Rush Defense and Teams That About-Faced

Jun2 22, 2019 Update – A slight update in the attached data file with small tweaks to team rank in 2018 and 2017.

The next post in the series continues looking at the three most improved and three most declined teams in 2018 for a key statistic. We finished the offensive posts and today we start with the defense. The first one we look at is run defense as measured by opponent rushing yards per attempt.

Run defense involves multiple positions and we look at the players in 2018 and the new ones in 2019 for the key positions. I use key statistics for each position as a gauge to help evaluate the team position.

1. New Orleans Saints

2017 – Rank:  28, Opp Yds/Att: 4.4
2018 – Rank: 2, Opp Yds/Att: 3.6

The Saints were tie with the Bears for having the least opponent 100+ rushing games with four in the regular season. Here are the 2018 and 2017 Saints ranking in run defense for various opponent rush statistics.

Saints Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 4 1 22
Rushing Touchdowns 12 10 13
Rushing 1st down % 20.2 4 22
20+ yard rushing plays 7 4 21
Rushing yards/attempt 3.6 2 27
Rushing yds/game 80.2 2 16

The Saints have a defense that has productive players in all position groups for stopping the run. They are the only team that satisfies all of the following three conditions.

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss (TFL).

7 teams – ARI, CAR, IND, JAX, NOR, PHI, TAM

Saints Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins is one of 28 active defensive linemen that had at least one season of 12+ tackles for loss in one of their first three years. Rankins’ overall grade from Pro Football Focus has increased 12+ points each of his last two years since his rookie year in 2016. As of November 30th 2018 Sheldon’s 2018 run-stop percentage of 19.2 as reported by Pro Football Focus ranked only behind Damon Harrison (19.8). Rankins tore his ACL in the Saints’ NFC Divisional Round victory over Philadelphia in January and is looking at starting the 2019 regular season on the physically unable to perform list.

Saints Defensive End Cameron Jordan tied JJ Watt in 2018 for having the fifth most tackles for loss with 18. He is tied with Aaron Donald at having the most seasons over the last four seasons with 15+ tackles for loss. Both have all four seasons with 15+ TFLs. The next best player had 2 seasons. Jordan has made the Pro Bowl three of the last four years and made 1st Team All-Pro in 2017. In 2018 Cameron Jordan had an amazing 22% market share of team tackles for loss. A 15% share is considered a good marker.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL

10 teams (13 players) – ARI, BUF, DAL, HOU, LAC, MIN, NOR, NYG, NYJ, PHI

Saints strong safety Vonn Bell, who just finished his third season, is one of only seven active secondary players that have had 55+ solo tackles in each of their first three seasons. As reported by Pro Football Focus Vonn Bell’s 2018 run defense grade was up +25 from his previous year. His run defense grade ranked third among 90 qualifying safeties.  Bell’s 8.8 run stop percentage led all 61 Safeties with at least 200 run defense snaps by more than 1.5 percent. Landon Collins ranked second with a 7.2. (Pro Football Focus). In 2018 Vonn Bell had a 9% team market share of solo tackles. A market share of 6% is considered good for a defensive back.

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs.

5 teams – BUF, CAR, MIA, NOR, PIT

Saints’ linebacker Demario Davis was signed as a free agent from the Jets  in March 2018. In 2018 Davis led the team linebackers in tackles for loss (11) and was tie for 13th among all linebackers in the league. Davis is one of only five linebackers in the league to have 11+ tackles for loss in each of the last two seasons. Pro Football Focus gave Davis an 86.6 run-defense grade during the regular season which ranked fourth among starting linebackers. His run defense grade was the best one they gave him over the last four seasons.

In 2018 Saints linebacker A.J. Klein had the most solo tackles (42) and tied for most tackles for loss (7) of his six year career. Pro Football Focus picked Klein as the Saints most improved player in 2018.

Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone was drafted by the Saints in the third round of the 2017 draft. His scouting reports talk of his speed , athleticism, all-out effort and high motor. He was reported to be a good run defender and a great tackler. Anzalone was in on only 47% of the defensive snaps and still got 45 solo tackles. If you extrapolate that out to the 85% snaps Demario Davis was in, then Anzalone would have 82 solo tackles  or the most on the team. Here are the statistics on the Saints linebackers that started at least one game.

Looking forward in 2019 the Saints signed free agent defensive tackle Malcom Brown from the Patriots. Brown is a run stuffer defensive tackle. At Pro Football Focus his run-defense grade topped a good 80.0 in both 2016 and 2017 before falling to 64.0 last year.

2018 rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport played in 13 games, had zero starts and played in 40% of the defensive snaps. He recorded 12 solo tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 22 tackles. Davenport made the pro Football Focus All-Rookie Team. As reported by PFF he missed only one single tackle attempt all year. His run defense grade of 76.3 was the best of his grades and was better than free agency loss Alex Okafor‘s 68.3 run defense grade.

In the 2019 draft the Saints drafted safety Saquan Hampton of Rutgers in the sixth round. In 2018 Hampton had 44 solo tackles for a real good safety team market share of 10.4%.

