by Bryan Knowles
Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at the league’s slot-wide splits for wide receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs and tight ends, all in an effort to showcase just a small fraction of the data available in Football Outsiders Almanac 2019.
Today, we finish up by flipping to the defensive side of the ball, with the help of the data that comes from the charting done by our friends at Sports Info Solutions. As a reminder, each player’s position is based on where they were they lined up on the field, rather than relative to other wideouts. The outside receiver in a bunch formation close to the offensive line is still considered a slot receiver, as opposed to an outside receiver.
2018 Defense: Overall Slot vs. Wide
Our first table looks at all targets each defense faced that were thrown to any player in the slot or out wide. We have listed each team’s DVOA and number of passes against both slot and wide targets; the rate of passes to players in the slot as a share of passes to either slot or wide receivers (Slot%); and the difference in DVOA from wide to slot. As a reminder, negative DVOA means better defense.
We have now tracked these splits for three years, and a trend is beginning to emerge: slot defense has so far been more consistent from year to year than wide defense. We don’t have enough years of data to make an overarching statement here, but the year-to-year correlation of defensive slot DVOA has been around 0.200 in each of the past two years; defensive wide DVOA has actually had a slight negative correlation. This could be just a small sample-size issue, with a couple of outliers flooding the data — look at Jacksonville bouncing 32nd to first to 14th in wide DVOA over the last three seasons, as their defense skyrocketed and then fell back to Earth. Or it could be that offenses have an easier time avoiding stellar boundary corners; that once a cornerback on the outside has gained a reputation as being a shutdown player, opposing offenses can alter their play calling and tendencies to attack the opposite side of the field, something that’s harder to do when attacking nickel and dime corners or safeties playing up the middle. It’s something we’ll continue to track going forward to see if this is a predictive difference or just an interesting quirk of the past three seasons.
If it is predictive, then it bodes well for teams that were strong in the slot but weak outside last season. Seattle, Miami, and Washington all were top-ten slot defenses but bottom-ten wide defenses a year ago. For Miami, being able to start an actual cornerback across from Xavien Howard, rather than playing Minkah Fitzpatrick out of position, should help — Fitzpatrick was very solid when asked to cover the slot as a corner/safety hybrid, but was often lost or just overmatched when asked to play outside. For Washington, the return of Quinton Dunbar, the team’s top boundary corner before he got hurt, should similarly help. Both teams were league-average out wide two years ago, and Washington in particular saw their drop in wide performance coupled to a significant increase in wide targets. Both should have some realistic hopes that they won’t be at the bottom of the wide charts in 2019. As for Seattle…
The Seahawks’ primary slot corner was Justin Coleman, who finished fifth in both success rate and yards per pass last season per SIS charting. The only reason the Seahawks didn’t finish first in slot defense overall was Shaquill Griffin, who matched Coleman with 34 slot targets but was 72nd out of 83 qualified quarterbacks with a 44 percent success rate. Griffin and Tre Flowers (64th in success rate) are a far drop from the golden age of the Legion of Boom. Interestingly, Seahawks opponents still treated the secondary like Richard Sherman was patrolling the boundaries; only three teams faced fewer passes out wide than the Seahawks did a year ago. Normally, I’d expect that to equalize a little bit as teams adapted to the new-look Seahawks secondary. However, Coleman is gone, out with a big new deal in Detroit. The Lions had the worst slot defense in football last season, so adding Coleman is a nice little feather in their cap, but it leaves the Seahawks with a significant hole to fill. There’s an open battle for his spot with little clarity as of yet, so how good Seattle will be in the slot in 2019 remains an open question.
Similarly, if wide defensive DVOA isn’t consistent from year to year, then that would bode quite poorly for the teams at the bottom of the table; the Vikings, 49ers, and Buccaneers. A lot of Minnesota’s “problems” in the slot — and we use that phrase in a relative sense, as most of the Vikings gap comes from Xavier Rhodes and company locking down the outside — are schematic, rather than talent-related. Things finally clicked for primary slot corner Mackenzie Alexander, who got stronger as the season went on and finished with a 69 percent success rate. Alexander led the Vikings with 30 targets in the slot. Right behind him with 24 targets was “uncovered.” That’s actually less than the league average, but teams with “uncovered” fairly high on their lists typically had some issues in coverage.
