TE Screen -2.9% 26 9.0% 27
Out 4.7% 20 9.8% 9
Deep Cross 50.6% 25 2.7% 8

Buffalo's DVOA of -68.5% against deep passes was the best we have ever measured, and this table shows why. The Bills had the best DVOA against both go/fly and post routes, the two deepest routes among the dozen listed here. They were also in the top three in target rate against those two routes, which means opponents knew those routes wouldn't work and didn't even bother trying them. Buffalo's combined stats against those two routes: 14 total targets, two receptions for 41 yards, one DPI for 19 yards, and four interceptions. Yes, they caught twice as many balls on defense as they allowed to be caught by the offense.

The next deepest route listed here is the corner, where the Bills were effective if not elite (sixth in DVOA, 13th in target rate). That leaves the deep cross, where Buffalo's target-for-target stats were subpar, but those targets were limited—only 14 all year in 17 games.

While the Bills did a great job taking away the deep ball, they invited opponents to attack their vulnerable underbelly—literally . They ranked dead last in target rate allowed against both drags and digs, routes that break from the outside over the middle, but in front of Pro Bowl safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. If you're going to force opposing quarterbacks to stick to a few specific routes, you could pick worse options—the league-wide defensive DVOA against digs (1.3%) and drags (-7.8%) was much lower than it was against go/flies (12.9%), deep crosses (23.9%), corners (30.1%), or posts (46.3%). Mind you, those are the numbers for average defenses, and the Bills were no average defense, ranking in the top 10 in DVOA against both digs and drags.

In fact, Buffalo ranked in the top 10 in DVOA and/or target rate against 11 of the 12 routes in our table. There's only one route listed here that Bills opponents threw more than average with any kind of relative success: the WR/TE screen. But Buffalo was likely content to rank so low in those categories because a bad defense against WR/TE screens is still a good defense. So yes, they gave up a 24-yard gain to Russell Gage, and 16-yarders to Leonard Fournette and DJ Moore, and a touchdown to Travis Kelce, and five other first downs, all on WR/TE screens. They also forced five incompletions and four catches that lost yards, and gave up just one conversion in 10 plays on third and fourth down.

There's a lesson to be learned here for defensive coordinators around the league: take away the deep balls, force opponents to settle for shorter completions over the middle, and encourage them to beat themselves by throwing one wide receiver screen after another.

Curl

This is the most common route in the NFL, so it's critical that defenses fare well against it. The Bills had the best DVOA against curls, giving up only one touchdown all season while forcing six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles). But opponents had to throw the ball somewhere against Buffalo, and with the deep ball not an option, curls were a frequent alternative—the Bills were right in the middle of the pack when it came to curl target rate. On the other hand, the New Orleans Saints (8.4%) and Chicago Bears (8.5%) were essentially tied for the lowest curl target rate among defenses. The Bears had a much better DVOA against curls than the Saints did, giving up only one touchdown while intercepting two passes—returning one for a touchdown of their own.

The Houston Texans faced a curl route on 19.2% of their defensive targets, the highest rate in the league, but it was the Atlanta Falcons who had the worst DVOA against curls. Atlanta failed to intercept a single curl target while giving up 40 first downs.

Defense vs. Curl Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
BUF -43.1% 72 14.1% 5.8 67.6% 5.9 3.1
CHI -37.6% 40 8.5% 6.1 72.5% 5.2 2.7
NE -33.1% 78 14.8% 6.3 65.4% 6.2 3.6
PIT -30.1% 105 18.9% 5.9 69.5% 5.9 2.6
IND -29.1% 93 15.8% 5.9 65.2% 6.1 3.4
DEN -28.3% 51 9.3% 4.7 58.8% 5.9 2.2
KC -17.8% 81 13.6% 7.0 72.5% 5.6 4.4
ARI -17.3% 80 14.3% 6.5 73.1% 7.1 2.6
TB -13.7% 122 18.2% 6.8 76.7% 6.2 3.0
GB -12.1% 89 15.1% 6.5 71.6% 6.9 2.2
NO -10.4% 49 8.4% 7.3 78.7% 6.3 3.2
LAC -10.2% 55 10.2% 5.8 76.4% 6.2 2.3
TEN -9.0% 92 14.8% 6.3 74.7% 6.2 2.3
CLE -4.0% 87 15.2% 6.7 71.3% 6.6 2.8
CAR -2.9% 75 15.1% 6.2 71.6% 6.7 2.3
JAX -2.3% 80 15.0% 6.7 75.0% 6.5 2.5
LV -1.5% 113 19.0% 6.3 74.8% 6.9 1.9
MIA -0.3% 70 12.0% 6.5 64.3% 5.6 3.4
WAS 2.4% 76 12.8% 7.6 82.4% 6.8 2.5
BAL 2.7% 75 12.2% 6.6 64.9% 6.5 3.9
DAL 3.5% 61 10.2% 8.6 75.0% 7.3 4.7
HOU 8.3% 103 19.2% 7.3 69.9% 7.6 3.2
SF 8.4% 73 13.3% 7.2 76.1% 7.4 2.7
DET 10.0% 68 12.7% 7.9 76.6% 6.9 3.6
LAR 11.6% 107 17.8% 7.6 81.1% 6.3 3.2
MIN 12.6% 75 12.3% 8.5 86.5% 6.7 2.9
NYJ 12.6% 78 13.5% 7.5 75.3% 7.4 3.2
CIN 12.8% 70 11.6% 6.6 81.4% 5.5 3.1
PHI 15.2% 107 18.7% 7.1 80.2% 6.0 3.2
NYG 16.4% 78 13.1% 7.3 82.1% 6.8 2.4
SEA 20.5% 110 17.0% 7.6 78.9% 6.3 3.3
ATL 27.6% 94 16.3% 7.7 76.6% 7.8 3.1

Out

Once again an AFC East defense leads the way in DVOA, but this time it's not the Buffalo Bills, it's the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick's squad did not give up any touchdowns on out routes while intercepting three passes. The Dallas Cowboys gave up just one touchdown on an out route all year … and even on that one play, Demontae Kazee forced a John Bates fumble short of the goal line, but Bates was able to recover the ball and score. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans, who gave up the highest target rate on curls, gave up the lowest target rate on outs.

