Defending Reality: Team Defense Scoring

A deeper look at fantasy scoring for team defenses.  

Nearly every Fantasy League has different rules for how to score a Team Defense. Many use the tried and true method of one point for a sack and two for a turnover. To add a little variety, many also add six points for the rare touchdown and yet another two for the rarest of scores - a safety. Other leagues try to tweak this scoring method by incorporating points against, yards against, or both.

FANTASY FOOTBALL SCORING - A HISTORY LESSON

The basis for fantasy scoring comes from an attempt to quantify an individual player's performance numerically and assign that a value proportional to his team's performance. Touchdowns and yardage usually translate to team success, and the offensive player is rewarded for such productivity.

The second iteration of fantasy scoring came about as an attempt to normalize different positions to a similar scoring system. Quarterbacks produce more touchdowns and yardage than running backs, who produce even more than wide receivers. The result for many leagues was to reduce the points for passing touchdowns and also passing yardage so as to make running backs more valuable. Other leagues go one step further by awarding an extra point per catch to each player to increase wide receiver and tight end values closer to running backs.

What does any of this have to do with Team Defense? I am glad that you asked that question. This article is an attempt to determine how to quantify Team Defense scoring in a manner that reflects the impact a defense has on the outcome of a game, and also to provide a normalized score for a Team Defense that puts the value of a Defense at or near par for other fantasy football positions.

BASELINE DEFENSE

First, we have to determine what constitutes a good Team Defense. Is it one that gives up the fewest yards, or the fewest points? An argument can be made for either being the case, so let's take a look at the rankings from last year to see which method more accurately reflects a successful season. The results for last season are in Table 1:

Team
Yds Vs Rk
Pts Vs Rk
Avg Rk
Seattle Seahawks
1
1
1
Detroit Lions
2
3
2.5
Buffalo Bills
4
4
4
Kansas City Chiefs
7
2
4.5
Baltimore Ravens
8
6
7
San Francisco 49ers
5
10
7.5
Denver Broncos
3
16.5
9.75
New England Patriots
13
8
10.5
San Diego Chargers
9
13.5
11.25
Houston Texans
16
7
11.5
Minnesota Vikings
14
11
12.5
Green Bay Packers
15
13.5
14.25
Arizona Cardinals
24
5
14.5
New York Jets
6
24
15
Indianapolis Colts
11
19
15
Carolina Panthers
10
21
15.5
Miami Dolphins
12
20
16
Cleveland Browns
23
9
16
St. Louis Rams
17
16.5
16.75
Dallas Cowboys
19
15
17
Cincinnati Bengals
22
12
17
Pittsburgh Steelers
18
18
18
Washington Redskins
20
29.5
24.75
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25
25
25
Philadelphia Eagles
28
22.5
25.25
New York Giants
29
22.5
25.75
Jacksonville Jaguars
26
26
26
Oakland Raiders
21
32
26.5
Tennessee Titans
27
29.5
28.25
New Orleans Saints
31
28
29.5
Atlanta Falcons
32
27
29.5
Chicago Bears
30
31
30.5

Table 1: Baseline Defense Rankings

Upon further review of Table 1, four of the Top 6 and five of the Top 8 teams in Points Against were in the 2014 playoffs.  Conversely, half of the Top 10 teams in 2014 in yards against failed to make the postseason.  Just like in the past, it appears that Points Against is a better indicator of a good defensive team than just looking at the yardage. We shall adopt Points Against as the baseline for Team Defense.

SACK THE SACK

The most common scoring system for Team Defense awards a point for every sack. This seems like a good idea, since it is an accomplishment by the defense to stop the offense from moving downfield, and it is an easy statistic to track. However, how realistic is this as a measure of Team Defense? Do sacks truly translate to team victories?

