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Defensive Adjustments to the New NFL

The NFL has been taken over by a new level of talented quarterbacks, along with advanced, analytics-based offenses. The goal here is to explain why specific defensive adjustments are being made, and how they affect these new high-powered offenses. In order to do this, certain concepts must be simplified as there are simply too many factors that go into a game of football that cannot be explained through statistics or analytics. That being said, by simplifying how “aggressive” a defense is by using their blitz rate we can see a change over the past few years in how defenses approach talented quarterbacks and high-powered offenses.

There are many statistics that can tell us the rate at which different teams can get to the quarterback. For this article I am using pressure rate, which is a compilation of all hurries, knockdowns, and sacks. Pro-Football-Reference.com does a great job of keeping track of this. Pressure rate is the most accurate representation of how often a team has an effective pass rush despite factors like missed tackles and defensive style.

The teams with the two highest pressure rates so far this season are the Chiefs at 29 percent and the Jets at 28.4 percent. The Jets however achieved this bringing a blitz at half the rate of the Chiefs. The Jets accomplish this by only rushing four but disguising their rushes. The Chiefs have an obvious advantage over the rest of the league in bringing the blitz as they do not have to play Patrick Mahomes who is only blitzed at a rate of 18.1 percent over his career and 14.3 percent this season according to CBS. Since he has entered the league, Mahomes stats against the blitz have been almost unreal. This is because, despite the blitz, most of his throws are not pressured due to quick reaction time and a quality offensive scheme. Mahomes along with all the other young talented quarterbacks in the league have forced defenses to adjust.

The league blitz rate has dropped roughly 5 percent over the past ten years. While there has been an increase in blitz rate this season, the chances are it will not last. The rate is propped up by a few teams blitzing at a higher rate than most of the league, however this should not last through the rest of the season. Of the defenses bringing a blitz at a top five rate, none ranked in the top ten in pressure rate and only the Vikings, Steelers, and Patriots are in the top half of the league. 

The popularity of pre-snap motions as a way to gather information has increased over the past few years. This is an effective way for quarterbacks and coordinators to gather information about the defense’s play call. This has resulted in quarterbacks and offensive coordinators operating at a different level, manipulating space for deep crossing routes as well as  RAC opportunities on short receptions for a wave of incredibly talented receivers. Defenses had to find a way to adjust to these new effective styles of offense. As quarterbacks game plan for blitz-heavy teams, they emphasize getting the ball out quick, as well as preparing audibles for different blitz looks. When a quarterback can get the ball out quick against the blitz, the defense is at a disadvantage with fewer players in coverage and more players stuck in no-man’s land. 

As a result, we have seen blitz rates drop significantly over the past ten years, with 2022 having the fewest teams blitzing at a rate above 20 percent that the league has seen in the last decade.

YEARBLITZ %TEAMS ABOVE 30%
201329.9%15
201428.8%14
201529.1%13
201627.6%10
201727.3%11
201825.7%8
201927.6%8
202028.4%13
202124.6%6
202223.3%8
202327.0%9

When offense and defense are compared, offense probably comes off to most as the more exciting of the two. Due to this, we hear about new, high powered offenses significantly more than we hear about the evolution of defenses throughout most media coverage of the NFL. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, however it does sometimes leave relatively unsung heroes on the defensive side of the ball. There are four defensive coordinators currently bringing a blitz at a bottom ten rate while also pressuring the opposing quarterback at a top ten rate. Jeff Ulbrich of the Jets, Vic Fangio of the Dolphins, Clint Hurtt of the Seahawks, and Steve Wilks of the 49ers. Having a talented front seven is crucial to being able to create that much pressure while also being able to drop eight or nine into coverage, however, there are many teams with a talented line and linebacker core that cannot produce pressure at an effective rate. These coaches are currently showing the rest of the league how to counter the talent of NFL offenses by disguising their rushes, confusing offensive lines, and forcing quarterbacks to be patient, allowing more opportunities for the defense to force mistakes. 

A disguised rush is any three- or four-man rush where the offense cannot tell which players are rushing before the snap. Defensive coordinators typically accomplish this by crowding the line of scrimmage, presenting multiple threats. This forces quarterbacks and offensive linemen guessing at which protection to use. The uncertainty of this can cause mistakes and miscommunication in blocking schemes leading to a free rusher. The Jets do an excellent job of this and could be a model for other teams going forward. More teams are deciding to bring fewer players on rushes, but are having more success producing pressure than through blitzing. This allows the defense to drop more players into coverage and keep the play in front of them. Forcing quarterbacks to be patient and attempting to frustrate them has become the most effective way to counter this new style of offense.

The only other team in the top ten pressure percentage with a blitz rate below 20 percent is the 49ers, so there is still something to be said for a blitz being effective. Many teams still love to blitz a rookie quarterback, as well as some mobile quarterbacks, or quarterbacks with a struggling offensive line. Despite having good numbers against pressure, Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert are blitzed at high rates. This is due to these offenses being based on a strong run game, (attempted in the Charger’s case), with play action that takes more time to develop than a typical pass. In order to bring pressure consistently without a blitz, teams either need a very talented front seven like the 49ers and Jets do, or find new ways of disguising rushes and coverages.

Quarterbacks are preparing, processing, and executing better and faster than ever. The tools at the disposal of these young players and their talented coaches are making offenses consistently harder to stop for defenses. While the blitz is in no danger of disappearing from the NFL, by blitzing less and disguising more of their rushes, defenses have been able to start confusing quarterbacks and offensive lines, forcing mistakes. Football is a game of continuous fluctuation and competition between executives, coaches, and players. Because of this, the way teams play the game will constantly change based on how offense or defense operates in the NFL. We have already seen offenses adjusting to this new style of defense with more screens, rollouts, and RPOs. That is part of the beauty of this game, the competition is on multiple levels, not just the players on the field. For now, defenses forcing offenses to be patient and methodically work their way down the field is the most effective way to counter the new styles of offense and quarterback the NFL has brought in.

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