They signed undrafted free agent defensive end Corbin Kaufusi of BYU. His team market share numbers were 7.7% solo tackles, 16.7% TFL, and 34.1% sacks. Those are all above a minimum target percentage for indication of a Pro-Bowl caliber future. Kaufusi made those minimums for sacks, TFL and solo tackles in each of his last two years.  Kaufusi is a high character tough football player.

They also signed undrafted free agent linebacker Chase Hansen of Utah. In 2018 Hansen had an incredible 22 tackles for loss which was a staggering 21% team market share. Hansen played 2016 and 2017 at defensive back where he earned honorable-mention All-Pac-12 recognition as a strong safety in 2016. After playing one game at linebacker in 2017 he made the switch to full time linebacker in 2018. Hansen was one of eight semi-finalists for the 2018 Lott Impact Trophy presented to the college football’s best defensive player in character and performance. In 2018 Hansen was one of only two draft prospects that had 100+ tackles, 50+ solo tackles, 10+ Tackles for Loss, 5+ sacks and 1+ interceptions. “Chase Hansen is a beast,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters after Hansen was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week following a 12-tackle, two-sack, pick-six performance against Northern Illinois on Sept. 8, 2018.

Last Season 2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Cameron Jordan, Alex Okafor
DT: Sheldon Rankins
NT: Tyeler Davison
LB: Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone
SS: Kurt Coleman

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport
DT: Sheldon Rankins
NT: Malcom Brown
LB: Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone
SS: Vonn Bell

2. Los Angeles Chargers

2017 – Rank: 32, Opp Yds/Att: 4.88
2018 – Rank: 12, Opp Yds/Att: 4.29

In 2017 the Chargers allowed a league-worst 4.88 yards per carry, made worse by the Chargers allowing 18 running plays of 20-plus yards, also last in the NFL. Here are the 2018 and 2017 Chargers ranking in run defense for various opponent rush statistics with the values for 2018.

Chargers Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 9 14 30
Rushing Touchdowns 11 6 13
Rushing 1st down % 25.6 23 24
20+ yard rushing plays 11 12 32
Rushing yards/attempt 4.29 12 32
Rushing yds/game 105.8 9 31

 

The Chargers improved in 2018 run defense despite some setbacks. There were injuries to Joey Bosa, Jatavis Brown, Melvin Gordon and Denzel Perryman. However 2019 looks like a year to improve even more.

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss (TFL).

The Chargers missed on this test in 2018 but look promising to hit it in 2019.

Defensive End Joey Bosa was out for nine games in 2018 with a foot injury. His seven tackles for loss and 18 solo tackles in seven games would extrapolate out to 16 TFLs and 41 solo tackles. Bosa has made a minimum 11 tackles for a loss his two healthy seasons.

The loss of Bosa may have hurt Melvin Ingram‘s productivity in 2018. In the three seasons prior Ingram averaged 14 tackles for loss and 47 solo tackles. His numbers were down to 8 TFLs and 28 solo tackles in 2018.  Ingram still led the team in tackles for loss. Look for Ingram to rebound to his prior self in 2019.

Starting defensive tackle Darius Philon signed as a free agent with the Cardinals in March 2019. The interior defensive line positions would appear up for competition in August. The Chargers drafted two defensive tackles. Jerry Tillery of Notre Dame was chosen in the first round and Cortez Broughton of Cincinnati was picked in round seven. They also have last year’s starter Brandon Mebane and their 2018 third round pick Justin Jones.  At 34 years old Mebane is the oldest defensive tackle under contract in the league. In his three years on the Chargers Mebane’s average tackles for loss (3) and solo tackles  (18) have been below his averages on the Seahawks and below the 2018 averages for starting defensive tackles which were 6 TFLs and 24 solo tackles.

In the opinion of Pro Football Focus Jerry Tillery is a top ten draft pick. He was chosen by the Chargers at pick number 28. He is renowned as a great pass rusher. However his run defense is not that good. Pro Football Focus gave him a 78.1 run defense grade which they report as ranked tied for 57th among draft eligible defensive linemen.

Defensive tackle  Justin Jones was a Chargers third round pick in the 2018 draft. In his rookie year he played in 15 games, had zero starts and played in 29% of the defensive snaps. He had seven solo tackles and 17 total. Jones had a positive performance at the 2018 Senior Bowl. This report  and this report describe that he showed power, was very tough to block and flashed ability as a run stopper. In three years in college he had a respectable 22.5 tackles for loss.

Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton had a 22.3% tackle for loss (TFL) market share. His 18.5 TFLs was second among defensive tackles. Cortez Broughton was 2018 All AAC First Team. Broughton was selected to Pro Football Focus 2018 All AAC First Team. He is the new style of DT a smaller, fast DT with great burst off the ball. Broughton achieved praise for his week at the East West Shrine Game. Real GM’s Jeff Risdon: “Watching East DL doing footwork and bag drills. Cincinnati DT Cortez Broughton is thriving, great feet for a big guy.” Cortez Broughton made my list of the five toughest draft prospects at each position.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL

The Chargers and the Cardinals were the only teams that had two players that matched the criteria.

