The Packers have allowed more yards than they’ve gained, but what does that mean?

After 15 games, the Green Bay Packers are 14-1. But this season, the Packers have been outgained by their opponents. In fact, the Packers have won more than half of their games while losing the yardage battle. How is that possible?

Is this a problem?

If a team is 14-1, the natural inclination is to assume that they’re an elite team with few flaws. And the Packers, as defending Super Bowl champions, certainly pass the eye test. So why has Green Bay been outgained this season? I suspect most people think there are three plausible explanations: (1) total yards is simply meaningless; (2) the Packers have given up a bunch of meaningless yards in garbage time because they always have a lead; or (3) the Packers simply play a ‘bend but don’t break’ style of defense, so measuring them by yards allowed is silly. Let’s look at each argument.

It’s tempting to just think that total yards is meaningless as a measure of team ability, but that’s not really the case. The team that wins the yardage battle has won 66% of all games this season. New England and New Orleans, the two teams most similar to Green Bay, have outgained their opponents in 19 of their 30 games this season. The Steelers, Texans and Saints are the top three teams in yardage differential while the Colts, Rams and Bucs are the bottom three. As a metric, yards and yards allowed have flaws; I would never use yards to rank a player or a team, and the same goes for yards allowed. But yards are still generally correlated with success. So let’s dig a little deeper into what’s actually happened for the Packers this season.

Green Bay ranks 16th in yardage differential, as only 14 teams have outgained their opponents. But Green Bay has lost a lot of possessions this season. A turnover ends your opponent’s drive and gives you a possession, except when you return that turnover for a touchdown. The Packers have seven interception, fumble or special teams touchdowns this season, depriving the offense of possessions. The Packers also muffed two punts (both against Minnesota) and lost a couple of onside kicks. The Packers have also had a few kneel down drives at the end of halves, where they only technically had a possession. Of course, the same has happened to their opponents, but Green Bay has disproportionately lost significantly more drives than the average team this season.

Excluding kneel-down drives at the end of a half, the Packers have had 154 drives this season; their opponents have had 164 drives. The Packers have averaged 38.6 yards of offense per drive this season compared to just 36.6 for their opponents. If you gave Green Bay 10 extra possessions and they gained yards at the same rate, then the Packers would rank 11th in yardage differential. It’;s still surprising that a 14-1 team has “only” outgained its opponents by a couple of yards per drive, but that’s the more telling stat. The fact that the Packers have been outgained this season is entirely a function of losing drives on offense due to return touchdowns and some lost possessions via muffed punts and onside kicks.

But even yards per drive is prejudicial against the Packers. That’s because Green Bay’s average drive has started at the 30.1 yard line, while their opponents average line of scrimmage to start a drive is the 24.9 yard line. If you eliminate the 20 drives where Green Bay had its best starting field position, the Packers average line of scrimmage on their remaining 134 drives was the 24.9 yard line, the same as their opponents. But removing those drives bumps the average yards gained per drive from 38.6 to 41.1. On touchdown drives, you can only gain so many yards, so it makes sense that the Packers see an increase of 2.5 yards per drive when their field position is worse. If you pro-rate the 41.1 yards on those 134 drives to 164 drives (the number of drives the Packers’ opponents have had this season), Green Bay would outgain their opponents by over 700 yards, good enough to rank 7th in the league. Note that this impacts Green Bay much more than most teams: according to Football Outsiders, through 15 weeks, the Packers had the 5th best starting field position per drive on offense and the 3rd best starting field position for its defense (i.e., farther away from the Packers’ own end zone). Those factors will inflate the amount of yards per drive the Packers allow and deflate the amount of yards per drive the Packers give up.

What about garbage time? There’s no doubt that the Packers have allowed some garbage time drives. The Raiders drove 75+ yards when trailing by 30 points in the second half — twice. So did the Broncos. The Bears and Panthers have 80+ yard drives in the final five minutes when trailing by 14+ points, and the Lions had a meaningless drive that picked up 75 yards late on Thanksgiving. But the Packers have faced many garbage time drives this season, so you would naturally expect any average defense to give up a bunch of yards on some drives.

