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Preseason Top Five NFL Pass Coverage Defenses For 2021

The third and final phase of our defensive team grades is passing coverage defense. Team coverage grades/rankings are often measured by third-level defenders' performance (corners, safeties). For us, we like to analyze the second and third levels (LB's, CB's, S's) of the defense when determining a pass coverage grade.

Metrics Used to Analyze Pass Coverage.

There are multiple ways you can measure the success of pass coverage. You have the traditional way (INT's, PBU's, TD's), and yards per game allowed. These numbers are essential, but the devil is in the details. What we do is we examine the league's top defenses vs. the pass in terms of yards allowed; we then look at other factors such as yards per target allowed and completion rate by a defender in coverage. Another key metric to consider is passer rate when targeted.

How Pass Coverage Affects the Sum Of The Whole

The best defenses have identifiable traits. Some defenses possess a great pass rush defense; others are very good vs. the run, some are great in coverage. Bringing all three of these phases together is the goal of every defensive coordinator. Each category that we analyze coordinates with the other in some capacity. For Example, a team with a great pass rush and not-so-great defenders in coverage on the back end are only as good as the pass rush. If you pass rush or aggressive blitz philosophy doesn't get to the QB, especially in the NFL, you are toast. Pass coverage is often only as good as the pass rush, and there are times where a secondary can mask a poor pass rush by playing great coverage for long enough that the pressure gets home. So the main point, pass coverage, and pass rush are joined at the hip, while run defense sets up your pass rush and pass coverage to be successful on late downs by keeping offenses behind schedule.

The Projected Top Five Pass Coverage Defenses For 2021

(1st) Denver Broncos

Team Grade: 7.00

The Broncos were a 5-11 team in the AFC West a season ago. Inconsistency on both sides of the football including their secondary led the Broncos into the offseason looking to fill voids with high-level players. In 2021, Denver's secondary is full of high-level talent with Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and top-10 pick Patrick Surtain II, all of which will compete, get onto, or stay on the field. Add in Bryce Callahan, who will play in the nickel, and you have the deepest group of corners in the NFL. We haven't even mentioned the two safeties who are arguably going to be the best tandem in the NFL in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. Ronald Darby is the lowest graded player in pass coverage, and he is still a high-level player. The LB's Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are also good pass coverage defenders, which further strengthens the league's best pass coverage defense in the NFL (on paper) heading into 2021.

Denver By The Numbers

The Broncos pass defense ranked in the middle third of the NFL in total yards allowed in 2020; they ranked in the middle of the league in total first downs allowed in coverage. The Broncos were strong in not allowing teams to score on them through the air in 2020. Where they needed to improve in 2020 is giving up explosive plays. The Broncos ranked 4th from last, giving up 59 pass plays of more than 20 yards in 2020. On third down, the Broncos did not do a great job though it was adequate of preventing opponents from converting through the air (40.5%), ranking in the league's middle third. Denver's ability to apply pressure and hurry a QB moving them off their spot in 2020 was a strength that the new secondary will strengthen in 2021.

(2nd) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Team Grade: 6.86

The Super Bowl Champs return everyone from last year's defense. That's all nothing more to see here. But seriously, how? Tom Brady is the architect or the glue that bound this roster in 2020, and more than that, he changed the culture and the mindset of a franchise marred by mediocrity. So why is Brady being discussed in the analysis of defensive coverage? Because Tom Brady completed the sum of the whole in Tampa. His presence and his ability elevated the entire team on both sides of the football. The year prior, Jameis Winston famously (no pun) threw thirty interceptions which is not suitable for a defense to be successful. Defense is predicated on getting stops and creating field position advantages for an offense. When the offense turns over the football at a high rate, you put pressure on your defense, giving the opponent short fields and extra opportunities and further tiring the defense with added possessions.

The entire Bucs secondary is graded as average to star on the rise, with Jamel Dean leading the way at CB. At safety, the Bucs have two outstanding players, including second-year all-rookie player Antoine Winfield. LB Lavonte David possesses the highest pass cover grade of all players on the Bucs. The one soft spot is Sean Murphy-Bunting, who plays the nickel and can play outside, and even Bunting has an average to above-average grade potential in 2021.

Tampa By the Numbers

A significant measure to examine year over year from 2019 to 2020 is the average field position defense. In 2019, the Bucs opponents started possessions at their 31-yard line on average vs. 2020, where the opponents began at their own 28. The Bucs ranked third-worst in the NFL in 2019 in average field position defense; they improved to 13th best. The Bucs defense also improved in score percentage on a per drive basis from 39.4% of their opponents, ending in points (Bottom third) to 33.7% (top third). The Bucs blitzed their opponents at the 4th highest rate (39%) in 2020, yet they maintained a top third-lowest percentage of being out of position to make a tackle. The Buc's aggressiveness didn't lead them to give up an excessive number of explosive plays. Their aggressiveness and high usage of man coverage would lead some to believe they would have, but they were in the top third in explosive plays allowed in 2020. The Bucs were near the top of the NFL in 2020 in total sacks.

(3rd) Cleveland Browns

Team Grade: 6.75

There is a wild possibility that we see a Super of Cleveland vs. Tampa Bay. The Browns are arguably the most complete team outside of Tampa Bay heading into 2021. The edition of John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison at safety gives the Browns one of the best safety tandems in the league. Add in the potential of Grant Delpit, and the Browns have the potential to be the deepest and most talented safety unit in the NFL. John Johnson brings his near-elite coverage skills with him from the Rams, and Ronnie Harrison is on the cusp of becoming a near-elite coverage defender.

The corners are bolstered by Denzel Ward, who graded above average a season ago but can climb higher. The Browns added Troy Hill to play in the nickel, a player with an above-average grade. The question mark is how well Grant Newsome, the rookie from Northwestern, can adapt to the NFL. Newsome was our 32nd ranked player on our big board and the 4th rated CB entering the 2020 NFL draft.

Cleveland By The Numbers

The Browns were solid on defense a season ago, but they did give a lot of explosive plays ranking in the middle of the NFL with 49 plays allowed of 20+ yards or more through the air. 10 of the 49 explosive plays allowed went for 40+. They answered the bell in the offseason by employing two big-time safeties to protect the back half of their defense.

(4th) Baltimore Ravens

Team Grade: 6.71

The Ravens could arguably possess the top secondary in the NFL. They ranked 6th in yards allowed and 3rd in yds per pass attempt in 2020. Their strength is at CB, where they have Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters, and Marlon Humphrey. All three are highly graded players. The back half of the secondary employs two very good safeties in DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark.

Baltimore By The Numbers

The Ravens blitz a lot, but they are multiple in their coverage scheme, allowing them to succeed with blitzing while not giving up many explosive plays. The Ravens allowed the third-lowest total of explosive plays through the air in 2020 while still ranking in the bottom third of the out-of-position tackle rate.

(5th) Buffalo Bills

Team Grade: 6.67

The Bills ranked top third in the NFL in explosive deep plays in 2020. In 2021, they return one of the best safety tandems in the league and corner(s) Tre'Davious White and Levi Wallace, both of which are high-quality players with WHite leading the way. Taron Johnson will head the nickel corner.

Bills By The Numbers

Protecting against the deep ball a season ago was vital for the Buffalo defense. Sean McDermott, who uses a lot of zone coverage, primarily cover three, is one reason they successfully protect against the deep ball. The Bills allowed 25 plays of 20+ yards through the air, which ranked 3rd in the NFL a season ago. Even with a 36% blitz rate, the Bills remained disciplined enough in their secondary to protect against the explosive plays.

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