The NFL postseason is a time of intense, high-stakes football for the twelve teams that experience it each year.
For the other twenty teams, it’s a time of reflection. An early start to their offseason, where they can spend resources evaluating and tweaking their roster to bring it back in stronger form. They might use this time to find a new coach to lead said roster, or new management to assemble it. They might do both, if the regular season went poorly enough. Whatever the case, each of the twenty teams will work to set themselves up for the 2018 postseason, even as the 2017 only begins in the background.
Before a team can accurately plan their next incarnation, however, they must first understand their last one. One of the most rudimentary, yet reliable ways to do this, is through statistical analysis. Sometimes, knowing what separated the successful teams from the unsuccessful ones in a given season is as simple as reading numbers.
Below, we’ll take a look at the key statistics that defined the 2017 Bengals defense. Their corresponding offensive breakdown can be found here.
Total Yards Allowed: -5,425 (-339.06 per game, 18th in NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed (After Sacks): -3,379 (-211.19 per game, 8th in NFL)
Sack Yardage Returned: 278 (17.38 per game, 10th in NFL)
Rushing Yards Allowed: -2,046 (-127.88 per game, 30th in NFL)
The spread of playoff teams across the total yards list is broad, but top-heavy. Minnesota, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Atlanta all finished in the top ten. Two others – Tennessee (-5,248, 13th) and New Orleans (-5,384, 17th) – also come in ahead of Cincinnati. The Los Angeles Rams (-5,434, 19th) came in one spot behind, and the lowest of the NFC playoff teams. The Bills (-5,682, 26th), Chiefs (-5,842, 28th), and Patriots (-5,856, 29th), finished ahead of only Indianapolis in the AFC. Bad defenses clearly weren’t a non-starter for playoff contention in the 2017 AFC.
There’s no clear correlation in either passing or rushing yards among playoff teams, but that isn’t without reason. Playoff teams tended to tread towards a center-bottom in passing yards, if they weren’t elite. Lower due to teams throwing on them in garbage time, but not as low as teams that simply lacked a pass defense. Among NFC teams, that equated to the Vikings finishing first (-3,078), with the others finishing sixth (Falcons, -3,429) through eleventh (Panthers, -3,665). For the AFC, that spread was less even and worse, with the Jaguars finishing first (-2,718), Steelers fourth (-3,217), and others ninth (Bills, -3,688) through sixteenth (Patriots, -4,020).
Rushing yards lack the center-bottom saturation among playoff teams, but the top-heaviness is still there. All of the top four teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Carolina, Tennessee) qualified for the playoffs. The others came in at 9th (Atlanta), 10th (Pittsburgh), 16th (New Orleans), 20th (New England), 21st (Jacksonville), 25th (Kansas City), 28th (Los Angeles) and 29th (Buffalo). All of whom are better than Cincinnati, one of only three teams to give up over 2,000 yards on the ground. They’d be significantly further behind the pack if not for the AFC lowering the bar.
Sack yardage, as with offense, seems curiously more accurate as an indicator of playoff teams. Seven of the top eight teams (Steelers, Jaguars, Rams, Panthers, Patriots, Falcons, Saints) made the playoffs.
Run vs. Pass Efficiency
Scrimmage Plays Against: 1,091 (68.19 per game, 32nd in NFL)
Yards Per Play: -4.97 (6th in NFL)
Pass Plays: 602 (37.63 per game, 26th in NFL)
Yards Per Pass Play: -5.61 (5th in NFL)
Run Plays: 489 (30.56 per game, 31st in NFL)
Yards Per Rush Play: -4.18 (22nd in NFL)
Pass/Run Balance: 55.18%-44.82% (25th furthest towards pass in NFL)
A note – yards per pass play includes sacks, not simply yards per pass attempt. Given, Cincinnati ranks 5th in the league in both metrics.
It’s impressive that, with the most plays against them in the league, Cincinnati’s pass defense only surrendered 3,379 yards. That’s a credit to a secondary that looks strong going forward.
It’s also clear how much blame the run defense shoulders. Only San Francisco (491) was run against more than Cincinnati, and they only surrendered 3.79 yards per rush. On one (admittedly odd) hand, seven of the ten teams that allowed more yards per rush made the playoffs. On the other, only one of them (Washington) was among the eight teams run against more frequently by percentage.
Put another way: if the Bengals’ opponents were one team, their 2,046 rushing yards would rank 6th in the league. Their 4.18 yards per attempt would rank 14th, and their 489 total attempts would rank 4th. Their 44.82 percent rate of running would rank 8th, and their 1,091 plays would be more than any other team.
