The recent discussion about new Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has focused on his personality and how this may cause potential problems. Turn on the Jets’ Joe Blewett did a great scouting review of Williams here: New York Jets Scouting Review- Gregg Williams’ Defense. The purpose of this article is to break down Gregg Williams’ statistically by comparing his performance with teams to how they did before and after his arrival.
The main statistics used here are Total DVOA, Passing DVOA, Rushing DVOA, Sack Percentage (amount of sacks per pass play), Turnovers, Interceptions, and Fumble Recoveries since turnover luck can occur with a high amount of fumble recoveries which do not correlate consistently year-to-year.
DVOA is a statistic developed by the Football Outsiders, which is a stronger indicator of defensive efficiency over points and yards allowed because it focuses on a per play basis and negates factors that tend to inflate traditional statistics such as pace that can either inflate or deflate those factors. For a further explanation on DVOA, check out this explanation: DVOA Explained. Please note that for defense, a negative DVOA is actually better so do not be confused when you see a negative DVOA receive a high-ranking in the league.
Before I break down each team, here is a Tableau Worksheet with all of Williams’ defenses, including how the team performed the year before and the year after. The DVOA stats will represent inverse relationships for this particular visual, so the lower the bar for DVOA, the better the defense did. You can select different stats and the graph will reflect the data for that chart. You can also hover over a bar for more information.
Gregg Williams’ first defensive coordinator job was with the Tennessee Oilers. Even though his team improved slightly in ranking his first year in Tennessee, their DVOA regressed in his first two years. They improved in 1999 and then came 2000 where they were the best ranked defense according to DVOA. The improvements can be seen in 1999 when we look deeper into the numbers.
One thing that is said about Williams’ defenses are his ability to generate pressure and create turnovers. Even though their defense was not very effective in 1999, they ranked 3rd in sack percentage (amount of sacks created per passing play) and 4th in turnovers forcing 40 turnovers, mainly because they recovered 24 fumbles to lead the league. Fumble recoveries are typically random and do not correlate strongly from year to year, so in order to build off their improvement in 1999, they would have to create more pressure and interceptions. In 2000, they did precisely that.
If you look at the amount of turnovers they created in 2000, they dropped significantly from 1999 and put them in the middle of the pack relative to the rest of the league. However, they improved on their sack percentage by almost 2 percentage points to rank 2nd in the league, which propped up one of the worst pass defenses for his first three years to the 2nd best. The amount of interceptions stayed virtually the same, so this 2nd ranked Passing DVOA is not the result of fluke turnovers- the Titans were generating legit pressure. Were the increase in sacks the result of his scheme or did something change?
As much as I like to say it was his scheme, there was a major change. The Titans drafted defensive end Jevon Kearse in 1999, who accounted for 14.5 sacks in 1999 and 11.5 sacks in 2000. Defensive end Kenny Holmes also had a career-high 8 sacks in 2000, so for a coordinator that is touted as generating pressure from all over the place, two players had over 35% of the Titans’ sacks. Not to say the pressure he sent didn’t open up single coverage for his two ends, I was just expecting to see a more balanced sack approach. Either way, this 2000 season vaulted him into a head coaching position the next year. How did the Titans do when he left? Well, from 1996-2001, they posted their 2nd worst DVOA the year after Williams left in 2001.
I am not going to spend as much time on the Bills since Williams was not the defensive coordinator and it is difficult to say how much control he had on the defense as a head coach where you are being pulled in so many other directions. Either way, this was an interesting hire. Usually, teams hire head coaches based on a team’s deficiency in order to boost that area of weakness. The Bills did the opposite. In 2000, the Bills had the 7th best defense according to DVOA, led by head coach Wade Phillips, defensive end Marcellus Wiley, linebackers Sam Rogers and John Holecek. In 2001, all four of them left leaving Williams’ with a tall task as head coach. 2001 and 2002 were rough as the Bills ranked 27th and 24th in DVOA, respectively.
Then in 2003, the same thing that happened with the Titans happened to the Bills. The defense became good again. Aaron Schobel posted his first double-digit sack season with 11.5, accounting for 30% of the Bills’ sacks. The team, unfortunately, struggled and did not renew Williams’ contract. Unlike the Titans, however, the Bills got even better the next season. Again, it is tough to say how much of an impact Williams had or did not have in Buffalo.
From a statistical standpoint, this might have been Williams’ most successful stint as a defensive coordinator. Took over a 24th ranked defense, immediately improved them to 4th for two straight years, had a horrible 2007, and jumped back to 7th in 2007. They still ranked 10th when he left, but 3 of 4 years in the top 10 is impressive.
