NFL Conference Championships Funnel Defense Ratings: Saints Passing Game Could Blow Roof off Superdome

NFL Conference Championships Funnel Defense Ratings: Saints Passing Game Could Blow Roof off Superdome article feature image

Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Michael Thomas

  • Ryan Collinsworth breaks down how you can leverage matchups against funnel defenses in this weekend's conference championships.
  • The Patriots are primed for a run-heavy script against the Chiefs while the Saints will air it out against the Rams.

Our funnel defense ratings use advanced data to analyze situations in which teams are more likely to pass or run than they usually do. Let’s start with a brief recap of the metric, then dig into this weekend’s ratings and how to leverage them in the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

Funnel Defense Explained

Funnel defenses are successful at defending either the run or the pass, but not both. Strong funnel defenses are so good against either the run or the pass that they tend to “funnel” offensive play-calling toward their complementary weakness.

Measuring the Strength of a Funnel Defense

Using data to quantify the strength of a defensive funnel is complex. We must weigh several factors simultaneously:

  1. How good is a defense versus the running game and passing game? We employ Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric to measure this.
  2. What is the difference between DVOA production defending the run versus the pass? If the differential is great, it would imply the probability of a funnel.
  3. How good is an offense in the running game and passing game? We can use DVOA here, as well.
  4. What is the difference between offensive DVOA production?
  5. What are the offense’s typical run/pass splits?

Our metric weighs each of these statistical factors and produces weekly matchup-based ratings for each NFL team.

Conference Championship Funnel Ratings

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New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs

As we discussed last week, Andy Reid defiantly plays into the teeth of the opposing defense. Kansas City has a strong negative correlation between Pass Funnel Rating and resultant pass-rate, which means that in apparent rushing mismatches, Reid employs a pass-heavy game script (and vice-versa).

But unfortunately, the Chiefs’ pass funnel rating this week ranks fifth out of 10 funnel matchups this season. Their season average pass funnel rating is 61.56; this week it sits at 59.69 — so, their current funnel rating suggests a balanced, neutral game script.

Still, the real point of interest in this matchup is not the Chiefs’ offensive game script. It’s what New England could choose to do.

The Patriots report the highest run funnel rating of the season this week. But, based on their regular season history, this doesn’t necessarily suggest meaningful change to their pass/run ratio.

Nonetheless, there’s some evidence it could affect their total offensive production.

New England averages approximately the same number of pass attempts, rush attempts and total plays in both splits above. But they are markedly less efficient in low pass funnel games and average 77.4 fewer total yards per game.

However, their week-to-week run/pass ratio and yardage splits are all over the place. Ideally, as pass funnel rating increases, so too should pass-rate and pass yardage. But the charts below do not show that kind of linear relationship; instead, it almost seems completely random.

As a result, their top-five/bottom-five pass funnel rating splits could be highly influenced by strong outliers. Nonetheless, a run-heavy approach still makes sense for a couple reasons.

The most obvious reason to run the ball against the Chiefs is because they are one of the worst rush defenses in football. Kansas City ranks 31st in PFF’s team rush defense grade and 32nd in rush defense DVOA.

Moreover, a run-heavy game script would also help shorten the game. Arguably, the best way to neutralize the Chiefs’ explosive offense is by giving them fewer opportunities to burn you. However, this approach only works if you’re able to consistently pick up first downs on the ground.

Luckily for the Patriots, the Chiefs ranks 31st in opponent Power Success (78%). Per Football Outsiders, Power Success reports the percentage of runs of third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or a touchdown. The Chiefs are one of the worst teams in the league at stopping opposing offenses from picking up short-yardage first downs. This lends even more support for the Patriots to utilize a run-heavy game script.

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints

The Rams’ current 61.29 pass funnel rating is tied for third among 10 games analyzed this season. The Rams have proven repeatedly that they outright defy funnel ratings and instead do the opposite of what is expected:

Those splits, combined with their current pass funnel rating suggest that, paradoxically, they could favor more of a 50-50 pass/run ratio against the Saints. Still, this might not strongly affect Jared Goff’s statistical ceiling. He’s been far more efficient in strong pass funnel games, but he’s averaged approximately the same total passing yards across both splits.

However, Los Angeles’ pass funnel splits could suggest amplified production for Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson.

Since the Rams acquired Anderson in Week 16, he’s averaged 22 rush attempts and 140.7 yards per game. Even when Gurley returned from injury last week in their Divisional Round game against the Cowboys, Anderson still earned 23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Los Angeles’ pass funnel history, plus its recent run-heavy offensive emphasis, could lead to big days from both Rams running backs — even despite New Orleans’ elite rush defense.

On the other sideline, the Saints report a staggeringly strong inverse correlation between pass funnel rating and offensive production. And, unlike the Patriots’ statistical splits, New Orleans’ week-to-week statistics suggest a much stronger, more linear trend:

The Saints’ correlational coefficient between pass funnel rating and passing yards is a very strong r=-0.77. Moreover, the correlational coefficient between pass funnel rating and total yards also sits at r=-0.73. Both of these coefficients are massive statistically — they suggest that as New Orleans’ pass funnel rating rises, their passing yardage and total yardage plummets.

But the Saints earn their lowest pass funnel rating of the season this weekend, which ironically implies high passing and total yardage potential against the Rams.

New Orleans might just blow the roof off in another classic SuperDome shootout.