The Impact of Ball Control on Football Defenses

For a long time, I’ve believed that a team’s offense can have a significant impact on the performance of a team’s defense. Specifically, better ball control of a team’s offense–which involves running a lot of time and plays, as well as protecting the football–will lead to better performance by the team’s defense–or at least least better ball control would create better conditions to play good defense, while bad ball control would do the opposite.

To examine these claims, I’ve turned to stats like time of possession (TOP), totals and averages, and the number of snaps by a team’s offense and defense. There might be other metrics, but those are the ones I recently looked at. This will be a thread to discuss and analyze this topic.

One thought on “The Impact of Ball Control on Football Defenses

  1. (Originally posted in the 2020-2021 “NFL Regular Season” thread)

    I was looking at the pro-football references 2020 defensive team stats chart, curious about the correlation between the best defenses and defensive snaps. (What’s cool is that you can sort the teams by the various criteria listed.)

    Here are some general observations as well as some details that stood out:

    • Packers played the lowest amount of snaps (900), and the Seahawks played the most (1,048). The Seahawks had one of the worst defenses about half way through the season. My impression is that the Packers defense seemed to be closer to the average or slightly better. (On the chart, they are listed as the 16th team, while the Hawks are above them at 12.

      This is an example of where the season totals can be very misleading. The Hawks have improved (partly, or mainly, because they’ve played bad offenses). The defense now versus the week 1 defense seem very different, even factoring in recent games against weak offenses. Some similar type of dynamics could be at play with the Packers. One takeaway from this is that one should treat the total statistics synonymously with the inherent quality of a team/unit/player.

    • The Titans have played the third most snaps (1015), but yet they have a great ball control offense–or at least I thought they did. My assumption is that a great ball control offense (usually run-based) would lead to relatively low defensive snaps. The Patriots have played the second fewest snaps (920), and they have a ball-controlled offense–so that matches expectations. (If they have all their defensive players and can get one playmaking pass-catcher, that might be enough to make them contend for Super Bowls again.)

      What could explain the Titan defense’s high snap count? Is the defensive so bad that they can’t force offenses off the field? Still, if their offense had great ball control, that should limit the possessions of opposing offenses, which should mitigate the higher plays per possession. Another option is that the Titans offense, while good at running, play at a faster tempo. Still, unless they’re playing a lot of hurry up, I wouldn’t think this would be sufficient to explain the high snap counts. Any other ideas?

    • The Steelers snaps count is relatively low (6th place at 934), and their defense is listed at the 2nd spot. Yet, their offense is pass-based and one-dimensional to boot. They do a lot of short passing though (more than I realized), so their ball control might be better than I thought. That’s one explanation.

      Maybe their defense gets off the field quick, by generating turnovers or high frequency of three and outs. They are 3rd in offensive turnovers per drive, 14.6%, and they are 1st in total first downs allowed (260)–so that supports that claim.

      Any other theories?

    • Addendum

      2020 Titan defense is 3rd in first downs allowed and 5th in defense penalties (97), but three teams ahead of them have 99. They are 10th in yards from penalties accepted. But they’re also tied for 5th in turnovers generated, with 22.

      I found a list of the 2020 offenses based on average time of possession (excluding OTs).

      1. Packers (33:03)
      2. Bills (32:02)
      3. Rams (31:38
      4. Bengals (31:35)
      5. Saints (31:34)

      The Steelers are in 10th (31:00).

      The Titans are at 27th (28:08). (This is surprising to me. Their defense plays a lot of snaps, and the Titans offense average TOP is this bad. Maybe they pass more and/or more down the field a lot quicker than I realize?)

      The Texans are 32nd (27:11).

      Some thoughts:

    • For some reason, I don’t like the averages over the course of the season or total time of possession for a game. I feel like these two stats are not good metrics for a team’s ability to extend drives and consume time. For those who agree, can you explain the reason for this? Off the top of my head, I would say that total and average time of possession are a function of of both offenses (and both defenses?). Let’s say team A challenges team B. Wouldn’t Offense A’s time of possession also be impacted by offense B’s TOP? If offense A eats up a lot of time on every possession, but offense B also does the same, the final TOP for both teams should be close to 30 minutes. But if offense A eats up a lot of time per possession, and offense B doesn’t, then offense A’s TOP will be over 30 minutes. It seems wrong (or at least misleading) to say offense A’s ability to eat up the clock wasn’t as good in the first scenario versus the second.
    • Now, suppose defense A was great at getting opposing offenses off the field (e.g,. good at generating turnovers, great on 3rd downs/limiting 1st downs, etc.). This should boost offense A’s average TOP. In contrast, if defense A was bad at getting offenses off the field, that should hurt offense A’s average TOP. But this would vary by game, because each opposing offense will vary in their ability to control the clock.
    • The Seahawks average TOP was 18th (29:52–close to 30:00)–but why aren’t they closer to 32nd? Any ideas?
    • I perused the best average TOP–usually it’s about 32 or 33 minutes. (The 2019 Ravens hit the 34 mark, which is believable to me, because that offense was great at running the ball.) and that would mean the worst average TOP would be around 27 or 28 minutes. So if team A’s offense has only 27:00 TOP, can we say they badly lost the TOP contest? Or would that be wrong?
    • Somehow, I think turnovers need to included when looking at this data. An offense can be good at consuming the clock (and running a lot of plays), but if they turn the ball over…Well, you can’t say they’re truly good at ball control.

