Are the days of ultra aggressive defenses coming to an end?

NFL defenses are getting less aggressive

By: Brady Akins

Dec. 6, 2020. A day in football history that would serve as a death knell for more than one fate.

In a Week 13 meeting between the playoff longshot Las Vegas Raiders and the Super-Ultra-Omega playoff longshot New York Jets, the teams sitting at 6-5 and 0-11, respectively, fans of morbid and cruel sports-related comedy were granted a treat.

With 13 seconds left, the Jets, professional football’s living punchline for the 2020 season, were on the verge of something spectacular– their first win of the year. The Raiders faced a 3rd down and 10 from midfield with no timeouts and a notoriously risk-averse quarterback in Derek Carr, only a miracle could keep New York from coming out on top.

And then… the Jets switched into full-overblown Jets mode.

In a ‘must close our eyes and heave the ball towards the endzone’ type situation for Las Vegas, New York’s defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a three-decade veteran of the NFL, did what he loves to do– risk it all with an all-out blitz. Rushing eight defenders and dropping just three in pass protection, Carr didn’t need much time at all to find a wide-open Henry Ruggs streaking down the sideline for an easy touchdown as time ticked down. 

In just one play, the New York Jets cemented their legacy as the comedy blockbuster of the season, Head Coach Adam Gase ensured himself a spot on the unemployment line following the season, and Williams, well, he was fired one day later. 

The contrast from situation to play call might be what rang the final bell for Williams, but expecting him not to call a blitz in any situation is like expecting a three-week-old puppy not to pee on the carpet. Williams, who has bounced back and forth between being a defensive coordinator and a head coach in the league since 1997, has developed a reputation for sending pressure more often than not. New York, despite ranking towards the bottom of the NFL in successful quarterback pressures in 2020, actually finished sixth in most blitzes per quarterback dropback.

So, no, anticipating a wild blitz on that game-clinching third down for the Raiders might not be the craziest thing in the known universe. What is a little bit nuts, however, is how now more than ever, NFL teams seem to be freezing out defensive play-callers in the old school mold of Williams, trending toward the side using their aggressive tactics sparingly.

The Last Of A Dying Breed

Williams stands as the most recent example of a defensive coach who loves to gamble getting the boot, less than 24 hours after his biggest defensive misfire as well. However, he isn’t the only one.

Wade Phillips, a 37-year defensive coach of legend who spent his last three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, was fired in 2019 after three consecutive seasons of the Rams finishing within the top 10 in yards allowed per game. 

Phillips came into the Rams job with a pass-rush happy tendency during his first season in 2017, often bringing the house on early-drive situations, blitzing on 37% of first down passing plays and 44% on second down throws, both top-five marks in the league. 2018, the following season, Phillips reigned in the pressure more than the 2017 standard, blitzing at the league’s 19th lowest rate at 21.1%– when the Rams would finish second in both points and yards allowed per game. In 2019, Phillips’ lowest ranking season as the Rams’ coordinator, Los Angeles dialed up the pressure once more to 28%.

Of course, correlation does not equate to causation. But Phillips’ firing, just one season removed from a year where he finished with the league’s second-best scoring defense, says a lot. When the blitz rate got higher, the Rams’ defensive production lowered as Los Angeles’ got to a breaking point with their defensive coordinator of legend.

Similarly, many of the defenses from 2019 who were among the blitz-heaviest in the league, seemed to have learned some kind of a lesson in 2020. The New England Patriots, for example, ended 2019 with the sixth highest-volume blitz rate in the NFL. In 2020, they plummeted down to 23rd. Same for the Cleveland Browns, who went from fifth in blitz rate all the way to 29th in just a one-year span. 

Those Who Do Blitz

Of course, blitz-happy teams in the league still exist. A few cases of Phillips and Williams-type firings does not negate the trigger-happy defensive style of the Ravens’ Wink Martindale, whose defenses have ranked at the top of the league in blitz rate each of the past three seasons.

Martindale is not alone, either. Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers defensive coordinator, has found success in Tampa Bay with a blitz-heavy approach. Same for Brian Flores in Miami. In fact, three teams in the NFL last year finished with a blitz rate over 40%, with, of course, Baltimore leading the way at 44.1%.

But the same way that Bowles and Flores’ success in the league does not mean that aggressive coordinators are extinct, a few aggressive teams does not mean that the general league isn’t trending away from risking it all with heavy pass-rushes.

In fact, most of the teams who do blitz early and often are only able to do so because of their on-field personnel, and less because of their coaching style. Martindale’s Ravens team has Calais Campbell, an All-Pro defensive end and one of the best players at the position, to help facilitate the high level of aggression. The Steelers, who were third in blitz rate in 2020, did so with the help of TJ Watt and Bud Dupree on the EDGE. And in the case of Bowles’ Buccaneers, a team with three All-Pros and four Pro Bowlers on the defensive front seven, well, it would be a crime not to blitz as much as they do.

But for the blitz-happy teams without the overwhelming personnel talent, it usually ends poorly. The Jets are one example, but the Houston Texans also finished the 2020 season ranked in the top ten in blitz rate, but finished 26th in rate of quarterback pressures, 27th in points allowed per game, and 29th in yards allowed per play.

The San Francisco 49ers are another similar case. Top 10 in blitz rate, middle of the pack in pressure rate. For as much talent as that 49ers’ roster had the start of the season, by years end with an overwhelming amount of injuries, their pass-rush struggled.

In the world of aggressive defenses. Talent, overwhelming, undeniable talent, still has a chance to win out. However, it might be more and more difficult in the football landscape to artificially manufacture a successful blitz without the help of dominant players to facilitate it. And those who try, might no longer have a place in the NFL.

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