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The Value of Run Defense

Discussion in 'Green Bay Packers Fan Forum' started by Dantés, May 10, 2020.

  1. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    Because the Packers' run defense was pretty weak all season in 2019, and then got really exposed against the 49ers in the playoffs, it has been a pretty common topic of discussion.

    That got me thinking about the value of run defense, generally speaking, in today's NFL. So as is my inclination, I did some digging and aggregated some data. What I found out was pretty interesting.

    For a sample size, I looked at all of the teams to make the playoffs in the past three seasons. I assessed their run defense based on two measures: yards per carry allowed, and run defense DVOA.

    Here's what I found.

    2019

    YPC Allowed:

    1. TEN; 4.0 (7th)
    2. PHI; 4.1 (9th)
    3. NE; 4.2 (13th)
    4. NO; 4.2 (14th)
    5. BUF; 4.3 (18th)
    6. MIN; 4.3 (19th)
    7. BAL; 4.4 (20th)
    8. SF; 4.5 (22nd)
    9. GB; 4.7 (24th)
    10. HOU; 4.8 (27th)
    11. KC; 4.9 (28th)
    12. SEA; 4.9 (29th)
    Four of twelve playoff teams were in the top half of the league in YPC allowed, and eight were in the bottom half. The two Super Bowl teams were 22nd and 28th, and the eventual winner was actually one of the teams worse than the Packers in this regard.

    Additionally, those 4 teams in the top half of the league in YPC allowed combined for 2 wins in the playoffs, for a win rate of .5 per team. The 8 teams in the bottom half of the league in YPC allowed combined for 9 wins in the playoffs, for a win rate of 1.1 per team.

    DVOA:
    1. PHI: -18.5 (4th)
    2. NO: -14.3 (5th)
    3. NE: -14.0 (6th)
    4. MIN: -13.1 (8th)
    5. TEN: -12.6 (9th)
    6. SF: -12.0 (11th)
    7. BUF: -8.9 (18th)
    8. BAL: -7.0 (20th)
    9. HOU: -5.0 (22nd)
    10. GB: -0.8 (23rd)
    11. SEA: 1.0 (26th)
    12. KC: 4.2 (29th)
    DVOA paints a little bit more balanced picture-- 6 teams in the top half, and 6 in the bottom. The top half teams accounted for 5 wins, for a win rate of .83, and the bottom half teams accounted for 6 wins, for a win rate of 1.0.

    2018

    YPC Allowed:
    1. HOU: 3.4 (1st)
    2. NO: 3.6 (2nd)
    3. BAL: 3.7 (3rd)
    4. DAL: 3.8 (4th)
    5. CHI: 3.8 (5th)
    6. IND: 3.9 (6th)
    7. LAC: 4.3 (13th)
    8. PHI: 4.7 (25th)
    9. SEA: 4.9 (29th)
    10. NE: 4.9 (30th)
    11. KC: 5.0 (31st)
    12. LAR: 5.1 (32nd)
    Very interesting results, as the elite teams and the terrible teams in this metric all made the tournament, and nothing in between (other than the Chargers, and really they hardly count, since no one gives a **** about them). Once again, the two Super Bowl teams, the Rams and Patriots, were poor in this metric-- 30th and 32nd. Overall, 7 PO teams were top half of the league, and 5 were bottom half.

    Those 7 top half combined for 4 PO wins, for a win rate of .57. The 5 bottom half teams combined for 7 wins, for a win rate of 1.4.

    DVOA:
    1. HOU: -30.1 (1st)
    2. CHI: -27.3 (2nd)
    3. NO: -24.9 (3rd)
    4. IND: -18.8 (4th)
    5. DAL: -17.3 (5th)
    6. BAL: -16.9 (6th)
    7. PHI: -12.9 (9th)
    8. LAC: -12 (10th)
    9. SEA: -7.6 (17th)
    10. NE: -7.0 (19th)
    11. LAR: 1.1 (27th)
    12. KC: 9.8 (32nd)
    Similar story, with just a little shift in the direction of plus run defense. By this measure, 8 of the PO team were top half, and 4 were bottom half. Those 8 teams accounted for 5 wins, for a .63 win rate. The 4 bottom half teams accounted for 6 wins, for a 1.5 win rate.

