Sometimes, statistics don’t tell the whole truth. Other times, they are just plain misleading.
Pro Football Focus recently released its ranking of all 32 NFL defenses after the sixth week of the season, based on everyone’s favorite new marker – analytics. In its own words, the rankings “aggregate the play-by-play grading for every player on defense by facet of play (run defense, pass-rush, coverage, etc.), weights them by how much each area correlates to wins and losses through our research, and then adjusts for strength of opponent to create the final numbers.” Understood?
Whatever else these rankings are, they bear no rational relationship to the real world. Case in point: PFF has determined that the Cincinnati Bengals are the 18th-best defense in the NFL, based on its best-graded and worst-graded starters. Pittsburgh, by the way, comes in at No. 19.
Now that we know what analytics has to say, what do the facts tell us?
Through the first six games of the season, the Bengals are second in scoring defense, behind only the Bills, and are giving up an average of just 16.6 points per game through the five games they have played. Pittsburgh is sixth, allowing a total of 102 points through six games, for an average of 17 points per game.
Cincinnati is currently leading the NFL in yards per play allowed at 4.2, and has only allowed 86 first downs all year, good for second behind Miami’s 72. The Bengals are fourth best in the league in the percentage of offensive possessions that turn into scores for the opposition at 28.8 percent.
The Bengals boast the top-rated passing defense in the league, having allowed completions on only 93 of 162 passing attempts, good for only 57.4 percent, and a meager 798 yards. Cincinnati has allowed five passing touchdowns, good for fifth in the league.
Opposing quarterbacks have averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt against the Bengals, tops in the league. Opposing receivers are averaging 9.8 yards after the catch, which puts Cincinnati in a tie with Denver for the third-best mark in the league. The Bengals are allowing only 159.6 passing yards per game, which is behind only Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati defenders are holding opposing quarterbacks to a rating of just 73.3, sixth best in the league, and are sacking the quarterback 1 out of every 10 times he drops back to pass, second only to Jacksonville in that category.
The Bengals are ranked 12th overall against the run, with Pittsburgh coming in all the way down at No. 24.
According to PFF, the top-rated player on the Bengals is Geno Atkins, who boasts a grade of 88.9, and Chris Smith is the worst graded at 46.1. Carl Lawson, who is second on the team with 3.5 sacks, behind only Geno Lawson, also boasts 25 total pressures and the second-best pass-rush productivity score among all edge defenders. He graded out with a total score of 83.7.
What it boils down to is that the PFF rating system is based exclusively on individual performers and does not take into consideration the concept of the team at all. And, as we all know, sometimes the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
Witness the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team in the history of the National Football League to win the Super Bowl with a perfect season. That team featured the league’s best defense, although it is doubtful that any of its defenders would have graded out very well on the PFF scale.
In fact, that defense was the epitome of the team concept and earned the nickname “No-Name Defense” because of its lack of individual superstars.
So, until PFF can figure out a way to factor the team concept into its analytics, its ranking system will continue to be flawed. And the best defenses will continue to put the best overall product on the field, week by week.