The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, allowed a 16.5% target rate against outs, triple that of Houston and the highest total in the league. By DVOA, however, it is once again the Atlanta Falcons appearing as the worst defense in football. Atlanta intercepted just one out route all year, against Zach Wilson of the New York Jets in Week 5. They allowed 31 first downs on outs, including eight straight throws by the immortal trio of P.J. Walker, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Tim Boyle in Weeks 14, 15, and 16.

Defense vs. Out Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
NE -41.9% 59 11.2% 5.6 62.1% 6.7 2.1
DAL -41.2% 55 9.2% 6.0 59.3% 7.7 2.8
TEN -21.2% 84 13.5% 5.5 60.2% 7.9 2.6
HOU -20.4% 29 5.4% 7.8 64.3% 11.1 1.7
LAR -15.3% 64 10.7% 5.6 56.3% 7.6 2.9
JAX -15.1% 59 11.1% 5.9 72.4% 6.6 1.9
CHI -14.3% 48 10.2% 6.6 68.1% 8.0 2.4
CIN -11.2% 65 10.8% 6.1 64.1% 7.3 3.3
PHI -11.2% 62 10.8% 5.1 63.9% 7.1 1.6
GB -10.7% 69 11.7% 5.8 66.7% 6.9 2.5
WAS -10.5% 69 11.6% 6.7 68.1% 6.8 3.0
PIT -10.1% 57 10.2% 7.0 73.7% 7.6 2.0
DEN -6.2% 82 15.0% 6.4 65.9% 7.2 2.8
CLE -5.2% 61 10.6% 5.5 65.6% 6.6 1.8
TB -3.0% 74 11.0% 6.7 71.6% 7.4 2.8
CAR -2.2% 58 11.7% 6.2 66.7% 7.3 2.5
NO 0.8% 75 12.8% 6.3 72.0% 7.3 2.7
MIA 1.2% 72 12.4% 7.4 73.2% 6.5 3.2
DET 4.2% 51 9.5% 6.5 72.0% 7.9 1.5
BUF 4.7% 50 9.8% 5.5 65.3% 6.9 1.5
NYG 5.4% 59 9.9% 6.8 70.7% 8.6 2.2
IND 9.1% 66 11.2% 7.1 69.7% 7.6 3.3
BAL 10.6% 86 14.0% 6.8 68.7% 7.7 2.8
ARI 11.5% 92 16.5% 7.0 70.3% 7.4 2.3
SEA 12.5% 60 9.3% 6.1 69.5% 6.2 2.6
LV 12.9% 47 7.9% 7.1 70.2% 7.0 2.9
SF 18.4% 49 8.9% 7.2 77.1% 6.6 2.6
KC 20.3% 56 9.4% 6.9 75.9% 5.5 3.7
LAC 22.8% 78 14.4% 7.3 68.4% 8.5 2.1
NYJ 27.1% 64 11.1% 8.3 79.7% 7.2 3.5
MIN 37.9% 67 11.0% 7.8 70.8% 7.9 3.3
ATL 40.4% 56 9.7% 8.5 76.4% 9.0 3.3

Slant

We mentioned Dallas' success against outs, but the Cowboys were even better against slants. The Cowboys scored more touchdowns on intercepted slant routes (two, on three interceptions) than they allowed (one, and that was a 5-yard touchdown by Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first quarter of Week 1). It was the Las Vegas Raiders who had the lowest target rate on slants at just 4.4%; the Tennessee Titans were right behind them at 4.5%.

It's an interesting debate as to who had the worst defense against slants. DVOA would tell you it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, who gave up six touchdowns on slants (including gains of 22 and 28 yards) without a single interception. The New Orleans Saints also failed to intercept a single slant target, and while they only gave up three touchdowns on the play, that's not counting the seven slant completions that gained 20-plus yards. Further, the Saints gave up a slant target rate of 11.0%, the highest in the NFL. It's a tough call for this dubious honor.

