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. For instance, the Miami Dolphins are far and away the top team through four weeks, largely because of the 728 total yards they put up against the Denver Broncos in Week 3. The Dolphins have been consistently near the top for both seasons under coach Mike McDaniel.
The Dolphins aren’t just some team that likes to play track meets with their opponents. Miami is on the right track to be a consistent contender.
Serious Super Bowl contenders tend to be right around 1.0 yards better on offense than what they allow on defense. There are factors — turnovers or penalties — that can mitigate the impact of yards per play differential.
Furthermore, the yards-per-play differential can be broken down even further, such as into the yard-per-play differential for passing yards. In that regard, the San Francisco 49ers are even more impressive.
However, the 49ers have been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL for four years when it comes to this stat, even as they have gone through quarterback changes.
Yards Per Play Differential Through Week 4
|Rank||Team||Offensive Avg.||Defensive Avg.||Net||Comment|
|1.||Miami||8.02||5.72||+2.30||If Vic Fangio can just make the defense average …|
|2.||San Francisco||6.34||4.51||+1.83||Stunningly consistent despite all the upheaval at QB.|
|3.||Baltimore||5.25||3.75||+1.50||The defense is good. It’s not this good.|
|4.||Minnesota||6.18||5.01||+1.17||Turnovers mitigate the huge positive.|
|5.||Detroit||5.70||4.54||+1.16||The Lions dictate games so well.|
|6.||Kansas City||5.89||4.99||+0.90||This is a very underrated defense|
|7.||Cleveland||4.44||3.80||+0.64||They have run 78 more plays than their opponents.|
|8.||Philadelphia||5.58||5.16||+0.42||The Eagles can still impose their will almost at will.|
|9.||L.A. Rams||5.49||5.10||+0.39||They are dominating time of possession like never before.|
|10.||Seattle||5.44||5.05||+0.39||Better than you think, but not actually good.|
|11.||Dallas||5.11||4.74||+0.35||The defense gets its first big test on Sunday night.|
|12.||Buffalo||5.94||5.73||+0.21||Living on turnovers for now. The defense must improve.|
|13.||L.A. Chargers||5.80||5.66||+0.14||Brandon Staley was supposed to be a defensive coach.|
|14.||Houston||5.34||5.21||+0.13||Biggest early surprise with C.J. Stroud playing well.|
|15.||New England||4.69||4.71||-0.02||This team is about as boring and mediocre as it gets.|
|16.||Denver||5.87||5.90||-0.03||Sloppy defense is the problem, not talent.|
|17.||Arizona||5.68||5.76||-0.08||There’s a lot of work ahead, but this is promising.|
|18.||Atlanta||4.58||4.71||-0.13||You can’t fake it at QB. Arthur Smith should know that.|
|19.||Tennessee||4.89||5.04||-0.15||There’s no explosiveness to complement the run game.|
|20.||Tampa Bay||4.88||5.04||-0.16||They should be way better on offense, even without Brady.|
|21.||Green Bay||4.86||5.02||-0.16||Opponents have run 50 more plays. The defense will wear down.|
|22.||Las Vegas||4.90||5.29||-0.39||Turnovers, bad strategy. Did McDaniels learn from Bill?|
|23.||New Orleans||4.41||4.81||-0.40||The defense’s numbers are inflated by a bad schedule.|
|24.||Indianapolis||4.82||5.24||-0.42||Anthony Richardson gets it, but it may take a while.|
|25.||N.Y. Jets||4.66||5.08||-0.42||Opponents have run 69 more plays. That’s troubling.|
|26.||Jacksonville||4.95||5.41||-0.46||The Jaguars should be good, but they’re not yet.|
|27.||Washington||4.81||5.59||-0.78||See the comment about Atlanta? Insert Ron Rivera.|
|28.||Chicago||5.05||6.10||-1.05||Once upon a time, the Bears played defense.|
|29.||Carolina||4.17||5.28||-1.11||Rarely seen a team so scared to expose its quarterback.|
|30.||Pittsburgh||4.57||5.70||1.13||Mike Tomlin is toying with his future by keeping Matt Canada.|
|31.||N.Y. Giants||4.00||5.60||-1.60||The offense is stuck in the mud in the swamps of Jersey.|
|32.||Cincinnati||4.00||5.69||-1.69||There’s a lot to unpack in a horrid start for a good team.|
Differential for Past 5 Super Bowl Teams
|Year||Team||Offensive Avg.||Defense Avg.||Net Avg.|
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on these rankings through the first four weeks:
- The top three teams in terms of average yards per play offensively are Miami, San Francisco and Minnesota. All have quarterbacks who have been considered highly questionable, but all have great supporting casts. You can cover up an average quarterback.
- Baltimore and Cleveland are the top two in yards allowed per play on defense, posting numbers that look like stuff out of the 1970s. However, both have benefitted from playing Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, two of the most inept offenses so far. Baltimore’s other two games were against Houston and rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and Indianapolis, which they lost against Gardner Minshew. There’s a lot of regression ahead for the Browns and Ravens.
- Speaking of Stroud, his passing numbers haven’t been outrageous at first glance. They are better than you think considering how ineffective the Texans’ running game is.
- As noted in the comments, some teams do a good job of simply running more plays than their opponents, such as the Rams (54 more plays than opponents so far), Dallas (63) and Cleveland (78). Some of that is good defense, and some of that is being efficient and getting first downs. In the long run, it does a great job of keeping the defense from getting worn out, which is critical during a long season.
- On the flip side, Green Bay (-50) and Pittsburgh (-53) are wearing out their defense by not keeping them off the field. This is a recipe for disaster long term.
- While Denver fans have every right to be upset with how the defense has played the past two weeks, the reality is the Broncos are making significant progress on offense. It might not be enough for Sean Payton to keep Russell Wilson, but this is a far cry from Denver’s chaos on offense last year. Big mistakes have hurt, but most of those are correctable.
- Living on turnovers is a chancy thing for teams, and Buffalo needs to pay close attention. The Bills are good, but giving up close to six yards per play won’t allow for good situational football. Likewise, the Dolphins are in a similar position with a defense that does not play to the strength of the offense by simply getting off the field as fast as possible.
- Jacksonville is playing like a team that thinks it’s really good before it has actually accomplished anything. In NFL parlance, this is also known as “Cowboyitis.”
- No team is more frightened of getting its quarterback hurt than Carolina with diminutive rookie Bryce Young. That shows both you watch them play and with the awful 4.17 yards they averaged on offense.
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.