    (Note: I feel like I’m missing something that may be obvious to others. If one of you guys have an idea of what I’m alluding to, please enlighten me.)

    2018 Seahawks

    offense: 7th in average TOP (about 31 minutes), 15th in plays (1012; Ravens were in 1st with 123 more snaps), and the defense played 30th in snaps (955)

    Looking at this, I would guess the offense snapped the ball close to zero a lot, and ran a lot. The defense could have been good in turnovers and preventing first downs (but I don’t recall the second part of this).

    2019 Seahawks

    average TOP (10th, 30:31), offensives snaps (10th, 1046), and defensive snaps (19th, 1014)

    My guess is that the higher defensive snaps is explained by a poorer defense. (The Seahawks DL was really weak in 2019.)

    2020 Seahawks (by week 16):

    SEA offense: 18th in average TOP (about 30 min), 19th in total plays (967–Chargers in 1st have about 100 more snaps), and first in defensive snaps (1048)

    I think the quality of the defense lead to high snaps counts–not just the lack of TOP and snaps by their offense. Still, the offense didn’t help.

    2013 Seahawks

    17th in average TOP, 29th in offensive snaps, and 27th in defensive snaps.

    What this suggests: Probably ran a lot and snapped the ball close to zero, and the defense was good at generating short drives. I’d guess a lot of offensive penalties, which I think actually happened. (Answer: 1st in offensive penalties.)

    The Broncos defense, which faced the Seahawks in the Super Bowl that year, played 1074 snaps, 10th highest. The Seahawks played 990 snaps, 27th. Defenses play 62-63 snaps per game on average. So Broncos defense played a little more than one extra game. (Some of the starters on both defenses may have played less snaps, if their teams had blow out games.)

    2020 Chiefs

    KC offense: 16th in average TOP (about 30:30), 5th in offensive snaps (1007, about 40 less than 1st place Chargers), and 19th for defensive snaps.

    2018 Chiefs

    KC offense: 26th in average TOP (29 min), 23rd in offensive snaps, and 2nd in defensive snaps. They were first in points scored, too.

    The 2018 Chief’s stats match what I saw–their defense was not good.

    The 2018 stats for the Rams kinda surprised me. They were good in average TOP (8th), plays (4th, with Ravens about 60 more in 1st place), and defensive snaps (29th). With good average TOP and plays, I would expect low snaps for the defense, but I’m surprised because a) I didn’t think they held on to the ball a long time (moving down the field quickly) and b) their defense seemed bad (except in the playoffs). I’d be curious to see their average time of possession, as well as the average number of possessions per game.

    2019 Ravens–they had one of the best run offenses.

    average TOP (1st 34:24–usually 1st place winner not above 33 minutes), offensive snaps (7th, about 40 less than 1st place Eagles team) and defensive snaps (32nd, 921).

    The 7th place for offensive snaps surprised me. What’s interesting to me is that I didn’t think this defense was great–they were good at best–although the statistics seem to go against this. Anyone think the 2019 Ravens defense was great?

    2013 Cowboys

    From what I remember this was a good pass-heavy offense, with a terrible defense.

    Average TOP (24th, 29:01), offensive snaps (32nd, 957), defensive snaps (6th at 1094). The defense gave up the most points and first downs. I think they were 7th in points allowed.

    The Cowboys were also 5th in scoring, and top 10 in other statistical categories. The high scoring but low snaps suggests they were really efficient at moving the ball–by definition that means less time and snaps. They were 25th in turnovers (20).

    2014 Cowboys

    From what I remember, the Cowboys offense moved to a run-first offense, and the defense made a huge improvement, with basically the same personnel.

    Average TOP (3rd, 32:13), offensive snaps (18th, 1014), defensive snaps (28th, 978).

    Cowboy defense was 18th in scoring, 11th in first downs, and 14th in yards allowed. The defense still wasn’t great, but it was actually passable–good enough for them to go all the way in my opinion. They made some big improvements. (This was the second year from the DC, Monte Kiffin and second year for Rod Marinelli, too, I think–so this might have explain the improvement, too.)

    The 2014 Cowboy offense was 13th in turnovers (25), though, which surprised me–as this was 5 worse than the 2013 offense.

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