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Defensive Plus-Minus and YAC+ 2023

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With the FTN Football Almanac 2024 just two weeks away, it’s time we conclude our summer statistical deep dive on passing and receiving stats with a trip to the other side of the ball. Over the last month, we’ve taken a look at plus-minus from both a passing and receiving angle. We’ve also looked at YAC+ across all offensive positions. Now, coming off the second straight year of waning offensive performances leaguewide, we bring you the defensive side to these statistics to see which units are best keeping passing offenses at bay.

As a refresher on these two statistics, plus-minus allows us to provide context to completion percentage allowed by comparing completion percentages in each area of the field to historical baselines. These statistics do not include passes listed as “Thrown Away,” “Batted Down,” “Miscommunication,” “Hit in Motion,” or “Quarterback Drops Ball” by FTN Data charting. Metrics are based on how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle, or right side of the field. YAC+, on the other hand, estimates how much YAC a receiver gains relative to the YAC expected from an average receiver. We do not specify YAC+ based on particular routes, but the statistic provides a holistic approach to understanding which defenses allow more or less yards after the catch. 

The statistics also help shine a light on how certain schematic packages and defensive schools of thought actually impact results in opponents’ passing game. Pairing YAC+ and plus-minus with other statistics provide a more complete picture of defensive performance in a given season. 

Here are the 2023 numbers for plus-minus allowed, organized by lowest to highest. 

NFL Defenses by Passing +/-, 2023
Team Plays C% Rk +/- Rk aDOT Rk YAC Rk
CLE 478 64.0% 1 -30.5 1 7.7 12 5.6 25
NYJ 471 66.5% 4 -25.4 2 7.0 2 5.9 30
BAL 574 66.9% 7 -21.6 3 7.8 15 4.7 6
PIT 527 66.0% 3 -20.3 4 8.2 19 5.3 19
DAL 467 66.0% 2 -19.9 5 7.9 16 5.8 28
KC 499 68.1% 9 -14.1 6 7.7 13 4.8 9
LAR 552 66.5% 5 -11.2 7 9.5 32 4.7 5
NO 498 66.9% 6 -9.6 8 8.6 27 5.6 27
NYG 530 70.0% 12 -7.5 9 7.1 3 6.2 32
ATL 500 68.0% 8 -6.7 10 8.7 29 4.8 8
PHI 616 69.0% 11 -6.4 11 8.2 21 4.9 11
CHI 579 70.8% 15 -5.3 12 7.3 6 5.3 17
SF 577 71.1% 17 -2.3 13 7.4 7 4.8 7
LAC 554 70.2% 13 0.4 14 8.3 22 5.9 29
IND 524 70.6% 14 1.2 15 7.9 17 5.2 14
CAR 433 71.4% 18 1.6 16 7.7 11 4.6 2
Team Plays C% Rk +/- Rk aDOT Rk YAC Rk
LV 514 73.2% 28 1.8 17 6.6 1 6.2 31
DET 538 69.0% 10 1.9 18 9.5 31 4.9 13
JAX 566 71.4% 19 3.9 19 7.7 14 5.3 18
GB 473 72.3% 24 6.0 20 7.5 9 5.2 16
TB 566 71.4% 20 6.2 21 8.2 20 5.4 21
SEA 540 72.2% 23 6.3 22 7.4 8 5.4 22
DEN 527 72.5% 25 6.3 23 7.5 10 5.3 20
BUF 497 73.0% 26 7.6 24 7.1 4 4.7 4
NE 514 72.0% 21 9.8 25 8.3 24 4.9 10
CIN 514 70.8% 16 11.7 26 9.3 30 5.5 24
HOU 529 72.2% 22 13.2 27 8.6 28 5.2 15
WAS 542 73.1% 27 17.1 28 8.4 25 5.6 26
MIA 514 73.9% 29 18.2 29 8.5 26 4.9 12
TEN 523 74.0% 30 21.1 30 8.0 18 4.7 3
ARI 464 74.8% 31 21.9 31 8.3 23 4.4 1
MIN 558 76.3% 32 24.8 32 7.3 5 5.4 23

The Cleveland Browns are our season leaders in plus-minus, just the fourth time a team has broken -30.0 since 2016. Cleveland has floated around the top half of this list for the last few years, but the addition of Jim Schwartz helped super-charge this defense. Cleveland managed to more than double their -14.3 mark from 2022. The Browns disguised coverages and used a suffocating pass rush to confuse quarterbacks and generate interception-worthy throws. 