Defense vs. Slant Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
DAL -78.8% 42 7.0% 4.2 41.5% 5.9 4.2
BUF -55.4% 40 7.8% 5.8 45.0% 7.5 5.8
DET -52.3% 44 8.2% 4.8 41.9% 7.0 3.8
ARI -30.5% 38 6.8% 4.8 51.4% 7.3 2.4
MIN -20.7% 59 9.7% 6.7 55.9% 6.7 5.2
PIT -14.3% 39 7.0% 8.5 65.8% 6.6 5.7
CIN -12.1% 44 7.3% 7.0 61.4% 6.7 4.7
WAS -11.6% 43 7.3% 5.7 55.8% 8.6 2.9
DEN -9.1% 39 7.1% 7.5 57.9% 6.5 6.3
MIA -6.9% 35 6.0% 7.9 58.8% 7.8 5.7
SF -5.0% 29 5.3% 6.4 61.5% 6.9 3.5
SEA -0.6% 37 5.7% 6.8 66.7% 6.6 3.0
CLE 1.1% 43 7.5% 8.1 57.5% 6.3 7.7
GB 6.8% 37 6.3% 6.9 64.9% 6.7 3.9
KC 7.0% 39 6.6% 6.6 64.9% 5.7 4.8
LV 7.0% 26 4.4% 7.3 73.1% 6.6 3.5
TEN 7.5% 28 4.5% 7.3 64.3% 7.3 3.1
ATL 12.0% 39 6.8% 7.9 54.1% 7.3 6.5
NE 13.3% 32 6.1% 6.4 56.3% 7.5 4.9
HOU 13.4% 49 9.1% 7.9 63.3% 7.5 4.5
PHI 15.7% 30 5.2% 7.9 70.0% 7.0 3.6
LAC 19.0% 32 5.9% 8.1 70.0% 6.3 5.3
CHI 22.7% 41 8.7% 8.4 70.0% 6.0 5.9
IND 23.6% 30 5.1% 9.0 76.7% 6.0 5.4
NYG 26.1% 40 6.7% 7.2 66.7% 6.9 3.4
TB 27.8% 45 6.7% 6.6 62.8% 6.6 3.0
NYJ 30.1% 40 6.9% 7.8 74.4% 6.4 3.8
LAR 37.9% 38 6.3% 9.5 76.3% 7.2 4.9
BAL 40.5% 42 6.8% 9.6 66.7% 6.4 7.6
CAR 48.6% 46 9.3% 9.7 80.0% 7.5 4.9
NO 50.1% 64 11.0% 9.9 75.8% 7.0 6.9
JAX 61.2% 43 8.1% 9.8 86.0% 6.7 4.1

WR/TE Screen

We mentioned the way the Buffalo Bills invited opponents to throw wide receiver screens in 2021, but nobody was better at that than the San Francisco 49ers, whose WR/TE screen target rate of 10.7% was the highest in the league. While Buffalo's defense was relatively vulnerable against screens, however, the 49ers shredded them, with a DVOA of -100.3%. San Francisco only allowed a half-dozen first downs on WR/TE screens, and no touchdowns. But they scored a touchdown of their own on a Jimmie Ward interception against the Rams in Week 10 and also forced six fumbles, recovering four of them. When we looked at DVOA by route for quarterbacks, we found that Russell Wilson was the league's worst quarterback on WR/TE screens. Wilson's grisly numbers on WR/TE screens against San Francisco: 11 attempts, 11 completions, 21 yards, a long gain of just 3 yards, zero first downs, four catches for no gain or a loss, three fumbles by Wilson's receivers.

While Wilson's old team failed to execute WR/TE screens, his new team failed to stop them. The Denver Broncos somehow had a 45.3% DVOA against WR/TE screens, giving up 11 first downs, including gains of 21, 34, and 44 yards. The good news is that they faced the NFL's lowest WR/TE screen target rate at 4.0%. That would be bad news for most defenses, but given Denver's inexplicable struggles against screens, it's probably for the best.

Defense vs. WR/TE Screen Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
SF -100.3% 59 10.7% 3.3 93.2% -2.0 5.8
CAR -63.8% 34 6.8% 4.1 94.1% -2.6 7.0
LAC -46.9% 25 4.6% 4.5 92.0% -2.4 7.3
MIA -41.3% 52 8.9% 5.3 88.2% -2.2 8.0
LAR -39.4% 45 7.5% 6.0 91.1% -2.2 9.0
CIN -36.8% 32 5.3% 3.1 87.5% -2.4 5.9
IND -36.5% 32 5.4% 5.6 84.4% -2.5 9.6
WAS -35.4% 51 8.6% 4.7 76.5% -2.0 8.1
DAL -33.7% 37 6.2% 6.8 94.6% -2.8 10.0
NYJ -33.7% 39 6.7% 5.9 82.1% -2.4 9.7
NO -33.6% 41 7.0% 3.3 73.2% -2.3 7.0
GB -33.5% 31 5.3% 4.9 90.3% -2.4 8.2
MIN -31.7% 47 7.7% 4.6 89.4% -2.1 7.2
CLE -30.7% 39 6.8% 5.6 94.9% -1.7 7.4
ARI -29.5% 54 9.7% 5.0 87.0% -2.3 8.3
PIT -22.8% 37 6.6% 4.9 89.2% -2.6 8.2
NYG -21.2% 60 10.1% 5.7 85.0% -2.7 9.3
KC -17.0% 43 7.2% 5.6 90.2% -2.4 8.4
DET -15.1% 43 8.0% 6.8 93.0% -2.3 9.8
LV -14.1% 31 5.2% 4.9 90.3% -2.3 7.5
TB -12.0% 65 9.7% 5.0 80.0% -2.8 8.9
PHI -10.2% 53 9.2% 4.9 88.7% -2.7 8.2
SEA -8.0% 45 7.0% 4.8 86.7% -2.0 7.7
TEN -5.9% 48 7.7% 7.0 87.5% -2.0 10.3
NE -4.2% 30 5.7% 4.5 90.0% -2.0 7.1
BUF -2.9% 46 9.0% 5.6 89.1% -2.6 8.9
ATL 0.3% 47 8.2% 6.3 91.5% -2.4 9.4
BAL 1.0% 40 6.5% 7.3 92.5% -2.2 10.1
CHI 1.6% 40 8.5% 7.9 92.5% -1.9 10.5
HOU 3.7% 35 6.5% 5.8 82.9% -1.5 8.4
JAX 19.9% 33 6.2% 8.6 100.0% -2.3 10.9
DEN 45.3% 22 4.0% 10.2 95.5% -3.4 14.1

Dig

It was the Cleveland Browns with the best DVOA against dig routes, giving up just one touchdown (a 9-yard catch by DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals) while intercepting a pair of passes. They were also in the top five in dig target rate allowed, though it's a pair of Florida teams at the top of the table there. Technically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finish in first place here, with a dig target rate of 3.43% compared to the 3.44% rate of the Miami Dolphins.

