Gap Control: Outside Defense, 2011

| 5 years ago

Gap Control: Outside Defense, 2011

Our final look at the gap control exhibited by the best and worst defenses around the league sees us drop in on the edges. This is the region where one lapse lets an outstanding athlete into space against defensive backs who aren’t always the surest of tacklers in the open field. With the premium of edge defense league-wide being pass rushing rather than run force, many teams struggle to contain and shut down outside runs. Poor edge defense combined with poor tackling is a rather awful combination.

However, we’re not just looking at the outside runs, the pitches and sweeps. We’re looking at off-tackle runs in this article as well. Against a 4-3 defense, targeting the gaps in between the tackle and the end and against a 3-4 defense most often trying to seal the end inside. Struggling in this regard allows the opposing offense to bring in power plays, drawing back side blockers around to the play side to really hammer the defense’s weakness. Off-tackle runs challenge those edge defenders who like to play in pursuit, attacking their weakness head up. Offenses will simply keep running at them and it’s little wonder that all of the worst D-Gap defenses in the league faced more wide carries than the league average.  



C-Gap Crushers

Usually when you sense a weakness, you attack. This is why, as you will see later, the worst defenses see more carries to the outside than the league average. However, if teams thought they were sensing a weakness when they kept rushing off-tackle against the Jets, they were sorely mistaken. Only the Arizona Cardinals faced more off-tackle rushes against them than the Jets last season and yet the Jets were the league’s best at shutting down those carries. The Jets were the model of consistency in this regard, regularly shutting teams down and not letting their concentration lapse either. Allowing a miserly 3.2 yards per carry off-tackle, they didn’t allow a rush longer than 22 yards, either. For all the turmoil in New York, this was one mark of excellence the Jets upheld last season and Gang Green got bang on.

In second place, the Falcons allowed the fewest yards and saw the fewest off-tackle carries in 2011, their outside defense showing sharp contrast to the rest of their division (more on them later). Three of the Top 5 off-tackle defenses went to the playoffs, where the third- and fourth-ranked showed their class.

It’s said that offense wins games and defense wins championships, well, the Giants might have disproved that as Eli Manning led them to a title, but in the playoffs, it was defense that had the upper hand off-tackle. The third-ranked off-tackle defense, Denver, beat the second-ranked off-tackle offense, Pittsburgh, and in the next round, the fourth-ranked off-tackle D of the 49ers disposed of the league’s third-ranked off-tackle offense as they held the Saints to 1 yard on two carries, with the Saints unable to get anything out off end.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
New York Jets1113533.2234422
Atlanta Falcons531753.3118123
Denver Broncos1033513.4215236
San Francisco 49ers732533.5147115
Miami Dolphins722543.5165218
* NFL Average783414.4189338


C-Gaps Crushed

The Rams have featured too much on the downside already: our worst A-Gap defense of the 2011 regular season, and once again when it comes to physicality in run D, the Rams are found wanting. Most “power” rushes head off-tackle and, frankly, the Rams got off lucky in terms of how much teams targeted them there. Only three teams faced fewer off-tackle carries (ironically including the third- and fourth-worst off-tackle defenses) than the Rams last season, yet in that time they contrived to allowed 7 yards every time an opposing offense headed that way.

That average meant that despite facing the fourth-fewest off-tackle carries, they allowed the fifth-most yards. The Jets, who saw close to double the carries off-tackle, allowed 65 fewer yards. Jeff Fisher’s defense usually operates a healthy rotation on the defensive line and he will be striving to find the pairings that help the Rams shore up this glaring weakness.

The Patriots’ defense was a concern all season long and off-tackle carries presented plenty of problems for them; facing 86 carries in spite of their offense putting opponents into situations where they should have been passing. The Patriots allowed a carry of 15 or more yards off-tackle in five of their 16 games last season, so perhaps their most impressive victory of the season was their win in the AFC Championship game over Baltimore.