I defined a “garbage time drive” as one where the opponent started a drive trailing by more than 24 points at any point, or by more than 16 points with 10 or fewer minutes left, or by more than 8 points with five or fewer minutes left. There were 24 such drives, including all of the ones identified above. But there were also 8 drives where the opponents gained fewer than 10 yards, as being in “garbage time” can work against the offense, too. In fact, those teams gained an average of 34.0 yards on those garbage time drives (average line of scrimmage at start of drive: 25.3), lower than opponents gained per drive against Green Bay when in less trashy situations. So garbage time isn’t an explanation for why the Packers have given up a chunk of yards.

But what about on the other side? Green Bay has had one drive that would classify as during garbage time: when the Packers trailed by 12 when they got the ball with under 5 minutes to go against the Chiefs. They drove 80 yards for the score, but never saw the ball again. However, Green Bay has had 17 drives where they had the ball in the positive side of garbage time: up by more than 24 points, up by more than 16 with 10 or fewer minutes remaining, or up by more than 8 with 5 or fewer minutes left. Even including the one drive against the Chiefs, Green Bay has averaged just 22.3 yards per drive during garbage time situations (although the average drive started at the 38.4 yard line). If you exclude all drives where the Packers started on the opponent’s side of the field, though, the Packers still averaged only 22.8 yards per drive in the remaining garbage time drives. The sample size is small, but there is evidence to indicate that garbage time has hurt the Packers — it’s just that the effect is on the offensive side of the ledger.

What about the ‘bend but don’t break’ theory? The Packers rank 17th in red zone defense, making them far from elite once teams approach the Packers’ end zone. It’s tempting to think that’s the reason, since the Packers rank 13th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. But there are other factors involved; Green Bay leads the league in interceptions, which helps improve their own offense’s average field position. And like New England, the great offense really helps their defense when it comes to field position. On Monday Night Football against the Bears, Chicago’s average drive started at their 20.1 yard line. Chicago had a 78-yard drive that went for a field goal; three drives of 55-61 yards ended with an interception or a field goal attempt, and ended with only three points.

Green Bay has far from a dominant defense. They give up a ton of yards, but they benefit from generally having good field position. That, combined with an absurd amount of interceptions, helps the Packers limit their opponents on the scoreboard. But the Packers aren’t an elite team. Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats have had the Packers as a very good but far from historically great team all season long. PFR’s Simple Rating System has the Packers at #1 — remember, the SRS is based solely on points scored, points allowed and strength of schedule — but the Saints, Patriots and 49ers are not that far behind.

The Packers are 5th in offensive yards, which belies their elite offense. The Packers rank 1st in both NY/A and ANY/A; at worst, they have the third best offense in the league, and the gap between the top three offenses and the rest of the league is massive. Green Bay, along with the Saints and Patriots, has a deadly passing game that makes them capable of winning every game. But the Packers have had fewer drives than most teams, which limits their potential output; the Packers also generally get the ball in excellent field position, somewhat limiting the amount of yards they can gain.

Green Bay is 31st in yards allowed, but that’s not all that misleading. The Packers have faced some extra drives, but this is simply not a good defense: and you can’t put the blame on garbage time stats. I don’t think ‘bend but don’t break’ really applies to the Packers, who are actually quite the opposite of that. Green Bay leads the league with an absurd interception rate — 5.0% — but otherwise the pass defense is terrible. It seems like Green Bay’s defensive philosophy is more boom or bust: get the interception or it’s going to be ugly. The Packers are in the bottom five of the league in net yards per pass allowed, and there’s no excuse for that. Green Bay’s defense has forced a bunch of turnovers which is one of the biggest reasons why the Packers have surprisingly been outgained this season. But that’s about the only good thing the defense can do.

