Defenses and Pressure 2023


Let’s continue our annual offseason data dive in the ramp up to the 2024 FTN Football Almanac. Last week, we took a look at pressure’s effect on quarterback stats. This week, we flip it to the other side of the ball and look at defensive performances tied to pressure. Pressure has become the name of the game for NFL defenses. The league’s top defenses are being built out trenches-first. The next wave of defensive masterminds are all focused on mutable pressure packages in the front seven. The last three players to win Defensive Player of the Year have all been edge rushers. This year’s NFL draft had edge rusher as one of the lowest-priority names because, frankly, most teams in the league have a solid situation at edge rusher. The league is talent-rich with pass rushers and now focused on more creative ways to scheme them free.

The following table highlights pressure numbers for all team defenses, ranked from highest pressure rate (Detroit Lions, 36.6%) to lowest pressure rate (Carolina Panthers, 24.3%). Stats come from FTN Data charting.

Team Plays Press% Yds w/Press DVOA w/Press Yds No Press DVOA No Press Yds Dif. DVOA Dif. Rk
DET 659 36.6% 4.3 -45.4% 8.1 31.8% -3.8 -77.2% 5
MIA 652 34.7% 2.8 -66.3% 7.9 51.2% -5.1 -117.4% 27
DAL 585 34.0% 2.6 -69.2% 7.3 25.7% -4.8 -94.9% 15
CLE 614 32.7% 1.5 -80.8% 6.5 -2.9% -4.9 -78.0% 6
NYJ 600 32.7% 2.1 -83.7% 6.6 13.6% -4.6 -97.3% 16
PIT 648 32.6% 3.7 -68.8% 7.6 25.4% -3.9 -94.2% 12
SF 703 32.1% 3.3 -58.9% 6.5 9.4% -3.2 -68.3% 2
HOU 647 32.1% 3.1 -56.0% 8.0 38.8% -4.9 -94.7% 14
BUF 645 31.6% 2.3 -61.8% 7.1 24.8% -4.8 -86.6% 8
KC 645 31.6% 1.4 -95.5% 6.7 24.9% -5.2 -120.4% 29
GB 611 30.9% 2.7 -60.7% 7.9 50.7% -5.2 -111.3% 24
SEA 659 30.7% 3.7 -48.9% 7.6 43.1% -4.0 -92.0% 11
CIN 645 30.5% 2.4 -87.3% 8.9 49.7% -6.5 -136.9% 32
NE 636 30.3% 3.3 -55.6% 6.9 28.9% -3.6 -84.5% 7
NYG 633 30.2% 3.2 -62.1% 7.8 27.8% -4.6 -89.9% 10
TEN 646 29.7% 2.6 -61.4% 7.7 38.7% -5.2 -100.1% 19
Team Plays Press% Yds w/Press DVOA w/Press Yds No Press DVOA No Press Yds Dif. DVOA Dif. Rk
ATL 621 29.0% 2.5 -63.6% 7.5 47.8% -5.0 -111.4% 25
BAL 731 28.9% 0.8 -108.7% 6.4 -2.3% -5.6 -106.4% 21
DEN 639 28.2% 2.9 -62.4% 7.8 45.4% -4.9 -107.8% 22
LV 649 28.0% 2.4 -67.7% 7.4 19.8% -5.0 -87.5% 9
MIN 673 27.9% 2.7 -79.5% 7.5 29.7% -4.7 -109.2% 23
IND 643 27.7% 2.4 -91.5% 7.9 44.2% -5.4 -135.6% 31
PHI 730 27.4% 3.8 -32.7% 7.0 36.7% -3.2 -69.4% 3
LAC 669 27.4% 2.9 -58.6% 8.0 42.7% -5.0 -101.3% 20
JAX 691 26.9% 2.8 -68.3% 7.5 26.2% -4.7 -94.6% 13
WAS 660 26.7% 3.0 -39.9% 8.4 59.4% -5.5 -99.2% 18
TB 680 26.6% 3.2 -79.0% 7.6 33.4% -4.4 -112.4% 26
NO 631 26.1% 3.2 -50.2% 7.1 14.9% -3.9 -65.1% 1
ARI 569 25.7% 2.3 -62.8% 8.3 55.5% -6.0 -118.2% 28
LAR 675 25.6% 2.4 -65.8% 7.5 32.0% -5.1 -97.8% 17
CHI 676 24.6% 4.4 -49.1% 6.8 24.5% -2.4 -73.6% 4
CAR 519 24.3% 1.0 -90.1% 7.3 36.7% -6.3 -126.9% 30

This data includes all passes and scrambles. Defensive pass interference, usually included in DVOA, is not included here.

