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Third down regression suggests Packers’ defense could backslide a bit in 2020

The Packers, Vikings and Bears share some common traits, but the Vikings’ love of play action may protect them from an offensive collapse.

Green Bay Packers vs. Denver Broncos Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Long ago, when Football Outsiders was still in its infancy and football was less sophisticated generally, one of the best indicators that a team would bounce back (or crash down) was in the difference between their DVOA on 3rd down vs. 1st and 2nd down. In theory, teams should perform about as well regardless of down, but because 3rd down is higher leverage by its nature, random struggles or success there could drive a team’s entire performance.

Football Outsiders has been around a long time and a lot has changed since then. With more specialization and sub packages, third down is now a fundamentally different down than the rest. Teams also have a better understanding of third down, and are less likely than they were a decade ago to check down or execute a “give up” run play. In short, we can’t expect a team that happens to excel on early downs, where skills like run-stopping are more important, to necessarily excel on third down, where pass defense and pass rush are even more important.

That said, we also shouldn’t expect too much variation. Pass defense is still the key in the NFL across downs, and a team that excels on early downs shouldn’t be too bad on 3rd down, and vice versa. I pulled all of the per-down DVOA splits league-wide out of the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac on offense and defense to see if there were any outliers that look more like random chance than something that makes sense.

The Packers

First, let’s deal with the Packers, who are a popular pick to plunge precipitously per their Pythagorean performance this past season. On offense, Green Bay was one of the most balanced teams across downs, though it’s worth noting they were actually below average on 1st down, ranking 18th. They were much better on 2nd down at 15.8%, which ranked 6th, but their mediocre third down DVOA of 5.8% (14th) is very close to the average of their 1st and 2nd down performance. It’s hard to see the Packers improving or declining much on offense next season, at least in terms of regression, based on these numbers.

Defense is another matter altogether. Green Bay was average or worse on 1st and 2nd down with DVOAs hovering around 0, but on 3rd down they excelled with a -14.7%, good for 9th overall. It’s not that surprising that the Packers would be better on 3rd down. After all, they were one of the worst teams against the run, and presented opponents with a fierce pass rush anchored by the Smiths. You can make a solid argument that the Packers’ defense is specifically built with 3rd down in mind, and that the design worked as advertised.

Color me skeptical. For starters, the Packers faced a woeful group of quarterbacks last season, and career backups like Matt Moore of the Chiefs lack the playmaking ability to convert most third-and-longs. Second, the Packer defense relied heavily on interceptions, ranking 3rd in the league (tied with the Vikings) with 17. Interceptions are unstable from year to year and tend to reflect the quarterbacks you face more than an intrinsic quality of the defense. The NFC North teams all played a similar slate of poor quarterbacks, and it shows in their INT numbers as the Bears, Vikings, and Packers are all in the top 5 with 16, 17, and 17 picks respectively. It’s quite likely that the Packers will face better quarterback competition in 2020, and as a result, their 3rd down success and interception success will probably take a step back. The Packers were not a true talent 13-3 last season, and this is one of the big reasons why.

The NFC North

The Lions were Football Outsiders’ pick to win the North in 2020 according to KUBIAK, their projection system. It wasn’t a strong prediction as they basically have the entire division within a game of each other, but there is a pretty strong case for the Lions going from worst to first. Most importantly, Matthew Stafford missed a huge chunk of 2019, and his backups were simply awful. The Lions didn’t win a single game after losing their signal-caller, and they can’t help but be better than 3-13 just based on offense.

Defense is where the question marks come in and where any predictions will be made or broken. When Detroit hired Matt Patricia from New England, they expected a major leap forward on defense. Instead they’ve regressed (while New England has thrived), with Patricia flexing his muscle to expel “poor locker room” guys from the team. Detroit has experienced a near total makeover on defense, and if Patricia’s squad doesn’t excel this season, he’s basically out of excuses.