    2017

    YPC Allowed:

    1. TEN: 3.6 (4th)
    2. MIN: 3.7 (5th)
    3. PHI: 3.8 (7th)
    4. CAR: 4.0 (14th)
    5. ATL: 4.1 (18th)
    6. BUF: 4.3 (24th)
    7. KC: 4.3 (25th)
    8. JAC: 4.3 (26th)
    9. NO: 4.4 (27th)
    10. PIT: 4.4 (28th)
    11. LAR: 4.7 (30th)
    12. NE: 4.7 (31st)
    For the first team in the data, a plus run defense team was in the Super Bowl, though the other one (NE) was poor in this metric. 4 top half teams made the PO's, and 8 bottom half teams. Those four teams accounted for 5 wins, for a rate of 1.25. The bottom half teams accounted for 6 wins, for a rate of .75.

    DVOA:
    1. PHI: -21.6 (2nd)
    2. CAR: -16.9 (5th)
    3. MIN: -16.9 (6th)
    4. TEN: -15.6 (7th)
    5. PIT: -5.6 (18th)
    6. ATL: -4.3 (20th)
    7. LAR: -4.1 (21st)
    8. NO: -3.7 (23rd)
    9. JAC: -2.8 (27th)
    10. BUF: 2.7 (30th)
    11. NE: 2.8 (31st)
    12. KC: 3.0 (32nd)
    Very similar outcomes when you look at it from this angle. Four top half teams that account for 5 wins, for a win rate of 1.25. Eight bottom half teams that account for 6 wins, for a win rate of .75.

    General Takeaways:
    • While at times this data seems to be saying that it's actually a good thing to have a bad run defense, we can obviously dismiss that. Correlation is not causation. All else being equal, having a better run D is better than having a worse run D, and I'm not saying any different.
    • This deep dive is of the quick and dirty variety. Using top half vs. bottom half is an imperfect (albeit easy) way to look at the data. A more careful analysis might shift things a bit, but not enough to dramatically change the broad conclusions.
    • *Assuming that this three year sample is reliable* having a good or bad run defense does not seem to have a significant impact on your ability to make the playoffs.
    • *Assuming that this three year sample is reliable* having a good or bad run defense does not seem to have a significant impact on your ability to win games once you're in the playoffs.
    • *Assuming that this three year sample is reliable* having a good or bad run defense does not seem to make much of a difference in a team's ability to make the Super Bowl, or win the Super Bowl.
    Conclusion: The Packers should make adjustments to improve the run defense. It's really hard to win a game when you perform as badly as they did in the NFCCG. However, the general importance of run defense overall is minimal. It doesn't make a big difference to a team's chances of having a successful season. It would seem that fans tend to overstate the importance of this particular facet of the game.
     
    • Informative Informative x 2
  2. Sunshinepacker

    Sunshinepacker Cheesehead

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    I think a large factor in the importance of run defense is how explosive your own offense is; e.g., KC doesn't care about run defense because the other team is going to be playing catch up all day. Also, during the season, teams play against a collection of teams during 16 weeks, many of which can't always take advantage of your team's run defense. Run defense is going to get exposed primarily when you play a very good team (which you tend to do in the playoffs) and your offense is not elite enough to make the other team abandon or minimize their run game.

    A poor run defense is an Achilles heel in the postseason but not so much during the regular season. It can be balanced out by an elite, explosive offense, but if you don't have that offense, then you better hope the teams you play in the playoffs have major injuries at RB and OL, otherwise that weak run defense is going to get you beat.

    Edit: Also, great write-up!
     
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  3. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    As for level of competition, that's part of the beauty of DVOA, which is weighted for opponent. But yes, as we all say in the NFCCG, particular opponents can really take advantage of a particular weakness. It's incumbent on Pettine to address that.

    To your point, five of the last six teams to appear in the Super Bowl were poor run defenses at least by some measure. All five of them were in the top 10 in offensive DVOA: NE in 2017 was 1st; LA in 2018 was 2nd; NE in 2018 was 4th; KC was 5th; SF was 8th.

    It makes sense. To be the top team from either conference, you have to be exceptional in some ways. If a team is going to have a weakness like a bottom 5 run defense, you figure they must be really good in some other ways.

    But it seems that it's the other qualities that have a higher correlation with success. In 2019, 10/12 PO teams were top half in pass offensive DVOA, 11/12 PO teams were top half in rush offensive DVOA (and team twelve was ranked 17th), and 10/12 PO teams were top half in pass defense DVOA. Much stronger correlations.
     