The Ravens averaged 5.1 yards per carry off-tackle in the regular season and scored five touchdowns, both amongst the Top 10 in the league, but in their playoff victory, the Patriots held the Ravens under four yards per carry with a longest run of 5 yards. A classic example of Bill Belichick plugging a gap in his defense when it was most needed.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
St Louis Rams594187.1212371
New England Patriots864745.5220241
Oakland Raiders573115.5154443
New Orleans Saints583065.3162242
Houston Texans753865.1241142


D-Gap Destroyers

There is perhaps no shorter or quicker route to get an athlete in to space for an offense than a quick pitch to a running back. Over pursuit inside, one good block, or some poor force defense and a player with Chris Johnson’s speed is free. Outside carries are also popular in short yardage as offenses attempt to cave a defense in at one side to give their ball carrier a straight line to first down markers or the goal line. Speed is infiltrating every area of the football field–including edge defense–but it’s rare that speedy pass rushers set a strong edge against the run.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the best off-end rush defense is the Chicago Bears, who rotate so little away from their two defensive ends who each weigh in north of 275lbs. When you add in Julius Peppers’ ability in pursuit to go with the sideline-to-sideline ability of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, you have the recipe for a quality outside run defense. If they could remedy an A-Gap issue that sheds close to 5 yards per carry, the Bears might return to being among the truly elite defenses in the league rather than just a very good one.

The average NFL team scores four touchdowns off-end–more than through any other point of attack along the line–so kudos go to both the Vikings and the Chargers who were the only defenses not to allow a single rushing touchdown off-end against 92 and 93 carries, respectively. The Chargers yielded the fewest touchdown carries on all outside runs last season, yielding a single touchdown on 157 carries aimed outside of the B-Gaps.

The addition of Jarret Johnson may not help San Diego find a more consistent pass rush in their base defense, but you would expect that adding the best force defender in the league should see the Chargers’ yards per carry against drop from their 4.2 mark of the 2011 regular season. Could they be the ones to challenge the Bears for the title of best edge defense in the 2012 regular season?

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Chicago Bears1113363.0257243
Arizona Cardinals1043373.2223420
Houston Texans822953.6211430
Minnesota Vikings923343.6231024
Miami Dolphins1053863.7264118
* NFL Average1074814.5296442


D-Gaps Destroyed

The worst outside run defenses in the league are headlined by three NFC South teams, the only team in the division to escape being among the bottom 10 were the Atlanta Falcons, who themselves were only just outside of it. The Saints were found in the worst five in the league in both C- and D-Gap defense for 2011 as opposing offenses showed an ability to get outside of Gregg Williams’ blitzes and exploit his safeties and linebackers.

The Saints were also vulnerable in terms of scoring as they gave up almost as many touchdowns off-end (five) as they did through the A- to C-Gaps combined (six). The Saints also yielded 4.0 yards per carry after contact, as they failed to get players down after they broke through the first wave on too many occasions. For a team built so much on speed and flowing to the ball, the Saints could have done with some surer tackling in space.

We can’t simply gloss over the Buccaneers’ part in this piece however, as they sit second from the end on the list of yards per carry allowed. In terms of total yards given up, however, they’re last–almost 200 yards past the Carolina Panthers. Off-end they yielded 974 yards, a number that is within 100 yards of the 1,051 the 49ers gave up on all backfield carries.

Tampa’s eight touchdowns allowed tied for the league lead of scores allowed through any point of attack last season (with the Giants, also off-end). The Buccaneers also tied for second-worst with seven touchdowns allowed off-tackle, creating a total of 15 touchdowns allowed on outside carries. Four touchdowns clear of three other defenses next in line. 250 carries for 1,394 yards and 15 touchdowns: a stat line for a running back to be proud of, a stat line for a defense to be ashamed of.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
New Orleans Saints1107066.4442569
Tampa Bay Buccaneers1679745.8531881
Carolina Panthers1438055.6451446
Buffalo Bills1106125.6357448
Tennessee Titans1216245.2384280


One thing, it would seem, is more dangerous in the NFL than any other right now: speed. There is no easier way to get into space than through a defense that has poor force on the edge or tackles badly. Worse than that, something evident among the league’s worst outside run defenses, is a combination of both. The Buccaneers, shedding a ton of yards on rushes off-end alone, are the poster boys for how not to defend the outside. New head coach Greg Schiano is widely expected to place a premium on the running game on offense, he should be making it a focus for the defense first and foremost.


Other articles in this series: Interior Defense | Outside Offense | Interior Offense


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| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • elkman8102

    Not surprised about the Bears defense with the A and D Gaps. Urlacher has always been solid on the edges but is vulnerable when ran right at.