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Packers’ defense is elite in total yards, but advanced stats paint a different picture

The Packers have made improvements, but their ranking in yards per game is a mirage, at least for the time being.

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers’ defense currently sits in fourth place overall in the NFL in total yards allowed. That sounds pretty darn good. The unit is also second in passing yards allowed — a far cry from last year’s 23rd-place finish — and it sits in the middle of the pack at 15th in rushing yards against, though rushing productivity generally has much less impact on overall performance than passing.

Those are good numbers to have. Given the choice, fans should readily want to have the best rankings possible in those categories. However, the team’s improvement in those rankings this week came following a game in which they still allowed 31 points despite holding the Detroit Lions to just 264 yards of total offense and a 145-yard shutout against the atrocious Buffalo Bills’ offense. Therein lies the danger with trusting simple yardage statistics — they lie, or at the very least, they can be misleading. Let’s look at a few reasons why that is the case.

Field Position in Week 6

In Sunday’s game, the simple fact is that the Lions didn’t need to drive the ball very far to score, thanks to mistakes by the Packers’ offense (and one notable one by the referees on the game’s first punt). In fact, Detroit scored on five drives in the game but they averaged just 35 yards on those series — three scoring drives were shorter than 30 yards and two of them picked up just one yard each. Here’s a look at each of those series:

  • 1 play, 1 yard, touchdown
  • 4 pays, 69 yards, touchdown
  • 4 plays, 1 yard, field goal
  • 4 plays, 29 yards, touchdown
  • 8 plays, 75 yards, touchdown

Ultimately, the Lions started three drives in Packers territory following fumbles and scored on all three. Furthermore, they never began a drive inside their own 25. By contrast, special teams penalties often backed up the Packers, who had just a single drive that started closer to the desired end zone than their own 25.

Rate Stats & DVOA

Instead of the total yardage numbers, we need to look at rate stats and other more advanced metrics to determine the effectiveness of Mike Pettine’s unit. The Packers are second in passing yards allowed, and they do have a solid third-place ranking in net yards per attempt (which divides yards by attempts and takes sacks into account). However, ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt), which factors in touchdowns allowed and interceptions as well as sacks, puts them at just 9th place, and they rank 17th in yards per completion with 11.5.

Those metrics jibe better with the pass defense’s performance in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics, which put the team at 11th in pass defense, 27th against the run, and 17th overall. In fact, although the Packers’ total yardage ranking improved following the loss in Detroit, they dropped from 13th to 17th in DVOA.

Another interesting nugget from DVOA is that the Packers rank 32nd in variance, a measure of a team’s week-to-week consistency. That indicates that Green Bay is the least consistent defense in the NFL, despite a schedule that currently ranks second-easiest in the NFL according to opposing teams’ DVOA measures.

Situational defense is also likely a key to the Packers’ ranking as more of a middle-of-the-pack unit so far in 2018 rather than a top group. Green Bay is allowing third-down conversions at a 38.0% rate, good for 15th in the NFL, and their red zone touchdown percentage allowed is 62.5%, tied with Seattle in 20th place. Finally, they also rank 20th in turnover percentage at 10.2%.

One area where the Packers continue to impress is in number of plays per drive and yardage allowed per drive, coming in 6th and 5th in those numbers. That illustrates the team’s ability to generate three-and-outs and avoid allowing sustained drives.

All of these numbers combine to suggest that this Packers defense is a solid unit, but certainly one that belongs more in a top-half of the league ranking instead of being looked at as a top-ten or top-five type of unit. In order to get serious consideration as one of the league’s better groups, this team still needs to improve its ability to get off the field on third downs, stop teams in the red zone, and generate more turnovers — all areas where Dom Capers’ defenses were abysmal. As APC’s Peter Bukowski noted a week ago, the team has improved in those areas compared to years past, and being around the league average should be enough to keep this team in contention.

Just don’t buy into Pettine’s unit being great until those numbers get into top-five territory along with total yardage against.