  4. OldSchool101

    OldSchool101 Peerless Beer, Lacrosse WI

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    Good info.

    My first question (I apologize if this was covered and I missed it?) is what the rankings were with just playoff data. I’m assuming these were regular season data depicting playoff results? I’m not asking you to take the time, but I’d be curious what the results were under a playoff microscope only, so we could study the trajectory of where the teams were headed (similar to how players have their individual playoff stats routinely broken out)

    It’s no surprise that GB barely beat the Cowboys 26-21 allowing their worst Run D performance in over 2 months (145 yards)
    Then topped it by allowing Seattle to run over them in the Packers worst Run D since week 4!
    Seattle couldn’t pass the ball most of the day, but GB got absolutely eaten up on the ground (194yds) and that beating on the ground kept Seattle in the game and absolutely contributed to our demise.

    Good stuff Dante, I would’ve never suspected that many teams ranked so poorly.
     
    Last edited: May 10, 2020
  5. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    So, what's the difference between last year's 7th. ranked YPC team (TEN, 4.0) and the 24th. ranked team (GB, 4.7)? The league ran the ball 13,387 times last season or 26 times per game per team. The difference is 18 yards per game on average. What it might be if you took out QB scrambles, a function of pass defense, along with kneel downs, is for somebody else to figure out. 7th. vs, 24th. in one thing is not the same as that difference in other things, with YPC pretty low on the list of importance in relative rankings.

    Clearly, you don't want to allow a one-off Mostert 220 yd. performance, with 140+ before contact, or Colin Kapernick going off for 181 yds on the ground, almost all of it before contact. For that matter, you don't want to give up 206 yds and 3 TD on 17 plays over total clock time of 7:11 including the time your own offense held the ball. Pettine has continued a pattern of losing playoff games on the defensive side of the ball in one-off bizarre and historic fashion.
     
  6. Sunshinepacker

    Sunshinepacker Cheesehead

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    Yeah, passing offense is the most important offense and it's not really close (which is why I find it so weird that the Packers seem to want to emphasize the run game more); conversely, being able to stop the pass is also really important. However, a mediocre offense reliant on one or two playmakers combined with a poor run defense is not going to make the Super Bowl.
     
  7. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    The particular offensive system that has come to Green Bay ties run and pass concepts together. I see it as less about running more for its own sake, as about running more to allow the system to operate as intended, which will in turn create a more efficient passing attack and overall offense.

    The 49ers, for example, ran the ball a ton, but their passing DVOA was actually better (8th) than their rushing DVOA (12th) and supported a strong overall offense (7th).

    I personally don't find the Packers' offense to be mediocre, and actually believe it could be very good in 2020. They were 8th in DVOA last year, and that was year one in the system.
     
  8. tynimiller

    tynimiller Cheesehead

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    I know a few folks that will avoid this thread like the plague. Awesome research.
     
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  9. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    On a related subject, there does seem to be some schizo roster building going on.

    If you value run defense, a dubious proposition with one-offs aside given other things worthy of consideration, you'd be surely disappointed that there was no upgrade on the DL, either in FA or the draft. Kirsey looks more like a calculated injury risk with cap savings over Martinez than any clear upgrade. Pettine said in mid-season that stopping the run is not the priority, there isn't much reason to think that should change, and not much reason to think it should. Clearly going one-off the deep end is to be avoided, an evident overreaction to Garoppolo throwing over the top in the first meeting.

    Conversely, we get a power back in the 2nd. round, his lead blocker in the 3rd., and bunch of interior OLs in the late rounds.

    So, the path to winning is a robust run game on offense, but on defense the opposite? When you get past the granular and into philosophy of winning, there is a clear disconnect.
     
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  10. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    Without doing all of the work represented in this thread on the subject of rushing offense, it would appear that efficiency in that regard correlates much more strongly with playoff success than rushing defense efficiency.

    As for the Packers in particular, they hired a coach whose offense ties run and pass concepts together more thoroughly than any other system in the league. So it can be argued that efficiency in running the ball will also mean efficiency in passing the ball, and overall efficiency for the offense as a whole.
     
  11. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    Here's the thing about black box rankings like this. We do not know what a 4th. ranked -18.5 DVOA vs. a 23rd. ranked -0.8 DVOA actually means. How does that translate to yards or scoring or winning? I don't find any attempt by footballoutsiders to draw those meaningful conclusions. Are there any I missed? Is it comparable to an 18 yard difference per game? Is it worth a point, more, less?

