The Dolphins Threw Eight Players Into A Blitz. Were They Trying To Lose?

On Monday night, the winless Miami Dolphins were headed toward halftime with a surprising two-touchdown lead. But for a Miami team that is widely believed to be tanking, leading the heavily favored 2-4 Pittsburgh Steelers may not have been a cause for celebration. Beating the Steelers might have boosted short-term morale among the players and coaching staff, but with the hapless Cincinnati Bengals also winless on the season, a victory could have potentially derailed the Dolphins’ plans for landing the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. So with 26 seconds left before halftime, Miami general manager Chris Grier may have felt some small sense of relief after the defensive play that his head coach, Brian Flores, dialed up on third and 20 for the Steelers.

The Steelers lined up with three wide receivers and sent two out to the right side of the formation. Miami blitzed with eight pass rushers, leaving just three defenders in the secondary to cover the three receivers. With no help from a fourth defender, the defensive backs played well off the line of scrimmage to protect against deep routes. After the snap, right cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Nik Needham failed to switch responsibilities for the crossing receivers on the strong side of the formation. In the slot, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a vertical route upfield and slightly toward the sideline, while Diontae Johnson, who was lined up further behind the line of scrimmage at flanker, ran a shallow slant toward the wide-open middle of the field. The result was an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.

The defensive play call is uncommon enough, and the result so bad, that some commentators on Twitter immediately accused the Dolphins coaches of being complicit in the tank. After reviewing the tape, others disagreed, arguing that cover-zero blitzes — plays on which there is one coverage defender per receiver, and the rest of the defense rushes the quarterback — are poor evidence of tanking since they’re occasionally employed by successful teams. Who is right? Was sending eight rushers on third and long a viable strategy, or was it a questionable call made by a Miami team that should be under suspicion of in-game tanking?

The evidence suggests that the call was of dubious value if a team is attempting to win a football game. Rushing eight or more is actually quite rare in the NFL. Teams rushed eight players just 110 times on all downs and distances during the regular season from 2016 through Week 8 of 2019. On third-down passing plays over that same period, teams rushed eight or more just 33 times. And on third and 11 or greater — the situation most similar to the one the Dolphins faced — there have been just two plays called with eight or more pass rushers. And that’s counting the play run by Miami on Monday night.

Regardless of the call’s frequency, we can say with confidence5 that dialing up an eight-man rush on third down is the worst play that defensive coordinators can call if they want to prevent their opponent from scoring.

Third down is typically advantageous to the defense. On average, plays called with any combination of three to seven defenders rushing the passer cause the opposing offense to accrue negative expected points added.6 Only when defenses decide to rush eight and drop three into coverage does the offense regain the advantage. On those plays, the script gets flipped, and offenses net nearly a point per snap over expected.

To force short throws, drop eight — don’t rush eight

Average depth of target by opposing offenses according to number of pass rushers in all regular-season pass plays since 2016

Number of rushers air yards per pass attempt
8 or more 8.32
7 9.58
6 9.13
5 8.35
4 8.03
3 or fewer 6.56

Through Week 8 of the 2019 season.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Nfl ngs

Some have argued that the Miami play was sound based on the theory that an all-out blitz forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball more quickly, leading to shorter passes. But that’s not what we find. It turns out that if you want to minimize an offense’s depth of target, it’s better to drop eight or more into coverage than to rush eight.

Fans and analytics-minded observers, in particular, often scream and yell for NFL teams to be more aggressive, but in this case, conservatism appears to be the better choice. Especially on a third and long like the Steelers faced against the Dolphins, who were up two scores with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half, calling a high-risk, low-reward play doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Unless, of course, the goal wasn’t actually to win. In that case, it was the perfect call.

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The Patriots’ Defense Is Good. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Going To Stay Good.

After four full weeks of play, the New England Patriots are one of only three undefeated teams left in the NFL,1 and their defense is getting much of the credit for their early success. The Patriots lead the league in point differential at +95 and, on the strength of defensive backs Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty, have been particularly good against the pass. New England has yet to allow a passing touchdown this year, making it one of just 10 teams since the AFL-NFL merger to accomplish that feat in the first four games of the season. And it’s not just the pass defense. The Patriots have surrendered just one touchdown in total on defense — a 1-yard run by Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen in Week 4.