In 2019, Detroit’s defense was awful on 3rd downs at +23.6%, 5th worst in the league. In raw terms, that is far worse than they were on first (9.9%) or second (4.2%) downs, but in relative terms, it was almost no different, as their average early down performance was 10th worst. If they’re going to improve, it will have to come from Patricia and new personnel, because luck isn’t going to cut it.

The Vikings are a bit of a weird one. Their offense was extremely poor on first downs (26th) and phenomenal on 3rd downs (4th, 26.6%). I would expect that to revert to the mean a bit, but it may not be as out of whack as you would think. The Vikings are also one of the most frequent users of play-action in the league, and generally speaking, teams that used play-action tended to overperform on 3rd downs. Of the top 10 teams with the biggest positive difference in 3rd down DVOA v. 1st and second down, 5 used play action on at least 30% of passing plays. Only 9 teams used PA on at least 30% of passes, and outside of Carolina and their quarterback issues, almost all of them were at least good on third down. Superficially, the Vikings shouldn’t be as good as they were on 3rd down, but I suspect the real lesson is to use play-action more. The teams that did so are uniformly regarded as being among the smartest, most analytically savvy organizations in football, including Kansas City, Baltimore, Minnesota, Philly, Indianapolis, the Rams, and the Titans.

On defense, Minnesota is a bit odd for how much they dominate on 2nd down, with a -22% DVOA, 3rd in the league. They’re not nearly as good on 3rd down at -6.9% (13th), and if they improved a bit it wouldn’t be that surprising. Like the Packers, those gains may be offset by some reversion on their 17 interceptions from a year ago.

Finally, our dear friends in Chicago were bad on all offensive downs, but especially on 2nd down, where they ranked third worst in the league with -19.6%. Bbut in the aggregate, their first and second down performance (28th) isn’t that far off from their atrocious third down performance (20th). If the Bears are counting on a lucky bounce back, they should stop. It’s more likely they actually get a bit worse.

They still have a nice defense, and there’s nothing unusual about their performance other than a slightly higher than average interception total driven by the quality of their 2019 opponents. That will come back a bit, but the Bears should still be formidable on defense.

The Big Outliers

The biggest outliers reside outside of the North. You can expect the Washington Football Team to improve drastically on defense, while the Titans should get even better on offense in the continuation of the Ryan Tannehill era. Their poor play on 3rd down is even more puzzling given their love of play action. The Chargers will likely show huge improvement on defense, as the talented unit was awful on 3rd down, finishing 4th-worst with a 28.2% DVOA. That’s out of line with their general performance, and almost unbelievably bad. Finally the Raiders were extremely lucky on offense last season, ranking 5th on 3rd downs despite average performance on earlier downs. They don’t use play action, Derek Carr is a glorified check-down artist, and that offense is going to sink like a stone.