So why are the Packers 14-1? Despite ranking 28th in NY/A allowed, Green Bay’s first-place ranking in NY/A makes a significant dent in the rankings. In fact, the Packers still rank sixth overall in “net” net yards per attempt allowed:

Rk	Tm			NY/A	NY/A A	 Net
1	Pittsburgh Steelers	7.2	4.9	 2.20
2	Houston Texans		7.0	5.1	 1.96
3	New Orleans Saints	7.6	6.4	 1.26
4	Detroit Lions		6.7	5.6	 1.12
5	New York Giants		7.6	6.4	 1.12
6	Green Bay Packers	8.2	7.1	 1.06
7	Oakland Raiders		7.0	6.0	 0.96
8	Philadelphia Eagles	7.0	6.0	 0.93
9	New England Patriots	7.9	7.2	 0.63
10	Tennessee Titans	6.4	5.8	 0.59
11	Baltimore Ravens	5.9	5.4	 0.51
12	Dallas Cowboys		7.0	6.5	 0.50
13	Cincinnati Bengals	6.0	5.8	 0.26
14	Atlanta Falcons		6.7	6.5	 0.24
15	San Diego Chargers	7.0	6.8	 0.21
16	San Francisco 49ers	5.9	6.0	-0.08
17	Arizona Cardinals	5.9	6.0	-0.14
18	Miami Dolphins		6.1	6.3	-0.20
19	Chicago Bears		5.9	6.2	-0.29
20	Carolina Panthers	7.0	7.3	-0.32
21	Washington Redskins	6.0	6.4	-0.34
22	Seattle Seahawks	5.6	6.1	-0.49
23	New York Jets		5.5	6.1	-0.54
24	Buffalo Bills		6.2	6.8	-0.65
25	Cleveland Browns	5.2	6.0	-0.85
26	Denver Broncos		5.4	6.5	-1.12
27	Kansas City Chiefs	5.8	6.9	-1.14
28	Tampa Bay Buccaneers	5.9	7.5	-1.61
29	St. Louis Rams		4.7	6.3	-1.62
30	Minnesota Vikings	5.3	7.0	-1.71
31	Indianapolis Colts	5.2	7.1	-1.89
32	Jacksonville Jaguars	4.3	6.2	-1.89

Add in ridiculous interception rates on both sides of the ball — the Packers are +22 in interceptions — and you’ve got arguably the best team in football. They have a Pythagorean Record of 11.4-3.6 — which, like the SRS, only looks at points and points scored — so even with the great passing numbers and the strong interception rate, the Packers are lucky to be 14-1. While they haven’t been in too many close calls, they also haven’t blown out many teams, either. Green Bay is one of the top three teams in the league, but by no means are they an unbeatable machine. But the fact that they have allowed more yards than they’ve gained has nothing to do with that.

  • SAK

    That is a great analysis – any chance you could do a simillar analysis for the Pats?

  • Chase

    SAK – last week I took a closer look at the Patriots defense:

  • Duh9

    I think the Giants will beat the Cowboys and get in, therefore presenting the Packers with 2 serious threats in the NFL along with the Saints. The Giants seem to be following a similar script as when they won the SB a few years ago..sneak in late, get hot, topple the elite. The Giants’ ability to rush the passer with 4 is what beat New England back then, and that’s exactly the same formula to beat Green Bay…and the Giants still have a great pass rush and it’s getting better. NY also lost to NE earlier that season…NY lost to GB earlier this season. One major difference, however, could be Aaron Rodgers’ athleticism, something that negatively affected Tom Brady against the Giants (along with his injured foot).

  • ScoWes

    Just curious as to how an analysis of the  amount of pass attempts factors in here. I have a sneaky though that teams pass more vs the Packers because they are trailing more often against them. Passing is a high yield, higher risk strategy – especially when a team is pushing the ball downfield, attempting to chase a game. Not all passes are created equal – a check down dump-off to a RB/TE is magnitudes less risky than a deep crossing route, post or corner.

    I agree the GB defense hasn’t been anywhere near good, let alone average. 

