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What PFF said about all 32 NFL secondaries prior to 2020 season

A flashback before we flash forward

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Wild Card Round - Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Heading into last season, the LA Rams were ranked as having the ninth-best secondary in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus. They ended the season fourth in DVOA against the pass and the secondary had a strong argument — with Jalen Ramsey, John Johnson, Jordan Fuller, Darious Williams, and Troy Hill — for being the best group of defensive backs in the NFL.

As a matter of fact, PFF did rank the Rams as having the NFL’s best secondary when the season was over.

This may seem like a small difference, to jump from ninth to first, but I would argue that there is a major gap between those two rankings and certainly you would think that there are identifiable traits that you’d be able to point to prior to the season beginning when it comes to which team will have a dominant secondary. Like having Ramsey and Johnson, for one.

But this is not about “respect” because I could not give a shit about arguments like that one. Who cares? It is meaningless fodder that gets us through the offseason. And I also think that PFF is doing us a service, not a disservice, when they make posts like this one. It helps us build a greater understanding of the world, so long as we’re willing to accept hindsight and grow from it.

We do need to learn from these posts though. We can’t just hang it on a bulletin board and think “Great, now I’m so motivated to fan this season! Grrr!”

No, what I think we can learn from it is that these posts really are meant for offseason discussions and nothing more. They aren’t predictive of anything. They’re not a guarantee that a highly-ranked unit will finish the season with the same amount of respect.

Or disrespect.

This week, PFF ranked the Rams as having the eighth-best secondary following the losses of Johnson and Hill in free agency. I understand that ranking. It could end up being more accurate than PFF’s assessment of the Rams a year ago.

Or LA could go in any direction at all.

Let’s check out the PFF secondary rankings from 12 months ago and see how they ended the season:

The Top-8

1. Baltimore Ravens

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (10th), TD:INT (22:10), NY/A (4th), Passer Rating (7th), EXP (7th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 5

2. LA Chargers

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (17th), TD:INT (29:12), NY/A (14th), Passer Rating (14th), EXP (18th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 19

3. New England Patriots

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (18th), TD:INT (22:18), NY/A (25th), Passer Rating (9th), EXP (8th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 13

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (1st), TD:INT (22:18), NY/A (3rd), Passer Rating, EXP (2nd)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 3

5. Seattle Seahawks

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (20th), TD:INT (23:14), NY/A (15th), Passer Rating (11th), EXP (22nd)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 24

6. New Orleans Saints

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (3rd), TD:INT (28:18), NY/A (5th), Passer Rating (4th), EXP (11th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 21

7. Buffalo Bills

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (12th), TD:INT (23:15), NY/A (10th), Passer Rating (5th), EXP (13th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 9

8. Tennessee Titans

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (30th), TD:INT (36:15), NY/A (22nd), Passer Rating (24th), EXP (27th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 16

Top-8 Notes:

  • Even though Tennessee was a bottom-tier pass defense in almost every respect, PFF insisted on keeping them in the top-half of the league: “The Titans surrendered the seventh-lowest explosive pass play rate (13%), but at the same time allowed the second-most deep completions over 20 yards downfield (35). This group ranked fifth-to-last in expected points added per pass allowed but still rings in here at the halfway mark when it comes to grade. Tennessee was just one of five teams in the league this year to have one or fewer defensive backs to play 200 coverage snaps and produce a poor coverage grade below 60.0.”
  • The top-eight didn’t include secondaries that finished the season ranked 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th, or 8th.
  • At certain times in the year, the Seahawks could have been called the worst pass defense in the NFL, if not the worst of the previous decade.

The Bottom-8

32. New York Jets

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (28th), TD:INT (34:10), NY/A (23rd), Passer Rating (29th), EXP (30th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 25

31. Carolina Panthers

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (23rd), TD:INT (28:7), NY/A (11th), Passer Rating (25th), EXP (20th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 17

30. Atlanta Falcons

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (19th), TD:INT (34:12), NY/A (29th), Passer Rating (27th), EXP (26th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 28

29. Jacksonville Jaguars

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (31st), TD:INT (34:12), NY/A (31st), Passer Rating (30th), EXP (31st)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 30

28. Washington Football Team

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (2nd), TD:INT (21:16), NY/A (2nd), Passer Rating (3rd), EXP (3rd)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 7

27. New York Giants

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (22nd), TD:INT (22:11), NY/A (12th), Passer Rating (17th), EXP (14th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 18

26. Indianapolis Colts

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (8th), TD:INT (24:15), NY/A (19th), Passer Rating (12th), EXP (16th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 4

25. Houston Texans

2020 finish: DVOA vs Pass (29th), TD:INT (30:3), NY/A (28th), Passer Rating (31st), EXP (29th)

PFF end-of-season ranking: 27

Bottom-8 Notes:

  • It may be easier to identify when teams have a lack of talent — and therefore to predict the “bad” secondaries as opposed to the good ones — but that didn’t stop a team like Washington from being a dominant pass defense when PFF expected them to be an atrocious one.
  • Perhaps more surprising is a Colts secondary that went from 26th in PFF’s rankings all the way up to fourth, in spite of only posting average pass defense numbers. Obviously we have to account for the fact that more goes into pass defense than just the corners and safeties — Washington’s unit had to be supported heavily by the front-seven — but PFF is singling out the secondaries for these teams and that’s an interesting jump up for teams like these. Which teams aren’t being told they have good secondaries right now but will actually turn out to have excellent DBs?
  • The Texans allowed 30 touchdown passes and only intercepted three passes.
  • But the Lions actually had a higher passer rating allowed: 38 TD, 7 INT, 112.4 passer rating allowed; Detroit ranked 14th entering the year

Again, this is not meant to disparage the exercise, but keep posts like this one in mind for the next time you read a preseason ranking and feel “disrespected”. The end-of-year results that actually matter won’t just be a lot different, the writers also know that they will be.