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Dissecting the NFL's most effective blitzing defenses from 2020

Dec 20, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Kerry Hyder (92) in the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Explosive plays in football do not exclusively belong to an offense. Defenses are able to affect the outcome of a game, not just by giving up the fewest long gains, but by bending and breaking their opponent. Forcing an offense into negative plays stalls out drives and keeps points off the board.

An elite defense will need to blitz — not only for the effectiveness of pressure but also because of the value gained by the threat of pressure. On third downs, pressure (and the illusion of) gets the ball out of a quarterback's hands quickly.

It’s important to note, however, that forcing negative plays alone does not make for effective defense. It’s an expensive proposition to send pressure: it typically comes at the cost of diversity in coverage, and losing layers in the defense (second- or third-level defenders) means that missing assignments or tackles can turn into huge plays for an offense.

Because of that, sacks and tackles for loss or no gain aren't the sole measures of a good blitzing defense.

So, let's use some thresholds to filter out the NFL's blitzing defenses from last season, specifically looking at third down, when passing tendencies are highest:

  • Third-down defense (Top 16 teams in PFF defense grade)
  • Third-down blitz rate (Teams above 34% average)
  • Third-down effectiveness (Teams above EPA allowed per play average)

The result was eight teams that established themselves as the NFL's best blitzing defenses in 2020.

Third-Down Defensive Performance — 2020
Defense Defense Grade Conversion % Allowed Blitz Rate Passing EPA Allowed/Play
Dolphins 80.8 31% 47% -.374
Rams 80.7 36% 44% -.267
Saints 71.4 38% 40% -.093
Broncos 69.6 40% 39% -.096
49ers 68.6 35% 51% -.062
Ravens 66.6 34% 61% -.185
Chiefs 62.7 40% 42% -.231
Cardinals 58.5 40% 47% -.024

Miami Dolphins

Favorite Pressure Approach: Crushing the pocket and coverage sacks in dime personnel

Miami had an interesting defensive performance last season. Andrew Van Ginkel and Raekwon Davis were the team's only defensive linemen with pass-rush grades above 70.0 for the 2020 season, but the Dolphins' best production came in dime defense with straight-ahead five-man pressures. Playing tight man coverage in the secondary and pushing the pocket was enough to result in three sacks and an 84.6% win rate in its odd front blitzes on third down.

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