The Pittsburgh Steelers boasted the league’s best pass defense last season. With Pro Bowlers at interior lineman (Cameron Heyward), edge rusher (T.J. Watt), and safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick), they gave opponents fits all year. None of those Pro Bowlers played cornerback, however, and on the rare occasions when Pittsburgh did struggle, it was usually on deeper throws to the outside.
Here’s a look at Pittsburgh’s performance against the most common routes across the NFL last season. The table is sorted by DVOA, and rankings go from low to high—the Steelers rank first in flat targets because they only saw 16 of them all year, the lowest total in the league.
|PIT Defense vs. Most Common Routes, 2020|
The Steelers ranked in the top 10 in DVOA against eight of the most common routes in the league—there aren’t a lot of weaknesses here. They were about average against fades and posts, though it’s worth noting that opponents threw 22 post routes against Pittsburgh, more than anyone except Atlanta. It didn’t always work, but it’s telling that the Baker Mayfields and Lamar Jacksons of the world repeatedly tested the deep middle of Pittsburgh’s secondary.
The real problems for Pittsburgh, though, came on throws to outside receivers—they had a DVOA of 30.0% or worse against slant, go/fly, and corner routes. The corner, in particular, was a bugaboo. Opponents completed seven of 11 corner passes against the Steelers for 153 yards; all seven of those completions picked up first downs, including two touchdowns. Two other corner throws produced DPIs of 9 and 26 yards. What’s most shocking is how some of the league’s worst quarterbacks burned Pittsburgh on corners. The trio of Jeff Driskel, Carson Wentz, and Alex Smith tried five corners against Pittsburgh, picking up a first down on every throw (including one touchdown) for a combined total of 135 yards.
The best way to improve performance against corners is to improve the caliber of your corners—cornerbacks, that is. The Steelers, however, did the opposite, losing starter Steven Nelson and nickelback Mike Hilton (a playmaker extraordinaire) in free agency. Your top cornerbacks in Heinz Field this season: Joe Haden (who turned 32 in April), Cameron Sutton (a 2017 third-round pick with eight starts in his first four seasons), and Arthur Maulet (now playing for his fourth team in the past four years). After Pittsburgh’s offense cratered at the end of last season, Steelers fans are rightfully concerned about Ben Roethlisberger and his rapidly fading arm, but their team has concerns on defense this season too.
The numbers in the following tables represent DVOA and other passing splits against the targeted routes. As such, pass-related outcomes such as sacks, scrambles, and throwaways are excluded since they don’t result in targets. We’re only looking at the 13 routes that saw at least 400 targets league-wide. All DVOA figures are calculated against a baseline of only pass attempts, and since this evaluation comes from the defensive perspective, negative DVOA totals are better than positive ones. These DVOA ratings are based on the same DVOA baselines as our “Defense vs. Receivers” tables on FO+, which means that A) ratings are adjusted for the quality of the offenses faced, based on receiver position, and B) interceptions and fumbles both count as negative plays in these DVOA ratings.
This is the most basic route in football, so defenses had better be prepared for it. And no team played better against the curl than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, were the league’s worst defense against curls … or were they? They gave up a 34.8% DVOA on curl targets, highest in the league, but then they only faced 41 curls all year, tied for fewest, and a little more than half as many as the average team. Is it more important to perform well against a certain route, or to make sure that route is never thrown in the first place? That’s a complicated question. For now we’ll just note that for the second year in a row the Seattle Seahawks saw the most curls at 120. That’s partly because the Seahawks set a record for most pass attempts allowed in 2020, and also because they play more zone coverage out of base personnel than almost any other team. It’s a vanilla scheme that allows a bunch of short completions, and opponents were all too happy to take them.
If you’re going to defend the out route, you’re going to need to need a quality cornerback. Miami has Xavien Howard, New England has Stephon Gilmore, and New Orleans has Marshon Lattimore, which partly explains why the Dolphins, Patriots, and Saints took gold, silver, and bronze in DVOA against the out.
By contrast, the Bengals were starting LeShaun Sims, who rarely came off the bench for the Titans; the Cardinals were starting Patrick Peterson, whose shelf life may have run out; and the Raiders were starting Nevin Lawson, who is both aging and should be coming off the bench. That’s largely why those three teams were so much worse against the out than anyone else.
The Vikings saw the most outs in the league, 82, though their DVOA against the play was better than most. The Eagles saw the fewest, 41; their DVOA was perfectly mediocre.
Remember when we mentioned New Orleans had a stud corner in Marshon Lattimore? Turns out that stud corners are good at defending slants too.
There’s a pretty big gap here between the Saints and the next three teams in DVOA, the Ravens, Vikings, and Browns. The Patriots also deserve notice for allowing only 18 slant targets all season, another effect of having a stud corner such as Stephon Gilmore.