    At least with other black boxes, while we can't examine the methodology, we at least get some conclusions. Though I don't know where Collingsworth got it from, in one of the broadcasts he cited an unnamed black box that concluded a turnover is worth something like 4.5 points though I don't recall the exact figure. That might have come from PFF since he behaves like an endorser of that product. Dunno. While we don't know how that was determined, if it is flawed, at least there is a concrete conclusion to be viewed, even if some healthy skepticism is begged.

    PFF's AI-fueled, AWS cloud, self-learning, yada and yada application concluded that McCaffrey's value in 2020 was as the 130-something ranked player. Since the application is self-leaning, even PFF couldn't tell you how that was arrived at, which is quite problematic whether we're talking about football or anything else. At least we get the gist that this robot puts a lot less value on running the ball and catching passes behind the line of scrimmage than conventional wisdow would have it.

    Whether we're talking about an overly-abstracted DVOA or one of these other black boxes, we find they adjust their algorithims with some regularity. In the case of that self-learning nonsense, it's with every nano-second as fresh data is fed into it, and then PFF goes back and revises prior year calculations as they have done with other metrics. DVOA has alos undergone revisions in recent years. Retroactive changes strike me as a fundamental error with no shortage of circularity, which calls into question to some degree the overall project. The game evolves. What went into winning this year is not what went into winning 3 years ago, incrementally, and drastically compared to 20 years ago.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2020
  12. Curly Calhoun

    Curly Calhoun Cheesehead

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    One thing a sound running game can do for a team is eat up clock....Which, in turn, improves the defense in the sense that they are more rested when on the field.

    last season the Tennessee Titans, especially Derrick Henry, surprised a lot of folks - No one more so than folks in New England and Baltimore. San Francisco made it all the way to the Super Bowl behind a three-headed monster at running back. Both these teams have mediocre to good quarterbacks - No one is calling them elite. I believe Green Bay is of a mindset that Rodgers' play is in the early stages of its inevitable decline, and they feel the time to do something about it is now.
     
  13. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    Kindly put, that represents a paradox which would be better characterized as a logical contradiction. So, yes, a whole lot more work is required to resolve it, and resolved it must be to makes sense of it.
     
  14. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    This is basically why I used both metrics-- YPC and DVOA. There are issues with both. As they tend to generally agree and point to similar conclusions here, I feel pretty good about it.
     
  15. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    I don't think so. It could be as simple as offense mattering more than defense for playoff success.
     
  16. Mondio

    Mondio Cheesehead

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    San Fran, TN, and Baltimore don't have QB's near the level as Rodgers, even a "declining" one. I guess it could be argued that it remains to be seen in Baltimore, but so far what I thought earlier in the year proved true later in the year. The strong running game and how it made defenses play them was what made the offense go. When that was gone, Jackson became nothing more than an athletic QB capable of highlights, but not greatness. There's a difference.

    Now he's very young, and obviously can grow a lot with the athleticism he has, but we'll see. Ingram made that offense churn. Ingram made Jackson look good. When it was just Jackson? Sure he had some runs, sure he completed some passes. But he couldn't score points and he turned the ball over.
     
  17. Sunshinepacker

    Sunshinepacker Cheesehead

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    I like DVOA, I think it's actually the best way fans have to measure strength of defense and offense; however, it doesn't take into account differences in personnel. Rodgers threw more deep passes (over 20 yards in the air) than any QB in the NFL and Garrapolo was 31st in average depth of target but that's because the 49ers receivers were amazing after the catch. The Packers only really have one great receiver and nobody besides Adams has shown that kind of ability on the Packers; and, to be clear, Adams is great at getting open but not really close to what Deebo and Kittle do after the catch (Deebo was 8.3 yards after catch, Kittle was 7.1 and Adams was 4.7).

    DVOA doesn't discriminate between what a passing offense does through the air and what a passing offense does after the catch; both are passes. The Packers don't have the personnel to do what the 49ers do after the catch. The Packers have a top-3 WR in Adams but that's really it. The 49ers have a top-3 TE and the best offensive coach in the NFL, coupled with an elite defense. I'm not trying to say the Packers can never do as well under MLF, just that I will be shocked if they approach that level in the next year or two.