We have already told you that the Buffalo Bills allowed the NFL's highest target rate on digs, but the Carolina Panthers gave up the worst DVOA. Opposing quarterbacks threw 33 dig routes against Carolina and picked up 22 first downs while throwing just a single interception.

Defense vs. Dig Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
CLE -59.0% 23 4.0% 6.4 47.8% 10.3 2.5
KC -38.3% 26 4.4% 6.2 53.8% 8.9 3.0
NO -36.9% 28 4.8% 6.9 46.4% 12.6 3.5
TEN -36.5% 37 5.9% 8.6 56.8% 12.0 5.3
ARI -29.6% 27 4.8% 9.2 65.4% 11.6 2.8
GB -29.5% 42 7.1% 6.4 47.5% 10.2 2.6
CHI -29.1% 34 7.2% 5.9 45.5% 9.1 1.8
NYG -28.6% 31 5.2% 6.8 61.3% 12.2 1.5
SF -22.9% 33 6.0% 7.8 46.9% 11.7 3.1
BUF -22.7% 45 8.8% 7.0 54.5% 10.9 2.2
MIN -9.8% 31 5.1% 8.3 58.1% 10.2 4.7
LAR -6.6% 47 7.8% 8.5 67.4% 9.2 4.8
IND -4.5% 40 6.8% 9.3 64.1% 13.3 2.2
WAS -3.6% 37 6.2% 8.9 70.3% 11.6 2.3
MIA -2.1% 20 3.4% 7.2 47.4% 12.9 3.3
LAC 0.3% 46 8.5% 8.5 65.2% 9.3 4.3
HOU 7.1% 31 5.8% 8.6 67.7% 10.0 3.2
DAL 7.6% 35 5.9% 11.1 52.9% 9.9 11.8
CIN 8.3% 36 6.0% 8.5 61.1% 11.1 3.8
JAX 9.6% 28 5.3% 7.0 57.1% 11.1 2.8
DEN 14.7% 41 7.5% 10.0 70.0% 10.5 4.0
NE 15.0% 21 4.0% 8.4 61.9% 9.9 4.5
SEA 23.0% 47 7.3% 9.7 63.8% 11.6 3.7
DET 26.2% 37 6.9% 10.0 73.0% 11.1 3.2
BAL 27.0% 43 7.0% 8.2 58.1% 10.1 5.2
LV 29.3% 31 5.2% 9.1 70.0% 9.5 3.8
TB 31.4% 23 3.4% 12.0 68.2% 13.3 3.1
PHI 33.9% 35 6.1% 10.2 68.6% 12.5 3.0
NYJ 37.7% 20 3.5% 9.6 66.7% 10.9 3.4
ATL 39.1% 29 5.0% 11.2 67.9% 11.8 4.2
PIT 40.2% 36 6.5% 10.5 61.8% 11.0 5.4
CAR 43.6% 33 6.6% 11.7 75.0% 10.6 4.5

Flat

We have spent a lot of time this offseason praising Pittsburgh's defensive front, and now we're going to do it again. The Steelers barely allowed opponents to do anything on flat routes last year, giving up just one touchdown (a 1-yard catch by Will Dissly of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6) while intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble, without giving up a single 20-yard gain. No team removed this throw from opposing game plans like the Los Angeles Rams, who faced a flat route on only 3.3% of their total targets.

The Washington Football Team (RIP) gave up the highest flat target rate, but their DVOA on the play was better than most. The Detroit Lions had the worst DVOA against flat routes, giving up five touchdowns (including a 40-yarder by Joe Mixon) without intercepting a single pass.

Defense vs. Flat Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
PIT -57.5% 31 5.6% 4.7 80.6% 0.9 5.0
TB -38.5% 46 6.9% 3.6 76.1% 0.4 4.0
NO -37.7% 25 4.3% 4.5 96.0% 0.6 4.1
SF -32.3% 36 6.6% 4.1 83.3% 1.4 3.4
MIN -31.7% 28 4.6% 4.8 78.6% 1.6 4.8
LAR -19.2% 20 3.3% 3.9 75.0% 0.9 4.5
NYG -17.7% 44 7.4% 5.1 81.8% 1.0 5.1
ATL -15.8% 32 5.6% 4.5 84.4% 0.8 4.1
WAS -13.9% 48 8.1% 5.2 79.2% 1.6 5.6
BUF -13.7% 20 3.9% 4.7 65.0% 0.3 6.2
BAL -12.6% 37 6.0% 5.2 91.9% 0.7 5.0
CAR -8.7% 37 7.4% 4.1 81.1% 1.1 3.9
ARI -4.7% 32 5.7% 5.1 78.1% 1.7 4.7
CLE -3.4% 41 7.2% 5.7 78.0% 1.0 6.4
KC -1.6% 42 7.1% 5.8 88.1% 0.6 5.7
HOU -1.2% 26 4.8% 4.1 73.1% 1.4 4.3
CIN 1.9% 34 5.6% 6.4 76.5% 0.0 8.3
GB 2.5% 33 5.6% 4.5 93.9% 0.6 4.4
LV 2.6% 33 5.5% 4.9 87.9% 1.0 4.6
LAC 2.7% 38 7.0% 6.3 89.5% 1.3 5.6
CHI 4.8% 22 4.7% 6.1 86.4% 1.2 5.6
NYJ 11.1% 45 7.8% 5.7 93.3% 1.6 4.4
DEN 16.7% 37 6.8% 6.2 83.8% 0.6 6.6
IND 16.7% 31 5.3% 5.3 90.3% 1.2 4.6
TEN 17.5% 25 4.0% 6.7 88.0% 1.0 6.6
DAL 19.4% 35 5.9% 6.0 80.0% 0.9 6.4
SEA 24.9% 28 4.3% 8.2 89.3% 0.8 8.4
PHI 28.7% 34 5.9% 6.0 82.4% 1.9 5.2
JAX 30.1% 38 7.1% 5.6 86.8% 1.8 4.6
MIA 37.3% 30 5.2% 5.7 80.0% 0.9 6.0
NE 39.1% 30 5.7% 6.6 86.7% 1.4 6.0
DET 39.2% 32 6.0% 6.9 78.1% 1.2 7.6