In the 2018 draft the Chargers picked strong safety Derwin James in round one. As reported by Pro Football Focus Derwin James missed only 15 of his 160 college career tackle attempts. He is big, physical and athletic. James ran a 4.47  forty at the combine which was seventh among safeties. Todd McShay of ESPN picked James for the Chargers in his mock draft Here is what McShay said about James – “…James flies around the field versus the run and is a good matchup piece in the passing game….” James made the Pro Bowl his rookie year and was a First team All-Pro selection.  Here you can see Derwin James’s combine event and size profile from mockdraftable.com.

The other defensive back to meet the criteria was Adrian Phillips.  In the post season wildcard weekend Phillips led all defensive backs with a run stop percentage of 16.7%. In the 2018 regular season Phillips missed just five tackles for the whole season and had a total tackle count of 94. Charger’s manager Tom Telesco refers to Philips as the “heart and soul” of the defense. Phillips was an undrafted free agent signing after the 2014 draft. He was waived or released by the Chargers eight times in his first two seasons before he finally stuck in 2016.

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs.

Chargers linebacker Jatavis Brown was the only Charger linebacker to meet this criteria.

Jatavis Brown had 61 solo tackles and 4 tackles for loss. Brown was chosen in the fifth round of the 2016 draft by the Chargers. In college Brown made the All Mac Conference First Team three years in a row and was the 2015 Mac Defensive Player of the Year. In his 2015 college year he was seventh in the nation in tackles for loss. Brown made the 2016 NFL All-Rookie Team. Brown saw reduced playing time in 2017 as the Chargers played more dime defense with six defensive backs. Also a new coaching staff seemed to favor linebacker Pullard who was familiar with the new defensive scheme. In 2018 Jatavis Brown was back to a starting linebacker and led the Charger linebackers in tackles, solo tackles and tackles for loss. Brown is an athletic strong linebacker as his combine spider chart shows.

Linebacker Denzel Perryman was selected by the Chargers in the second round of the 2015 draft. In college he was All ACC First Team his last two years and was one of five finalists for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker. Perryman has the dubious honor of making Sports Illustrated’s All Slow Team.

In the 2018 draft the Chargers picked linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu is a candidate for a starting position in 2019 and could make those criteria numbers. In his 2018 rookie season Nwosu started three games and played in only 25% of the season’s defensive snaps. Yet Nwosu had 17 solo tackles and three tackles for loss. Those are good numbers for that playing time and extrapolated out would hit those criteria markers. Nwosu has good speed and is a solid tackler.

The Chargers signed free agent Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis in March 2019. Davis is recognized as an effective run stopper. He had made the Pro Bowl from 2015 thru 2017. Pro Football Focus gave Davis an above average grade for 2018 and ranked him as 17th at his position.

Last Season 2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Melvin Ingram, Isaac Rochell
DT: Darius Philon
NT: Brandon Mebane
LB: Jatavius Brown, Denzel Perryman, Uchenna Nwosu
SS: Derwin James

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram
DT: Jerry Tillery
NT: Justin Jones
LB: Jatavis Brown, Thomas Davis, UChenna Nwosu,
SS: Derwin James

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

2017 – Rank: 27, Opp Yds/Att: 4.4
2018 – Rank: 9, Opp Yds/Att: 4.17

The 2017 season was eclipsed by the horrible spinal injury to Ryan Shazier. It is good to see that he is doing so much better and even danced at his wedding in May 2019.  In that season after the loss of Shazier the Steelers run defense  went south and they were giving up 5.1 yards per carry. According to team president Art Rooney II fixing the run defense was a priority of the offseason.

The 2018 Steelers were ranked third in least 100+ rushing games by an opponent with only five. Here are the 2018 and 2017 Steelers ranking in run defense for various opponent rush statistics with the values for 2018.

Steelers Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 5 3 7
Rushing Touchdowns 13 15 22
Rushing 1st down % 22.8 12 25
20+ yard rushing plays 10 10 14
Rushing yards/attempt 4.17 9 28
Rushing yds/game 96.1 6 10

 

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss (TFL). The Steelers in 2018 did not meet that criteria by anyone.

Defensive Tackle Cameron Heyward came closest with 10 tackles for loss. Before 2018 in the prior four seasons Heyward met that criteria in every season he played 15 games or more.  His one miss was in 2016 when he only played seven games. Heyward made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and in 2017 was First Team All-Pro. Pro Football Focus recently listed the top graded defensive player each year for the Steelers since 2006. Cameron Heyward made the list for 2014, 2017 and 2018. Heyward’s 2011 draft huddle report profile listed him as having excellent run stuffing skills. In the Pros Heyward has excelled more at pass rushing but does a decent job against the run. His highest graded year in run defense was an 83.9 in 2017 which is just short of Pro Bowler status.

Defensive End Stephon Tuitt is second on the team in tackles for loss with seven. Tuitt is a tall, long and strong edge rusher as his spider graph shows.  He is rarely pushed off the line of scrimmage. He is a big factor in the Steeler run defense. In the two games he was out in the middle of the season both opponent teams rushed for over 100 yards. Whereas the 14 games Tuitt was in there were only three other 100+ rushing games by an opponent.

