Describing Football Styles That Excel In The Playoffs Versus Those That Do Not

In another thread, I asked you guys to help me define and describe NFL pro style offense. In this thread, I’m seeking your guys help again on a somewhat similar topic. I’ve been having football discussions about the styles of play that do well in playoffs versus those that do not. Normally, I would describe the former as teams that have an identity based on really good, physical defenses and run game, while I’d describe the latter by saying they are characterized by high-scoring, aggressive pass-centric offenses. (In the rest of the discussion, I’m going to use “D/R” to indicate the teams based on strong defense and run games and “P” for aggressive pass-centric offensive teams.) To make this more clear, I give specific examples. D/R teams would be 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos, and almost all the Super Bowl winners in the 80s and 90s. The P teams would be 2007 Patriots, Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Run-and-shoot Oilers, Air Coryell Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins. I would also include Colts with Manning, Saints with Brees, Rodgers with Green Bay, and Roethlisberger in the last few years with the Steelers.

Let me pause to ask: Do you guys have fairly good idea of what I’m talking about? I ask because I know a group of people who do not. The descriptions above are not adequate–and to be fair to them, I don’t think my descriptions are all that great. If you guys do understand what I mean, I suspect this is the case because we’ve been talking about this a long time. At the same time, I think we (may) understand each other because we grew up watching football from the 70s. I have a sense that people who only grew up watching football after this point and only for a few years will have a hard time understanding the type of styles I describe above as well as how they differ from each other. Also, I think the problem is even greater for those who primarily view the game through a statistics and analytics lens.

What I want to do in this thread is provide descriptions that these people will understand and allow them to clearly appreciate the critical differences between the two approaches. They may not end up agreeing with me, but at least the two types of teams I have in mind will be clear

I have two possible ways of proceeding. One way involves identifying certain principles and characteristics that distinguish the types of teams. For example, I might describe the run-based approach versus a pass-based approach….Actually, I’ve used terms like these, including “run-first” and “pass-first,” but others don’t understand these concepts in the same way I do–so I’m going to have to end up explaining what these mean, because I tend to think one needs to understand them to understand the differences. Or maybe I can by-pass explaining these terms and move on to something else. Maybe I can just describe the common traits and characteristics of both approaches?

The other way involves looking for statistics that distinguish one type of team from the other. Maybe each style has some statistics that link them together, and also serves a key way to distinguish the two. Honestly, I’m a little skeptical about this aproach, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. Perhaps it might be as simple as the team that lands in top 3 in defense and running would be better than team who is top 3 in passing and scoring? Or maybe the statistics would be more elaborate. For example, I would look at the number of possessions where the offense runs a lot of plays and time off the clock. A part of me feels like the teams that do this well have a distinct advantage over teams that do not–even though the latter is terrific at scoring. (Essentially, this deals with ball control versus scoring.) Or maybe we could look at the number of snaps each team’s defense plays–specifically snap comparison at the half and at the end of the games. My guess is that, by half time, the teams who played far less snaps and time on the field on defense and far more snaps and time on the field on offense, will have better chance of winning. By the end of the game, if these teams never reach the 65 snap count (which is supposedly a defensive breaking point) while their opponent does, I think that’s a big deal.

I’ll try to organize and put down more of my thoughts, but let me know if you guys have any suggestions.

6 thoughts on “Describing Football Styles That Excel In The Playoffs Versus Those That Do Not

  1. In your theory, why not install an aggressive defensive scheme, for example more man-to-man coverages, blitzing from the corners, and safeties dropping into the box, etc. This would allow your team to get more three and outs, and if the other team does get a big play, it would still limit their TOP and increasing your offensive chances to get TOP. I’m guessing that one could devise a defensive scheme with the right personnel to be a top five scoring defense on average running this style. Yes, if the 2014 Cowboys would try to run it, they would give up too many points to be effective, but if you are building around a strong defense, I think you could get the right players to be very good.

    1. What you’re saying sounds like what I suggested in the first post of this thread–specifically, the idea of a “bend-fast-but-don’t-break” defense. The idea was to play in a style that allowed an opposing offense to move quickly down the field, but made it difficult for them to score in the red zone.

      Your idea might be different. It sounds more like a gambling, high risk, high reward style. I’m thinking of defense by DCs like Todd Bowles (where you almost play a 46-0 style).

      Several thoughts:

      1. Would the amount of times you have 3-and-outs outweigh the number of explosive plays and points given up? (If you give up a lot of explosive plays, even if you don’t allow points, you’ll likely be losing the field position game.)
      2. This type of defense might not be great in end game situations–especially in close games. If your team has the lead in the end, you want the opponent to consume more time.

      (Aside: My sense is that looking at time of possession and the number of snaps at half time and at the end of the game matter. My sense is that dominating TOP, offensive snaps, and limiting your defense’s snaps in the first half is really important. If your opponent gains ground in all these areas, it may not matter if they hit the defensive breaking point before you do. Obviously, if you dominate for both halves that’s better. In any event, I don’t think one should just look at the total TOP. If you can look at by halves or even by quarters that’s better. And actually, I like looking at plays and TOP per possession and in sequence.)

      By the way, what you’re saying makes me think of the ’85 Bears. Suppose you had great personnel and played that style. The problem I see is that most of the NFL offenses and OCs are ready for that sort of thing, and have ways to neutralize it. I think this is the reason almost every NFL defense doesn’t rely so much on blitzing and that many play the 4-3 style, with rushing only 4 or maybe 5.

      By the way, based on our discussions, I’m assuming you largely agree with the type of teams that seem to do better in the playoffs. If so, what do you think about the reasons behind why one is more successful than the other? And do you have any suggestions about the essential traits that differentiate the two styles?

