Playoff Trait No. 5: Pounding the Rock with Elite Pass Rush

By Robert Simpson and Peter Engler

This is the fifth cluster of teams in our study of traits associated with NFL playoff teams. For a look at how we established these clusters, click here.

Passing is not this group’s forte, but they make it tough on their opponents to pass as well. These teams are more prone to old-fashioned, grind it out football, and this approach has produced at least some success in earning a postseason berth.

Potentially the most surprising cluster, this group hasn’t shown the ability to get deep into the playoffs (0 teams to make the conference championships), but has sent 25% of its teams to at least the wildcard round. This cluster is led by the 2017 Panthers (11-5) and includes a pair of 2019 teams in the Colts and Broncos before arriving at the 3-13 records of 2013 Washington and 2011 Minnesota. Teams in this group averaged 7.6 wins.

On offense, this cluster didn’t move the ball through the air successfully, whether by choice or inability. With averages of only 222 passing yards per game and 20 passing touchdowns, their 25th percentiles rank above just 10% and 15% of all teams respectively. These teams seem to acknowledge this weakness, however, and average 28 rush attempts per game to pick up a respectable 4.6 yards per carry as the second-best rushing cluster.

Where these teams really stand out is with their best-in-class pass rush with a 25th percentile above 54% of all teams. With rushers like Von Miller and Julius Peppers (who interestingly led both the 2017 Panthers and 2015 Packers to this tier), getting after the quarterback was a huge part in this cluster’s above-average rankings in both pass and rush defense, but they could be successfully neutralized with an effective short passing game (average 64% completion rate allowed).

Minnesota (5 times) and Carolina (4 times) lead the way here due in large part to the talents of Adrian Peterson, Everson Griffen, and Julius Peppers. Other standout pass rushers follow, with Von Miller’s Denver and Robert Quinn’s early-decade Rams (3 times each) showing why it’s such a highly paid position.

The 2020 Giants and Football Team are the only two teams from this season who are projected to be in this cluster at the end of the season. With the NFC East playoff picture, one of these teams may still make the postseason, and both teams boast strong defensive lines and a solid running game.

Even when passing the ball isn’t working, defense and running the ball has allowed these teams to remain somewhat competitive. Defense continues to be an important theme in this series, and was able to carry one team from the next cluster to a Super Bowl championship.

Read all seven clusters:

The First Cluster: Dominant Defense and Run Game

The Second Cluster: Efficient Offense with Opportunistic Defense

The Third Cluster: High-Powered Passing with Solid Defense

The Fourth Cluster: Elite Passing with Mediocre Defense

The Fifth Cluster: Pounding the Rock with Elite Pass Rush

The Sixth Cluster: All Defense

The Final Cluster: Inefficient Passing and Turnovers

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