Quoth the Ravens, “Nevermore”

In 2024, you’ll be hearing a lot about “the Mike Macdonald defense” the same way NFL audiences have been inundated with “the Vic Fangio defense” the last few seasons. There’s good reason why five different teams will be running his system next season. The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen wrote a deep dive on Macdonald’s ascent to the top of the league and the nuances behind his scheme, but if you need an abridged version: Macdonald’s pressure packages all run independently of the shell coverage or the on-field personnel. Players can be swapped in and out seamlessly or run in different positions. Defensive fronts can immediately become more versatile and layered, and all of a sudden pressure can come from anywhere on the field.

The effect a defense like this can have on opposing quarterbacks is staggering. Baltimore didn’t have to generate much pressure, with their 28.9% percent of plays with pressure ranking 18th among defenses. The Ravens sat back on defense, rushing five or more just 20.6% of the time. They ran defensive packages with six or more defensive backs at the 10th-highest rate in the league.

The problem for offenses is what happened when that pressure came. The Ravens were the only team in the league to allow less than a yard per play on pressured downs. They were also the only defense to crack -100% DVOA allowed on pressure downs. We cannot ignore Baltimore’s elite pass coverage, being one of only two teams to finish with a negative DVOA on non-pressure downs. They would have ranked inside the top 10 for DVOA differential if they weren’t already so damn good as a defense.

Those pressure packages put up massive numbers for the Ravens defense, and it shows up in the sheer variety of who benefitted. Justin Madubuike’s breakout season was defined by his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. Among defensive tackles, Madubuike led the league with 13.0 sacks, finished tied for first in quarterback hits, and was second to only Chris Jones in total pressures. Safety Kyle Hamilton finished fourth among safeties in total pressures (per Sports Info Solutions), while Arthur Maulet finished ninth among cornerbacks in total pressures.

The Macdonald scheme also makes the Baltimore defense look like the Fountain of Youth for edge rushers. Aging journeymen Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy looked completely rejuvenated in their first years with the Ravens. Clowney, 31, tied his career high in total sacks (9.5) set back in 2017 and finished fifth among edge rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, while the 32-year-old Van Noy posted a career-high 9.0 sacks and finished 18th in PRWR. This is the second straight year this occurred with Baltimore plugging in a veteran defender at pass rusher and making it work. In 2022, 33-year-old Justin Houston put up his highest sack total in years in his first season under Mike Macdonald.

More Doesn’t Always Mean Better

In a lot of cases, a team with the highest pressure rate typically correlates with being a strong passing defense by DVOA. Over the last 10 seasons, the league’s top team by pressure rate has finished first in the league in defensive passing DVOA five different times. Detroit’s placement, however, came in at the second lowest of any team since the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles. (The actual pressure rates for the best pressure defense will waver here because of changes in stat providers and definitions of pressure over the years.)

No. 1 Team in Pass Pressure, 2014-2023
Year Team Press% DVOA Rk Pass D Rk
2023 DET 36.6% -3.2% 13 6.5% 16
2022 PHI 33.5% -13.3% 3 -19.4% 1
2021 MIA 34.3% -3.5% 9 -0.4% 9
2020 PIT 30.4% -18.9% 1 -16.8% 1
2019 NE 37.1% -21.1% 1 -25.7% 1
2018 LAR 37.6% 0.1% 16 4.3% 9
2017 WAS 38.3% -1.3% 13 -1.7% 9
2016 DEN 32.2% -16.3% 1 -24.5% 1
2015 DEN 32.7% -21.8% 1 -18.6% 1
2014 PHI 29.6% -4.2% 10 6.5% 17

Part of Detroit’s high pressure rate came from necessity. The Lions played an all-or-nothing style of defense, forcing the pass rush to disrupt the quarterback enough to make up for a weak secondary. Detroit made massive free agent investments at the cornerback position during the offseason, coming away with Emmanuel Moseley, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Cameron Sutton. Moseley and Gardner-Johnson went on to play less than 200 combined snaps due to injury.

The secondary, left in shambles, required Detroit to completely change their game plan. The Lions instead focused on pinning their ears back and leaning into a suffocating pass rush. Detroit rushed six or more defenders at the third-highest rate of any team in the league and rushed five at the 12th-highest rate. They incorporated safeties and corners into their blitz packages, with the secondary accounting for 29.3% of all Lions sacks. Detroit’s defense had the most stacked box on average in the entire league.

Did this plan gash Detroit in the passing game? Absolutely. Detroit allowed the second-most yards per game to No. 1 wide receivers during the regular season and was dead last in DVOA allowed to slot receivers. Detroit drew the second-highest rate of deep passes against them, allowing the ninth-worst passing DVOA on deep balls.