That’s called run, rinse, repeat. The best kind of offense for fans of fullbacks, I-formations, and the Big Ten. Like run-run-pass-punt, except it never gets to ‘pass’ because they never get taken off the field. It’s the kind of offense that coaches like John Fox dream of. The fact that he successfully pulled it off in Week 14 was what made that loss seem so pathetic.
The Bengals can’t win with that kind of run defense.
First Downs Given Up: 325 (T-24th/25th in NFL)
First Downs Play Percentage: 29.79% (14th in NFL)
Third Down Conversion: 39.42% (21st in NFL)
Third Down Play Percentage: 19.07% (30th in NFL)
These numbers don’t require a huge amount of insight. Aside from percentage of opponents’ plays that ended in a first down, they’re all bad. At least relatively – giving up the 24th-highest number of first downs on the most plays isn’t awful.
The split between first downs allowed and third downs played is notable. Three other teams – Kansas City, Tennessee, and Detroit – were also in third down on under 20 percent of snaps. Tennessee allowed first downs 30.88 percent of the time, the 19th-highest clip. Kansas City and Detroit were the two worst, allowing first downs on 33.72 and 33.75 percent of plays respectively. Given how few turnovers Cincinnati managed (more on that next), that’s a lot of time in grey area. Not a sieve, not a stone wall; just enough to stay on the field and keep the offense off.
Playoff teams don’t have much in correlations here, just patches at the top. Six playoff teams finished on either side of Cincinnati in the first down play percentage rankings. Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Philadelphia were the top three. Nine playoff teams finished ahead of Cincinnati in third down conversion rate. Tennessee, the only playoff team that opponents faced third downs against less often, was among them.
Interceptions: 11 (T-20th/23rd in NFL)
Fumbles Taken: 3 (32nd in NFL)
Total Takeaways: 14 (T-30th/31st in NFL)
Turnover Differential: -9 (27th in NFL)
So those are all pretty bad numbers. Obviously, no playoff team recovered fewer forced fumbles than Cincinnati. Fortunately, that’s a virtually meaningless statistic. Teams haven’t won games by beating the football away from opponents since Charles Tillman retired.
Interceptions are a different story. New England and Tennessee finished the season with twelve apiece, tied for 18th/19th in the NFL. New England finished with a turnover differential of six. No other team at twelve picks or below finished with a positive total. Only four of the seventeen teams above twelve picks finished with a positive one. Of the twelve playoff teams, only Carolina (-1), Atlanta (-2), and Tennessee (-4) finished with negative totals. Those three combined weren’t as bad as Cincinnati’s.
Passing defense looked great earlier, generally speaking. They need to get more picks.
Total Points Allowed: 349 (21.81 per game, 16th in NFL)
Point Differential: -59 (22nd in NFL)
Field Goals Attempts Against: 40 (T-3rd/4th in NFL)
Punts Against: 81 (T-9th/10th in NFL)
Passing Touchdowns Against: 20 (T-8th/9th in NFL)
Rushing Touchdowns Against: 13 (T-18th/21st in NFL)
Total Touchdowns Against: 33 (T-11th/13th in NFL)
The scoring bit – arguably the most important bit in football – deflates the idea that the Bengals’ defense is a problem. Add total touchdowns, field goals, punts, and takeaways, and the Bengals surrendered a touchdown on maybe 19.64 percent of drives. That doesn’t account for drives ended by time expiring, but it still paints a good picture of the unit. Only three teams ahead of the Bengals in touchdowns allowed missed the playoffs. Pittsburgh won the division with similar numbers – twenty passing touchdowns against and fourteen rushing.
As far as overall points allowed, the Bengals are in the right company as well. All twelve playoff teams finished in the top eighteen in points allowed per game. The other five non-playoff teams – the Chargers (17.00), Ravens (18.94), Bears (20.00), Seahawks (20.75), and Cowboys (20.75) – weren’t pushovers. Additionally, the bottom four of that eighteen-team sample are all AFC teams.
As far as rankings among playoff teams: Cincinnati would’ve finished with the fourth-fewest passing touchdowns allowed behind Minnesota (13), Buffalo (14), and Jacksonville (17). They’d have finished ninth in rushing touchdowns, ahead of Pittsburgh (14), Los Angeles (15), Kansas City (15), and Buffalo (22).
As noted in the offensive breakdown, the point differential hugely implicates the offense. Ten playoff teams finished in the top twelve. Buffalo’s -57 margin, a historically low number among playoff teams, is still a rank ahead of Cincinnati’s place.