Nose Tackle Javon Hargrave was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft by the Steelers. In college Hargrave had 45.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons. He was fifth in the FCS active career leaders in 2015 in career tackles for loss per game (1.4) and second in career tackle for loss  (63).  Hargrave is one of only five defensive linemen from the 2016 draft that have had 4+ tackles for loss in each of their first three seasons. Of those five only Hargrave has done it with a defensive snap count of less than 50% each of those seasons.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL. The Steelers had no secondary player that met this criteria.

To help fix the run defense the Steelers drafted strong safety Terrell Edmunds in round one of the 2018 draft. Edmunds is an athletic strong safety that was reported to be  a sound run defender. He had 19 defensive stops in 2018 which accounted for 24% of his total tackles. The then 21 year old Edmunds  had the seventh most total snap counts among all league defensive players. Edmunds was second on the Steelers in total tackles and solo tackles. Here is Edmunds’ spider graph from his combine.

 

 

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs. The Steelers had three linebackers that met this criteria.

In 2018 linebacker T.J. Watt was tie for ninth among all linebackers in tackles for loss with 12.  Watt was chosen by the Steelers in round one of the 2017 draft. He made the NFL All-Rookie team that year. T.J. Watt is one of only seven linebackers since 2008 that have had 10+ tackles for loss in each of their first two years. Watt tied Vince Williams for most solo tackles on the Steelers by a linebacker with 50. TJ Watt’s run defense grade from PFF in 2018 was 83.3. That is just short of their 84 Pro Bowl caliber grade and it was an increase of 14.5 from his rookie year.

Linebacker Vince Williams was chosen by the Steelers in round 6 of the 2013 draft. After starting 11 games his rookie year due to injuries Williams moved into a backup role for the next three seasons. In 2017 he was named starting linebacker and has started the last two years. He is one of only six linebackers to have 50+ solo tackles and 8+ tackles for loss for each of those two years. Per this 2018 Bleacher Report following the 2017 season – “Williams plays with tenacity and aggression that few linebackers in the league can match. He’s a solid tackler who understands angles and leverage to win when he might otherwise be physically overmatched’.

To help fix the run defense the Steelers signed linebacker Jon Bostic from the Colts in free agency in March 2018. As reported by Pro Football Focus, in 2017 Jon Bostic was a top 20 linebacker against the run.  Bostic was a run stuffer in 2018. Pro Football Focus gave him  the highest tackling grade on the Steelers for 2018. He was fourth on the team in total tackles and the third linebacker in solo tackles. His solo tackles (46) was only four below Watt and Williams (50) despite taking almost 200 less snaps than Williams and 340 less than Watt. However Bostic was not as good at rushing the passer. He was released by the Steelers following the 2019 draft.

In the 2019 draft the Steelers picked linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick after trading up. Bush was the 2018 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a 2018 Consensus All-American. Devin Bush is a smaller athletic linebacker as shown in his combine spider graph.

Bush is regarded as a complete linebacker excelling in all aspects of run defense, coverage and pass rush.  Bush earned an 85.2 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus over his last two seasons. That falls within their Pro Bowler range. He had only 11 missed tackles his whole college career. Bush is a dominant run defender.

Linebacker Bud Dupree was chosen by the Steelers in round one of the 2015 draft.  He had limited starts his first two years. He was a starting linebacker for 2017 and 2018. Over those two years he has had 20 tackles for loss. His 12 TFLs in 2017 was tops among Steeler linebackers and his 8 in 2018 was tie for second among the Steelers linebackers.

The Steelers drafted linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. A three year starter, Gilbert played in every game of his college career. In 2016 and 2017 he was named Team Defensive MVP. He is a three time All Mac selection making first team in both 2016 and 2017, then second team in 2018. Ulysees plays fast to the ball and is a sound tackler. Gilbert is fast athletic linebacker that has great sideline to sideline speed. His Pro day results would have been 5th in the forty, 2nd in the vertical jump, 2nd in the broad jump and 8th in the 3-cone at the combine. He has played extensively in zone and man coverage and shows solid ball skills. Reported high character and a leader.

They also drafted linebacker/defensive end Sutton Smith in the sixth round. Smith. Smith led the FBS in tackles for loss each of the last two seasons. His 59 career tackles for loss is ninth in the nation since 2005.  He was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year for 2017 and 2018 and was a 2017 Consensus All-American. Smith’s 6.75 secs in the combine 3-cone drill was number one for linebackers and edge rushers. Smith has an incredible work ethic in both the film room and the weight room. He entered NIU bench pressing 7 or 8 reps at 225. He did 25 at the combine which was tie for sixth among linebackers and edge rushers.  In film study NIU defensive line coach, Brett Diersen, compared Smith’s film study regime to that of his former player Ndamukong Suh. Suh was a film room junkie.

2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Stephon Tuitt
DT: Cameron Heyward
NT: Javon Hargrave
LB: TJ Watt, Jonathon Bostic, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree
SS: Terrell Edmunds

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Stephon Tuitt
DT: Cameron Heyward
NT: Javon Hargrave
LB: TJ Watt, Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree
SS: Terrell Edmunds

The three teams with the largest decline in rank for run defense as measured by opponent yards per carry are as follows.