We obviously need some way to test this idea. Turning to statistics, we find that correlation is a measure of how two groups of statistics relate to one another. The formula used for correlation gives an answer between 0 and 1, with 1 representing a perfect match - 100% correlation. We can use this to see if sacks line up with our baseline, the Baseline Ranking (Points Against) from Table 1.

Table 2 lists the Team Defense rankings for sacks and the Baseline Ranking from Table 1. The correlation factor is given at the bottom of the table.

Team
Pts Vs Rk
Sacks
Sacks Rk
Denver Broncos
16.5
52
1.5
St. Louis Rams
16.5
52
1.5
Cincinnati Bengals
12
51
3
Green Bay Packers
13.5
47
4
Houston Texans
7
44
5.5
Minnesota Vikings
11
44
5.5
Miami Dolphins
20
42
7
Chicago Bears
31
41
8
Carolina Panthers
21
39
9.5
Tennessee Titans
29.5
39
9.5
Arizona Cardinals
5
38
12.5
Cleveland Browns
9
38
12.5
San Diego Chargers
13.5
38
12.5
San Francisco 49ers
10
38
12.5
Baltimore Ravens
6
37
16
New England Patriots
8
37
16
Pittsburgh Steelers
18
37
16
Buffalo Bills
4
36
18.5
Seattle Seahawks
1
36
18.5
Dallas Cowboys
15
34
20.5
Detroit Lions
3
34
20.5
New York Giants
22.5
33
22
Indianapolis Colts
19
32
23.5
Washington Redskins
29.5
32
23.5
New Orleans Saints
28
30
26
New York Jets
24
30
26
Philadelphia Eagles
22.5
30
26
Atlanta Falcons
27
29
28
Kansas City Chiefs
2
27
29.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25
27
29.5
Oakland Raiders
32
25
31.5
Jacksonville Jaguars
26
20
31.5

Table 2: Sacks vs. Baseline Defense Rankings

Correlation: 0.288

Based upon the results, the correlation looks very poor.  Are we off track? Well, looking back over the years we have for data, the numbers are really all over the place. Table 3 shows the results going back to 2004:

Year
Sack Rank to Pts. Vs. Rank Correlation
2004
0.509
2005
0.393
2006
0.626
2007
0.444
2008
0.435
2009
0.380
2010
0.545
2011
0.177
2012
0.542
2013
0.543
2014
0.288

Table 3: Sacks vs. Baseline Defense Rankings 2004-2014

This translates to a wide range of answers, anywhere from a weak correlation (17.7%) between Sacks and Baseline Defensive Ranking to a strong correlation (62.6%). Why would that be the case? The quick answer is that the sack numbers are tightly grouped together. The range of sacks for 27 of the 32 teams is just 20 to 36 sacks, or just one per game. Results this close together will lead to correlations to other data that are unpredictable and all over the map.

So what is wrong with using sacks anyway? The common misconception is that a sack translates readily to the defense getting the ball back for the offense. The reality is that not all sacks are created equal. While a 15-yard sack on 3rd-and-10 would likely result in a Team Defense getting the ball for the offense, a 1-yard sack on first down is not nearly as valuable. However, in the 1 point for a sack scoring system, there is no differentiation between the two different sacks. It would appear that the sack statistic is misleading, and should be replaced by another one.

TURNING OVER TURNOVERS

Perhaps we should look harder at the other common statistic used in Team Defense scoring, the turnover. Surely one cannot dispute that turnovers relate strongly to team victories. That has to correlate well with Team Defense rankings, right?