Broken Play

The Seattle Seahawks played the most zone defense in the NFL last season, so it's fitting that they had the best numbers against broken plays—even when opposing quarterbacks were able to avoid pressure, there were usually still plenty of defenders in coverage downfield. Seattle surrendered only one touchdown all year on a broken play, and that was a 5-yard pass from Davis Mills to Brevin Jordan of the Houston Texans. Compare that to their division rivals in Arizona. The Cardinals gave up four touchdowns on broken plays and seven other completions that gained 20-plus yards, finishing with the league's worst DVOA against broken plays.

Broken play target rates are kind of weird. Theoretically, you'd want a high target rate here, because it would indicate you were getting lots of pressure, even if the quarterback was escaping that pressure and potentially hitting a big play downfield. But, for the record, we will note that the New York Jets allowed the lowest broken play target rate, narrowly beating out the Philadelphia Eagles, 3.11% to 3.14%. Another AFC East team, the New England Patriots, had the league's highest broken play target rate at 8.7%.

Defense vs. Broken Play Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
SEA -67.5% 41 6.3% 3.0 31.7% 11.2 2.6
NO -53.5% 29 5.0% 5.1 42.9% 9.4 3.1
NYG -53.2% 35 5.9% 6.0 42.9% 11.5 4.5
HOU -51.2% 32 6.0% 6.8 40.6% 14.7 2.7
DEN -47.9% 36 6.6% 5.5 41.7% 13.8 4.7
GB -46.1% 38 6.4% 8.1 37.8% 17.2 5.4
MIA -44.5% 31 5.3% 5.4 46.7% 11.1 3.5
DET -42.2% 30 5.6% 5.8 43.3% 12.8 1.6
BUF -35.0% 33 6.4% 5.7 48.5% 10.5 2.8
TB -33.3% 38 5.7% 7.3 51.4% 10.5 4.8
SF -24.4% 26 4.7% 5.9 52.0% 8.8 2.2
BAL -23.5% 33 5.4% 6.5 51.5% 9.7 6.3
LAC -21.3% 27 5.0% 9.3 58.3% 12.0 5.9
ATL -18.8% 26 4.5% 6.1 42.3% 11.0 5.4
MIN -15.6% 31 5.1% 10.2 40.0% 12.8 7.3
KC -13.6% 32 5.4% 8.1 50.0% 11.6 5.9
DAL -12.7% 35 5.9% 6.5 37.1% 14.8 2.9
LAR -11.6% 36 6.0% 6.4 47.2% 13.1 3.8
CAR -9.6% 19 3.8% 7.2 52.6% 12.4 3.6
PHI -9.5% 18 3.1% 3.4 50.0% 7.9 1.9
NE 2.7% 46 8.7% 8.3 45.7% 11.5 7.4
TEN 3.4% 44 7.1% 8.9 44.2% 14.5 1.9
CIN 7.4% 34 5.6% 9.4 53.1% 17.6 4.1
JAX 14.3% 32 6.0% 9.2 53.1% 12.6 4.1
CLE 18.1% 27 4.7% 12.8 52.0% 19.0 5.5
IND 21.0% 33 5.6% 7.4 60.6% 11.4 1.7
LV 24.1% 42 7.1% 8.0 50.0% 14.7 2.6
CHI 44.5% 23 4.9% 10.6 69.6% 11.9 4.7
WAS 49.1% 24 4.0% 12.1 66.7% 14.5 2.2
PIT 57.6% 25 4.5% 7.8 62.5% 10.7 2.9
NYJ 65.2% 18 3.1% 6.5 55.6% 14.8 1.4
ARI 83.9% 24 4.3% 12.0 62.5% 15.3 4.6

Drag

The Cleveland Browns had the league's best DVOA against digs, and they have the best DVOA against drags too. Turns out that a lot of teams that fared well against the one also fared well against the other, and vice versa—the correlation coefficient between DVOA on digs and drags was 0.531. This makes sense since both are in-breaking routes, with depth of target usually being the biggest difference between the two. Regardless, the Browns only gave up four first downs on drag routes all year, and no gain longer than 13 yards. Compare that to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had the worst DVOA against drags. They gave up 15 first downs, including two touchdowns and four other receptions that each gained 20 yards or more.

While the Buffalo Bills allowed the highest drag target rate, the Carolina Panthers allowed the lowest at 2.4%.

