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Pass Blocking is more important than pass rushing...

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Pass blocking matters more than pass rushing, and we can prove it

Jun 7, 2019
  • walder_seth.png&w=160&h=160&scale=crop
    Seth WalderESPN Analytics

You're the general manager of an NFL franchise and have been presented with a choice. You can have the best pass-blocking offensive line in the league, or the best pass-rushing defensive line. What would you choose?

Conventional wisdom would probably make you lean toward the pass-rushers. When it comes to the trenches, that's where the stars are. And this last draft class featured five defensive linemen or outside linebackers -- including three in the first four picks -- before the first offensive lineman was selected.

But the numbers? They're screaming in the opposite direction. According to the statistics, pass blocking is more important than pass rushing. Let me explain by answering all of the questions you might have, and here are some lines to watch this season based on our pass-blocking metrics.


Wait, offensive linemen don't really get stats. How are we even quantifying their performance?

Last season, ESPN created a new statistic to measure individual and team pass-blocking performance. It's called pass block win rate (PBWR).

In short, if a player sustains his block for 2.5 seconds, the offense is credited with a win. If a blocker is beat before 2.5 seconds after the snap, it's a loss. And the percentage of the time the offensive blockers win is the pass block win rate.

We even have the same statistic for the defense: pass rush win rate (PRWR). We use 2.5 seconds because it is roughly the average time to pass in the NFL.

Here's a leaderboard for both of those statistics on the team and individual levels.

Is someone charting every play to create those numbers?

No, PBWR and PRWR are powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. That's the player tracking data from the NFL that comes from chips in every player's shoulder pads. So the position of those chips is what informs our metrics. This also means that every play is measured in the same, objective way.

OK. So what makes pass blocking more important?

In a sentence, teams that blocked well won more than teams that rushed the passer well.

In a given game from 2016-2018, the team with the better season-long PBWR won 60 percent of the time, while the team with the better PRWR won 52 percent of the time (including games played after the contest in question, though only in that season).

And blocking had a stronger correlation to offensive strength than pass rushing did to defensive strength.

Can you give an example?

Eight of the top 12 regular-season PBWR teams reached the playoffs. None of the bottom 12 regular-season PBWR teams did. And three of the four conference finalists -- the Rams, Chiefs and Patriots -- ranked in the top four in PBWR.

 
 

The correlation between pass block win rate and winning over the last three seasons. Three of the four conference finalists in 2018 finished the regular season ranked in the top four in pass block win rate.

 
i?img=%2Fi%2Fcolumnists%2Ffull%2Fwalder_seth.png&w=80&h=80&scale=crop
Seth Walder, ESPN Analytics2d ago

For pass rushing, at least by eyeballing it, the same patterns don't exactly pop out. The Panthers, Rams, Dolphins, Eagles and Bills rounded out the top five. The Super Bowl champion Patriots ranked in the bottom five, and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia led the Lions to a dead-last PRWR ranking.

 
 

Pass rush win rate is noticeably less correlated with winning over the last three seasons than pass block win rate is over the same span.

 
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Seth Walder, ESPN Analytics2d ago

Jump to the bottom to see full rankings for PBWR and PRWR for all 32 NFL teams.

Those are just anecdotes, though, right?

Yes, but we did also take a broader look.

Over the past three seasons, team PBWR correlated with team win percentage at almost the same rate that all of defensive production (defensive expected points added per play) did with team win percentage (correlation: 0.4). In other words, in terms of winning games, it appears that each team's pass blocking alone is almost as important as its entire defensive performance.

Three-Season Correlations For PBWR And PRWR, 2016-18

  PBWR PRWR
Expected points added/play 0.40 0.15
Win Percentage 0.37 0.12

In 2018, the correlation was strongest: PBWR's correlation with win percentage surpassed defensive EPA/P's correlation with win percentage.

2018 Season Correlations For PBWR And PRWR

  PBWR PRWR
Expected points added/play 0.53 0.11
Win Percentage (correlation: .40) 0.59 0.23

Can you put that in football terms?

