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Ranking Every NFL Team by Yards Per Play Differential at Midseason

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

Football is a turf war, and this is how you measure it.

For years, one of the stats analysts and gamblers love to use in assessing how good or bad a team is performing is yards per play differential. While it sounds complex, it’s pretty simple.

How many yards does your offense gain on the average play vs. how many yards does your defense allow per play? If you have any hope of winning or even getting to a Super Bowl, the difference better be positive. This is a measure of how teams play on a down-by-down basis where the impact of one or two big plays or flukey circumstances can impact the results.

Yards Per Play Differential at Midseason

Rank Team Offensive Average Defensive Average Net Comment
1 MIA 7.08 5.06 +2.02 Oddly, they have forced only four INTs all season.
2 BAL 5.71 4.08 +1.63 Their stunning defense has mauled some quality opponents.
3 SF 6.25 5.05 +1.20 The talent is there, execution has lagged lately.
4 KC 5.74 4.77 +0.97 They are right where they want to be, even with minor issues.
5 DET 5.65 5.10 +0.55 They are on the cusp of being a serious
6 MIN 5.59 5.04 +0.34 Kevin O’Connell is doing a superb job overall.
7 BUF 5.90 5.56 +0.31 Injuries on defense are crushing this team.
d DAL 5.28 4.97 +0.30 For all the talk about the Cowboys, they don’t really stand out.
9 ATL 5.18 4.88 +0.30 They’re better than you think, but not actually good.
10 HOU 5.49 5.20 0.29 A coach and a quarterback can cover up a lot of issues.
11 SEA 5.36 5.09 +0.27 Sobering stat: 0pponents have run 92 more plays than the Seahawks.
12 CLE 4.58 4.34 +0.24 If Deshaun Watson improves just a little, this could be a contender.
13 PHI 5.50 5.27 +0.23 The numbers don’t reflect how dominant they can be when they want.
14 GB 5.01 4.89 +0.12 Patience with Jordan Love is a must, but don’t waste a good defense.
15 IND 5.21 5.18 +0.03 The wasted year for Anthony Richardson is a bummer.
16 NO 4.97 4.97 0.00   Mediocrity, thy name is New Orleans (in football, at least).
17 NYJ 4.58 4.64 -0.06 Imagine what could have been with a healthy Aaron Rodgers.
18 LAR 5.29 5.37 -0.08 Good drafting despite all the picks they traded away.
19 JAX 5.13 5.21 -0.08  Passing defense issues are covered up by league-high 11 INTs.
20 TEN 5.16 5.36 -0.20 The switch to Will Levis injects some hope in a boring team.
21 LAC 5.34 5.57 -0.23 They are a bizarre team that should be playing way better than statistics show.
22 NE 4.74 4.98 -0.24  It’s really hard to watch New England's offense right now.
23 CHI 5.17 5.42 0.25  The lost time for Justin Fields is a problem for the decision process.
24 LV 4.74 5.13 -0.39  Don’t be fooled by a win against the Giants, this team is still a mess.
25 WAS 5.11 5.68 -0.57 At least they took on the process of rebuilding, full-bore.
26 ARI 4.74 5.44 -0.70  Kyler Murray returns, but is the new coaching staff interested in him?
27 PIT 4.69 5.53 -0.84  T.J. Watt deserves serious MVP consideration.
28 TB 4.93 5.77 -0.84 About three times a game, Baker Mayfield does something to catch your attention.
29 CAR 4.22 5.22 -1.00  The Panthers continue to call plays as if they are playing in a shoebox.
30 DEN 5.34 6.34 -1.00  Sean Payton is up to something, but we won’t what know for a couple of years.
31 CIN  4.69 5.89 -1.20  The numbers are still suppressed from the rough early season.
32 NYG 4.10 5.58 -1.48  Brian Daboll constantly losing his mind is really not a great look.

Top Takeaways

Miami on the Mountaintop

It’s easy to dismiss the Miami Dolphins despite their domination of the yard-per-play differential rankings to this point of the season.

Miami’s latest loss to a team with a winning record – a 21-14 decision against the Kansas City Chiefs – continued a troubling pattern. The Dolphins have lost seven straight games against teams with winning records. Furthermore, their past 10 wins are against a parade of bad teams, including the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots (twice) this year.

Miami’s only quality win this year is the opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, who are now 4-4.

Meanwhile, the losses have been telling. The Buffalo Bills overwhelmed Miami earlier this season, and the Philadelphia Eagles imposed their will by running 20 more plays than the Dolphins.

Even worse, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa let a chance at victory against Kansas City slip through his hands on the last play when he mishandled a snap. It was a play that added a punctuation mark and a laugh track to Miami’s struggles against good teams.

The Dolphins are not a physically imposing team. Their loss against the Eagles showed that, and even the Chiefs' defensive line pushed around the Dolphins. In both games, the Dolphins' high-powered offense (which gains an average of 7.08 yards per play for the season) was throttled (they averaged only 5.05 yards per play against the Eagles and Chiefs).

While it’s easy to dismiss the Dolphins as a finesse-oriented team that’s not ready for the likes of last year’s two Super Bowl teams, it’s hard to ignore that Miami is making strides. The loss to the Chiefs had plenty of positives.

First, Miami’s defense had one of its best showings to date. The defense allowed the Chiefs only 4.77 yards per play (the Dolphins outgained the Chiefs in that game) and gave up only 14 points. The Chiefs opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Over Kansas City’s next eight possessions, they scored one touchdown, punted six times and fumbled once. The Chiefs crossed midfield twice all game.

