Which defensive stats matter most in helping teams win?


It started with a question to Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry during an appearance on ESPN980 Thursday. He was asked which stat he'd want to lead the league in: sacks, turnovers, yards per game passing or yards per game rushing. Barry had a quick response: turnovers.

Here's what he told the hosts (Chris Cooley, Steve Czaban and Al Galdi):

"Our job on defense is to go out and get the ball back for our defense. Turnovers are going to be a big thing we preach. We actually don’t call them turnovers. We call them takeaways because our job is to take the ball away. You’ve got to practice it and you’ve got to talk about it. You’ve got to preach it. They don’t just happen, you have to go do it. If you’re a defense that leads the league in takeaways, you’re doing good stuff.”

Naturally, ESPN Stats & Information can provide a boost to see what stats matter most. The goal is to try and find the stats that might mean more to the ultimate outcome: winning games. Also, I used a three-year sample size to get a better feel for the impact and how it rates over time. Here we go:

Turnovers: I was surprised when I took a look at the last three years combined and the impact of causing turnovers on teams' final record. Of the top 10 teams in creating turnovers in this stretch, only five have a combined winning record (New England, Seattle, Arizona, Cincinnati and San Francisco). But, of course, three of those teams played in the Super Bowl and two won the game. So there’s a big impact, but consider that Tampa Bay was eighth in the past three years, yet finished 22 games under .500. Why? They had a plus-five turnover margin in that time. However, that was still good enough to rank 10th. Of the top 10 teams in turnover margin, seven posted winning records in the past three years combined. And the top three teams -- New England, Seattle and San Francisco were a combined 103-40-1 with four Super Bowl appearances in this period.

When I broke it down by year, here's how it looked: Eight top-10 teams in takeaways finished with winning records in each season between 2012-14. In 2013, there were 12 teams tied in the top 10 and last year there were 13. So in an individual season it matters a lot more than, say, over a three-year stretch.

Rushing yards per game: Six of the top 10 teams in rushing yards per game posted winning records with Denver, Seattle and San Francisco among the top four. But also in the top 10 were Tampa Bay (fifth), Washington (eighth) and the New York Jets (ninth). Those teams were a combined 48-94. I always figured the more telling number was yards per carry -- except that only four of the top 10 teams in this category had winning records, with Tampa Bay second overall.

Sacks: Five of the top 10 teams posted winning records, but the top two (Buffalo and St. Louis) did not. The Bills were 10th overall in yards per game while the Rams were 14th. It takes more than sacks to build great defenses and to win.

Passing yards allowed per game: Seven of the top 10 teams in passing yards allowed per game posted winning records, but New England was 26th. The Redskins were 31st; I’m guessing you’re not surprised. If you went by passing yards per attempt, you’d still have seven of the top 10 teams with winning records, but the Patriots jump to 18th while the Redskins ... stay at 31.

Yards allowed per game: This obviously matters a great deal as the top six teams -- and nine of the top 13 -- in this category during this time all have winning records, with Seattle atop the list. However, New England was 24th during these three seasons. Another note: Every team in the NFC East finished 23rd or worse -- and for those who thought the Redskins’ defense was the NFL’s worst, you’d be wrong. They actually were 23rd, ahead of their division opponents.

Points allowed per game: This is the most important and revealing defensive stat. While takeaways are important, the ultimate stat is points per game. That was not an option Barry was given for an answer, but it is the stat that dictates success more than any other.

Eight of the top 10 teams the past three years have winning records. And for those of you who thought the Redskins’ defense was the NFL’s worst, this is where you’re very close to being right. They ranked 30th during this time, ahead of only Jacksonville and Oakland. The Giants (20th), Dallas (25th) and Philadelphia (28th) weren’t exactly powerhouses in this category either. The more I checked out the defensive stats, the more it explains the NFC East's relative mediocrity the last few seasons.