Let's say the Patriots are playing the Texans. New England had one of the best pass-blocking units in the league last season. And the Texans had J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney leading the charge on the other side.

Even though our numbers recognize Watt and Clowney as high-end pass-rushers, we'd guess the edge in the matchup in the trenches would still go to the Patriots. At least based on the correlations, it seems that good pass blocking is more indicative of success than good pass rushing. It's not that dissimilar of a theory to one recently posited by Pro Football Focus, that pass coverage is more important than pass rushing.

Even if we accept that pass blocking is more important than pass rushing, do we have any idea why that is?

One idea is that the offense has the advantage because it can dictate the length of the play more than the defense. If a quarterback is under pressure or anticipates being under pressure, he can get rid of the ball quickly, mitigating the effect of strong pass-rushers.

Meanwhile, the defense can blitz extra rushers to manufacture pressure or pass rush wins, but that choice generally must be made pre-snap, and it comes with a heavy cost: fewer defenders in coverage if the ball is indeed thrown.

We should note that the numbers in this story aren't opponent- or blitz-adjusted, although that's something we could look into in the future.

Is it possible that pass blocking correlates with winning but doesn't cause winning?

It's possible, but we don't think that's the case. The fear is that is might be similar to the problem with rushing attempts. Rushing attempts correlate with winning, but not because running the ball more means teams will win more. Teams that win more are winning at the end of the game, and therefore are running out the clock.

Initially, we had some concern about that. Teams that are losing, for example, find themselves in must-pass situations. That might make it more difficult to pass block because opponents aren't kept honest by the threat of the run, and that could explain why worse teams have worse PBWRs. However, if that were true, we would also expect winning teams to have better PRWRs, and that isn't true to nearly the degree that it is with pass blocking.

Is either pass blocking or pass rushing more stable than the other?

As far as we've seen, not really. We looked at both a week-to-week correlation and a comparison of the first half of the season to the second half of the season for PBWR and PRWR. In both cases, PRWR had a barely stronger correlation, but not by a meaningful amount. So based on that, they seem to be about equally stable.

Correlation Between First And Second Halves Of The Season

SEASON(S) PBWR PRWR
2018 0.69 0.69
2016-17 0.55 0.59

Is it possible they are equally as important then?

We don't think so. Even if they are equally stable, the value of the pass blocking seems to be higher due to its stronger correlation with offensive success.

And that's not only true looking back. In 2018, there was significant correlation between a team's PBWR in the first half of the season to its offensive success in the second half of the season, and much more so than for PRWR.

However, there was hardly any correlation between PBWR and offensive success in 2016-17.

Correlation Between First-Half PBWR/PRWR And Second-Half EPA/P

SEASON(S) PBWR PRWR
2018 0.62 0.17
2016-18 0.28 0.16

Hang on a second. This is the second time you've separated out 2018 to highlight a more exciting result. Why would you reduce the sample like that?

Actually, there may be good reason. Between 2017 and 2018, Zebra Technologies (the NFL's player tracking provider) made improvements to player orientation in the tracking data. We don't know for sure, but we strongly suspect that that resulted in improvements in our pass-blocking and pass-rushing metrics.

But yes, maybe 2018 was just a variance blip. It's one of the intriguing elements at play here in that we just don't know fully know and will continue keeping an eye on our results going forward.

Let's go back to pass blocking and pass rushing. So if we accept that pass blocking is more important than pass rushing, does that mean GMs should be paying the best offensive linemen more than the best defensive linemen?

In my opinion, on the offensive line, it's more critical to avoid a particularly poor weak blocker than to have a particularly strong best blocker. Think of pass protection like a chain. The weakest link will cause it to break the quickest, no matter how strong any one particular link might be. And the reverse is true for defense. It may take only one defender breaking through to wreak havoc on an opposing quarterback.

If we assume that concept to be true, it still remains possible that a single elite pass-rusher could be more valuable than a single elite pass-blocker. If I were a GM, I'd invest heavily in the offensive line as a group, but with that investment spread over many players rather than concentrated in a few. If we're working off the weak link theory, then depth is critical. Few teams will finish a season with the same offensive line it started with.