    Don’t forget they are a zone blitzing/Cover 1 (robber) type scheme – this means that they are pressuring the passer, and there WILL be mismatches in the secondary, resulting in some big gains – however, the pressure also results in poor throws & decisions by an opposing QB – resulting in a higher INT rate. Last year they got more sacks (I THINK), and less INTs…. its the reverse this season. Add in the injuries in the secondary coverage units they’ve dealt with all season long and you have a high number of yards per game given up.

  • Mattcoach1

    Teams in particular games that win either or both the Yards per pass play category or Turnover category generally tend to win 94% of the time according to my 2009 statistics. The team that won the total yards battle back then won 70% to the turnovers 77% and Yards Per Pass Play’s 80% that season. So hearing about the winning team being on top 66% of the time in the total yards category comes as no surprise.

  • SAK

    That was an informative read as well – any reason why you didn’t do the same analysis of yards & points allowed when playing with the lead as you did in this article with the Packers? 

  • Chase

    Not really. On MNF, Collinsworth made the comment that the Packers have been outgained this season, so I was curious about that. With respect to New England, I saw a lot of people say that the defense “wasn’t that bad” based on the points allowed rankings, and wanted to investigate that.  Just a different impetus.

  • SAK

    Having seen all of their games this year, I think you would probably make a simillar adjustment to their stats due to playing with significant leads late in games.  Considering both teams are going to be high-seeds in the playoff brackets and potential favorites to represent each conference in the superbowl, it may be an intereting comparison.

    Again, great articles – I will be reading your work more frequently from now on.

  • Gary Getzin

    As stated, the Giants could  be a threat as in 2007 but they are not near as consistent or tough.

    The playoffs will likely present new schemes.   They better as far as the Packer defense is concerned.  It is likely the failed zone scheme and pass rush that affect them.   Capers must be thinking of employing more man and blitzes. S0’to may add to the pass rush.  I think the one game GB employed mostly man was the Mn game in GB, a great game for the defense.

    But this is all truly incomprehensible by ordinary football terms, the fact the three best teams all
    have defenses that are poor.  It may be time to shift the rules back to allow for more meaningful
    defense.  Bump and run down the field, reasonable interference rules, no picking of dbacks.

  • Gary

    The big hole in the defense is the lack of a pass rush.    The secondary would be amazing if
    they had a pass rush.   Clay Matthews has been effectively double teamed and they have had no one else.  The biggest reason KC won was that Orton had all day.   If they can devise a pass rush with S0’oto for the playoffs, they will be  very tough.   Also, this is kind of crazy, but I wonder if Capers has held off on aggression and schemes during the last half.   It was as if it was a preseason game against KC.

  • Chase

    Football Outsiders posted their updated drive stats….

    They have Green Bay first in points per drive, 2nd in yards per drive and 6th in line of scrimmage per drive; defensively, the Packers are 29th in yards per drive, 20th in points per drive and 3rd in LOS per drive.

    The big key is they have Green Bay 2nd in “net” line of scrimmage per drive, meaning GB is starting at least 5 yards ahead of their opponents on each drive. That, along with the fact that Green Bay’s 154 drives of offense is the fewest in the entire league, is a huge component in why the Packers have been outgained this season.

    On the other side of the ledger, the Jets have (along with the Broncos) the most drives in the league this season *and* the 2nd best starting field position. That explains why the Jets rank 9th in scoring, despite being a below average offense.

  • Mr.Murder

    The team basically has outside linebacker types playing defensive end, of course they give up a few more yards than average, and through scheme and scoreboard position themselves to get turnovers and sacks so nobody can can play keep up or catch up. They also lack a runner to close games as a bell cow back. So other teams get more possesssions since they cannot close it out on the ground.

  • I think the interesting topic is the idea of the bend but don’t break philosophy in the NFL.  How successful is it (wins vs losses, pts allowed) ? It would probably involve a boatload ton of research.

  • i am so confused. i dont know one thing about football, but i am trying to research something about total yards allowed in a season for the Oakland raiders. can someone please explain this to me? becuase i am so confused on what they are talking about with the 14-1 and the NT/A A and other stuff….