Of course, credit has to go to the most elite secondary performances of 2023. No other team in the NFL had multiple qualifying cornerbacks that finished with a -20% coverage DVOA. Cleveland had three.  Martin Emerson (-25.7% DVOA), Denzel Ward (-26.1%) and Greg Newsome (-24.0%) combined for 39 passes defensed and 8 interceptions. Even more impressively, the Browns finished the season with the second-highest rate of “CB by Sides,” meaning that Schwartz didn’t have his best cornerback follow opponents’ top receivers around. He just let folks go out there and dominate. The result was one of the best pass coverage performances of the year. Cleveland led all teams in completion percentage allowed by a full two percentage points. 

Speaking of teams who benefited pretty much solely from defensive play, the New York Jets edged out the defensive DVOA league-leading Baltimore Ravens in plus-minus. The defense was already built through the secondary, with Sauce Gardner earning his first First-Team All-Pro nomination. Gardner and D.J. Reed continue to be one of the better corner tandems in the league, and their youth hopefully means the Jets can keep them together for some time. 

Some of the Jets’ biggest success, though, comes from the group’s scheme. Head coach Robert Saleh’s penchant for Cover 3 and Cover 4 defenses means everything should play out in front of the coverage shell. That style of defensive coverage would dampen average pass depth and that plays out. The Jets had the second-lowest average yards per pass allowed at 7.0. That defensive style also puts a ton of pressure on short-range passes, where the Jets thrived. New York posted the second-best DVOA on short-range passes, with a ton of credit due to slot cornerback Michael Carter’s breakout season. Carter went from a serviceable corner to an elite slot defender. He finished fifth among all corners – even outpacing Gardner – in coverage DVOA (-31.3%), while his league-leading 4.6 yards per pass allowed was less than half his 10.6 aDOT.

Both the Browns and the Jets broke into the top 10 teams in defensive plus-minus since 2016.

Best Defensive +/-, 2016-2023
Team Year Pass C% +/- aDOT YAC
BUF 2021 473 62.8% -38.8 7.3 5.3
NE 2019 500 60.6% -37.1 9.2 4.9
DEN 2016 494 62.3% -31.3 7.8 4.7
CLE 2023 478 64.0% -30.5 7.7 5.6
NYG 2016 584 63.2% -28.4 9.0 5.2
PIT 2020 474 62.9% -27.6 9.7 4.7
DAL 2021 565 64.4% -26.5 8.1 6.3
BAL 2018 524 64.3% -26.2 8.5 4.9
NYJ 2023 471 66.5% -25.4 7.0 5.9
SF 2019 481 66.1% -24.6 6.9 5.6

Rounding out the podium, the Ravens ascended up boards, leaping from an 11th-worst 7.4 plus-minus to a third-best -21.6 in 2023. A lot of that was fueled by massive steps forward from Kyle Hamilton and Geno Stone, but Baltimore also boasted two quality pass defenders at the linebacker position. Pittsburgh’s system of one-year plug-ins from Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson helped propel them up to a fourth-best plus-minus mark, while a rejuvenated Stephon Golmore and a pick-six machine in DaRon Bland helped make up for the loss of Trevon Diggs.

The team bringing up the rear has an oddly similar story to the one leading the pack. The Minnesota Vikings brought in Brian Flores as their defensive coordinator, and his hyper-aggressive playbook completely changed how the defense approached the game. Minnesota was already lacking in passing plus-minus, finishing with a second-worst 17.6 plus-minus in 2022. Flores’ defense put them into overdrive, though.

The Vikings blitzed on more than half of all dropbacks and ran the most Cover 0 in the league. That leaves a ton of gaps on the backend and puts pressure on the secondary to perform. Despite some admirable performances by Camryn Bynum and Harrison Smith, it wasn’t enough to raise the floor in the plus-minus department. Minnesota also allowed the league’s highest catch rate and finished bottom-ten in yards after the catch allowed. This didn’t affect Minnesota’s pass defense as badly as one would think. The Vikings still finished 11th in defensive passing DVOA in part because of their blitz-heavy defense. The secondary was rough, but the constant pressure from the front seven was able to provide some cover on the back end.

Arizona, meanwhile, was a completely different story. This was just simply a bad secondary playing with the worst defense in the league by DVOA. Most of the team’s defensive backs are developmental prospects. The only developed asset is Budda Baker, who requested a trade (which was not fulfilled), and his season was limited by a hamstring injury. Tennessee sat in a similar boat of poor performance, marginally improving over their slot after league-worst 17.8 plus-minus finish in 2022. 