2019 Third-Down Data - OFFENSE

Team Offensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd PA % Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Team Offensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd PA % Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Kansas City Chiefs 22.80% 23.90% 7.90% 46.10% 15.90% -30.20% 32% 44.10% -1.70% -3.40%
Baltimore Ravens 27.70% 17.60% 32.80% 40.80% 25.20% -15.60% 33% 47.20% 21.50% 45.10%
Dallas Cowboys 24.20% 13.80% 29% 37.60% 21.40% -16.20% 25% 39.40% 8.90% 34.70%
Minnesota Vikings 4.60% -10.90% 9.90% 26.60% -0.50% -27.10% 30% 19.30% -3.10% 9.90%
Las Vegas Raiders 5.60% 3.20% -5% 25.90% -0.90% -26.80% 22% 25.40% -7.90% -7.70%
Atlanta Falcons 2% -3.60% -2.80% 21.80% -3.20% -25.00% 22% 16.30% -10.40% 0.10%
Philadeplphia Eagles 2.60% 6.10% -11.60% 18.40% -2.75% -21.15% 31% 11.80% -0.70% 27.50%
Houston Texans 0% -5.70% -1.80% 15.90% -3.75% -19.65% 24% 13.70% -0.10% 6%
Seattle Seahawks 17.10% 13.30% 23.10% 14.10% 18.20% 4.10% 29% 42.90% 2.70% 34.40%
San Francisco 49ers 7.20% 14.70% -3.50% 8.40% 5.60% -2.80% 32% 24.20% -0.30% 1.30%
Detroit Lions -2.80% -14% 4.30% 7.20% -5% -12% 24% 13.90% -13.60% -13.80%
Indianapolis Colts -3.10% -7.10% -5.20% 7.10% -6.15% -13.25% 30% -2.30% 1.50% 2.60%
New Orleans Saints 21.40% 30.60% 19.10% 5.80% 24.85% 19.05% 20% 43.80% 0.10% 26.70%
Green Bay Packers 6.50% -1.60% 15.80% 5.80% 7.10% 1.30% 27% 17.30% 8.20% 16.10%
Los Angeles Chargers 3.80% 12.80% -7.80% 3.90% 2.50% -1.40% 21% 22% -11% -15.20%
Arizona Cardinals 3.80% 4.30% 4.40% 1.60% 4.35% 2.75% 28% 1.80% 14.70% 6.20%
Los Angeles Rams 0.30% -3.70% 5.30% 0.30% 0.80% 0.50% 32% 15% -7.30% 22.20%
New York Giants -7.30% -5.60% -14% -0.30% -9.80% -9.50% 22% -4.70% -5% 4.30%
New England Patriots 4.10% 4.50% 6.80% -1% 5.65% 6.65% 24% 14.80% -2.70% -2.30%
Chicago Bears -10.10% -3.90% -19.60% -5.80% -11.75% -5.95% 21% 2.80% -17.60% -4%
Tennessee Titans 12.60% 18% 18% -9.10% 18% 27% 31% 29.70% 7.30% 31.20%
Jacksonville Jaguars -9.50% -8% -9.70% -12% -9% 3% 14% 0.10% -14.50% -27%
Cincinnati Bengals -16.50% -19.90% -13.40% -14.60% -16.65% -2.05% 22% -12.20% -10.60% -35.70%
Buffalo Bills -7.20% -0.20% -11.10% -15.10% -5.65% 9.45% 24% -0.60% -3.10% -13.90%
Cleveland Browns -4.50% 2.40% -4.20% -19.30% -0.90% 18.40% 28% 1.30% 1.40% -25.50%
Miami Dolphins -13.90% -24.20% -3% -19.80% -13.60% 6.20% 18% -2.50% -26.80% 3%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -7.30% -3.40% -3.60% -21.50% -3.50% 18.00% 18% 5.10% -13.40% 0.50%
Denver Broncos -10.80% 1.70% -17.40% -23.60% -7.85% 15.75% 23% -8.20% -6.40% -6.70%
Pittsburgh Steelers -25.30% -22.70% -21.70% -36.60% -22.20% 14.40% 14% -18.30% -22.30% -48.30%
Carolina Panthers -14.30% -0.50% -17.40% -38.50% -8.95% 29.55% 31% -19.80% 0.70% -15.30%
New York Jets -24.80% -17% -23% -42.70% -20% 23% 25% -21.60% -23.50% -30.10%
Washington Football Team -20.40% -27% 8.60% -55.30% -9% 46% 22% -17.20% -12.70% -20.20%