Furthermore, the Chiefs touchdown return of a fumble by Tyreek Hill was a 10-point swing at minimum. The Dolphins were in field goal range when Hill coughed it up.

The Dolphins aren’t as good as their pure numbers show. But they aren’t as bad as some analysts want you to believe.

The New Lamar Jackson

The Baltimore Ravens, fueled by a defense only allowing 4.1 yards per play, aren’t just averaging 1.63 more yards per play than their opponents. They have finally created the perfect team to win a title with Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

While that sounds like a backhanded compliment to Jackson, it is a recognition of what Jackson does well and not so well. Furthermore, it’s about what the Ravens shouldn’t ask him to be.

Jackson is no longer the whirling dervish runner who could cause havoc the way he did in his 2019 MVP season. That was obvious Sunday against Seattle when Jackson took off on a run to left. Jackson had the corner of the defense for a moment. The 2019 version of Jackson would have blown past the tackler for a significant gain. The Jackson of today took a nice gain and got out of bounds before being hit.

What Jackson has become is super-efficient. He is completing a career-high 71.5 percent (his previous high was 66.1 percent in 2019) and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt (behind only his 7.8 yards in 2019). He has only three interceptions for a career-low 1.2 interception rate. As a runner, he is averaging 9.3 carries a game (his lowest since his rookie season) and is averaging a career-low (but still good) 5.1 yards per carry.

Importantly, what Jackson doesn’t have to do is make a lot of high-leverage plays, such as third-and-long throws into tight windows. He also doesn’t have to take chances with his legs that might put him in harm’s way (and therefore sometimes on the bench). If Baltimore will capitalize on what they have with Jackson, now is the time.

Mike Tomlin's Battle

Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin should arguably be the NFL Coach of the Year through the first half of the season for overcoming the obstacles his team has faced.

The problem is that Tomlin is mainly responsible for the obstacles.

Somehow, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-3 this season. Considering they still have home games against the Green Bay Packers, the Arizona Cardinals and the Patriots, another season with 9 or 10 wins and a playoff berth is attainable. That comes despite opponents out-gaining the Steelers by a staggering 0.84 yards per play and outscoring them by 30 points for the season.

Simply put, the Steelers are playing like a team that should end up with five wins for the season.

Frankly, it would be easy for Steelers defensive players to walk into the offensive team meetings and start screaming. The fact they haven’t is a testimony to how Tomlin manages the team.

That said, Tomlin’s devotion to Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator is almost inexplicable, and continuing to play RB Najee Harris over Jaylen Warren doesn’t make much sense. But those are just a couple of the issues the Steelers have with an offense that is, by any standard, simplistic.

Within all of this is one statistic that should worry Tomlin: opposing offenses have run 70 more plays than the Steelers’ offense so far this season. That trails only the Seattle Seahawks, whose opponents have run 92 more plays. For Pittsburgh, that projects to be more than 145 for the season. That’s how you burn out your defense.

With a game remaining against Baltimore and two remaining against the rejuvenated Cincinnati Bengals, that could mean ugly results.

Cowboys Cut Games Short

Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy talked a lot about adopting more analytics into his style, but the truth is McCarthy is back to his game-shortening best. The Cowboys do a great job limiting the overall number of plays run in a game. Right now, Dallas' games average 123.6 plays run per game, which is one the lowest in the league.

While the San Francisco 49ers do the same thing (122.6 plays per game), they do it because of the success of their running game. They can speed up when necessary. The question is whether or not Dallas can break out of that style at critical moments, such as in the final five minutes of the loss to Philadelphia. If not, McCarthy needs to rethink how they do that.

The Better of Big Cats

Which team is a better dark horse to win the Super Bowl this year, the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Detroit Lions? Many people probably would have picked the Jaguars before this season because of the presence of former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, especially over fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff.

The reality is a little different. Through eight games, Goff's Lions are averaging 0.5 yards more in the passing game over Lawrence's Jaguars. That’s without the Lions getting much from 2022 first-round pick Jameson Williams. If Williams can live up to the hype he had coming out of Alabama, the Lions will have a better-receiving corps than the Jaguars, and Goff will benefit even more.

Additionally, the Jaguars may have made a huge mistake in taking Travon Walker over Detroit’s Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 1 pick in 2022. Walker is OK, but he’s not Hutchinson.

Denver's Defense, Russell Wilson Both Deserve Blame

Denver’s defense, allowing 6.34 yards per play,  is the team’s biggest problem. However, the criticism tossed at QB Russell Wilson is entirely warranted. The Broncos are averaging only 5.7 yards per pass attempt despite a solid running game to help Wilson.

There are only 12 teams with a worse mark for passing yards per play. Among those teams, Joe Burrow is the only quarterback with a resume that is close to Wilson’s.

Vikings' Defensive Revolution

Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores remains a divisive figure in the coaching world for his lawsuit against the NFL and his handling of Tagovailoa when they were together in Miami. But Flores has done a great job of improving Minnesota's defense.

Last season, the Vikings gave up an average of 5.9 yards per play, including 6.9 in the air and 4.5 per rush. This year, they are down to a manageable 5.0/6.1/3.7. That works for playoff contention if coach Kevin O’Connell can get enough out of new QB Joshua Dobbs.

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo Sports, The Miami Herald and The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. You can follow Jason on Twitter @JasonCole62.