NFL teams are absolutely obsessed with the defensive line. Finding players who can consistently provide pass rushing pressure is very hard to do, but teams use a lot of draft picks and spend millions on free agents in an attempt to do so. A team that can pressure the quarterback gets all sorts of attention form the public and the media. One that can stuff the run is a bit more under the radar, but no less valued by team management. The best way for a defensive front to provide apply pressure is a topic of much debate and contention, and there are about as many advocates of 3-4 schemes as those that back a 4-3.
While you can debate what type of defensive front is best, there is no doubt from a betting perspective that identifying strong defensive line play is very good for the bankroll. All you need to do to see how true that is is to look at what happened last year. The measure of defensive front strength that I find the most comprehensive and useful is the defensive hog index. That index measures the effective of teams in three statistical categories – the yards per rushing attempt that the opposing offenses amass, the NPP% which is the percentage of pass plays that the defense is on the field for that end up with a negative result for the offense (a sack or an interception), and the opponent’s success rate on third down. The standings in the league in those three stats are averaged together for each stat, and the team with the lowest average tops the index. It’s a very powerful stat – especially from a betting perspective. There were 14 teams in the NFL last year that were profitable against the spread over the course of the whole season. Nine of the top ten teams in the defensive hog index were profitable against the NFL point spread. The one that wasn’t – Miami – was very close at 8-8 ATS. Green Bay topped both the defensive hog index and the ATS standings. In short, if a team plays very well on the defensive line then there is a very good chance that they are a good team to bet on. There are very few statistical measurements that are more closely related to betting success.
Looking backwards to establish a link between performance and betting success is nice, but only if you can then look forward and predict the teams that are going to be good this year. Here’s a look at five teams with a very good chance of having strong defensive front play:
Green Bay – Last year Green Bay had the best performance in the league from their front seven. They were tops in negative pass play percentage, and second in yards per rushing attempt. Their play should be strong again this year, though they suffered a serious blow this weak when starting defensive end Johnny Jolly, a run stopping machine, was suspended for the full season due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Their ability to compensate quickly for that loss will dictate the success of the unit, but there is a decent chance that they will be okay. After all, Jolly emerged from almost nowhere after being just a sixth round pick in 2006.
Minnesota – Jared Allen is the best defensive end in the league in my eyes. No one stuffs the run in the middle better than the one-two punch of Kevin and Pat Williams. The linebacking corps is more than solid. It’s not a wonder that this team ranked so well in the defensive hog index – they were third overall, and one of only two teams to finish in the top ten in the league in all three statistical categories. Age could be a factor, but as long as they can stay healthy this is a team to watch.
Baltimore – The Ravens have enjoyed a fair bit of success built on the play of their defensive front, and though age is increasingly an issue there is no reason to believe that they aren’t going to be strong yet again. They were tops in the league last year at yards per attempt, and when you add the monstrous Terrence Cody to an already deep unit there’s no reason to believe that they will be anything less than brilliant at stuffing the run again this year. Trevor Pryce is aging, but still impressive in a 3-4 scheme. The Ravens have consistently found linebackers, and they still have a strong collection.
Dallas – I’d like this team a lot more if they had pressured the passer last year better than they did. Still, they have a strong front three, and scary outside linebackers. The biggest question here is defensive end Igor Olshansky. He has been disappointing in each of the last two seasons, but he’s only 28 and was very good in 2007. If he can bounce back strong this year then he could be the key to a very strong unit.
Philadelphia – Literally the only thing I have liked about the Eagles the last couple of years is the play of their defensive front. They have largely resisted the temptation to chase stars, but have instead they have put together units who are committed to each other and are better than the sum of their parts. They were the second best team in the defensive hog index last year, and should be solid again this year. The addition of Brandon Graham in the draft could prove to be one of the best picks of the draft – the guy is an absolute beast, and a very good fit for this defense.