Casual football bettors get seduced by mostly by offense – big passes and flashy runs. They don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about defense, and when they do they typically focus on the highlight reel plays – the big sacks and the impressive interceptions. When the defensive linemen aren’t getting those sacks they don’t get a lot of attention from casual bettors – in large part because people don’t understand a lot of what they do and stats aren’t as easy to find and interpret as they are for other positions. For smart handicappers, though, the defensive line is crucially important, and a good place to find an edge that can help you find winners. Here are five factors to consider when you are looking at defensive lines while handicapping football games:
Negative pass play percentage – This is a very simple statistic that can be very valuable for understanding how effective a defensive line is overall. Simply put, it is the percentage of pass plays by the opponent that end up in either an interception or a sack. Obviously, the better the NPP% is, the better the defensive line likely is. This number can be very useful when trying to compare two different football teams. If one has a significantly better NPP% than their opponent then they could have a big edge in their game and you can use that when betting.
Yards per rushing attempt – This one should be pretty straight forward. The defensive line has the primary responsibility for stopping the run, so their ability to stop the run is a good indicator of the strength of the line. The impact of being able to stop the run has far reaching implications. If a football team can perform well against the run then their opponent might be forced to move away from the run and focus on the pass. That means that the secondary and the linebackers can focus on the pass, and do a better job of their defense in that regard. As with most stats this becomes more and more useful the bigger the sample size. The more games the defense has played the more different styles and skills they have faced, and the better sense you can get of their overall ability.
Opponent’s third down percentage – The pressure is most intense on the defensive line when it’s third down. That’s when they really earn their money, because if they can stop their opponents they aren’t getting scored against, and they can get off the field and let the offense try to score. It should go without saying, then, that the lower the opponent’s success rate is on third down the better the defensive line likely is.
The rankings for football teams in those three previous stats can be combined into something called the Defensive Hog Index. For handicappers the potential of this stat is very significant. There is a very strong correlation between success in this Index and success against the spread over the course of the season. If a team is strong in the Index then there is a much higher than average chance that they are a profitable team to bet on.
Experience – There are a lot of nuances involved in playing the defensive line. When a football player makes the move up from college to the NFL they are taking a major step up in class. The lineman they are colliding with on every snap are bigger and stronger than they are used to, the opposing playbook is more complex, and the speed of the game is much faster. There are obviously freakish players who can step right in and play very well, but for the most part it takes a while to get familiar with what is needed of you. It also takes a while for a defensive line to get comfortable with each other and where they need to be. As a general rule, then, a significant different in experience between two lines would give an advantage to the more senior squad.
Scheme – You might have a personal preference for a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. When it comes to football handicapping, though, it really doesn’t matter – we have seen that both schemes can be very effective when done well. What’s important for handicappers, though, is how well the team is capable of running the scheme that they have chosen. How strong is the defensive coordinator and the defensive line coach? Have they been with the team for a while, or are they new to the squad? How long has the football team been running the scheme they are using? Do they have the personnel suited to what they need?