30. Seattle Seahawks

2017 – Rank: 14, Opp Yds/Att: 4.04
2018 – Rank: 30, Opp Yds/Att: 4.95

The Seahawks have a good defense against the run. They just missed by a hair on the three criteria. Why they took such a dive in the rankings is somewhat of a enigma. Here are the 2018 and 2017 Seahawks ranking in run defense for various opponent rush statistics with the values for 2018. They appear to have been hurt by giving up the big rushing play.

Seahawks Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 7 6 14
Rushing Touchdowns 9 4 22
Rushing 1st down % 24.9 20 25
20+ yard rushing plays 14 22 10
Rushing yards/attempt 4.95 30 14
Rushing yds/game 113.2 13 19

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss (TFL).

The Seahawks just missed this criteria with one making it and another just missing.

The Seahawks had one defensive tackle, Jarran Reed, who had 12 tackles for loss. That was a big improvement from his prior two years which had 4 and 1. Reed was selected by the Seahawks in round two of the 2016 draft. According to NFL.com’s draft profile on Reed in 2016, “Reed is an elite run defender with the lower body strength to command his gap, but the instincts and timing to be productive as a tackler rather than just a space ­eater.”

Defensive end Frank Clark narrowly missed with 10 tackles for loss. Since getting the starting role in his 2016 second season Clark has totaled 11, 10 and 10 tackles for loss.  The other starters defensive end Quinton Jefferson had five and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen had two. In April prior to the draft Frank Clark was traded to the Chiefs and in March Shamar Stephen signed with the Vikings.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL.

The Seahawks also just barely missed this one. Starting strong safety Bradley McDougald had  66 solo tackles, 78 total tackles, and 4 tackles for a loss.  In 2017 Pro Football Focus regarded  McDougald as one of the best run-stopping safeties in the NFL – “Strong safety Bradley McDougald has racked up 17 run stops on his 241 run defense snaps this year, which has resulted in a run stop percentage of 7.1 percent, the best rate among all safeties with at least 210 run defense snaps this year.”

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs.

Again the Seahawks barely missed on this. They had an outstanding year by linebacker Bobby Wagner who made the criteria with an amazing 84 solo tackles and 6 tackle for loss. Wagner also made the Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro for the second year in a row. Pro Football Focus gave him a run defense grade of 81.5 which was second among qualifying linebackers.

Linebacker Barkevious Mingo just missed with 37 solo tackles and 3 tackles for loss. He did this on only 52% of the defensive snaps. He had 32 solo tackles and 7 tackles for loss the prior year on the Colts on only 47% of the snaps. Mingo was the number six pick in the first round by the Browns in the 2013 draft.

Linebacker K.J. Wright started only five games due to injury. However he still had fifteen solo tackles and two tackles for loss. Wright was a fourth round pick by Seattle in the 2011 draft. According to Pro Football Focus Wright or Bobby Wagner have topped the Seahawks in stops each year since 2012, Not counting his injured 2018 season, Wright has gotten 46+ solo tackles and 4+ tackles for loss every year since his rookie year in 2011.

The Seahawks signed defensive end Ezekiel Ansah from the Lions in free agency. Ansah was the fifth overall selection in the 2013 draft. He made the 2013 NFL All-Rookie Team and the 2015 Pro Bowl.  Ansah has had 13+ tackles for loss in three of his six years. Pro Football Focus talks of Ansah as having a 69+ grade in run defense in four of his six seasons. That is only barely at their starter position. However in 2017 then Lions head coach Jim Caldwell had this to say about Ansah – “He’s doing a great job setting the edge, He’s really physical in the run game. He’s making it hard for teams to get on the edge in that regard.”. Ansah looks like a slight  upgrade over Frank Clark in the run game.

The Seahawks drafted defensive end L.J. Collier in the first round of the 2019 draft. Collier is considered strong in run defense. His nfl.com draft profile talks of a player that is “aggressive with power to set a strong edge” and “consistent to contain when run play flows his direction”. David Richard, CBS Sports writer had this to say – “What he doesn’t need much coaching on, however, is his run defense. He’s a nasty, physical run stuffer who can control the edge.”

Defensive tackle Poona Ford was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent following the 2018 draft. In his 2017 year in college Ford made the Big 12 All Conference First Team and  was named Big 12 Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year. At the end of last season Ford was the only defensive lineman in the NFL with a height of under six feet. He is listed at 5 feet 11 5/8 inches. However, he has a massive wingspan of 80 1/4 inches, the same as a 6-foot-8 man. In his rookie year  on 23% of the defensive snaps Ford totaled 13 solo tackles and three tackles for loss.  For the last five games of the season Ford received a  92.2 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus which was best among all defensive tackles. He finished the season with a 90.3 grade which was first among defensive rookies.