You know who didn’t have any stud corners last year? The Seahawks. They allowed 55 slant targets, second only to Baltimore, and they gave up a league-worst DVOA of 38.5% on those throws. The Jaguars saw this performance and decided that guaranteeing Shaquill Griffin nearly $30 million was a wise use of their resources.
We have talked about cornerbacks a lot today, but coverage against flat routes is more typically the responsibility of a team’s linebackers. It’s surprising, then, that the Green Bay Packers had the best DVOA against flat routes in 2020.
Christian Kirksey failed to make the top 30 linebackers in either success rate in coverage or yards allowed per target. Krys Barnes failed to make the top 50. So how was Green Bay so effective against flats? With defensive backs. Nine of the flats thrown against the Packers had no defender listed in coverage, because if you’re going to leave a guy uncovered, he’d better be near the line of scrimmage. Of the 17 others, the primary defender was listed as a linebacker only three times (and that includes one target for edge rusher Preston Smith). The others all went to defensive backs, including four by starting corner Chandon Sullivan and three by Pro Bowler Jaire Alexander. A lot of offenses try to get their running backs matched up against linebackers in coverage, but the Packers rarely let that happen.
The Lions had the league’s worst DVOA against flats, because they were the Lions and they were terrible at most everything. The Falcons saw the most flat targets with 50; the Steelers saw the fewest at just 16, six fewer than anyone else.
There are a lot of reasons why Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last year, but a big one is that the Buccaneers’ DVOA against digs was so much better than anyone else’s.
The Steelers’ numbers in this table are very similar to the Buccaneers, but turnovers made the difference. Pittsburgh forced just one turnover on digs, an interception of Jeff Driskel. The Bucs forced six, five interceptions and a fumble. The Jets, meanwhile, finished last by a mile in DVOA against digs, in part because they forced only one turnover on the play (a fumble by Henry Ruggs of the Raiders).
The Bears and Jaguars both saw 44 dig targets, tied for most in the league. The 49ers saw the fewest, only 18.
Screens to wide receivers and tight ends are terrible plays in the NFL, and so most defenses had great numbers on those routes. None of them, however, had any better numbers than the Saints.
So, yeah, congratulations to New Orleans for doing what pro defenses are supposed to do and shutting screens down, but I’m more intrigued by the team at the other end of the spectrum. How on earth did the Ravens give up a 28.8% DVOA to WR/TE screens? They can blame a lot of that on the Colts and Football Team. In two games against Indianapolis, and Washington, the Ravens gave up seven WR/TE screens that gained at least 10 yards. That includes a 40-yard gain by Antonio Gibson on third-and-11 and a 15-yard gain by Zach Pascal on fourth-and-6. There were 19 teams that didn’t give up that many 10-yard gains on WR/TE screens all season. (The Ravens gave up 10 such plays in all; the Cardinals gave up the most with 14.)
Washington faced 50 WR/TE screens, most in the league, mainly against Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. New Orleans saw the fewest, only 22.
There were a lot more of these across the league than in the season before, and the 49ers saw plenty of them, sharing a division with both Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray. So it’s a good thing they had the league’s best defense on broken plays.
The Falcons gave up the worst DVOA on broken plays. In Week 17 alone, Tom Brady (who is very old) threw 25- and 30-yard touchdowns to Antonio Brown on broken plays against the Falcons.
Totals on broken plays are funny, because these are plays where the defense chased the quarterback out of the pocket. That’s a good thing! You want that to happen as often as possible! And the average DVOA on these throws backs it up. So congratulations to the New England Patriots for facing a league-high 43 broken-play passes, and better luck next year to the Green Bay Packers for facing a league-low 17.
There were four defenses that allowed a DVOA of -40.0% or lower. Three of them won a combined total of nine games (plus a tie). The fourth went 13-3 and reached the AFC Championship Game.
The Jaguars did not allow a single gain of more than 20 yards on a drag route. They gave up only two touchdowns on the play (a pair of 4-yard scores to Tennessee and Baltimore) while intercepting Aaron Rodgers in their near-upset of Green Bay, one of five interceptions Rodgers threw all season.
And then you have the Vikings. They gave up three touchdowns on drags, including a 41-yarder to Carolina that was the best drag play of the season and a 35-yarder to Hayden Hurst of the Falcons.
The Lions saw a league-high 49 drag routes in 2020. Their division rivals in Green Bay saw only 17. That was tied for the lowest total in the NFL along with the New York Jets. And speaking of the Jets…
There are not a lot of things you can point to and say “the Jets did that better than anyone else in 2020.” But defense against the deep cross is one of those things.
First of all, New York only allowed seven deep cross passes all year, fewer than all but two other teams (Washington and Pittsburgh allowed a half-dozen each). Second, they intercepted two of those passes—or, one for every completion they allowed. That’s a DVOA of -211.1% that lapped the field. Obviously, the tiny sample size is part of that, but that’s almost unavoidable at this stage of the game.