Defense vs. Drag Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
CLE -83.1% 21 3.7% 3.1 52.4% 3.4 2.8
KC -70.3% 16 2.7% 4.6 75.0% 3.3 2.8
DAL -55.0% 28 4.7% 6.5 60.7% 3.2 7.4
NO -53.3% 30 5.1% 6.9 60.0% 3.7 7.9
CHI -42.4% 12 2.6% 3.4 41.7% 3.7 5.8
BUF -39.5% 36 7.0% 6.4 66.7% 3.2 6.5
CAR -31.5% 12 2.4% 4.3 41.7% 3.2 5.4
TEN -28.9% 26 4.2% 6.5 68.0% 3.7 5.8
CIN -28.8% 25 4.1% 6.2 92.0% 3.5 3.3
PIT -25.2% 15 2.7% 7.3 66.7% 2.5 8.6
BAL -20.4% 27 4.4% 5.4 63.0% 3.4 5.3
WAS -15.1% 17 2.9% 4.8 58.8% 4.2 4.1
ARI -14.1% 19 3.4% 7.7 63.2% 3.7 8.0
MIA -12.8% 30 5.2% 8.8 66.7% 4.3 8.9
LAC -11.5% 20 3.7% 7.2 65.0% 2.9 8.1
LV -9.2% 27 4.5% 5.3 70.4% 3.4 4.0
GB -5.1% 25 4.2% 7.6 68.0% 2.9 8.2
LAR 2.0% 19 3.2% 6.8 78.9% 2.9 5.7
SF 2.1% 15 2.7% 6.1 73.3% 4.1 4.2
IND 7.2% 18 3.1% 5.1 72.2% 3.6 3.4
HOU 7.4% 17 3.2% 8.3 82.4% 3.8 6.1
TB 7.7% 17 2.5% 8.2 82.4% 3.4 6.7
PHI 10.2% 23 4.0% 6.0 73.9% 3.5 4.4
NYG 10.5% 17 2.8% 6.6 82.4% 3.3 4.6
DEN 17.8% 23 4.2% 7.5 69.6% 3.7 6.9
NE 26.3% 20 3.8% 7.1 80.0% 3.6 4.8
NYJ 33.4% 31 5.4% 8.8 80.6% 2.7 8.2
DET 33.9% 16 3.0% 6.6 87.5% 3.5 3.9
ATL 36.1% 15 2.6% 7.1 92.9% 4.8 3.1
MIN 37.2% 21 3.4% 8.0 80.0% 3.3 6.9
SEA 38.0% 27 4.2% 8.9 76.9% 3.6 7.8
JAX 41.7% 25 4.7% 8.5 73.9% 3.8 8.1

Deep Cross

Despite a wicked late-season slump, the New England Patriots had the NFL's best DVOA against deep crosses. The last six deep crosses thrown against New England were all completed, for a total of 142 yards. Before that, the Pats had only allowed five completions on deep crosses all year—or, one for each pass they intercepted. As for Kansas City, well, what can we say? When you allow opponents to complete 15 of 17 passes, with an average depth of target of 13.8 yards, you're going to have a bad DVOA.

The San Francisco 49ers' DVOA against deep crosses was nearly as bad as the Chiefs' but at least they allowed a league-low 10 deep cross attempts all year. The Los Angeles Chargers narrowly beat out the New York Jets for the highest deep cross target rate, 5.36% to 5.35%.

Defense vs. Deep Cross Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
NE -98.3% 25 4.8% 10.1 44.0% 15.8 4.3
PIT -67.4% 15 2.7% 9.6 46.7% 13.0 7.6
PHI -46.4% 13 2.3% 12.0 58.3% 14.2 6.1
NO -37.0% 24 4.1% 8.3 45.8% 17.3 2.3
NYG -33.7% 29 4.9% 5.5 34.5% 13.3 1.1
SEA -31.5% 16 2.5% 10.6 56.3% 15.9 3.6
LAR -26.9% 18 3.0% 13.4 58.8% 16.9 4.7
IND -14.8% 27 4.6% 9.7 56.0% 14.7 2.5
WAS -7.1% 21 3.5% 13.3 57.1% 16.6 7.3
DAL 1.3% 25 4.2% 11.7 48.0% 16.4 8.5
CLE 8.5% 11 1.9% 12.4 54.5% 20.0 7.3
MIA 20.0% 26 4.5% 9.0 50.0% 14.9 3.2
TB 21.5% 15 2.2% 8.8 40.0% 13.0 6.7
TEN 23.4% 25 4.0% 10.7 52.0% 14.7 6.7
MIN 24.0% 21 3.4% 10.1 50.0% 13.9 8.5
LAC 28.9% 29 5.36% 9.7 51.7% 14.0 6.5
HOU 32.0% 27 5.0% 12.6 63.0% 12.7 6.7
ARI 35.1% 18 3.2% 10.8 52.9% 13.7 4.6
CAR 36.3% 17 3.4% 14.6 62.5% 13.9 9.2
NYJ 37.4% 31 5.35% 13.7 58.1% 17.1 6.7
LV 43.8% 24 4.0% 11.8 47.8% 18.3 6.7
CHI 46.1% 14 3.0% 11.4 64.3% 14.4 1.6
DEN 46.1% 18 3.3% 10.6 50.0% 15.8 5.0
BAL 50.1% 19 3.1% 12.6 47.4% 19.2 9.8
BUF 50.6% 14 2.7% 12.4 50.0% 15.1 8.7
JAX 71.3% 22 4.1% 15.3 77.3% 17.1 5.8
CIN 83.3% 30 5.0% 13.6 69.0% 16.3 3.9
ATL 85.5% 23 4.0% 14.0 60.0% 16.2 5.6
DET 86.5% 23 4.3% 21.6 78.3% 18.6 8.2
GB 105.1% 15 2.5% 14.8 73.3% 14.8 6.3
SF 110.1% 10 1.8% 18.4 80.0% 16.4 5.6
KC 112.9% 17 2.9% 17.4 88.2% 13.8 5.4