2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Frank Clark, Quinton Jefferson
DT: Jarran Reed, Shamar Stephen
LB:  Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Barkevious Mingo
SS:  Bradley McDougald

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Ezekiel Ansah, L.J. Collier
DT: Jarran Reed, Poona Ford
LB: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Barkevious Mingo
SS: Bradley McDougald

31. Cleveland Browns

2017 – Rank: 2, Opp Yds/Att: 3.35
2018 – Rank: 24, Opp Yds/Att: 4.71

Here is a table of the Browns opponent rushing statistics with the 2018 value and the league rank for 2018 and for 2017. It clearly shows the drastic drop in their run defense from 2017 to 2018.

Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 12 30 4
Rushing Touchdowns 20 31 22
Rushing 1st down % 23.3 29 12
20+ yard rushing plays 18 29 14
Rushing yards/attempt 4.71 24 2

 

The Browns had the second worst rushing defense game in 2018 when the gave up 296 yards rushing by the Baltimore Ravens in week 17. Baltimore averaged 6.3 yards a carry and had two rushing touchdowns during the game. The Browns lost the game 26-24.

As reported by Pro Football Focus Cleveland’s 169 missed tackles led to the worst team tackle grade in the NFL at 34.8, and the lowest recorded by PFF since 2011.

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss (TFL).

The Browns had one player that met this criteria. He was defensive end Myles Garrett. Garrett was selected by the Browns with the number one pick in the 2017 draft. He made the 2017 NFL All-Rookie team, the 2018 Pro Bowl and was selected to the 2018 All-Pro Second Team. In 2018 Garrett had 12 tackles for loss and 35 solo tackles. One of Garrett’s strengths is run defense. Garrett is a super athletic player as his combine spider graph shows.

The next defensive lineman in tackles for loss was defensive tackle Larry  Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi was a third round pick by the Browns in the 2017 draft. In his rookie year Pro Football Focus gave him the 18th best run defense grade among 99 qualifying interior defensive linemen. Of about a dozen qualifying rookies, he finished with PFF’s top grades in run defense and run-stop percentage. In 2018 Ogunjobi had 10 tackles for loss and 33 solo tackles. He played in 930 defensive snaps which was the most at his position in the league. He is tough playing at the end of last year with a torn bicep. Ogunjobi is a strength of the Browns run defense.

The Browns traded 2018 starters defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah in 2019.

In 2019 free agency the Browns signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the Vikings. Since leaving the Jets after the 2016 season Richardson’s run stuffer productivity had declined. In his four years on the Jets Richardson averaged 10 tackles for a loss and 36 solo tackles. In the two years since he has averaged five tackles for loss and 27 solo tackles. Nevertheless he is still regarded by PFF as a better run defender than pass rusher.

Also in free agency the Browns traded for Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon. Vernon is regarded as a great tackler and run stopper in addition to he pass rush skills. Over his career as a starter he has averaged 35 solo tackles and 11 tackles for loss a season. Those numbers have seen a slight decline in his last two season. However he was dealing with ankle injuries both those years.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL.

The Browns did not have a player that met this goal. Strong safety Jabrill Peppers came closest with 79 total tackles, 52 solo tackles and five tackles for loss. Peppers had a 74.2 run defense grade for 2018 from PFF which was a 7.9 point improvement from his rookie year. He ranked 23rd among safeties with 20 total stops in 2018. Peppers was traded to the Giants in 2019 in the Odell  Beckham trade.

In 2019 free agency the Browns signed strong safety Morgan Burnett who was released by the Steelers. Burnett was a third round pick by the Packers in the 2010 draft. in his nine year career he started 8+  games in seven seasons. For those seven seasons he averaged 3 tackles for loss , 71 solo tackles  and 100 total tackles per season. He met the criteria here for two of those years and was close another three. Burnett is considered a very solid tackler and run stopper. This is what PFF had to say of Burnett for his Green Bay years  of 2014-2017 – Burnett is a sure tackler who can make an impact close to the line of scrimmage. He has racked up 128 tackles resulting in a defensive stop over the past four seasons, and he missed nine or fewer tackles every year in that span. His PFF run-defense grade has been 70.0 or higher since 2014.

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs.

The Browns missed this mark as they only had two linebackers that met the criteria. Their top two linebackers  made the PFF list  of top four in missed tackles.

Linebacker Joe Schobert has met this criteria for each of the last two seasons following a nondescript 2016 rookie season. In 2018 he had 57 solo tackles and 3 tackles for loss. In the game Schobert was injured plus the three succeeding games he missed, the Browns lost all four and their run defense gave up 167 yards/game, 5.4 yards per attempt and 2.5 rushing touchdowns per game. In the other 12 games in which Schobert started all they gave up 125 yards/game, 4.3 yards/attempt and 0.8 rushing touchdowns per game. They only lost 4 of those 12 games. According to PFF Joe Schobert was No. 1 in most missed tackles with 24.

The other linebacker to hit the mark was Jamie Collins. Collins had 73 solo tackles and 13 tackles for loss. His tackles for loss was tie for fifth among NFL linebackers. Even though Collins had high production he received only a 62.3 grade on the year from Pro Football Focus.  There were questions about his play effort. According to PFF Jamie Collins was No. 4 in missed tackles with 20. Collins was released by the Browns on March 6, 2019.

