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Preseason Top 5 NFL (Team) Run Stop Grades For 2021

Run Stops/Success Rate

In football, situation matters, from field position, down and distance, the QTR, time left, etc. There are a lot of elements that need consideration when evaluating the success of one play vs. another. In this analysis, we are using run stop success as one of the measures to grade and rank the best NFL rush defenses.

How to Measure Run Stops

We measure a win or a loss on a single defensive play in any situation run or pass using the following based on down and distance. 1st and 10 hold the offense under 4 yards (if 1st down is a different distance, hold the opponent under 40 percent of the yardage) 2nd down Hold the offense under 1/2 the distance for a first down (if 2nd and 6, hold under 3 yards), 3rd Down hold the offense less than distance for conversion, 4th Down hold the offense less than distance for conversion.

Third Down Average Yds To Go (Behind Schedule)

I often talk about on-schedule off-schedule plays when evaluating a team. One of the ways to keep your opponent off schedule, as alluded to above, is to hold them under a particular percentage of yards gained based on down and distance (See how to measure run stops above). If a team is ultimately in a 3rd down and 4+ yards to go, that is a victory for a defense.

Why Keeping Your Opponent Off Schedule Is Important?

Keeping the offense off schedule limits their play calling opportunities. The longer the distance on a third-down play, the more obvious their play-calling becomes, and that is where the sum of the whole comes into play. You can limit your opponent as much as you want, but if you cannot apply an effective pass rush in critical third-down situations and your pass coverage is unable to their job, keeping an opponent off schedule becomes useless. The best teams in football are able to consistently keep their opponent off schedule, apply pass rush in critical moments, and are good at defending the passing game in critical moments.

Missed Tackle Rate/Out Of Position

The overall team missed tackle rate is also a value we take into consideration when evaluating a team. Missed tackle rate measures the total times a player is out of position or in position but somehow loses leverage and does not tackle the opposing ball carrier. We use total player snap counts to determine the total missed tackle rate.

Other analyses include film analysis and overall player grade averages that give us a final team grade.

(1st) New Orleans Saints

Run Stop Grade: 7.71

The Saints defense against the run in 2020 ranked 5th in the NFL in yds per rush attempt total (3.9). The Saints DL returns its nucleus in 2021 with edge rusher Marcus Davenport, DT Shy Tuttle, DT David Onyemata, and rusher edge Cameron Jordan. Second-level defender Mario Davis (LB) and third-level defenders Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams are all rated in the top tier of run stoppers in the NFL. The Saints have an elite or near-elite graded player at every level of their defense, with the core of their DL grading no lower than a tier two level one grade up to tier one elite.

Saints By The Numbers

In 2020, the Saints ranked in the middle of the league in run stops as a team, but they were very good at keeping offenses off schedule with an average yard(s) to go on third downs of 7.0. The Saints were also solid at preventing third-down conversions holding their opponents to a 38% average conversion rate (Top 3rd). The Saints were above league average and in the middle third in out-of-position tackling rate, and that lines up with their near top third blitz rate of 32% in 2020. The Saints did well to prevent plays of 15+ yards in 2020, ranking 6th in the NFL. The Saints were in the top third of score rate on a per drive scale in 2020 and five percentage points above league average. They also ranked in the top third of pts per drive allowed (1.9).

(2nd) Los Angeles Rams

Run Stop Grade: 7.40

The Rams rush defense has been a consistently good unit the last two years after ranking dead last in 2018 in yards per rush allowed (5.1). The rams improved their yds per rush average from 2018 to 2019 by a full yard and moved into the top third of NFL rush defenses. In 2020, the Rams improved once again, allowing 3.8 yds per att ranking 3rd in the NFL. The Rams will have a new DC (Raheem Morris) who replaces Brandon Staley, who parlayed his success the last few seasons into a head coaching gig.

The Rams defense led by all-world DT and the elite-graded Aaron Donald will remain strong upfront in 2021. Donald leads a defensive front who ranked 5th in run stop rate in 2020, and he is paired with DT Sebastian Joseph-Day and DT A'Shawn Robinson up front. Robinson is the lowest graded player on the Rams defensive front receiving a tier two average starter grade. Robinson projected to play on the interior in the Rams base defense, while Donald generally flips inside in sub-packages (Nickel and Dime). The loss of Michael Brockers to the Lions will be an area to keep an eye on as the Rams try to continue their run stop ascension.

The second level of the Rams defense is an area of concern as LB Kenny Young, and Micah Keyser received low grades vs. the run in 2020, making it difficult to project anything but moderate improvement in 2021. The Rams are arguably the best in the secondary, with all four players grading average to tier-one level three in run defense. The Rams no longer have tier one run defender John Johnson who is now in Cleveland; he will be replaced by a combo of safety defenders who are all highly graded to defend against the run in Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp.

Rams By The Numbers

The Rams were the 5th best team in stop rate in 2020; they had the third-lowest rate of plays where a defender was out of position to make a play in 2020, which shows up in the data on plays of 15+ yards or more where the Rams ranked 1st in 2020 (69). The Rams were also bottom third in blitz rate (25.4%). The Rams ranked in the top third of NFL defenses in third-down average yards to go, which is an indicator of first down and second down success rate (behind schedule). The Rams had the top defense in score rate (27.9%) and pts per drive (1.5) in 2020.