Team
Takeaways
TA Rank
Pts Vs Rk
Houston Texans
34
1
7
Dallas Cowboys
31
2
15
Buffalo Bills
30
3
4
Cleveland Browns
29
4.5
9
San Francisco 49ers
29
4.5
10
Atlanta Falcons
28
6.5
27
Philadelphia Eagles
28
6.5
22.5
Detroit Lions
27
8.5
3
Green Bay Packers
27
8.5
13.5
Carolina Panthers
26
11
21
Cincinnati Bengals
26
11
12
Indianapolis Colts
26
11
19
Arizona Cardinals
25
16
5
Denver Broncos
25
16
16.5
Miami Dolphins
25
16
20
New England Patriots
25
16
8
New York Giants
25
16
22.5
St. Louis Rams
25
16
16.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25
16
25
Chicago Bears
24
20
31
Seattle Seahawks
23
21
1
Baltimore Ravens
22
22
6
Pittsburgh Steelers
21
23
18
Jacksonville Jaguars
20
24
26
Minnesota Vikings
19
25.5
11
Washington Redskins
19
25.5
29.5
San Diego Chargers
18
27
13.5
New Orleans Saints
17
28
28
Tennessee Titans
16
29
29.5
Oakland Raiders
14
30
32
Kansas City Chiefs
13
31.5
2
New York Jets
13
31.5
24

Table 4: Turnovers vs. Baseline Defense Rankings

Correlation: 0.332

OK, that got marginally better than the previous method (sacks vs. points against).   How can turnovers not significantly contribute to or improve the correlation for a good defensive ranking?

The answer really comes from the mathematics - correlation does not work well with numbers that are close together. From Table 4, you can see most Team Defenses (27 of 32) have from 16 and 30 turnovers, so such a tight grouping will compromise the calculations.

A sanity check is in order - we need to use the common scoring method in its entirety (1 point per sack + 2 points for a turnover) and correlate that result against Average Points (See Table 5):

Team
TAs x 2 + Sks
TAs x 2 + Sks Rk
Pts Vs Rk
Houston Texans
112
1
7
Cincinnati Bengals
103
2
12
St. Louis Rams
102
3.5
16.5
Denver Broncos
102
3.5
16.5
Green Bay Packers
101
5
13.5
Buffalo Bills
96
7.5
4
San Francisco 49ers
96
7.5
9
Cleveland Browns
96
7.5
15
Dallas Cowboys
96
7.5
10
Miami Dolphins
92
10
20
Carolina Panthers
91
11
21
Chicago Bears
89
12
31
Detroit Lions
88
13.5
5
Arizona Cardinals
88
13.5
3
New England Patriots
87
15
8
Philadelphia Eagles
86
16
22.5
Atlanta Falcons
85
17
27
Indianapolis Colts
84
18
19
New York Giants
83
19
22.5
Minnesota Vikings
82
20.5
11
Seattle Seahawks
82
20.5
1
Baltimore Ravens
81
22
6
Pittsburgh Steelers
79
23
18
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
77
24
25
San Diego Chargers
74
25
13.5
Tennessee Titans
71
26
29.5
Washington Redskins
70
27
29.5
New Orleans Saints
64
28
28
Jacksonville Jaguars
60
29
26
New York Jets
56
30
24
Kansas City Chiefs
53
31.5
2
Oakland Raiders
53
31.5
32

Table 5: Turnovers and Sacks vs. Baseline Defense Rankings

Correlation: 0.378

In most years, we would start to see more dramatic improvement, but 2014 was a very odd year.  Yes, we see some "improvement", but 37.8% correlation is not that great no matter how you slice it, and it is not even 5% better than the last set of data.  The correlation between the basic scoring system and Points Against is certainly better than the turnover ranking correlation alone and is closer to the first score with sacks. The combination of both statistics helped in achieving point separation (ranging from 53 to 112 points), but there is definitely room for improvement.

The basic argument against using the sack as a standard measure remains - there is little direct correlation between the sack and elite defenses. Another measure of defense should be considered in place of sacks. However, if sacks are going to be eliminated from the Team Defense scoring system, what will be inserted in its place?

GIVE ME THE $#@!! BALL

Let us reconsider the basic premise of Team Defense. Defenses have two main objectives - keeping the opposition from scoring, and getting the ball back for their offense. We have already seen that the first objective is the baseline measure of Team Defense, so we need to quantify the second criteria to the best of our ability to see if this should be the new fantasy football measure of the performance of a Team Defense.