While the Jets were almost impossibly good against deep crosses, their roommates at MetLife Stadium were almost impossibly bad. Opposing quarterbacks threw 12 deep crosses against the Giants, completing 11 of them for 233 yards and four, count ’em, four touchdowns. That’s how you get a DVOA of 190.2%.
The Dolphins’ DVOA against deep passes wasn’t nearly that bad—it was right in the middle of the pack, in fact—but they were still oddly vulnerable to the play. They faced 47 deep crosses in all, 13 more than anyone else and more than twice as many as the average team.
Unlike the Jets, the Rams defense did quite a few things better than anyone else in 2020. But coverage against go/fly routes may have been the thing they did best of all.
L.A. allowed just one completion on a go/fly route all season, a 42-yard gain by Allen Robinson of the Bears in Week 7. DeAndre Hopkins also drew a 25-yard DPI on a go/fly in Week 13. The other 16 go/fly routes the Rams saw in 2020 were all incomplete—or intercepted, like the one Tom Brady threw in Week 11.
L.A.’s NFC West rivals in San Francisco were the worst defense against go/flies. The first two go/flies attempted against the 49ers both resulted in DPIs. That never happened again, but the next 14 go/flies thrown against them resulted in seven completions for 250 yards and five touchdowns.
The Falcons defense saw 24 go/fly attempts, most in the league; the Eagles only saw seven, fewest.
Yup, it’s the Rams at the top of the table again.
L.A. faced the fewest corner targets in the league. They did give up a 43% catch rate and 11.3 yards per throw on corners, both right around league average. Their DVOA against the play was comically low because they intercepted three out of seven passes without surrendering a touchdown. You’ll put up with a lot when you can get that kind of turnover rate.
The Eagles, meanwhile, allowed the worst DVOA on corners. The 13 corner targets they faced resulted in only three incompletions, with two DPIs for 24 yards and eight completions for 86 yards and five touchdowns.
The Vikings defense face the most corner routes, 26 in all.
The Patriots had by far the NFL’s top defense against post route, and their total DVOA honestly doesn’t do them justice.
The first five post attempts against New England had these results: interception, incomplete, interception, interception, interception. They did not intercept another post target after that, but they did force incompletions on every throw that both Deshaun Watson and Justin Herbert tried. They did not allow a single completion on a post route until a meaningless Week 17 game when they gave up a touchdown to—of all people—Sam Darnold and Chris Herndon of the New York Jets.
As for the worst defense on a given route, hey, it’s the Eagles again!
(I don’t actually hate the Eagles—the band or the NFL franchise—but I can’t pass up a chance to make a Big Lebowski reference.)
The Eagles defense faced eight post routes in 2020. Two fell incomplete. One resulted in a DPI for 34 yards. The other five were caught for a total of 157 yards. Every completion resulted in a first down, of course. Hey at least none of them scored.
The Falcons are coming up a lot as the team that saw the most targets on a given route especially here at the bottom amidst the lower levels. I’m not sure what that says about them (other than they saw the third-most total passes in the league), but they were targetd on post routes an NFL-high 24 times last season. The 49ers saw the fewest posts with just six, with no completions allowed after Week 6.
We close with the fade, and a table where virtually everything is a result of small sample sizes.
The Broncos gave up one touchdown on a fade to Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans in Week 3, and another to Mike Williams of the Chargers in Week 8. They intercepted another fade intended for Williams later in that same game; the other eight fade targets they saw all season were incomplete.
And then there are the Packers. They only saw two fade targets all year, a 19-yard touchdown by Adam Thielen in Week 1 and Richie James’ 41-yard touchdown against busted coverage in Week 9. The Packers weren’t perfect on defense last season, but despite their DVOA here, they did a fine job of taking the fade away.
The Eagles and Bengals tied for the top spot in targets with 24 fades faced each. Daniel Jones by himself threw seven of them against Philadelphia, with four completions for 121 yards and a touchdown, plus a 22-yard DPI. The Bengals were most frequently victimized by Tua Tagovailoa, who threw five fades in one game (including four in the second half!) in Week 13. Those five throws picked up a total of only 13 yards, though one was completed for a touchdown.
We opened with a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, last year’s top pass defense. We close with the worst pass defense in the league, the Detroit Lions.
|DET Defense vs. Most Common Routes, 2020|
We can summarize Detroit’s strengths in exactly three bullet points:
- The Lions were good when the offense called a WR/TE screen, which is a terrible play for most any offense.
- They were good when they chased the quarterback out of the pocket, like most any other defense.
- They were good against deep crosses.
That’s it. They were bad against literally everything else. So long as you avoided screens against Detroit and kept your quarterback upright, he was bound to have a good day.