      1. Just so I’m clear, I was not trying to suggest take your existing defense and turning them into a move aggressive version. I was more stating, if you are going to build a run based offense, why not at the same time build a more aggressive version or your defense. This might entail things like getting more one-on-one corners or edge rushing linebackers or coverage safeties. My suggestion was to compliment your offense with a certain defensive style that would also increase your chances of winning the TOP battle and/or the number of plays run by the opposing offense.

        There are two things that would make what I’m saying not true or viable. The obvious one is a more aggressive defensive scheme is not beneficial to what you are saying overall. Maybe you don’t mind the other offense running some clock and just shortening the game overall. The other is that the ceiling for a more aggressive defense is much lower than one that is not as aggressive.

        And just so I’m clear I’m not saying running the Bear’s 46-0 or having to be uber aggressive. I’m just saying moving towards that on the scale could be beneficial to what your original thought was, even if it lead to a few extra big plays a game. So for example if a conservative team blitzed 5 times a game, this defense would do it maybe 10-15 times a game, or if a conservative team dropped the safety into the box 7-8 times a game, this defense would do it 14-15 times a game. Not being reckless, but just overall more risky.

        1. Are you basically saying be just a little more aggressive and take a little more risk–in order to get the opposing offense off the field quicker? And are you basically talking about an approach and not so much a specific defense. In other words, the defense could be LeBeau’s 3-4 or Carroll’s 4-3?

          There are two things that would make what I’m saying not true or viable. The obvious one is a more aggressive defensive scheme is not beneficial to what you are saying overall. Maybe you don’t mind the other offense running some clock and just shortening the game overall.

          I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the ideal is to get the opposing defense off the field as quickly as possible. On the other hand, a defense that eliminates explosive plays, but allows an offense to nibble their way down the field (i.e., run a lot of clock and plays) does fit with a great ball control offense. For example, if the great ball control offense has a lead, even a relatively modest one (say, 10 points), as the game moves towards the end, the opposing offense could get impatient and start becoming one-dimensional, throwing the ball more and taking more risks. A defense like Pete Carroll’s would be in a good position now.

          Having said that, a bend-but-don’t-break defense puts pressure on the offense–namely, the latter must also have long drives where they run a lot of plays and eat up the clock. If they don’t, the team can fall into a hole that becomes hard to dig out of. (My current hypothesis is that if a team falls significantly behind in TOP and number of defensive snaps by the half, winning is really difficult. I’d really like to test this by gathering data on half time stats on number of snaps and TOP and see how often teams won or loss in relation to this.)

          The other is that the ceiling for a more aggressive defense is much lower than one that is not as aggressive.

          You mean, aggressive defenses, at their best, won’t be as good as a conservative defense at their best? I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I’m interested in hearing your thought process on this.

          1. take a little more risk–in order to get the opposing offense off the field quicker?

            Yes but I would add the more aggressive a defense can be and still remain effective will determine essentially how much more the DC would “push the envelope” So it would always be a moving target to see how aggressive the defense can get.

            a more aggressive defensive scheme is not beneficial… and The other is that the ceiling for a more aggressive defense is much lower than one that is not as aggressive.

            I wasn’t saying the above two as facts, but rather these would be reasons why you think my idea of being a more aggressive defense is poppycock. Like one it just wouldn’t work or two the aggressive defense just cannot become as good.

            I would say teams like the Saints and Eagles are pretty aggressive in nature. They don’t mind to leave their corners on an island every so often. They are definitely more aggressive than the Cowboys for example. Seattle is pretty aggressive defensively as well. Yes they are willing to give up the underneath passes, yet they seem pretty committed to stop the run and stack the box doing it. Actually the Cowboys do their fair share of that as well.

  2. Don,

    I wasn’t saying the above two as facts, but rather these would be reasons why you think my idea of being a more aggressive defense is poppycock. Like one it just wouldn’t work or two the aggressive defense just cannot become as good.

    OK, got it. I wouldn’t rule out that aggressive defenses can’t be as good, although in today’s NFL, the 4-3 style, using blitzes sparingly, and keeping offensive players in front and limiting YAC seems to be the best way to play.

    To the first point, my guess is that aggressive defenses would be more suitable for an aggressive pass offense–especially in terms of being aggressive against the pass. Here’s my thinking: Team with an aggressive pass offense wants more possessions–they don’t want the opposing offense to have long, time consuming drives. In other words, they want a shoot out. When I watch the Seahawks play the Rams or Chiefs, I always worry about this in the back of my mind. But this is risk, too. What if, in the process of wanting a faster paced game, you give up way more points. That is, just focusing on play the best defense possible, instead of taking risks to speed up the game, would significantly limit the opponent’s points. In any event, I feel like June Jones would have defenses like this–i.e., Jerry Glanville and Kevin Lempa. This also seemed to be the case with Houston Oilers, pairing Gilbride with Buddy Ryan.

    I’ve said this before, but writing this makes me think of this point again: The glaring problem with this approach is that at some point, you don’t want to play fast and you don’t want to take risks on defense–e.g., if you have the lead in the second half. If the opposing offenses has to nibble their way down the field, that’s a good thing–they’re eating up time and thereby reducing the number of plays they’ll have to make a comeback. It’s clear to me that you want good defense and ball control offense in these situations. There’s a lot of wisdom in the adage–“pass to score, run to win.”

    Yes they are willing to give up the underneath passes, yet they seem pretty committed to stop the run and stack the box doing it.

    Oh–in terms of aggressiveness I was thinking more about pass defense. Carroll’s defense definitely seems fairly aggressive at stopping the run. If his defense is functioning fairly well, opposing offense could move down with short passes, and modest runs (which, when you think about it, is kinda hard to do).

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