Linebacker Christian Kirksey was the starting linebacker in 2016 and 2017. However injuries in 2018 cut his starts to only seven. In 2016 he was the number one linebacker in the league in defensive stops with 63.  His PFF run defense grade that year of 84.9 was fourth among linebackers and his 46 run stops was first among inside linebackers. In his five year career the three years that he started 8+ games he hit the mark used here (40+ solo tackles, 3 + TFLs) in each of those three years. His 2014 draft profile on bigblueview.com talked of a player that is – Very aggressive. Commits and plays all out, and High motor, and dogged in pursuit.

Linebacker Genard Avery was a fifth round pick by the Browns in the 2018 draft. In his rookie season he started 5 games, played in 58% of the defensive snaps and had five tackles for loss and 30 solo tackles. Those numbers either hit the mark or were on track to do so. Avery had 23 stops and was given the best tackle grade (77.2) on the Browns defense by Pff.  However his coverage grade was poor with a 28.2.

Third round 2019 draft pick linebacker Sione Takitaki could challenge Avery for a starting role. Takitaki had very good team market share numbers in his senior year with 75 solo tackles (14.4%), 10 tackles for loss (17.5%),  4 sacks (16%) and 3 passes defended (9.4%).  He is physical, aggressive and plays every play like it could be his last.

2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah
DT:  Trevon Coley, Larry Ogunjobi
LB:  Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins
SS:   Jabrill Peppers

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon
DT: Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson
LB: Joe Schobert,  Christian Kirksey,  Genard Avery
SS: Morgan Burnett

32.  Arizona Cardinals

2017 – Rank: 3, Opp Yds/Att: 3.52
2018 – Rank: 27, Opp Yds/Att: 4.86

The Cardinals were 32nd in the number of opponent running games of 100+ yards with 14 of their 16 games having the opponent rush for 100+ yards. Here is a table of the Cardinals rank for both 2018 and 2017 in opponent rushing statistics.

Opponent 2018 Value 2018 Rank 2017 Rank
100+ Rushing games 14 32 1
Rushing Touchdowns 25 32 16
Rushing 1st down % 27.3 27 3
20+ yard rushing plays 21 31 10
Rushing yards/attempt 4.86 27 3
Rushing yards/game 155 32 6

 

1. A minimum two defensive linemen (DE & DT) with 11+ tackles for a loss. The Cardinals had three defensive linemen that met this criteria

Defensive end Chandler Jones met this criteria each of the last four seasons. In that time he was selected to two Pro Bowls and in 2017 was selected First Team All-Pro. He has made the NFL Top 100 list each of the last three seasons. In 2018 he had 13 tackles for loss.  The Cardinals are switching back to a 3-4 defense in 2019. Jones will switch from the defensive end he was in 2018 to an outside linebacker which he played in 2017. In 2017 Jones recorded 28 tackles for loss at that position. That was the most in the league for any position in 2017 with the next player having seven less.   Chandler’s highest tackle for loss seasons have been the three he played linebacker.

Defensive end Benson Mayowa had 11 tackles for loss in 2018. It was a career high. Mayowa  played in 15 games, had 4 starts and played 49% of the defensive snaps. Mayowa had a decent year on the Cardinals and was ranked by PFF as the the 29th best edge defender in the NFL for the 2018 season. Mayowa signed as a free agent with the Raiders in 2019.

Defensive tackle Rodney Gunter also had a career high 11 tackles for loss in 2018. He graded as the fifth best run stopper in the NFC West by Pro Football Focus. Gunter played defensive end in college and has the versatility to play anywhere along the defensive line.

Defensive tackle Corey Peters did not hit the mark but he did have nine tackles for loss. Peters is a stalwart in the run game.  His contribution was shown in the 49er game in 2018. In the third quarter the Cardinals run defense was exposed on three consecutive runs up the middle. The 49ers gained on an 11 yard, 7 yard and 12 yard carry. Corey Peters was not in on those plays as he was getting a breather. Peters came back in and on two more consecutive attempts the 49ers gained zero yards. When Peters was in the 49ers averaged 3.04 yards per carry and when he was out they had 8.13 yards per carry and a rushing touchdown. For the 2017 season Pro Football Focus noted that Peters led the league for interior defensive linemen in the percent of first contact at or behind the line of scrimmage on run plays with 50%. The next closest player was over 10% less. When discussing his team’s run defense problems coach Steve Wilks singled out Cory Peters and Chandler Jones as being very consistent ie not the problem.

The Cardinals signed defensive end Darius Philon in free agency in 2019.  Philon is a versatile player and can play anywhere along the defensive line.  For the last two seasons he played defensive tackle on the Chargers.  His tackle for loss was seven in each season and he played 59% and 49% of the snap counts. Extrapolated out to the team’s highest snap percentage  for a defensive lineman and his tackles for loss would be right at the mark. According the Pro Football Focus, Philon excelled in run defense in 2018 with a 70.2 run defense grade.

The Cardinals drafted defensive end Zach Allen in round 3 of the 2019 draft. Allen was one of only seven draft prospects that had 10+ tackles for loss in 3+ seasons in college. He made my list of the five toughest draft prospects at each position. He is a tough, physical player that plays with a relentless effort.