2019 Third Down Data - DEFENSE

Team Defensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd INTs Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Team Defensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd INTs Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Houston Texans 9% -20.50% 24.10% 45.50% 1.80% -43.70% 12.00 19.40% -5% 27.70%
Washington Football Team 7.90% -3.70% 4.80% 33.50% 0.55% -32.95% 13.00 15.90% -0.50% 7.60%
Miami Dolphins 22.10% 17.80% 23.30% 29.20% 20.55% -8.65% 13.00 -2.50% -26.80% 16.60%
Los Angeles Chargers 5.40% 0.90% -5% 28.20% -2.05% -30.25% 11.00 10.50% 0% 28.20%
Detroit Lions 10.70% 9.90% 4.20% 23.60% 7.05% -16.55% 7.00 26.10% -9.30% -1.50%
Jacksonville Jaguars 11% 4.10% 17.60% 15.40% 10.85% -4.55% 10.00 12.20% 9.70% 7.30%
Las Vegas Raiders 14.80% 23.20% 4.50% 13.70% 13.85% 0.15% 9.00 30.20% -5.10% 11.40%
Cincinnati Bengals. 13.40% 10.30% 16.90% 13.60% 13.60% 0.00% 11.00 25% 2.40% 7.20%
New York Jets -5.80% -18.90% -1.60% 13.10% -10.25% -23.35% 12.00 7.90% -24.50% -2.10%
Carolina Panthers 8.20% 5.90% 8.80% 12.70% 7.35% -5.35% 14.00 -0.70% 18.60% 26.90%
Indianapolis Colts 2.30% -2.30% 4.30% 8.60% 1.00% -7.60% 15.00 8.80% -7.20% -2.80%
New York Giants 10.40% 7.10% 15.90% 8.60% 11.50% 2.90% 10.00 31.30% -14% 17.40%
Philadeplphia Eagles -4% 7.30% -26% 8.40% -9.35% -17.75% 11.00 5.60% -18.50% -0.20%
Pittsburgh Steelers -18.40% -25.20% -25.70% 7.90% -25.45% -33.35% 20.00 -16.50% -20.30% -17.40%
Arizona Cardinals 7.20% 1.30% 17.40% 3.20% 9.35% 6.15% 7.00 20.70% -11.30% 5.20%
Los Angeles Rams -6.40% -15.80% 0.90% 0% -7.45% -7.45% 13.00 -1.30% -12.50% 11.70%
Atlanta Falcons 4.50% 3.70% 8.30% 0.00% 6.00% 6.00% 12.00 17% -10.70% 3%
Tennessee Titans 1% 10.10% -6.20% -5.90% 1.95% 7.85% 14.00 11% -12.60% 12.10%
Seattle Seahawks 2.60% 18.40% -11.90% -6.40% 3.25% 9.65% 16.00 3.80% 1% 9.70%
Minnesota Vikings -9.90% -0.80% -22% -6.90% -11.40% -4.50% 17.00 -7.60% -13.10% -30%
Denver Broncos -3.70% -5.20% 3.70% -11.70% -0.75% 10.95% 10.00 1.90% -10% -35.40%
Cleveland Browns 6% 20.70% -1% -14.20% 9.85% 24.05% 14.00 6.40% 5.60% 16.10%
Kansas City Chiefs -3.40% -2% 1.70% -14.30% 0% 14% 16.00 -9.30% 4.20% -23.80%
Green Bay Packers -1.10% 1.90% 3.90% -14.70% 2.90% 17.60% 17.00 -1.30% -0.80% -16%
New Orleans Saints -4.30% -6% 5.70% -14.90% 0% 15% 13.00 1.70% -14.30% -10.50%
Buffalo Bills -11.50% -0.20% -11.10% -15.10% -5.65% 9.45% 14.00 -13.40% -8.90% -8.50%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -11.50% -5.50% -16.50% -15.90% -11.00% 4.90% 12.00 -0.30% -30.50% -25.30%
Baltimore Ravens -12.70% -8.50% -15.30% -16.50% -11.90% 4.60% 13.00 -16.50% -7% -12%
Chicago Bears -7.20% 0.50% -10.10% -16.50% -4.80% 11.70% 16.00 2.80% -17.60% -15.30%
Dallas Cowboys 3% 19.20% -2.90% -19.80% 8.15% 27.95% 7.00 13.20% -10.40% -7.40%
San Francisco 49ers -19.70% -14.50% -21.40% -26.80% -17.95% 8.85% 12.00 -26.30% -12% -10.70%
New England Patriots -25.50% -28.80% 8.40% -72% -10.20% 61.80% 25.00 -33.80% -14% -37.10%