OK, so coming full circle, is it better to have the best offensive line or best defensive line in the NFL?

On this, the results are more clear. It's better to have the best offensive line. It just matters more. Given the attention and accolades that pass-rushers receive, this is somewhat surprising. But offenses across the league have a wider distribution of skill than defenses. This means that the best offenses tend to outperform the top defenses.

When in doubt in team building, it makes sense to lean toward the offense where an advantage is leveraged the most. And along the line of scrimmage is no different. Good pass blocking bests good pass rushing.

 


Team-by-team PBWR and PRWR breakdowns

2018 Regular-Season Pass Block Win Rate

TEAM PBWR TEAM PBWR
1. Rams 62% 17. Steelers 48%
2. Packers 60% 18. Lions 47%
3. Chiefs 60% 19. Eagles 46%
4. Patriots 59% 20. Saints 46%
5. Browns 59% 21. Bucs 46%
6. Bears 58% 22. Broncos 45%
7. Bills 56% 23. Jaguars 45%
8. Seahawks 56% 24. Jets 44%
9. Panthers 56% 25. Titans 44%
10. Colts 55% 26. Bengals 44%
11. Ravens 54% 27. Giants 43%
12. Cowboys 51% 28. Vikings 43%
13. Chargers 51% 29. 49ers 42%
14. Falcons 51% 30. Raiders 41%
15. Redskins 50% 31. Dolphins 40%
16. Texans 50% 32. Cardinals 38%

2018 Regular-Season Pass Rush Win Rate

TEAM PRWR TEAM PRWR
1. Panthers 62% 17. Bears 50%
2. Rams 61% 18. Giants 50%
3. Dolphins 60% 19. Browns 49%
4. Eagles 57% 20. Colts 49%
5. Bills 56% 21. Titans 48%
6. Steelers 56% 22. Chargers 47%
7. Falcons 56% 23. Broncos 47%
8. Chiefs 55% 24. Seahawks 47%
9. Redskins 55% 25. Cardinals 45%
10. Ravens 54% 26. Saints 44%
11. Packers 54% 27. Bucs 44%
12. 49ers 54% 28. Patriots 44%
13. Texans 53% 29. Jets 42%
14. Jaguars 53% 30. Vikings 41%
15. Cowboys 52% 31. Raiders 36%
16. Bengals 51% 32. Lions 32%

Brian Burke, Matt Morris and Kevin Seifert all contributed to this article.

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27 minutes ago, New York Mick said:

You need blocking. Got it

Maybe we should hire Seth Walder away from ESPN.

Brian Burke, Matt Morris and Kevin Seifert too!

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So blocking matters? Well I'll be.

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And thanks to Macc we have no pass blocking
Or, based on the above stats, pass rushing.

Sent from my SM-A520F using Tapatalk

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If you can't advance the ball you can't score 6 you wind up kicking for 3 mostly. Moving the chains and keeping possession is important it keeps opposition of the field and rests your D. Offense can help in many ways but especially getting 6 not 3.Score points....

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7 minutes ago, Apache 51 said:

If you can't advance the ball you can't score 6 you wind up kicking for 3 mostly. Moving the chains and keeping possession is important it keeps opposition of the field and rests your D. Offense can help in many ways but especially getting 6 not 3.Score points....

Sure but it helps if you can keep your qb upright for more than 3 seconds

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2 minutes ago, peebag said:

Sure but it helps if you can keep your qb upright for more than 3 seconds

That is a prerequisite..😁

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Meh, if pass blocking is so important how can you then try and diminish the importance of the guys that make it so important? If the purpose of this article is to proclaim that teams should prioritize OL over pass rushers, well then I philosophically disagree.  It's easier to find OL talent than it is to find a true pass rusher. 

The other factor here is QB play/system.  A great QB in the right system can neutralize a lot of deficiencies on the OL.  