The most surprising team at the bottom of this list has to be the Miami Dolphins. Build the best possible secondary out of the bottom-five plus-minus defenses in this league, and there is a solid chance Miami’s secondary gets lifted one-for-one. Especially coupled with one of the most prominent defensive minds of the era in Vic Fangio, the Dolphins were expected to ascend to elite status. Instead, a roster that boasted Jalen Ramsey, Jevon Holland, Xavien Howard, and UDFA breakout Kader Kohou fell to the 22nd-ranked defensive passing DVOA and posted the worst single-game defensive DVOA of the season.

NFL Defenses by YAC+ Allowed, 2023
Team Pass C% aDOT YAC YAC+
BAL 574 66.9% 7.8 4.7 -0.7
CAR 433 71.4% 7.7 4.6 -0.7
KC 499 68.1% 7.7 4.8 -0.6
ARI 464 74.8% 8.3 4.4 -0.6
TEN 523 74.0% 8.0 4.7 -0.5
LAR 552 66.5% 9.5 4.7 -0.4
NE 514 72.0% 8.3 4.9 -0.4
SF 577 71.1% 7.4 4.8 -0.4
ATL 500 68.0% 8.7 4.8 -0.4
BUF 497 73.0% 7.1 4.7 -0.3
MIN 558 76.3% 7.3 5.4 -0.3
HOU 529 72.2% 8.6 5.2 -0.1
PHI 616 69.0% 8.2 4.9 -0.1
MIA 514 73.9% 8.5 4.9 -0.1
IND 524 70.6% 7.9 5.2 -0.1
JAX 566 71.4% 7.7 5.3 0.0
Team Pass C% aDOT YAC YAC+
CHI 579 70.8% 7.3 5.3 0.1
DEN 527 72.5% 7.5 5.3 0.1
SEA 540 72.2% 7.4 5.4 0.1
PIT 527 66.0% 8.2 5.3 0.2
CLE 478 64.0% 7.7 5.6 0.2
DET 538 69.0% 9.5 4.9 0.2
GB 473 72.3% 7.5 5.2 0.2
TB 566 71.4% 8.2 5.4 0.3
WAS 542 73.1% 8.4 5.6 0.4
NO 498 66.9% 8.6 5.6 0.4
NYJ 471 66.5% 7.0 5.9 0.4
CIN 514 70.8% 9.3 5.5 0.4
DAL 467 66.0% 7.9 5.8 0.5
LV 514 73.2% 6.6 6.2 0.6
LAC 554 70.2% 8.3 5.9 0.7
NYG 530 70.0% 7.1 6.2 1.0

Moving on to defensive YAC+, the Baltimore Ravens were of course neck and neck with the … Carolina Panthers? The team that spent the 2024 offseason doing a complete teardown of the defense? Carolina was fine on defense, finishing a pedestrian 17th in defensive passing DVOA. That oppressive yards after the catch hindrance likely comes from how often the Panthers played zone defense. With the team’s strength exclusively lying in its safeties, Carolina just clogged the field. It was easy to complete passes and pick up chunks against this Panthers defense, but teams did not get to run much afterwards. Tennessee and Arizona’s implementation of zone defenses also partly explains their low YAC+ despite their very high plus-minus.

Kansas City’s placement on here just comes from sheer dominance. This was the first season of the Mahomes-Reid era that was defense-first. Steve Spagnuolo has always been able to confuse opposing offenses and scheme of pressure, but this was the first year the collective roster’s talent matched that of the coordinator. An all-out unleashing of Spagnuolo’s defense – complete with simulated pressures and post-snap rotations – coincided with the emergence of Trent McDuffie and an apex performance from L’Jarius Sneed. The result: a defense that seldom allowed completions, rarely allowed gash plays, and kept offenses relatively contained. 

On the flip side, there is a reason why Wink Martindale is out of New York. The New York Giants know they aren’t a good defensive team. They haven’t posted a negative defensive DVOA since the Obama administration. Even this year’s 21st defensive DVOA and 13th defensive passing DVOA placements are a marked improvement over recent years. It just does not make up for the talent deficiencies on this roster. The secondary is incredibly young, and the decent pressure numbers generated from New York’s blitz-happy defense did not help out Giants corners in coverage (nor did those pressure numbers actually generate sacks, either). The Giants also missed 117 tackles last season, tied for seventh most in the league.

Previous 2023 YAC+: Another Huge 49ers Year Next FTN Football Almanac 2024: Now Live!