If you need evidence, watch the fourth quarter of a preseason game. When the rookies and roster fodder are on the field, the disorganized offense rarely gets anything done. The defense is disorganized too, but they can make basic calls, win one-on-one matchups, be athletes, and wait for the offense to trip over its own feet. Simplified football is usually low-scoring football, and defenses can still be effective when coaches just tell players to "go get `em."
A few weeks ago,I wrote about how the lockout will hurt complex offenses by reducing preparation time. It will hurt complex defenses too, though not nearly as much. We can still use the Football Outsiders Game Charting Data to determine which defenses will have to scale back the most in the event of a shortened training camp. A fudge ripple defense full of tricky blitzes is bound to be less dangerous when it starts scooping vanilla calls.
The blitz is in
It's harder to determine defensive calls than offensive plays from the television tape. We all know what a screen pass looks like, but can you tell a Cover-2 from a Cover-3 zone? Some judgments are impossible without asking the coaches themselves. The Football Outsiders game charters make as few subjective calls as possible, so we will be basing defensive "complexity" on a few easy-to-spot strategies.
Zone blitzes: In a zone blitz, a defensive lineman drops into short zone coverage while linebackers or defensive backs blitz from a different angle. Zone blitzes require precise timing, and linemen need extra practice to perfect their coverage techniques. If the lockout erases a week or two of camp, zone blitz packages may get short shrift.
Some teams rely on the zone blitz far more than others. The Ravens zone blitzed on 12.4 percent of pass plays. The Texans zone blitzed just 11 times all season, or 2.4 percent of pass plays, the Chiefs just 17 times on 3.4 percent of pass plays. The Texans have a new defensive coordinator, so leave them aside; the lockout is more likely to affect the Ravens than the Chiefs when blitzing.
Pass rush variety: There's nothing complicated about a standard blitz: send your fastest, angriest linebacker after the quarterback, then enjoy the carnage. So a team that blitzes a lot does not necessarily have a complex defense.
Take the Jets, a team known for unpredictability on defense. They rushed six or more defenders on 14 percent of pass plays last year. They also rushed just three defenders 13 percent of the time, and they tried everything in between. By contrast, the Lions rushed six or more defenders just 6 percent of the time, and they rushed three just six times the entire year, most of them Hail Mary-type situations. It's safe to assume that the Jets have a more complex scheme than the Lions.
We can turn all those percentages into one number that describes pass rush variety using standard deviation. (No, wait, don't click away!)
Standard deviation measures how "spread out" a set of numbers is. The Lions' pass rush percentages are all spread out, going from 1 percent (for three-man rushes) to 76 percent (for four-man rushes). The Jets' percentages are more closely bunched. The lower the standard deviation, the more regularly the defense does different things, making that defense more complex. Standard deviation isn't meant to be used like this, but it gets the job done for a quick-and-dirty study.
The Lions' standard deviation was 29. The Jets' was 12. We can combine those figures with the zone blitz data to create a Simplicity Score. We just have to jiggle the numbers, because more zone blitzing makes a defense more complicated, not less. So let's take each team's zone blitz percentage and subtract it from 15 percent to make higher numbers equal simpler systems. That's the last bit of math, I promise. We now have a Simplicity Score for defense.
Here's a list of the five simplest defenses in the NFL. Many of the entries will come as no surprise.
The Colts rush four defenders 76 percent of the time and rush six just 3 percent of the time. Jim Caldwell is less conservative than Tony Dungy (who almost never blitzed), but the Colts let their linebackers and defensive backs concentrate on zone coverage and tell the linemen to pin their ears back.
Jim Schwartz gets as much pass rush as possible from his four down linemen, rushing four defenders 76 percent of the time and zone blitzing just 2.2 percent of the time. Those tactics will not change now that Nick Fairley joins Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Cliff Avril on what should be the league's best defensive line. The Raiders would rank third, but they have a new defensive coordinator.
Lovie Smith is another offshoot of the Tony Dungy family tree, and while he blitzes more often than Caldwell (six-man rushes on 10 percent of pass plays), he almost never switches to a three-man front. Smith also has Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs at linebacker, two veterans who know the system as well as he does. The Titans would rank next, but they have a new defensive coordinator.
Not all of the teams on this list are Cover-2 teams that don't blitz. The Chargers rush five defenders from their 3-4 set on 26 percent of pass plays, but they rarely zone blitz or send six-to-seven man jailbreaks. The Chargers do use a lot of multiple fronts and shifting, so they may be straining the limits of what we can pull from the percentages. Still, it's instructive to know that not all "simple" defenses are built the same in our analysis. The Texans would rank next; Wade Phillips' Cowboys finished near the middle of the pack, complexity-wise, so the Texans may do the same this year.
Another team that likes to blitz, the Giants send five defenders 22 percent of the time and six or more a whopping 13 percent of the time on pass plays. But zone blitzes are relatively rare, as are three-man fronts. Like the Lions, the Giants rely on the talent of their front four to cause havoc, keeping the trickery to a minimum.
Here are the most complicated defenses, ones that may be scaled back this year:
Yes, the Ravens have a new coordinator, but Chuck Pagano was hired from within, so the scheme will not change much. This is another 3-4 defense with the Ryan Brothers stamp on it. A trend is emerging.
The Falcons zone-blitz a lot: 12.5 percent on passes last year. They also switched to a three-man front 14 percent of the time. The Falcons may not be as daring as the Jets or Ravens, but their system has a lot of subtlety. The Broncos would rank next; John Fox's Panthers finished near the complexity leaders last year, but he may have been trying new things out of desperation. He's a very conservative strategist.
This is another "hire from within" coaching change. The Eagles zone blitz on 12.2 percent of passes and send six or more defenders 14 percent of the time. As long as Andy Reid is hiring the coordinators, the Eagles defense will bear some imprints of the late Jim Johnson, who never met a blitz he didn't want to call six times per game.
Gregg Williams sent six or more defenders on an amazing 26 percent of passes, by far the highest figure in the league. When you rush six defenders, you leave five in coverage, and a lot of Saints practice time must be spent making sure those five defenders know their roles and techniques. The Saints would rank higher in complexity if they zone blitzed more than 2.1 percent of the time; Williams calls so many jailbreaks that he doesn't have time for the more exotic stuff.