Two weeks into the NFL season, the game’s overall aesthetics are under fire. Scoring is down, sacks are up, and Brian Hoyer is still gainfully employed as a starting quarterback. Offenses, we’re being told, are in crisis. But are things really that bad?
Blame is being assigned to everything from reductions in practice time to the aging of some of the game’s better quarterbacks to the deterioration of offensive line play to rosters composed of cheaper, younger players thanks to the downward pressures of the rookie-wage scale. But there is another significant culprit, and it’s one that’s often mentioned in passing, assuming it’s even mentioned at all: Defenses have gotten better, and the NFL may right now be going through one of its periodic cycles in which defenses become dominant.
Scoring through the season’s first two weeks is down 2.4 points, or roughly 11 percent, compared to last year. Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the league’s per-team average of 20.3 points is also well below the 22.3 points teams were scoring in Weeks 1 and 2 between 2010 and 2017. But scoring in the NFL had been trending upward in recent years; as Barnwell also pointed out, the scoring rate is the highest for any decade since the 1970 merger by more than a full point. We’re noticing a lack of offense because we’ve grown accustomed to seeing so much offense, but the phenomenon of offensive dominance is a recent one.
The NFL has in this decade evolved into a passing league. The rules now emphasize penalizing most contact against receivers beyond five yards, which has made it virtually impossible for pass defenders to do their jobs. As defenses have become bigger and faster, offenses have countered by relying more and more on creating space by using formations with extra pass catchers. In 2011, per Football Outsiders, offenses used “11” personnel, or three-receiver sets with one running back and one tight end, on 40.4 percent of their plays. That number has been steadily climbing every year since, and last season it reached 60 percent. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for running backs or tight ends to play in the slot or to be positioned wide to create mismatches. Quarterbacks are favoring shotgun sets with much greater frequency: In 2010, according to Pro Football Reference, shotgun formations were used on 37.3 percent of all offensive plays. By last season, however, the trend had reversed completely, with quarterbacks operating out of the shotgun on 63.3 percent of all snaps.
As Kevin Clark of The Ringer noted last month, roughly half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks are at least 30 years old. In an effort to preserve those aging quarterbacks and to extend their careers, offenses have increasingly relied on shorter, quicker throws out of those multiple-receiver, shotgun formations. As a result, 11 of the 15 highest completion percentages posted by QBs who attempted at least 200 passes in a season have come in this decade alone.
There’s also the issue of practice time. The collective bargaining agreement mandates less on-field practice time during the offseason than in the past. Teams are limited to 10 non-contact, non-padded organized team activities practices in the spring, followed by three days of non-contact, non-padded minicamp practices in June. For years, coaches have been vocal about how much they hate these restrictions, and their complaints have resurfaced now that points are getting harder to come by.
Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated placed the onus for this on the players’ union, which sought these workplace rules and received them when the CBA was ratified in 2011. Klemko’s analysis does have merit, but it elides the owners’ complicity in agreeing to these conditions—and to the obvious improvements in player safety that have resulted. Limiting the violence in a violent game has knock-on effects, apparently.
To say play is worse, and that a lack of practice time is the cause, gives short shrift to what’s happening with defenses. To counter all those extra pass catchers lining up all over offensive formations, defenses have increasingly been using nickel packages, which (as the name suggests) include five defensive backs. In 2011, according to Football Outsiders, nickel defenses were on the field on 40 percent of all plays. By last year, that number was 57 percent—and a six percent jump from just the year before. For many teams, nickel has essentially become a base package.
The evolution of offenses has likewise spawned a personnel trend on defenses, which are leaning more heavily on smaller, quicker linebacker/safety hybrids capable of playing in space. Is Tyrann Mathieu a safety or a slot corner? Are Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon (pictured) safeties or inside linebackers? Luke Kuechly and Ryan Shazier are inside linebackers, but they’re capable of sticking wide receivers when necessary. A few stories about this positionless evolution on defense were bouncing around at this time last year. Is it so outrageous to assume these changes have had their effects on offenses?
Similar changes are happening in the trenches. A trend toward shorter, quicker throws out of the shotgun has placed a premium on defenders who can get to the quarterback faster. What’s changed is that that pressure is increasingly coming from interior defensive linemen, as opposed to linebackers and ends off the edge.
With rare Hall-of-Fame-caliber exceptions, three-technique defensive linemen used to be responsible for simply stuffing the run or occupying blockers so the linebackers behind them could make plays. These days, the league is filled with three-techniques (D-linemen who line up just outside the offensive guard), who are skilled and nimble enough to rush the passer.
To illustrate the phenomenon, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly recently ran through a list of dominant interior D-linemen—Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, J.J. Watt, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Bennett, Fletcher Cox, Mike Daniels, to name just some of those Kelly mentioned—before acknowledging he had to stop.
Geoff Schwartz was an NFL offensive guard from 2008-15. In a phone interview, he marveled at what three-techniques are now capable of doing compared to what they were asked to do when he entered the league.
“Back when I first came into the NFL, they would just run into you,” Schwartz said. “There were obviously guys who were very good, but I just think there’s a plethora right now of three-techniques who can rush the passer at such a high level because when the quarterback is throwing the ball away quickly, the quickest way to him is up the middle.”
The short passing game can also neutralize blitzes, but here, again, defenses have adapted: According to Football Outsiders, defenses were blitzing (i.e., bringing five or more pass rushers) on 33.2 percent of snaps in 2010. By last year, that number had fallen to 27.4 percent. Teams that can generate pressure with fewer pass rushers can commit more personnel to playing in coverage. It stands to reason that this, too, is now having an impact on offenses.
An example: On Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, the Broncos swallowed the Cowboys’ potent offense by pressuring Dak Prescott on 40 percent of his dropbacks (22 out of 55), even though Denver only blitzed on 29 percent (16 of 55) of those plays. The Broncos frequently crammed the box with eight defenders to contain Ezekiel Elliott in the run game because they could rely on single coverage on the outside, which they could do because their edge rushers (Shaq Barrett and Von Miller) combined for a whopping 21 pressures.
And this, as Schwartz noticed, gets to something else defenses have exploited based on what offenses are doing to them. Left tackle has long been one of the league’s prime positions, because it protects a quarterback’s blind side. As a result, the left tackle has long been matched up against an opponent’s best pass rusher, and the best left tackles have had to be athletic, strong, and solid with their technique to do the job. Now, however, edge rushers don’t necessarily have to get after the quarterback by going at the left tackle.
“Now, because of the quarterback being in the shotgun, there really is no blind side,” Schwartz said. “So a lot of these edge rushers now are over the right tackle because that’s the closest to the ball—you can rush and knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. We’ve seen this change now where right tackles are having to block more elite rushers than a left tackle.”
A final thought: Jason Lisk of The Big Lead last year compiled a list of media references to the decline of the NFL’s quality of play. The conceit was that the list goes back 25 years, which means complaints about the game’s aesthetics are nothing new. If the kind of defensive dominance we’re now witnessing looks ugly, maybe it’s really because of a pair of questions Kelly posed last year on The Ringer. “Do we actually love defensive slugfests, then?” Kelly wondered. “Or are we just supposed to love defensive slugfests, even though they, in fact, suck?”