Once upon a time, there were not a lot of football stats available. You had runs and passes, yards and touchdowns. Nobody broke the numbers down by situation or tracked personnel groupings and cornerback coverage.
Things have really changed over the past 20 years. Now you can get all kinds of interesting splits showing where NFL teams were strongest and weakest in a given season. The NFL uses chips in player pads to track a ton of new metrics with NFL Next Gen Stats, and a number of different analytics companies chart games to mark everything from broken tackles to blitz rates to yards after the catch.
We used all of these different available numbers to analyze NFL teams for last season and the upcoming season in our new book Football Outsiders Almanac 2022. And while preparing the book, we came across a lot of interesting stats. Many of them will surprise fans who might expect one thing from a team but get something else.
Below, I’ve gone through Football Outsiders‘ extensive stat databases to point out an interesting stat that I came across for each team. You’ll find a lot of Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics mentioned, and those are explained here. The most important is DVOA, which measures success on each play compared to the league average adjusted for situation and opponent. Because it is measured on a per-play basis, it can easily be separated to measure specific splits; you’ll see a lot of those ratings below. Charting stats including blitz rates, player personnel and broken tackles come from Sports Info Solutions.
Here is what we learned, starting with the Cardinals and going in alphabetical order:
Despite the midseason trade for tight end Zach Ertz and the injury to receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona still led the NFL in using four or more wide receivers for the third straight year in 2021. The Cardinals used four or more wide receivers on 15% of plays, with no other team above 9%. Arizona had an outstanding 8.3 yards per play with 56.0% DVOA from 10 personnel (4 WR, 1 RB).
Atlanta’s offense was least likely to run out of shotgun formations, with just 9% of those plays being handoffs to running backs.
The word got out last year: Blitz Lamar Jackson. Jackson was not comparatively high in blitz rates in previous seasons, but last season he was blitzed on 33% of pass plays, second in the league behind Andy Dalton among quarterbacks with at least 200 passes.
Jackson was far, far better against a standard pass rush: 7.6 yards per play and 35.5% DVOA with four pass-rushers; 5.7 yards per play and minus-21.9% DVOA against five pass-rushers; and 3.2 yards per play with minus-67.5% DVOA against six or more. Jackson was also better against four pass-rushers than against a blitz in 2019 and 2020, but not to this extent.
The Bills’ defense was absurdly good on deep passes (16 or more air yards) last season. Including defensive pass interference, the Bills allowed just 7.2 yards per attempt on these passes. Every other defense in the league allowed at least 10 yards per attempt, and the NFL average was 12.4 yards.
Carolina ranked first in defensive DVOA in the first quarter, then 15th in the second quarter and 30th after halftime. So much for opponents letting up because the Panthers were losing late in games.
According to our DVOA metric, Chicago had an above-average defense with both base and nickel personnel. But Chicago had the worst defensive DVOA in the league (41.1%) with dime personnel (min. 100 plays). The Bears used six or more defensive backs on 16% of plays, which ranked 15th in the league.
The Bengals led the NFL with 5.8 average yards after the catch on passes past the line of scrimmage. San Francisco was the only other team above 5.0. But the Bengals had a below-average 8.1 average yards after the catch on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Cleveland was the unluckiest team in the league in two ways.
First, the Browns were very unlucky in terms of opposing field goals, with opponents scoring 13.5 points more than expected. Cleveland opponents did not outright miss a single field goal in 2021. The Browns blocked a Week 2 attempt by Joey Slye of Houston, and every other field goal attempt against Cleveland went through the uprights.
Second, the Browns were very unlucky in terms of fumble recoveries. If we remove muffed punts and kickoffs, they had the worst fumble recovery rate in the entire league at 35%. They recovered only five of 17 fumbles on defense, six of 14 fumbles on offense and one of three fumbles on special teams.
The Cowboys had the best DVOA in the NFL against short passes (up to 15 air yards), but were 22nd against deep passes (16 or more air yards).
There were some major statistical distortions that led to the Broncos ranking third in the league in fewest points allowed. The Broncos weren’t particularly efficient at stopping opposing offenses, ranking 20th in yards allowed per drive. However, the Broncos fielded the slowest-paced offense in the NFL. They controlled the clock, which meant Denver faced a league-low 162 opponent possessions. The Broncos’ offense also didn’t turn the ball over much; add to the punting and kicking advantage at altitude, and opponents started their average drive on the 26-yard line, the second-worst field position in the NFL.
Essentially, Broncos opponents had to gain more yards in order to score and had fewer opportunities to do it, which meant the Broncos didn’t give up many points even though their defense was very mediocre.
The Detroit offense was average in broken tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions charting, after being near the bottom of the league in both 2019 and 2020.
However, the Detroit defense had 159 missed tackles in 2021, 17 more than any other defense. Alex Anzalone led the NFL with 23, while four other Lions had double-digit misses (Tracy Walker III with 14, Charles Harris with 11, and AJ Parker and Jalen Reeves-Maybin with 10 apiece).
The Packers’ running game showed an odd split of getting more efficient the more men it faced in the box. Green Bay had minus-10.3% DVOA with 4.4 yards per carry with a light box (four to six men).
Against seven men in the box, the average was a little lower (4.2), but the DVOA was higher at 7.1%. Against eight or nine men in the box, the Packers gained 4.6 yards per carry with 16.8% DVOA.
Before their Week 10 bye, last year’s Texans looked like a typical Lovie Smith defense. They ranked second in the league in how often they played Cover 2. After the bye, the Texans still played a high rate of Cover 2 but also shifted to more single-high coverages. In fact, Houston led the league in the second half of the year by playing Cover 1 on 37% of passes.