Go/Fly

Well here's a mind-blowing stat: the Buffalo Bills were the only defense in the league that didn't give up a single completion on a go/fly route all year. (They did give up a DPI, which gained 19 yards.) Twenty-two of 32 defenses gave up at least four; Washington gave up the most with nine. The Houston Texans only gave up four, but considering they only faced eight attempts, and they also gave up a DPI, it was no contest that they would end up with the worst DVOA.

The Philadelphia Eagles tied the Bills and Texans for fewest go/fly routes faced last season at eight apiece, but it's the Eagles who had the lowest go/fly target rate. The Saints had the highest target rate at 4.5%, but the Chicago Bears were right behind them at 4.3%, and had a much worse DVOA. The Bears gave up three touchdowns on go/fly routes and committed a trio of DPIs to boot.

Defense vs. Go/Fly Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
BUF -155.2% 8 1.6% 2.4 0.0% 29.4  
TB -81.3% 16 2.4% 6.9 13.3% 34.1 7.0
IND -77.3% 15 2.5% 6.7 7.7% 31.7 13.0
LV -42.0% 22 3.7% 7.5 18.2% 34.2 8.0
GB -34.0% 16 2.7% 5.3 12.5% 34.4 4.5
KC -33.8% 23 3.9% 10.7 22.7% 29.6 15.4
JAX -32.7% 10 1.9% 7.9 11.1% 31.7 14.0
LAR -23.8% 11 1.8% 9.5 27.3% 33.5 5.3
SF -18.8% 22 4.0% 11.8 20.0% 36.6 18.0
CLE -15.4% 19 3.3% 9.5 23.5% 32.3 5.0
ATL 1.4% 14 2.4% 7.7 23.1% 28.2 1.3
MIN 3.0% 23 3.8% 9.1 22.7% 32.3 4.2
NO 5.9% 26 4.5% 15.5 28.0% 32.8 21.3
ARI 8.3% 11 2.0% 14.0 20.0% 35.5 17.0
DAL 9.0% 21 3.5% 10.3 22.2% 33.9 1.5
CIN 14.6% 22 3.6% 11.4 33.3% 32.4 3.7
DET 16.5% 18 3.4% 14.1 31.3% 33.4 4.4
CAR 17.3% 11 2.2% 11.6 30.0% 30.6 3.7
DEN 18.4% 14 2.6% 12.6 30.8% 36.6 5.0
LAC 22.4% 16 3.0% 12.9 33.3% 33.8 2.8
NE 24.7% 18 3.4% 11.4 25.0% 31.6 4.5
TEN 43.9% 17 2.7% 15.1 31.3% 31.5 15.0
PIT 44.8% 13 2.3% 15.3 33.3% 30.3 9.0
NYG 46.7% 14 2.3% 16.4 35.7% 34.9 6.8
MIA 58.7% 17 2.9% 16.1 41.2% 28.7 7.1
SEA 62.9% 17 2.6% 17.8 35.7% 36.0 9.4
BAL 66.5% 18 2.9% 17.2 35.3% 33.3 9.8
CHI 68.7% 20 4.3% 14.9 35.3% 28.6 4.7
PHI 71.3% 8 1.4% 17.4 42.9% 28.9 2.7
NYJ 91.1% 16 2.8% 16.4 42.9% 30.4 6.5
WAS 99.7% 20 3.4% 18.0 50.0% 31.2 6.4
HOU 122.5% 8 1.5% 20.5 57.1% 35.1 0.8

Corner

The AFC East is where corner routes go to die. The Patriots, Dolphins, and Jets defenses took gold, silver, and bronze in DVOA, and the Bills would have finished first among five of the NFL's eight divisions. For the Patriots, is was the opposite story of their first-place finish against deep crosses. They were mediocre in the first half of the season, but did not give up a single completion after Week 8, intercepting two passes along the way. The New Orleans Saints had the worst DVOA against corners, giving up three touchdowns without an interception.

A half-dozen teams were crowded at the bottom of the lowest corner target rate column. For the record, here they are, with an extra column after the decimal point:

  • MIN, 1.48%
  • NYG, 1.51%
  • SEA, 1.55%
  • CLE, 1.57%
  • ARI, 1.61%
  • CAR, 1.81%

No extra numerals necessary for the Chicago Bears, whose 4.9% corner target rate was highest in football.

