Written by Matthew Slinn
As everyone who loves this sport knows, there are multiple facets that make a successful team. The pure fact that different players specialise in offensive, defensive and special teams responsibilities make football (American Football for my fellow Brits) a true team game – if one section isn’t pulling it’s weight, most of the time, a team won’t be successful. Now, the easiest way to measure success, other than looking at a team’s record, is to survey statistics. Certain stats have an ability to give a basic narrative – they’re like the blurb to a story, giving an overview without always delving deeper into underlying themes. When trying to assess the success of a team, it’s easier to find the answers in some areas compared to others. Take passing offense for example – usually, if the QB has excellent passing stats, that is a definite strength for a team, meaning it is easy to sort the have’s from the have not’s without any numbers being particularly misleading. However, flip the field over to pass defense and we find a much murkier picture, especially in the SFL.
Let’s face it, the stat tracking in the SFL is rudimentary by today’s standards in professional sports. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a shot at the league – we are already maximising detail with the facilities that we have. We don’t have swathes of people tracking every play, trying to gauge player impact based on ‘Next Gen’ stats. For me, this presents itself mostly obviously when gauging how good a team is on pass defense. The main statistic we track on a team by team basis in this regard is Yards Against Per Game through the air. Coupled with total TDs conceded against the pass, this gives the SFL community a view that is lacking in nuance. We should all know that there are many revolving factors that play a part in creating these numbers, and these numbers alone don’t necessarily tell you who has the #1 passing defence in the league.
With all that being said, it would be remiss of me to complain about the vague nature of these team statistics without trying to solve a few things. Therefore, last week I decided to tie a rope around a sturdy tree and delve into a cave of statistics. After some internet research (the validity of which can be debated, of course) I stumbled across something called ‘Pass Defense Efficiency’, a single value reached through the evaluation of a variety of statistics. The following was the process I took to apply ‘Pass Defence Efficiency’ to the SFL to try and discover which team was a nightmare to throw the ball against.
Firstly, we need to look at the pieces that make the ‘PDE’ puzzle. Straight off the bat, I looked to the easiest stats to gather from the SFL website – Pass Yards Against per Game and Number of Interceptions. I noted down the P/yards immediately, then careful not to also include turnovers from fumbles, I collated the interception numbers. Already, some might think we have enough, but in reality, all that this tells you is how aggressive a team’s defensive backs are when the ball is in the air and how many yards they have conceded, without explaining the factors why. Let’s loosen the rope and dive deeper. The next run of statistics took a lot longer to collate as I had to essentially go through every game played in the SFL so far this season, team by team.
The first step I took was to add up how many passes each team had faced so far this season (yes, I used a calculator) and from that number I could calculate three very important things: the interceptions percentage of each team; the average Yards per Attempt that each defense has given up; the percentage of passes against each team’s defense which ended up in a TD. One interesting discovery from this particular set of numbers was that, despite the belief that interceptions numbers are ridiculously high in this league, some teams had an INT% that was lower than the % of TD’s they had shipped.
After a couple of days of stat collecting, I had one more task – find the average Passing % Against each team so far this season. That required adding together every QB’s passing percentage against that particular defense and finding a mean value. By far, this was the most tedious part of the journey. Once I had a full spreadsheet of statistics (yes, I realise I haven’t included pass deflections, something I may do if I revisit) I had to rank the teams from 1-24 in each category, averaging out the results to get a final ranking, giving me my final ‘PDE’ rankings.
Now, these rankings are presuming that every statistical group is weighted equally. You could argue that they are not and I would be inclined to agree, however, with no real way of weighting them against each other without causing a mess, I decided to continue as I was. So, if you have read this far, I thank you for your patience. If you have skipped this section and jumped straight to the juicy stuff, then I don’t blame you.
Disclaimer: These statistics were taken before Week 10 was played. I was going to adjust, but with the re-arranging of fixtures to Monday night, and the majority of the article written, I decided to keep it the same. I figured that most trends would remain true through Week 10, so the stats wouldn’t be affected much.
Feel free to look into your team’s statistics at your leisure. For the next part of the article, we will take a look at the teams that came out with the highest ‘PDE’ and those with the lowest.
Bottom 5 (actually 6)
At the very foot of our ‘PDE’ rankings, we find the San Diego Mavericks. Now, this may not surprise many, given the struggles the Mavericks have faced in their debut season. San Diego have a very young, raw centre that is flanked by experience in the form of Jacob Clear and Ron Hoff. The new kids on the block have struggled across the board in comparison with other teams defending the pass, their highest placing being 18th in P/Yards per game. The Mavericks don’t make many interceptions, stop the opposition from gaining a lot of yards per attempt and have the worst TD% against them in the league. You can only believe that next season will show an improvement. A fairly large jump above them are the Vancouver Legion and surprisingly, the Arizona Scorpions. Now, regarding the Legion, we kind’ve just accept that this is the way they play. High octane on offense, aggression in defense. Their interceptions numbers are pretty good and they do a good job of restricting the opposing QB to a fairly low passing %. The issue is, when the QB does connect, it is for a lot of yardage and quite often for a touchdown. Vancouver are one of the few teams that have a higher TD% against than INT%. They hide it well with a great ability to score, but if the Legion are to be serious contenders, this area needs cleaning up.