(3rd) Pittsburgh Steelers

Run Stop Grade: 7.17

The Steelers defense ranked middle third of the NFL in rush yds per attempt (3.8) in 2020, down from 3rd overall in 2019 (4.3). But don't let the YPC numbers fool you. The Steelers are very good upfront even after losing Bud Dupree. The Steelers, like the Rams, possess a strong first level that includes DL Tyson Alualu, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt, all of which are highly graded run stoppers, with Heyward graded at a near-elite level. The Steelers have all-world player T.J. Watt, an elite-level run stopper on the edge of their defense. The other edge spot projects to be handled by Alex Highsmith, who replaces Dupree. Highsmith has the projectible upside, and we believe he will successfully replace Dupree.

On the second level of their defense, the LB's are average to above-average vs. the run. Devin Bush returns from a 2020 ACL injury, and it is his sideline to sideline ability in run pursuit that allows the Steelers to be versatile. Bush is a player with a lot of potential yet to be realized. In the secondary, the Steelers have two strong run defenders on the back half in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. The corners are the big question mark as they boast the lowest run grades.

Steelers By The Numbers

The Steelers led the NFL in stop rate in 2020 at a 62% clip vs. the run. One area of improvement that will be critical is their discipline in the run game. The Steelers were ranked in the bottom third of the NFL with a high out-of-position rate when making tackles or in pursuit, which is a testament to their aggressive nature on defense, boasting a 40% blitz rate in 2020. Another element that the out-of-position rate tells us to examine is explosive plays allowed. The Steelers ranked bottom third of the NFL in total plays of 15 Yards or more in 2020, with 20 of those coming in the run game. They were also guilty of giving up the big play while ranking in the top third of the NFL in average yards to go (9.3) when giving up the explosive play. The Steelers did rank top third in average third-down yards to (7.7) and also at the top of the NFL in 3rd down conversion rate allowed. The Steelers ranked 2nd in opponent score rate (29.3%) on a per drive basis and ranked 2nd in pts per drive allowed (1.6).

(4th) Denver Broncos

Run Stop Grade: 6.86

The Broncos have the pieces. Imagine a world where Aaron Rodgers is the QB leading this roster. The sum of the whole would be complete as we believe that even an elite offensive player can elevate the level at which a defense performs. The Broncos defense has talent at all levels, with more proven talent than unproven. The DL bolstered by Dre'Mont Jones and Shelby Harris, who are high-level run defenders in their own right, are surrounded by two of the league's top edge players in Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. On paper from past evals, Miller is the higher graded run defender on the edge of the Denver defense, with Chubb grading out at below average to average, with projected high upside potential.

The second and third levels of the Broncos run defense boast Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, who are graded average to above average against the run. The secondary is strong vs. the run, with Simmons and Jackson grading out at a tier-one level.

Broncos By The Numbers

Denver ranked top third of run stop with a 53% stop rate, yet they were exploited in yards per carry (4.8) average ranking near the bottom of the league in 2020. Their out-of-position rate is in the middle third of the NFL, suggesting that they need to improve in this area. Similar to the Steelers, the Broncos also had 122 plays where they gave up 15+ yards. The Broncos were not as aggressive as the Steelers in the blitz department, suggesting that the Broncos must improve their play calling, player positioning, and technique. The Broncos were a fringe top third defense in the area of yds to go average on third down (7.1), and they were slightly above the league average in third-down conversion defense (36.5%) and the middle third of the NFL. The Broncos allowed opponents to score pts on 44.6% of drives ranking in the bottom third of the NFL and five percentage pts below league average in 2020. Den ranked below league average and in the bottom third in pts per drive allowed (2.2) in 2020.

(5th) Washington Football Team

Run Stop Grade: 6.83

The depth of talented players on Washington's defensive front is absurd. Chase Young, Montez Sweat man the edges, both rated as near-elite vs. the run. On the interior of the DL, they have Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Payne is tier-one level three vs. the run and a hair outside of the near-elite tier two-level, while Allen is below average to average.

The second level of the defense will have a rookie paired with Jon Bostic, who has a poor 2020 run grade and doesn't have a lot of projected upside vs. the run. Rookie LB Jamin Davis, who the Football team drafted in the first round, was a late draft riser with impressive film. There is no doubt Davis has the talent, but this is the NFL. LB's are tested in multiple ways making discipline even more important, so expect opponents to try and exploit the LB's in Washington this season. The secondary players at the safety position grade as average to below-average vs. the run, while the corners are very strong. Ultimately, the success of this defense begins and ends with the front four in 2021.

Football Team By The Numbers

The Football Team ranked top third in run-stop rate (52%) and ranked 2nd in the league in out of position tackle rate (11%). Their defense held opponents to average third-down yds to go of 7.3 ranked in the top third. The Football Team ranked 4th in score rate on a per drive basis and 3rd in pts per drive allowed in 2020. They ranked middle third in blitz rate (32.4%), indicating their discipline in 2020 is high.


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