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14 minutes ago, JiF said:

Meh, if pass blocking is so important how can you then try and diminish the importance of the guys that make it so important? If the purpose of this article is to proclaim that teams should prioritize OL over pass rushers, well then I philosophically disagree.  It's easier to find OL talent than it is to find a true pass rusher. 

The other factor here is QB play/system.  A great QB in the right system can neutralize a lot of deficiencies on the OL.  

I agree. This article just feels like someone trying to appear smart. And even then, they say that a single pass rusher is probably more valuable than a single OL. If they move their arbitrary 2.5 second mark to 3 seconds, who wins and loses the pass rush more? 

The rules favor offense, so doing everything to take advantage of that is the right thing to do. 

And 100%, it's still about the QB. Moreso than ever. 

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Defensive minded fans will rebel against this since of the "accepted" EDGE is so important mantra, but this guy is 100% correct. Modern NFL football is really ALL about OL and QB

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If you think about it, this can actually still apply to "Defense wins championships". 

The O-line is basically the defense of the Offense. While pass rushers are the offense of the defense. In this case defense still technically wins so one could figure this out by the same logic.

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Too bad Kelvin Beachum and Shell are better at pass blocking than any Edge we had since Abe at pass rushing 

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14 hours ago, johnnysd said:

Defensive minded fans will rebel against this since of the "accepted" EDGE is so important mantra, but this guy is 100% correct. Modern NFL football is really ALL about OL and QB

QBs, yes. The OL, not so much. QBs get the ball out so quickly today that the OL is probably less important than it was when most offensive linemen needed second jobs to pay their mortgages. Even this article states that a single pass rusher is worth more than a single OL. Why? Because if 4/5 OL hold their blocks for their arbitrary 2.5 seconds, but one guy still gets to the QB, the DL wins that down. 

The NFL has come down to passing the football and stopping the pass. Probably a sign that you shouldn't spend $30M/year on a RB and a MLB, but I digress. We just had two very modern, very prolific, top five in both yards and points offenses face off in the Super Bowl. The result? The lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. Why? Both teams' defenses did an excellent job disrupting the other team's QB. Defense, particularly pass rush, still very much matters. 

As long as Darnold can get rid of the ball and/or feel the rush and move, the Jets lack of CBs is going to be a much bigger problem than the center position this season. 

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20 hours ago, JiF said:

Meh, if pass blocking is so important how can you then try and diminish the importance of the guys that make it so important? If the purpose of this article is to proclaim that teams should prioritize OL over pass rushers, well then I philosophically disagree.  It's easier to find OL talent than it is to find a true pass rusher. 

The other factor here is QB play/system.  A great QB in the right system can neutralize a lot of deficiencies on the OL.  

true enough and the way the colleges are passing the ball it's even easier to find pass blocking olinemen.  but it all comes down to keeping the other team off balance and putting them in situations where they are uncomfortable.  to that extent the oline is important so that the team can match points or play from a lead.  this forces the other team to score points and that usually means going to a passing game.

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Difference makers that can generate a pass rush are far more difficult to find that difference makers that can block on the offensive line. That is a great over-generalization, I realize.

And, there are far more available personnel that can be adequate blockers, than adequate pass rushers.

Macc basically ignored both areas, so I am not sure why we are discussing this.

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5 minutes ago, Scott Dierking said:

Difference makers that can generate a pass rush are far more difficult to find that difference makers that can block on the offensive line. That is a great over-generalization, I realize.

And, there are far more available personnel that can be adequate blockers, than adequate pass rushers.

Macc basically ignored both areas, so I am not sure why we are discussing this.

Kind of agree with you here. Not to start another poll, but..........you can have either LT or Anthony Munoz, completely healthy, for the next 10 years. Who do you take? I go LT, but I bet it would be very close.

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Conclusion:  Constantly draft OL in the middle rounds, because depth matters....a lot.  And if you don't have 1 elite pass rusher or at least a couple good ones, you need to find those too.  Effective pass-rushers can, and do, exploit teams who are starting one or 2 weak pass-blockers in a given week. 

