In the aftermath of Washington’s game against the Giants, linebacker Jon Bostic went on the SiriusXM Blitz to discuss the victory. He was asked about Taylor Heinicke as well as playing behind the heralded front four. I was impressed he took the opportunity to mention Matt Ioannidis and other players on the defense who weren’t necessarily as popularized.
What really caught my attention, however, was when he was asked about the defense, and he responded along the following lines:
“Our goal is to make the offense one-dimensional, by stopping the run. At that point, our pass rushers can pin their ears back and feast.”
For the past few weeks I’ve been puzzled as to what was wrong with the defense. The physical talent is clearly present, but something terribly important has been missing, and what was once thought to be a potential top 5 defense now looks like it could be around bottom 10 in the league.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a run suggesting the team run more dime defense, to be better positioned to defend the pass. One of the articles I referenced in the piece, by Diante Lee of PFF offered the following:
As for playing small ball in the NFL: As long as a team has the players, it leads to a better chance of eliminating explosive passes by playing better coverage and further entices an offense to run the ball, which is inherently less explosive. If offenses continue to use 11 personnel to pass as they have, expect a growing trend of dime personnel.
Hearing Bostic’s perspective, combined with those fresh cogitations and some other reading material I shared a couple of weeks ago have led me to an unfortunate conclusion.
Washington’s Defensive Approach Appears to be Ass Backwards
Stopping the run to make it easier to rush the passer? That’s decades old thinking. At this point, the more you can force your opponent to rush, the better off you are. The likelihood of explosive plays is far smaller when your opponent is rushing than when he’s passing and the average yardage per rushing play is about 2/3’s of the average yardage per passing play. To top it all off, about 12% of rushing plays will lose yards (as opposed to around 7% of passing plays resulting in a sack).
Despite a rapidly growing body of statistical evidence pointing to the criticality of passing to success in the NFL, old habits die hard, and myths about primacy of establishing, or defending, the rush remain:
“The NFL is a passing league that somehow doesn’t pass enough. NFL teams know the medicine works, but stubbornly refuse to take a clinically effective dose.” - Josh Hermsmeyer (538.com)
A few weeks ago, I posted an article questioning the importance of run defenders in improving defensive effectiveness, “The Best Interior Run Defenders Probably Won’t Make Your Defense Better.” The article actually cites Washington’s investment in the position:
[D]espite passing’s modern proliferation, the art of run stopping is far from dead. NFL teams still value run defense, and many continue to invest in interior defenders skilled at closing off running lanes. Washington interior defensive lineman Daron Payne was the 13th overall pick of the 2018 draft, and the New York Jets took Quinnen Williams third overall in 2019. Each are skilled, big men who can play different positions along the line and possess pass-rushing ability, but both are primarily intended to help their teams defend the run. Clearly, teams believe stopping the run is important, or they wouldn’t spend premium picks to acquire players adept at that skill.
Essentially, the piece examines the extent to which the most highly effective run defenses shape the offensive game plans against them, and the findings may be counterintuitive to some, but they make perfect sense when considered more broadly:
Meanwhile, the strongest correlation tested suggests that the more dominant the interior run defense, the more an opponent will drop back to pass — and the less it will try to run. In some ways, this is the expected result: Rational playcallers are avoiding strong interior lines by passing more. Yet defenses also tend to suffer when they funnel more of the opposing offense’s plays into the passing game, since passing the ball remains more efficient than running it.
Unless your defense is dominant in all facets of the game, incentivizing your opponent to run more — and pass less — will likely be a better approach. Because ultimately, in a league that is structured to reward teams that throw early and often, daring your opponent to pass is probably a recipe for disappointing results.
Teams tend to do better when their opponent are forced to run, because rushing is a less efficient way to move the ball and score points. If you’re going to be “one-dimensional,” focus on shutting down the pass, not the other way around.
This is borne out in other analyses as well. A 2018 evaluation specially looking at the Bears’ dominant run defense found the following:
The top 10 run defenses in 2018, by rushing yards allowed per game, are allowing about a point and a half more per game (22.8) than the top 10 passing defenses are (21.3). Diving into the world of advanced stats, the average overall rank of the 10 best rushing defenses by DVOA is 11th, while for the top 10 passing defenses average 7tth in overall defensive DVOA.
The point being: It pays more to be a good passing defense than it does to be a good rushing defense.
Even Ron Rivera recognizes, at least on some level, that the game has fundamentally changed, though he’s not happy about it:
“It’s now fast-break football and unfortunately, we are capitulating to it because of the rules,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
For the last 3 weeks, Washington has kept their opponent’s top running back at or under 60 yards rushing (Ekeler, 57; Barkley, 57; Moss 60), and the team is middle of the pack in terms of yards allowed per attempt. But, who really cares? If not for a last second gaffe by the Giants, this team would be 0-3. There is absolutely too much talent on this defense for it to keep getting steamrolled in the mid-range passing game like it has the past 3 weeks (Herbert, 337; Jones, 249; Allen, 358).
Jack Del Rio and Ron Rivera need to update their defensive mindsets and get with the times, or else Washington’s defense is at risk of getting run out of town.
Would you like to see Washington continue to prioritize stopping the run on defense?
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