There are two defensive categories of getting the ball back for the offense that are overlooked in the "turnover" category. Defenses succeed in stopping the opponent by forcing the traditional turnover (fumbles and interceptions) and also by forcing punts and stopping the opponent on fourth down. Our new formula for Team Defense needs to have basis in reality to weigh the value of forced punts and turnovers on downs.

Punts happen numerous times during the game, but they rarely result in the defense giving the offense a short field (under 50 yards from a touchdown). As such, forcing a punt has to be viewed as less opportunistic and less valuable than a fumble or interception, which results in a short field about half of the time. Therefore, our formula begins to look like this:

New Team Defense Score = Turnovers (INTs and Fumbles) x 2 + Forced Punts

Now for the second portion of the new formula - incorporation of turnovers on downs. While this can happen anywhere on the field, it is more likely to occur at both a crucial point in the game and also in a position where the opposing team is in scoring territory. While the resulting field position may not be as good as with a traditional turnover, the impact of both getting the ball for the offense and the likelihood that the 4th down turnover kept the opposition off the scoreboard gives this type of turnover approximately equal value to a fumble or interception. Therefore, we modify the formula to be:

New Team Defense Score = Turnovers (INTs + Fumbles + 4th Down Stops) x 2 + Forced Punts

We label this new equation the "Realistic Team Defense" scoring system. Now all that is left is to test our new formula.

IS THE FANTASY A REALITY

Let us revisit the data from last season once again. Obtaining the two new statistics (4th down turnovers and forced punts), we get the following results:

Team
Pts Vs Rk
Takeaways
4th Down Stops
Forced Punts
TOs x 2 + Punts
Reality Defense Rank
Houston Texans
7
34
11
83
173
1
Indianapolis Colts
19
26
13
90
168
2
Philadelphia Eagles
22.5
28
9
91
165
3
Buffalo Bills
4
30
6
88
160
4
Cleveland Browns
9
29
7
86
158
5
Detroit Lions
3
27
9
82
154
6
Denver Broncos
16.5
25
7
88
152
7
Dallas Cowboys
15
31
10
67
149
8
San Francisco 49ers
10
29
7
74
146
9.5
St. Louis Rams
16.5
25
10
76
146
9.5
Cincinnati Bengals
12
26
9
75
145
11.5
New England Patriots
8
25
15
65
145
11.5
Arizona Cardinals
5
25
8
78
144
13
Green Bay Packers
13.5
27
13
62
142
14
Seattle Seahawks
1
23
6
83
141
15
Baltimore Ravens
6
22
9
76
138
16
New York Giants
22.5
25
6
75
137
17
Carolina Panthers
21
26
6
72
136
18
Kansas City Chiefs
2
13
13
78
130
19
Miami Dolphins
20
25
9
61
129
20
Jacksonville Jaguars
26
20
6
75
127
21
Washington Redskins
29.5
19
4
80
126
22
Minnesota Vikings
11
19
5
76
124
23
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25
25
4
64
122
24
Oakland Raiders
32
14
5
83
121
25.5
San Diego Chargers
13.5
18
8
69
121
25.5
Atlanta Falcons
27
28
4
56
120
27
Pittsburgh Steelers
18
21
4
68
118
28
Tennessee Titans
29.5
16
6
73
117
29
New York Jets
24
13
4
81
115
30
Chicago Bears
31
24
7
49
111
31
New Orleans Saints
28
17
4
63
105
32

Table 6: All Turnovers and Forced Punts vs. Baseline Defense Rankings

Correlation: 0.599

Definite progress, as this is the best correlation between Points Against Rank so far for 2014. The correlation between the new and improved scoring system and Points Against is almost 60% (59.9%), the strongest and the best correlation so far, but how does this compare to prior years?  Table 7 shows the Reality Defense Rank vs. Points Against Rank for the past 11 NFL seasons:

Year Reality Defense Rank to Pts. Vs. Rank Correlation
2004
0.624
2005
0.666
2006
0.688
2007
0.669
2008
0.617
2009
0.649
2010
0.651
2011
0.454
2012
0.635
2013
0.649
2014
0.599

Table 7: Reality Defense vs. Baseline Defense Rankings 2004-2014

The addition of all turnovers and punts forced has increased the point separation once again, ranging now from 105 to 173 points (a range of 68 points instead of 59 for all the teams in Table 5). Before 2014, nine of the 10 NFL regular seasons had 60% or better correlation using Reality Defense scoring.  Only one season, 2011, was significantly below 60% correlation at 45.4%.  Once again, Reality Defense proves itself as the best fantasy metric to use.

So looking at the big picture, 9 of the 11 seasons analyzed had strong correlation - over 60% - to Points Against, one of the best metrics for defense.  The Reality Defense formula emphasizes getting the ball back to the offense by awarding points for not only turnovers but also forced punts and fourth down stops.  These tweaks to the scoring system increases the point range for defenses, allowing the best ones to rise to the top. 

There are additional benefits to this new equation. First, the scores are higher (average score of 8.6 / game) than under the original system (5.2 / game), which goes more towards a better normalization of the Team Defense position on the fantasy roster. By increasing the average score, the net effect is that a Team Defense is now representative of another normalized position player. Table 8 represents the 2014 average score by position of the Top 12 players based upon two common scoring systems:

Pos Non-PPR Pts PPR Pts
QB
22.7
22.7
RB1
14.1
17.2
RB2
9.1
11.1
WR1
13.2
18.9
WR2
9.3
13.8
TE
7.5
11.4
PK
9.2
9.2
Def*
8.6
8.6

*Based upon the new Realistic Team Defense formula.

Table 8: Average 2014 Fantasy Points / Game for Top 12 Players by Position

Now the Team Defense is comparable to the value of close to a tight end or kicker and just below a Top 24 wide receiver or Top 24 RB (and well below a Top 12 QB). With PPR, the Team Defense declines to a good flex option (RB3, WR3) or an above-average TE2 in value. That would seem to be an appropriate position of value for a strong Team Defense, below a top skill position (QB, RB, WR, TE) but above the lesser valued RB3, WR3, TE2 or kicker position.

One last additional benefit (and variance to the Realistic Team Defense formula) is that the addition of scoring points for a Team Defense scoring play (Touchdown or Safety) allows for the added point value, and also reduces the impact of that event to a lower percentage of the total Team Defense score. Previously, under the original scoring method, teams scored between 53 and 112 points for the season without defensive or special teams touchdowns added (see Table 5). Adding a single touchdown (6 points) varied the overall season score by 5-11%, a large impact. Now with the Realistic Team Defense formula, the range is much larger (105 to 173, see Table 6) so adding a touchdown reduces the impact to 3-6%. This smaller valuation relative to the seasonal performance does seem to be more appropriate.

CONCLUSION

Adoption of the Realistic Team Defense formula for defensive scoring for fantasy leagues going forward would result in a more accurate representation of the value of a Team Defense and better reflect how the actual defensive unit for each team performs in that particular season. The formula incorporates the significant statistics to quantify how well an actual defense performs, and results in a normalized score relative to the skill position players. The variation of adding back in the relatively rare event of a defensive score reduces the impact of the additional points to less of an overall change to the season Team Defense total, and increases the relative value of a Team Defense closer to that of an upper echelon wide receiver.

One last comment – I get asked this question often over the years.  There are several league hosting sites that can support this scoring format, and I suggest that you ask each site whether they can implement these statistics (forced punts, 4th down stops).  I am positive that MyFantasyLeague.com can score defenses this way, for example, but I do not want to steer anyone towards any particular hosting site.

As always, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.

DATA SOURCES

www.nfl.com

www.footballguys.com


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