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5 minutes ago, section314 said:

Kind of agree with you here. Not to start another poll, but..........you can have either LT or Anthony Munoz, completely healthy, for the next 10 years. Who do you take? I go LT, but I bet it would be very close. 

Lawrence Taylor.  Because against the team with Anthony Munoz, you just line him up on the RT's side. 

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4 minutes ago, Jetsfan80 said:

Conclusion:  Constantly draft OL in the middle rounds, because depth matters....a lot.  And if you don't have 1 elite pass rusher or at least a couple good ones, you need to find those too.  Effective pass-rushers can, and do, exploit teams who are starting one or 2 weak pass-blockers in a given week. 

Yup. 

The Jets have ignored the OL for too long, but that doesn't mean that you need to draft them in the first round. A pipeline of guys from the middle and late rounds is the way to go. Even this pro-OL article makes the case that a single great pass rusher is more valuable than a single great offensive lineman. Grab your EDGE in the top five, grab your OL in the later rounds. The key to a great OL is coaching. Coaching up a unit of capable guys to be greater than the sum of their parts. 

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15 hours ago, Grandy said:

If you think about it, this can actually still apply to "Defense wins championships". 

 

Offense wins games, Defense wins championships.

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8 minutes ago, bigalbarracuda said:

J. Dougie goes all in on OL next draft -- Center, Tackle, developmental G.

Wonder what Douglas here means for Jon Toth, the C that we picked up last year from Philly? Been hurt, but still young.

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20 minutes ago, slats said:

Yup. 

The Jets have ignored the OL for too long, but that doesn't mean that you need to draft them in the first round. A pipeline of guys from the middle and late rounds is the way to go. Even this pro-OL article makes the case that a single great pass rusher is more valuable than a single great offensive lineman. Grab your EDGE in the top five, grab your OL in the later rounds. The key to a great OL is coaching. Coaching up a unit of capable guys to be greater than the sum of their parts.  

Yep.  LT is hard to find outside of the 1st round.  The other spots on the line can easily be found in the middle rounds.  They just sometimes take a year or 2 to develop. 

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9 minutes ago, Apache 51 said:

Offense wins games, Defense wins championships.

Kind of.  People point to some of these high-scoring Super Bowls in recent years where one or 2 key defensive plays helped determine the winner, and come to the conclusion that defense still wins titles.  To an extent it does.  But was that really the case when the Eagles beat the Pats 41-33 in Super Bowl LII?  Where was the defense in that game?  That was a "last team to score wins" Super Bowl. 

How about the year before, when the Pats came back to beat the Falcons 34-28?  There was no defense on one side in the first half, and no defense on the other in the 2nd.  Pats 28, Seahawks 24.  Ravens 34, 49ers 31.  Packers 31, Steelers 25.  Plenty of instances where offense dominated the Super Bowl. 

What you need is an opportunistic defense.  One capable of getting to the QB and forcing mistakes from time to time.  Generally, that defense is going to get carved up, much like the rest of the defenses in the NFL.  But at key moments, you need stops or turnovers.  That's where defenses "wins" championships. 

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All automatically assume our pass blocking stinks since that's usually the reason these kinds of articles get posted.

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4 hours ago, section314 said:

Wonder what Douglas here means for Jon Toth, the C that we picked up last year from Philly? Been hurt, but still young.

Hopefully it's a situation where they were too deep on the OL and since Toth was hurt they had to let him go. 

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4 hours ago, section314 said:

Wonder what Douglas here means for Jon Toth, the C that we picked up last year from Philly? Been hurt, but still young.

Good point. I didn't realize Philly signed him as an UDFA first

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The Oline is more important IMO because the name of the game is to score points. 

It's easier to build an oline than it is to find a franchise pass rusher yes, but even the best pass rusher can be neutralized with pop passes and 3 step drops. 

If I were to build a football team the first order of business is the Oline. Not the QB not pass rusher...the Oline. Solidify the Oline means that I can maximize every offensive position on the field. 

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