Indianapolis rose from play-action on 25% of passes in 2020 (21st) to 34% of passes in 2021 (third). The Colts had one of the larger gaps between play-action and other passes, with 8.0 yards per pass and 16.1% DVOA with play-action compared to 5.6 yards per pass and 0.2% DVOA otherwise. In 2020, the Colts put up a reverse play-action split, as they were better without the play fake than with it.
Trevor Lawrence got worse with the more pass-rushers he faced in his rookie season. When Lawrence faced three pass-rushers, the Jaguars had 6.8 yards per play and 16.6% DVOA. With four pass-rushers, those numbers became 6.1 and minus-4.7% DVOA. Against a blitz of five or more pass-rushers, the Jaguars had 3.9 yards per play and minus-35.7% DVOA.
The Chiefs’ defense had the NFL’s worst DVOA (13.1%) and yards allowed per play (6.2) when in base personnel (except for Dallas, which used base on only 12 plays all year). But like a lot of things with the Chiefs’ defense last year, this was really primarily an issue in the first five games of the season.
Through Week 5, Kansas City had an absolutely abhorrent 40.1% DVOA allowed from base defense with 7.2 yards allowed per play. From Week 6 onward, the Chiefs had a relatively average DVOA in base (minus-2.0%) and allowed 5.6 yards per play — still higher than the NFL average of 5.2 yards, but much more reasonable.
Most teams are more efficient when running against lighter boxes, but the Raiders were a bit extreme last season. They gained 5.3 yards per carry against light boxes (up to six men) with 7.6% DVOA, compared to 3.3 yards per carry with minus-22.7% DVOA against boxes of seven or more. In an associated split, Las Vegas had a huge gap in performance between single-back runs (4.5 yards, 0.1% DVOA) and runs from multiple-back formations (2.9 yards, minus-42.0% DVOA).
Robert Griffin III, Bart Scott and Jay Williams debate where the Raiders stand in the AFC West.
The Chargers’ offense was dead last in the NFL with 83 broken tackles last season. Although running back Austin Ekeler was tied for 11th in the league with 39, no other Chargers player had more than seven.
It was only 13% of their plays, but the Rams had the worst offense in the league when opponents had base defensive personnel on the field (minus-42.4% DVOA, 3.6 yards per play).
Miami was the first offense since the 2012 Texans to use a personnel group other than 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) more than 50% of the time. While 31 NFL teams had 11 as their most common personnel, the Dolphins used 12 personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) on 61% of plays. No other team used 12 personnel even half that often.
The Vikings ranked third in the league in DVOA passing in the red zone but only 29th when running in the red zone.
Mac Jones was one of three quarterbacks (min. 200 passes) to get blitzed on more than 30% of plays. The Patriots had 39.5% offensive DVOA (7.5 yards per play) when Jones faced four pass-rushers but minus-1.5% DVOA (5.4 yards per play) when he faced five or more.
The 2021 Saints were inexplicably awesome in the red zone. Look at the first 80 yards of the field, and their offense ranked 28th with minus-16.4% DVOA. Inside the 20, the Saints were sixth with 16.9% DVOA.
Was it the effect of Taysom Hill rushing the ball near the goal line? Not at all, because the Saints were No. 1 passing in the red zone (64.7% DVOA) but ranked 25th running in the red zone (minus-16.5% DVOA). At least one thing makes sense: The pass DVOA in the red zone plummeted after the bye week when Hill took over as the full-time quarterback.
The Giants had the worst defense in the league against runs out of three-wide or four-wide sets, with 9.6% defensive DVOA and 4.8 yards per carry allowed. No defense in the NFL faced more runs with three or more wide receivers on the field.
Last season was the third straight in which the Jets ranked 31st or 32nd in the percentage of sacks that came from edge rushers. The Jets had the league’s worst DVOA (30.8%) and ranked 30th in yards per play (7.4) when sending the standard four pass-rushers.
Philadelphia threw just 10% of passes in the middle of the field. Every other offense in the league was at least at 16%, with the NFL average at 22%. Instead of throwing up the middle, the Eagles threw a league-leading 52% of passes to the right side of the field.
We’ve written in our past books about Pittsburgh’s strong record of drawing pass interference penalties. But last year, the Steelers were good at drawing all penalties. Their opponents were flagged in 2021 a league-leading 154 times, including declined and offsetting penalties. And yes, that includes 17 DPI penalties, second behind Indianapolis.
The 49ers were No. 3 in the league in defensive DVOA against passes up to 15 air yards. In particular, the 49ers were the best defense in the league against passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and the best defense against wide receiver screens. However, they ranked 31st against deep passes of 16 or more air yards, better than only Chicago.
The Seahawks were the best offense in the league when running on second-and-long, with 9.0 yards per carry and 55.3% DVOA compared to league averages of 4.8 yards and minus-16.9% DVOA.
Do you think Tom Brady is getting extra respect from the officials? We aren’t seeing it in more flags for his opponents. Tampa Bay tied for last in the league in how often the opponent drew a penalty, and the Bucs were also dead last with just 635 opposition penalty yards.
The Titans’ defense ranked 30th in both yards allowed (6.3) and yards after catch allowed (9.9) on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. Along similar lines, the Titans struggled against both wide receiver screens (7.0 average yards, 29.5% DVOA) and running back screens (7.5 average yards, 43.5% DVOA).
A number of metrics demonstrate the strange underperformance of the Washington defensive line in 2021. The Commanders ranked dead last in the percentage of sacks that came from edge rushers, but they were also No. 1 with 37% of sacks being “non-pressure” sacks — such as coverage sacks and failed scrambles. They also ranked dead last with just a 26% pressure rate when blitzing.