The previously mentioned Scorpions will shock a lot of people, however their story reads much like Vancouver’s. The 5-5 Scorpions score a lot of points (defensive guru Eddie Gauge seems to have figured out that side of the ball) but at what cost has it come? The Scorpions aren’t setting the world alight in any category on Pass D, something I’m sure Gauge can clean up fairly quickly.
Sitting just above are a trio of teams whose ‘PDE’ averaged out at the exact same value – the DC Dragons, Atlanta Swarm and the Sioux Falls Sparrows. All three of these teams (two of whom were in the playoffs last season) are struggling and are either out of the playoffs or on the outside looking in. DC’s issues stem from an inability to turn the ball over. The Dragons are great at restricting offenses to short passes, however this has allowed teams to dink and dunk the ball down the field and when things get into the red zone, that lack of aggressiveness and ability to track the ball in the air really stunts this group. The same can be said for the Atlanta Swarm, who have faced their fair share of passes this season. They have contained long plays well, but takeaways are nowhere to be seen, something that I believe plagued the team last season. Sioux Falls don’t concede many TD’d through the air – they are 4th in this category. However, opposition QB% is the highest in the SFL against Sioux Falls and the Sparrows have been allowing a fair chunk of yardage per completion too.
Let’s take a look at the rankings table before we move onto the best pass defences in the SFL – according to my ‘PDE’ calculations.
By an absolute mile, the best pass defence in the SFL is that of the Fort Worth Toros. The team from Texas have shut down opposing QB’s to a point that it must be terrifying to go up against the Toros secondary. Fort Worth lead the league in Opp TD% and Opp YPA. If that wasn’t enough evidence to suggest greatness, they sit pretty in the top 5 in every other category. Passing against the Toros is like swimming with sharks – you do it at your own risk. If you make it out unscathed, thank your lucky stars and only return with masses of reluctance. There is a sizeable gap to the team at #2, the St. Louis Gladiators.
St. Louis have been one of the streakiest franchises in the SFL this season, but one thing that has remained consistent is the innate ability to be a nightmare to throw on. Whilst they aren’t the top team in any particular category, consistency is key for the Gladiators, who have done a great job of restricting opposing QB completion % through aggressive play. The INT numbers are high and if that Opp TD% could be a hair lower, they would be challenging Fort Worth for the top spot. Next up in our rankings are two teams that may turn the heads of some – the Houston Hyenas and the London Knights.
The Hyenas have performed above expectations for most of this season after a rough off-season, and the Knights are coming off a terrible W/L record in Season 15, although many believed things to be changing for the better. Interestingly enough, moments before this sentence was written, it was announced that the Week 10 game between Houston and London will be re-arranged due to playbook issues, further illustrating why I must stick to the statistics gathered after Week 9. Anyway, these defenses share #3 in my rankings, through vastly different approaches. The Hyenas clearly like to forego conceding a few more yards to the opposition, instead endeavouring to make as many turnovers as possible. On the other hand, the Knights have adopted a more conservative approach, suffocating the opposition QB through short throws and a tenaciousness in the red zone. Many teams have struggled to gain much through the air against the 4-5 Knights.
Finishing off our Top 5 are the Tulsa Desperados, the team that has faced the fewest amount of passes this season. Now, you may think that this has a large bearing in skewing the statistics in favour of Tulsa, but when you look at the fact that they are Top 5 in Opp Comp % and TD%, their ability to stop the pass is undeniable. The Desperados are 5-5 after a rollercoaster of a season behind rookie QB, Jay Cue. Nate Hezlep and company should look to keep this high level of play to a maximum to assist Cue in bringing Tulsa to a surprise playoff berth.
The only question I was going to ask myself after all was said and done is ‘Am I happy with the results?‘. The more I mulled it over in my mind, I realised that it isn’t important whether I’m happy with the results – the results are what they are. What I should be thinking critically about, especially if I am to do this again with a different facet of the game, is ‘Am I happy with the process’. My answer to that is fairly simple – I’m undecided. I know that I put a ton of work in to gather the statistics and that it is difficult to emulate ‘Next Gen’ stat tracking in the SFL, but I can’t help feeling like I could have been more vigilant, giving me more accurate results. Obviously, I want you to read this article and debate it. I’m sure many of you will look at the statistics with a pinch of salt, but I want to know from you, was it worth it? Should I do this again? Your feedback would be most welcome. I loved writing this article – more than many I have penned recently. I just need to know that there is an audience out there who will enjoy reading it. So, my final question is, ‘Did you enjoy this piece?’.
Until next time…potentially.