Defense vs. Corner Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
NE -80.9% 18 3.4% 7.1 29.4% 17.1 7.4
MIA -40.9% 13 2.2% 10.2 46.2% 22.8 1.3
NYJ -37.7% 17 2.9% 8.6 20.0% 22.6 3.3
LAC -21.4% 15 2.8% 12.2 33.3% 16.7 14.4
DAL -17.1% 12 2.0% 15.8 45.5% 21.2 4.4
BUF -13.0% 12 2.3% 5.2 33.3% 20.1 0.8
NYG -7.5% 9 1.51% 6.0 33.3% 17.2 3.3
WAS -2.4% 13 2.2% 10.5 53.8% 17.4 2.3
IND -0.9% 15 2.5% 9.0 40.0% 17.6 3.7
SEA 0.2% 10 1.55% 8.1 40.0% 22.7 0.8
PHI 6.7% 12 2.1% 5.7 36.4% 13.9 1.0
CAR 8.7% 9 1.81% 8.4 33.3% 19.4 2.0
ATL 9.0% 16 2.8% 7.8 53.3% 15.6 0.9
LAR 9.0% 13 2.2% 13.2 46.2% 24.7 7.0
MIN 15.4% 9 1.48% 7.1 33.3% 21.1 2.0
PIT 28.7% 25 4.5% 11.9 48.0% 19.3 4.5
CIN 30.4% 15 2.5% 10.7 35.7% 19.2 5.6
CHI 30.8% 23 4.9% 10.0 45.5% 19.5 4.2
HOU 40.8% 15 2.8% 13.3 53.3% 23.2 2.9
TB 47.9% 17 2.5% 8.7 41.2% 21.5 0.7
DET 51.1% 19 3.6% 12.1 50.0% 20.6 1.2
DEN 56.0% 14 2.6% 9.2 50.0% 17.3 2.9
JAX 56.0% 19 3.6% 14.2 52.6% 18.7 5.8
ARI 57.3% 9 1.61% 12.4 55.6% 16.0 4.0
BAL 61.3% 14 2.3% 16.4 64.3% 19.9 4.2
GB 66.9% 16 2.7% 13.8 53.3% 22.7 4.6
CLE 72.3% 9 1.57% 10.8 55.6% 20.9 1.4
KC 80.3% 14 2.4% 11.1 57.1% 18.9 2.0
TEN 87.3% 25 4.0% 16.3 59.1% 24.0 1.2
SF 88.3% 15 2.7% 14.4 69.2% 18.3 4.4
LV 90.1% 18 3.0% 13.7 66.7% 19.3 3.9
NO 94.7% 17 2.9% 15.4 58.8% 23.2 3.5

Post

We close with the post route, where the Buffalo Bills once more had the NFL's best DVOA and lowest target total. Only six post routes were thrown against Buffalo all season; two were caught, two were intercepted, and two were incomplete. The Bengals actually had a lower post target rate than Buffalo, 1.16% to 1.17%, but they were last in DVOA, allowing opponents to complete six of seven passes with a touchdown.

The Houston Texans allowed the highest post target rate at 3.7%. The 20 targets they faced on posts resulted in a dozen completions for 372 yards and a pair of touchdowns, two DPIs for 82 more yards, and two interceptions.

Defense vs. Post Routes, 2021
Def DVOA Tgts Tgt% Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
BUF -98.4% 6 1.2% 6.8 33.3% 26.3 4.0
KC -59.8% 14 2.4% 10.6 35.7% 23.6 8.2
JAX -24.6% 10 1.9% 11.0 30.0% 30.2 2.0
LV -20.0% 9 1.5% 6.6 25.0% 29.9 3.5
PIT -17.4% 15 2.7% 13.2 40.0% 22.3 7.5
CLE -15.9% 15 2.6% 12.3 28.6% 30.7 13.5
LAR -3.9% 13 2.2% 13.5 53.8% 21.9 2.4
NYG -3.5% 14 2.3% 12.4 53.8% 23.2 2.1
NE 11.5% 9 1.7% 7.2 44.4% 17.8 2.3
DET 16.4% 10 1.9% 16.9 60.0% 25.1 4.5
DAL 34.5% 9 1.5% 11.8 44.4% 23.8 3.3
CAR 37.0% 12 2.4% 14.0 50.0% 24.6 8.7
SF 39.3% 16 2.9% 13.3 40.0% 33.4 4.2
NO 40.3% 11 1.9% 11.8 45.5% 25.9 4.8
ARI 43.6% 18 3.2% 14.8 61.1% 23.1 3.5
MIA 44.0% 18 3.1% 10.2 44.4% 22.2 2.5
LAC 46.1% 15 2.8% 16.2 35.7% 32.3 13.2
GB 48.5% 12 2.0% 16.1 30.0% 31.2 14.0
TEN 48.8% 11 1.8% 11.8 50.0% 24.7 2.2
MIN 62.0% 18 3.0% 20.7 72.2% 19.4 10.3
WAS 66.1% 13 2.2% 15.1 46.2% 27.5 5.7
TB 66.6% 19 2.8% 15.7 61.1% 25.1 2.9
CHI 67.8% 12 2.6% 21.0 50.0% 29.8 8.7
BAL 75.0% 21 3.4% 13.4 55.0% 24.9 3.2
HOU 90.0% 20 3.7% 22.7 66.7% 25.7 8.3
DEN 91.5% 12 2.2% 15.9 58.3% 27.2 2.9
PHI 95.6% 19 3.3% 15.5 57.9% 24.8 3.1
ATL 103.5% 12 2.1% 13.5 66.7% 20.5 4.1
NYJ 115.3% 9 1.6% 19.6 55.6% 25.9 4.4
SEA 132.0% 12 1.9% 16.4 66.7% 24.0 3.8
IND 132.8% 13 2.2% 16.5 84.6% 18.4 1.7
CIN 141.5% 7 1.2% 17.3 85.7% 14.9 4.2

Comments

1 comment, Last at 30 Aug 2022, 3:38pm

#1 by Mike B. In Va // Aug 30, 2022 - 3:38pm

I'd be interested in how those routes broke out for Buffalo pre- and post-Tre White injury. Still, it shows just how important those two safeties being healthy is to them.

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