2. A secondary player (CB, SF, DB) with 60+ solo tackles, 80+ total tackles and 4+ TFL.

The Cardinals had two secondary players that met this criteria.

Starting strong safety Budda Baker had 102 total tackles,  78 solo tackles and eight tackles for loss. Of the 13 secondary players that met this criteria Baker is the second youngest. In 2017 he made the NFL All-Rookie team, the Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro. In 2018 he led the team in run stops with 26.

Starting free safety Antoine Bethea also met the criteria with 121 total tackles, 100 solo tackles and five tackles for loss. Bethea was released by the Cardinals in March 2019.

3. A minimum 3 linebackers with 40+ solo tackles and 3+ TFLs.

Arizona missed this mark having only two linebackers that met it.

Linebacker Josh Bynes had 52 solo tackles and five tackles for loss. Bynes was a bright spot in the linebacker run defense. He received a run defense grade of 81.2 from Pro Football Focus which was 11th among linebackers.  Bynes suffered a thumb injury in week 12 and was placed on injured reserve. He was released in March 2019. In his place the Cardinals signed two linebacker free agents.

Linebacker Haason Reddick  was chosen by the Cardinals with the 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He met the criteria with 53 solo tackles and eight tackles for loss.  Reddick has struggled some since entering the NFL. After starting the first three games of his rookie season Reddick was demoted to backup until the the fifth game of his second year. He had to learn a new defensive scheme each year and was transitioned between a rush linebacker and an inside linebacker. There were rumors during the 2018 season that he was on the trading block. Yet in starting the last 12 games of 2018 Reddick’s average per game statistics and accompanying projected full season statistic in parenthesis were 4.1 solo tackles (65),  6.1 total tackles (97) and 0.5 tackles for loss (8).  Those projections would put him among a small group of only 12 linebackers in 2018 to have those statistics.

The Cardinals signed free agent linebacker Jordan Hicks of the Eagles in 2019. In Hicks’ four year career he had two injury seasons and two healthy ones. In both his healthy seasons Hicks met the linebacker criteria used here with 58 solo tackles and six tackles for loss in 2016 . Then again in 2018 with 61 solo tackles and five tackles for loss. As reported by Pro Football Focus in 2018 Hicks missed a tackle once every 20 tackling opportunities which ranked among the top ten players at the position. They gave him an 81.3 run defense grade in 2018 which was a career high and just 3.7 points shy of their Pro Bowler status.

The Cardinals also signed linebacker Terrell Suggs of the Ravens as a free agent in 2019. Discounting his 2015 season in which he played only one game, Suggs has averaged 12.8 tackles for loss since 2013 with the lowest being 11. He has averaged 35 solo tackles a season over that time-frame . Going into the Ravens 2018 season this is what Pro Football Focus had to say about Terrell Suggs – “Suggs has been one of the top run defenders in the NFL throughout his career and despite his advancing years, still ranked 10th among edge defenders with a PFF grade of 87.4 last year.” They had this to say upon him signing with the Cardinals – “The most telling story of his impact with any team at this point is his sure tackling, having missed just 51 tackles on 636 total attempts. ” Suggs did earn the lowest run defense grade of his career in 2018 with a 66 but the Ravens were still the third ranked team in run defense in terms of opponent yards per attempt.

2018 Run Defense Starters

DE: Chandler Jones, Markus Golden
DT: Rodney Gunter, Corey Peters
LB: Josh Bynes,  Haason Reddick, Deone Bucannon
SS: Budda Baker

Proposed 2019 Run Defense Starters

DE: Rodney Gunter, Darius Philon
NT: Corey Peters
LB: Chandler Jones, Terrell Suggs, Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick
SS: Budda Baker

In Conclusion

While doing this exercise some thoughts that emerged include that parity is strong in the NFL. The three teams that were the most declined were not that poorly staffed at key position. They were not without their top performers. With the cap system, free agency and the draft system teams are given good opportunity to turn things around. The Cardinals and the Browns made good use of free agency to help turn around their run defenses for 2019. Of course by looking at the most declined as opposed to the worst we could be picking out teams that were not far off from a good team to begin with.

Secondly the thought occurs that a team is only as good as it’s weakest link. The three most decreased teams all had good players. What was not examined was how bad their worst players were. Opposing coaches would most likely game plan to the opposing team’s weakest link.

This leads into a third point is about coaching itself. How much of the Cardinals’ decline can be attributed to a new head coach and a new defensive scheme in 2018. They have moved on from head coach Steve Wilks after one season and will probably be again changing their defensive scheme in 2019.

Here is the data for all the teams for opponent rushing yards per attempt – def-rush-update. The top lists show the teams sorted by the difference in rank from 2017 to 2018. The bottom lists show the teams sorted by rank in 2018 and 2017. The teams used in this post are highlighted.

Here is a spreadsheet of the running totals for all teams on the statistics profiled in this post series – running totals. The sheet contains the rankings for most improved and declined on the left. On the right are the 2018 total rankings of the three best and worst.

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