Did they make up for it with outsized success in the pass rush? Maybe for Aidan Hutchinson. No other individual player came close to matching his 78 pressures, nine more than the next-highest player. The second-year edge rusher also finished tied with Nick Bosa for most quarterback knockdowns in the league. As a team, though, the results did not hold quite as well. The Lions finished tied for 23rd in the league in total sacks and 20th in the league in adjusted sack rate. When getting pressure, Detroit allowed the second-most yards per play behind Chicago (4.4) and drew the third-lowest defensive passing DVOA in the league behind only Philadelphia (-32.7%) and Washington (-39.9%). The Lions’ pressure served little difference in how their defense performed against the pass. Their -3.8 yardage differential and -77.2% DVOA differential both finished fifth lowest in the league when comparing pressure downs to non-pressure downs.

Molting Feathers

Speaking of the league’s leaders in pressure rate, the Philadelphia Eagles saw a massive year-over-year falloff in their pressure performance. The offseason saw Philadelphia reshuffle their defensive front seven, losing Javon Hargrave, T.J. Edwards, and Kyzir White in free agency. The group’s identity was centered around an oppressive pass rush in 2022, with four different players finishing with at least 10 sacks and the team finishing with the third-most sacks in a season in NFL history. Now, the group was forced to lean on a crew of young draft picks.

Philadelphia’s defense completely fell apart, slipping from the league’s best pass defense in 2022 to the fourth-worst pass defense this year. Part of that came from turnover in the secondary, but the once-historic pass rush didn’t come anywhere close to replicating last year’s product. After finishing atop the league in 2022 with a 33.5% pressure rate, the Eagles fell all the way down to 23rd in the league. Philadelphia posted the league’s lowest DVOA on pressure downs and the third-most yards per play allowed on pressure downs.

The fall-off in pressure rate allowed is its own problem, but the non-pressure downs show just how reliant Philadelphia was on constant pressure in 2022. The Eagles allowed a very respectable 7.0 yards allowed on non-pressure downs, eighth lowest in the league. Most of the defenses down there with them – Baltimore, Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, and Kansas City – finished as the best defenses in the league by overall DVOA. New England also finished in the top 10 in the league, while Chicago made massive strides the year after finishing with a league-worst defensive DVOA.

They Eagles were solid at containing players when not pressuring, they just could not make game-changing plays without pressuring. That shows in their non-pressure DVOA numbers. The Browns, Ravens, Jets, and 49ers retain top-five status, the Bears and Chiefs remain in the top 10, and the Patriots sit just above league-average. The Eagles are the only team in the top 10 of non-pressure yards allowed to finish below the league average in non-pressure DVOA.

Odds and Ends

Behind the Lions in pressure rate are the Dolphins, followed by the Cowboys, Browns, and Jets. Of the top five most pressuring teams, no one excelled pressuring opponents as much as Cleveland. The Browns dominated rushing the passer, sending six-plus at the fourth-highest rate in the league. Unlike the Ravens, whose production came from all over the defense, Cleveland’s pressure mostly stemmed from the edges via Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith.

Carolina posted the league’s worst defense, the league’s fewest sacks, and the lowest pressure rate of the league. When they did get pressure, though, the Panthers looked like an elite defensive unit. Carolina’s 1.0 yards per play and -90.1% DVOA were second and fourth most in the league, respectively, on pressured downs.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive rebuild has centered around Steve Spagnuolo generating pressure on the front-end of his disguised coverages. The Chiefs finished with the third-highest defensive DVOA on pressure downs, improving to the second-best defensive DVOA in 2023. The Chiefs were barely edged out by Baltimore in this department, but Kansas City locked up the highest adjusted sack rate in the league.

While the Eagles saw a massive dip of production because of losses in their front seven, no team’s 2023 offseason decisions are more directly tied to the results of this table than the Cincinnati Bengals’. The team lost safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell on the first day of free agency and moved on from cornerback Eli Apple. They also doubled down on edge rushing talent, adding first-round pick Myles Murphy to a front seven led by edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The result: the Bengals defense posted the largest yardage and DVOA differentials between pressured and unpressured downs.

Brian Flores is a madman. Nobody sent more bodies at quarterbacks in 2023. The Minnesota Vikings rushed six or more players 178 times, a league-leading 26.3% of the time. While the Vikings did have a strong DVOA on pressure downs, these massive rushes didn’t actually convert to pressure often. The Vikings ranked 21st in percentage of plays generating pressure.

The New Orleans Saints were just an unremarkable team in 2023, especially in the pressure department. The Saints had the smallest difference in DVOA between pressure and non-pressure downs, and the seventh-lowest difference by yardage. Pressure certainly helped the Saints’ passing defense, with the unit producing a -50.2% DVOA on pressure downs, but the group also finished with the fifth-lowest DVOA on non-pressure downs at 14.9%.

Previous QBs Under Pressure in 2023 Next Defense by Number of Pass Rushers 2023