    Finally, the difference in passing DVOA is much greater between the Packers and 49ers than just their rank. The Packers were closer to the 18th ranked Bucs than they are to the 8th ranked 49ers. I am a little shocked to see the Packers' rushing offense DVOA was 4th in the NFL, right behind Dallas.
     
  18. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    If you like DVOA, then I'm surprised to read the part in bold. Last year...

    SF:
    • Overall: 7.2 (7th)
    • Pass: 24.2 (8th)
    • Rush: -0.3 (12th)
    GB:
    • Overall: 6.5 (8th)
    • Pass: 17.3 (11th)
    • Rush: 8.2 (4th)
    Now don't get me wrong. I like DVOA as a helpful metric, but I don't think it's definitive. So don't take this as me saying that SF and GB basically were comparable on offense last year. But if you value the metric, then saying that it would be shocking for them to even approach that level in the next 1-2 years seems odd when their overall offensive DVOA were separated by .7 of one point and one place in the rankings.

    The point about the Bucs is a mistake I think. The passing efficiency of SF and GB were separated by 6.9 points, while the Bucs were 12.2 points behind GB.

    No argument on need for players who excel after the catch. I've been saying that all off-season. The one thing I would say, however, is that while the Niners have YAC threats and the Packers do not, the Packers have personnel advantages of their own. Between the two rosters, the best players at QB, WR, and RB all play for the Packers.
     
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  19. tynimiller

    tynimiller Cheesehead

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    Dangit @Dantés I was literally typing the same thought.
     
  20. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    The contradiction is obvious. I don't know how one could conclude both efficient run offense and poor run defense have both led to playoff success. That's a correlation without causation.

    It can be resolved. The answer is that this aspect of the game is not as critical to winning as the passing aspect. If nothing else, that contracition suggests that neither good rushing offense nor rushing defense is essential to winning. Obviously you don't want to be terrible at it, or terrible at any one thing for that matter, but being in the roughly middle 3rd. constituting mediocrity in the run game is not what makes or breaks.
    That those two measures correlate doesn't mean much if neither represents what is critical to winning compared to other aspects of the game.

    I'm pretty comfortable in saying, to repeat, that the league averaged 26 rushing attempts per game where a 0.7 YPC differential gets you an additional 18 yards per game. The league averaged 22.8 points per game on an average 348 yards from scrimage, or 15.3 yards per point. I don't think we need an Amazon cloud AI to tell us that the "actual" meaning of of those 18 yards is a give-or-take off of the raw 1.2 points. There are a whole lot more important things that go into there other 21.6 points.

    The true measure of a running game is what it does on 3rd. down, 4th. down, Red Zone, and goal line where the yards are most critical and the hardest to come by. Same on defense. Of course you don't want to turn yourself into an outlier in a ver bad way, letting some journeyman RB score from outside the red zone while you're jet rushing. :rolleyes:
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2020
  21. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    As I questioned earlier, can you translate the difference between a 4th. ranked rush defense DVOA of -18.5 vs. a 23rd. ranked -0.8 ranked rush defense DVOA? How does that difference equate to yards, points or winning?

    If rushing is not that important and neither is defending it compared to the passing game or even special teams, then the signifcance of the relative ranking is sharply diminished. Footballoutsiders does not attempt to take it to real world implications. When in comes to what goes into winning, these numbers are mere abstractions.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2020
  22. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    Notice please that I went out of my way NOT to say that poor run defense has "led to" playoff success. The conclusion, rather is that it's very common for team's with a poor run defense to make the playoffs and do well. I literally said in my OP that correlation is not causation.
     
  23. HardRightEdge

    HardRightEdge Cheesehead

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    I saw that. I agree with it, obviously. What you didn't say is that correlation without causation is meaningless which is the point I was making. You seemed to be hinting otherwise.
     
  24. Dantés

    Dantés Gute Loot

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    The data convey the meaning that having a great vs poor run defense isn't a high impact factor in a team's ability to make the playoffs, win games in the playoffs, get to the Super Bowl, or win the Super Bowl.

    I can't believe that you honestly read the post and missed that point. The absence of a causal relationship means something.
     
  25. Sunshinepacker

    Sunshinepacker Cheesehead

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    I guess I just have a different view on the two offenses going forward, I think both are heading in different directions at the moment. And yes, the Bucs comment was a mistake, I meant the Eagles at 17.
     

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