Tampa Bay was one of five teams with their primary slot target being marked as “uncovered,” and their fourth-highest target was “hole in zone.” That means their opponents averaged 3.8 targets per game to someone nobody was covering in the slot, more than any other team in the league. Those targets were 6.4 yards downfield, deepest in the league, and double the average of 3.2. Between the two of them, neither M.J. Stewart nor Tahir Whitehead were world-beaters in corner coverage, but they were at least better than literally no one. The fact that the Buccaneers finished 30th and not dead last when covering the slot is a testament to just how bad Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs (in coverage, at least) and Mike Ford were in Detroit, or Ahkello Witherspoon was in San Francisco.
In general, you can see the league’s continued focus on prioritizing slot over wide targets continuing here, with only the Chicago Bears seeing less than half their targets in the slot. A lot of that for Chicago comes from Eddie Jackson, who was the best coverage safety in football last year; things weren’t that much easier on the outside, but Jackson was both a shutdown cover guy and a ball-hawking turnover machine. Even then, the Bears saw just a three-pass difference between slot and wide. If current trends continue, we could well see every team in the league covering slot passes more frequently in 2019.
2018 Defense vs. Wide Receivers
This next table will feature the same data as the previous table, but limited to just targets that went to wide receivers.
This is, of course, very similar to the first table, for the simple fact that wide receivers get the majority of pass targets. 75 percent of slot targets and 91 percent of wide targets went to wide receivers in 2018, so for most teams, the differences were slight; 26 teams finished within five percentage points of their overall wide DVOA against wide receivers, and 23 teams finished within five points in slot DVOA.
There were three notable differences. The Giants and Seahawks were both much worse covering wideouts in the slot than they were the entire pool of slot players. New York’s slot DVOA against wideouts was 30.8%; against running backs and tight ends, it was -16.9%. Seattle’s slot DVOA against wideouts was -3.9%, improving to -77.4% against backs and tight ends. That’s especially impressive for Seattle as they lost Earl Thomas and had to deal with George Kittle twice a year. Throw Kittle out, and Seattle’s slot DVOA improves to -88.8%. Bobby Wagner might well be the best coverage linebacker in football and Bradley McDougald was solid as well, contributing significantly to Seattle’s success. For the Giants, Landon Collins was significantly better than Janoris Jenkins and (the now-departed) B.W. Webb; Collins ended up with the most coverage against tight ends and backs while Jenkins and Webb struggled against the wideouts. Bringing in Jabrill Peppers somewhat eases the pain of losing Collins, but that’s a heck of a player to try to replace.
On the flipside were the Vikings, with a -4.6% slot DVOA against wideouts and a 54.3% slot DVOA against everyone else; they were dead-last when covering tight ends lined up in the slot. With Trey Burton, Jimmy Graham, and T.J. Hockenson in the division, that may be the sort of thing that could end up hurting them this year — more on that in four paragraphs.
2018 Defense vs. Running Backs
These last two tables are here mostly for completeness. The average defense faced 10 pass attempts all season against running backs in the slot, and just 7.1 split out wide; nine running backs accounted for over 40 percent of running back targets lined up outside of the backfield last season. We’ve ranked defenses by DVOA here for you, but this is small sample size theatre at it’s finest.
Cleveland’s -778.8% DVOA against running backs split out wide might be the best rating we’ve ever published here. Christian Kirksey intercepted a pass aimed at Melvin Gordon at the 4-yard line; Larry Ogjunobi forced Joe Flacco to throw the ball away in the general direction of Javorious Allen. Two plays. You can guess how predictive that is.
And yes, the Titans somehow faced no targets to running backs lined up in the slot in all of 2018, after facing 16 a year ago. There’s a piece of obscure trivia for you.
2018 Defense vs. Tight Ends
Tight ends split out wide are essentially not a thing; the clue is in the name. Only four tight ends — Jared Cook, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Gerald Everett — hit double-digit targets split out wide in 2018. The slot column is a little more meaningful; it’s still very small sample sizes but every defense had at least 25 targets to go on.
In 2017, the Vikings were the best defense in football against tight ends in the slot, with a -47.9% DVOA. Dropping to 54.7% can’t only be explained by tougher competition, though it certainly didn’t help. Eight different tight ends had at least two slot targets against Minnesota, and the Vikings only managed to put up a negative DVOA against one of them. Surprisingly, it was not league-worst tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, who caught five passes for a season-high 69 yards against Minnesota in October. Instead, it was first-ballot Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, whose two slot targets gained a whopping 7 yards. Outside of Gronk, the Vikings were regularly beaten by the likes of Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, and George Kittle in addition to the aforementioned Seals-Jones, and their tight end schedule does not get better in 2019. Something to keep in mind for fantasy purposes, at least, if you’re streaming tight ends.