Resident NFL expert Adam Chernoff examines the defensive side of the ball which is often neglected by bettors.
Each of the seven highest scoring seasons in NFL history took place between 2010 and 2016. In 2017, the numbers plummeted with decade-low results for offences across the league.
The year turned out to be an aberration as numbers in 2018 shattered numerous offensive records.
Rule changes entering the 2018 season played their part in the offensive explosion. The helmet rule benefits offensive players more than defence.
Last year, the league wide completion percentage was 65%, it was never higher than 63% in any year prior.
The adjustment to controlling the ball through contact with the ground results in more catches than incompletions, and the body weight rule means defensive players cannot land on top of quarter backs when tackling them – forcing them to ‘ease up’.
Furthermore, the ability to challenge pass interference in 2019 is sure to generate a number of big plays that would normally go unnoticed by the referees in years past.
While these changes will draw the majority of air time on television networks, the increased amount of data has been the primary driving factor behind the offensive philosophy change shared by many teams in the league.
Not only are advanced statistics allowing offensive coordinators and coaches to make better decisions with their personnel, but increased video footage and camera angles on the field are allowing for better evaluation of players.
Whether it be integrating new draft picks from college into the system or scouting opponents, coaches and coordinators are able to make better decisions than ever before aided with the increased amount of information.
Last year, the league wide completion percentage was 65%, it was never higher than 63% in any year prior. The yards per attempt average was 7.5 yards, which was the highest mark in 50 years. The league wide passer rating jumped from 85.2 in 2017 to 92.5 last season.
Offences averaged 106 rushing yards per game which was the third lowest total in NFL history. The betting markets took notice too. In 2018, there were 18 games with an over under of 55 points or greater at close, three more than the previous four seasons combined.
What role does defence play
Play calling on offence dictates an NFL game. Defences play to prevent the offence from scoring and must match their personnel on the fly in anticipation of the offence running certain plays.
Because of the individual nature of offence, bettors are able to understand and evaluate offensive success more than defensive success.
Camera angles on network broadcasts make understanding defence very difficult to do as well.
Centered on the ball and adjusting for the drop back of the quarterback, the majority of defensive play takes place out of the field of view.
Unless a player earns a sack or hits the quarterback, there is very little about how an NFL game is presented on network television that benefits the defence.
Because the NFL is such a matchup dependant sport, accurately pricing a betting market requires as much focus on defence as it does offence.
The offensive philosophy change forced a defensive philosophy change too. With offences electing to play more “spread” formations (one running back, three receivers, one tight end), defences have been forced to play more “nickel” packages (five defensive backs on the field).
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In 2017, NFL teams lined up in 11 personnel for 59% of all offensive snaps. In 2018, that number jumped to 65%. In 2017, teams lined up in a nickel defence 52% of the time. In 2018, that number jumped to 61%.
For many seasons, teams lined up in a “base” defensive formation which was typically made up of four linemen and three linebackers (4-3), or three linemen and four linebackers (3-4).
In 2018, teams lined up in their base defensive look on just 25% of snaps, down from 33% in 2017.
In addition to the nickel defence becoming more popular, dime packages (more than five defensive backs) was the only other defensive personnel package that increased in usage.
Collectively, teams played with at least five defensive backs on the field in on 75% of snaps, more than 10% more than the 65% usage rate in 2017.
Which personnel groups are most important
With another expected increase in the use of nickel and dime defensive packages in 2019, bettors must evaluate the depth at defensive back for every team to accurately price a matchup.
The traditional defensive handicap has been to identify if a team can generate pressure on the defensive line, determine rate of blitz, determine rate of zone or man coverage, and evaluate secondary vs. receivers.
Now that quarterbacks are getting the ball out of their hands quicker than ever, coverage has more influence on the defensive front than the defensive front has influence on the coverage.
Handicapping a defence in 2019 flips to, evaluating defensive back depth, comparing the secondary to the receivers, determine rate of zone or man coverage, determine rate of pressure on the quarterback, determine rate of blitz.
In addition to cluster handicapping deep in to the defensive end depth chart, looking at the coverage ability of linebackers is something I suspect to carry a ton of importance entering the 2019 season.
Running backs are gaining a historic low in the league on the ground running the ball, and a record high receiving,
If a team elects to double team a number one wide receiver using a nickel package (most frequently used defence) against 11 personnel (most frequently used offence), then a linebacker is a natural player to cover any passes to the running back.
Traditionally known as a physical run stopping presence, for the past three years, scouts have focused on drafting linebackers with quick sideline to sideline speed and the ability to run with quicker running backs – and tight ends to an extent – in pass coverage.
This is another factor that goes against the overwhelming narrative and is a place to exploit an edge.
Which teams benefit from the schedule
Based on offensive efficiency, the five easiest projected schedules of opposing offences in 2019 belong to the:
- New York Giants
- New England Patriots
- New York Jets
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Washington Redskins
The five most difficult projected schedules of opposing offences in 2019 belong to the:
- Arizona Cardinals
- San Francisco 49ers
- Houston Texans
- Chicago Bears
- Jacksonville Jaguars
As I mentioned in my offensive schedule projection article, looking at schedule alone is not often a useful way to evaluate strength and weakness.
Instead, I prefer to look at difference in schedule and weigh it against performance to try spot an edge.
The Houston Texans are the most notable candidate for regression.
In 2018, Houston faced one of the three easiest schedules of opposing offences. They ranked 8th in success rate, against the pass, and 4th against the rush.
Anchored by Carl Lawson, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have one of the most under rated defensive lines in the NFL
In 2019, they face the third most difficult schedule of projected offences overall. The jump from third easiest to third most difficult is the largest swing I have for a team year on year.
Key edge defender Jadeveon Clowney has yet to report to training camp and his absence could make matters much worse for a defence that faces an uphill battle all 2019.
In 2018 the Cincinnati Bengals finished 18th in the NFL for defensive success rate but did so against the second most difficult schedule of opposing offences.
Entering 2019, the Bengals hired a first time defensive coordinator, Lou Anarumo and moved on from veteran defenders Vontaze Burfict and Michael Johnson.
Anchored by Carl Lawson, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have one of the most under rated defensive lines in the NFL. Behind them is a secondary named of non-household name players which all rank above average at their position.
The worst trio of cover linebackers in the NFL leaves an area for concern, but an easy schedule and depth at defensive back means the Bengals can match up with most teams they will face.
Although often injured in 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles sport one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL. Douglas, Leblanc, Darby, and Scandrick all rank in the top 50 secondary players in the NFL. Behind them are Maddox and Mills who could start for any NFL team in the league.
In addition to the six defensive backs, Jenkins and Sendejo rank in the top 50 at safety and their backup Sullivan is a coverage specialist.
Add in the third best cover linebacker in the league with Brown and the Eagles are a nightmare to game plan against for offensive coordinators.
When considering that the Eagles will face the fourth easiest schedule of opposing offences, a jump from an average difficulty schedule in 2018, the Eagles defence is set for an enormous season.
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