Given these eye-popping stats, we would expect the Patriots to top the leaderboard in defensive expected points added per play. And that’s exactly what we find. New England stands atop the rankings with an EPA per play more than double that of the second-ranked defense, San Francisco’s.2

The Patriots’ defense is, in fact, very good so far

NFL defenses ranked by expected points added per play by the opposing offenses, through Week 4 of the 2019 season

Point Totals
Rk Team Record For Against Diff Defensive EPA/Play
1 New England 4-0 122 27 95 -0.35
2 San Francisco 3-0 96 54 42 -0.16
3 Chicago 3-1 66 45 21 -0.12
4 Buffalo 3-1 76 63 13 -0.10
5 Tennessee 2-2 91 62 29 -0.09
6 Tampa Bay 2-2 123 117 6 -0.05
7 Carolina 2-2 95 80 15 -0.05
8 Minnesota 2-2 84 63 21 -0.04
9 Green Bay 3-1 85 69 16 -0.04
10 Pittsburgh 1-3 76 88 -12 -0.03
11 L.A. Rams 3-1 117 104 13 -0.03
12 Dallas 3-1 107 56 51 -0.02
13 N.Y. Jets 0-3 33 70 -37 -0.02
14 Cleveland 2-2 89 91 -2 -0.01
15 Seattle 3-1 103 89 14 0.00
16 Houston 2-2 78 78 0 0.03
17 Detroit 2-1-1 97 95 2 0.05
18 Jacksonville 2-2 84 84 0 0.06
19 Kansas City 4-0 135 94 41 0.06
20 N.Y. Giants 2-2 87 97 -10 0.09
21 Cincinnati 0-4 57 110 -53 0.09
22 New Orleans 3-1 84 92 -8 0.10
23 Philadelphia 2-2 110 105 5 0.12
24 Arizona 0-3-1 74 115 -41 0.13
25 Denver 0-4 70 93 -23 0.14
26 L.A. Chargers 2-2 90 74 16 0.14
27 Atlanta 1-3 70 99 -29 0.14
28 Washington 0-4 66 118 -52 0.14
29 Indianapolis 2-2 94 102 -8 0.16
30 Baltimore 2-2 135 100 35 0.16
31 Oakland 2-2 79 102 -23 0.16
32 Miami 0-4 26 163 -137 0.29

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

This list tracks well with our intuition of how defenses have performed and passes the “eye test.” New England, San Francisco, Chicago and Buffalo appear to be good defenses, and Miami, Oakland, Baltimore and Indianapolis appear to be bad. With a quarter of the season finished, we might even be tempted to draw some conclusions from this defensive leaderboard — it seems reasonable to expect the good defenses to stay good and the bad to remain bad. But does further evidence actually support making these inferences? Or are our eyes and the aforementioned data fooling us?

To find out, we took ESPN Stats & Information Group data from 2006 through 2018 and calculated the year-to-date EPA per play for each team prior to a given game. Then, we tested how well the team’s past performance predicted what the teams ultimately did in those games.

As an example, for a team’s fifth game of the season, we looked at the previous four weeks of games and calculated the EPA per play for each team.3 We then took those EPA averages and tested how well they predicted the EPA per play for that team in Game 5. If a defense was good in the first through fourth games, did it tend to stay good in the fifth? We conducted this analysis for each game of the season for both offense and defense, using the data from all previous games of the season. The results were surprising.

There’s a lot we don’t know about teams early in the season, but after nine or 10 games, we like to think that we have a decent idea about how each unit will perform in a given game, especially late in the season with the playoff picture in focus. This turns out to be partially true — for the offense, anyway. Our ability to predict a team’s offensive performance in an upcoming game does improve as the year goes on, peaking around Game 11. But, surprisingly, this isn’t true for the defense. We know roughly as much about a team’s upcoming defensive performance after one game of results as we do after 12 or 13.

In fairness, our ability to predict offensive performance is fairly modest,4 and by the very end of the season, we do see a small spike in our ability to predict defensive performance. But when comparing the predictive power of the two measures, the difference ranges from moderate to dramatic. Exactly why we can’t predict defense as well is hard to say with any confidence, but it might start with our inability to fully quantify the parts of a defender’s performance that are stable over time and reliably impact a game. In other words, it’s possible that we aren’t measuring the right thing by taking the aggregate performance of the offenses a team has faced and assigning the relative success or failure to the defense. Rather than capturing the strength of a team’s defensive unit, our metrics and stats may mostly be measuring a team’s strength of schedule.

Taking this view, the Patriots’ defensive performance is perhaps best attributed to the inept offensive performances of their opponents: the Steelers with an aging Ben Roethlisberger and newly without Antonio Brown; the tanking Miami Dolphins in a 43-0 blowout; a Jets team led by quarterback Luke Falk because of Sam Darnold’s bout with mononucleosis; and a narrow win over the Bills without a concussed Allen in the fourth quarter of Week 4.

Perhaps these performances aren’t as clear a harbinger of future defensive success as Patriots fans would like to believe. Conversely, it’s potentially good news for the defenses of Indianapolis, Baltimore and Oakland.5 We should probably be hesitant to read too much into their slow starts. Things can change quickly in the NFL, especially on defense.

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