In his first year, the defense saw it’s sack percentage increase significantly and then taper down, but were still an effective defense. They came back down to Earth after his first year so maybe they were creating a ton of turnovers?
In fact, the Redskins created more turnovers before Williams arrived in Washington, and had it’s highest rank (16th) in 2005. Still, this defense was effective against the pass and the run. There is a notion that Williams’ defenses create a ton of pressure and create turnovers, but his time in Washington shows something a little different. Even if they aren’t rushing the passer or creating turnovers at an elite level, they can still be extremely effective. Something I never would have assumed coming into this analysis.
When Joe Gibbs was let go in Washington, his whole staff had to go and Williams took a defensive coordinator position in Jacksonville. This was not a memorable stint for Williams. The defense regressed in his only year there. The one bright spot was his improvement in their rush defense, which I find interesting.
I keep hearing Williams’ defenses struggle against the run. According to DVOA, however, Williams has done fairly well against the run. In fact, Williams ranks better against the run (average 13th ranking) versus the pass (averages 17th ranking). And in the years we just covered, he averages an 18th rank against the pass and a 12th ranking against the run. Let’s see if he adjusted as the game has changed.
An era marred by “Bountygate” and Williams took heat and punishment for good reason. With that said, how good of a job did he do in New Orleans?
In 2009, the Saints won the Super Bowl with Williams as defensive coordinator and they did see a strong improvement from 2008. Not only did they jump almost ten spots in rank, they also posted a negative defensive DVOA, which is exactly what you want. Their sack percentage increased, but the real key was the amount of turnovers the Saints defense created: 39 and they ranked 2nd in the NFL. Only three times in Williams’ defensive career has his team ranked in the top-5 in turnovers, potentially dispelling the myth that Williams’ defenses create tons of turnovers.
As good as the 2009 Saints defense was considering where they had been previously, they were actually better in 2010. They ranked 10th in the league in total DVOA, created more pressure, but did not create as many turnovers. They were really strong against the pass in 2009 (likely because of those turnovers) and regressed a bit in 2010 despite having a similar ranking.
Why was the Saints defense so much in better in 2010? Their run defense, yet again. They ranked 10th in DVOA again showing Williams’ acumen in stopping the run as his defenses ranked in the top 10 in rushing DVOA 7 times in 14 seasons up until this point.
The defense would struggle in 2011, his last season with the Saints, and bounty-gate came out, so it wasn’t until 2014 that Williams would become a defensive coordinator again.
Williams would take over a strong Rams defense in 2014 that ranked 11th in DVOA in 2013. Even though the defense statistically dropped in his first year, they still ranked 9th and were not bad at all. The problem was in 2013, they were able to put a ton of pressure on the quarterback as Robert Quinn had 19 sacks and Chris Long had 8.5. They ranked 3rd in the NFL in sack pressure and in 2014, ranked 10th. The strange thing is they drafted Aaron Donald who would have 9 sacks in his rookie season, so putting him on a line with Quinn and Long should increase their sack pressure, not decrease. Right?
Well, Quinn only had 10.5 sacks almost cutting down his production in half, which Is expected since players rarely put up close to 20 sacks in back-to-back seasons. This coupled with Long missing 12 games hurt their overall production as a defensive line, but they still were not bad.
The defense did once again dominate the run ranking 4th in DVOA in 2014 and was an improvement on the 3rd ranked rushing defense in 2013. This Rams defense was consistently one of Williams’ best run defenses in his career as those Rams were in the top 10 for all 3 of his seasons. They finally came back down to Earth when he left in 2017, but that was new Rams regime focused on stopping the pass in this new wave of football.
I keep expecting to see a spike in the amount of turnovers created, but outside of a few blips so far in his career, they are not appearing for Williams’ defenses. In fact, the year he left the Rams, they started creating more turnovers under Wade Phillips. Is Williams’ as a turnover guru legit or a myth?
Talk about working with a clean slate. The Browns were awful in 2016 ranking 30th in DVOA and were just as bad against the run as they were the pass. Williams went to work right away improving the defense from 30th to 16th in just one season. He was able to get the defense to generate pressure pretty immediately increasing their sack percentage by 1.5%, although the turnovers weren’t being generated. Yet.
2018 is a weird season to look at because Williams did start the year off as defensive coordinator and then became head coach before the halfway point after Hue Jackson was fired. Unlike the Bills, I think it is fair to say we can give credit to Williams for the 2018 defense since he did construct the schemes and had more control of the defense from the onset.
Overall, this was a very good defense who ranked 12th in Total DVOA, 7th in Passing DVOA, but oddly enough, ranked pretty low against the run even though they were in the negative. This is the season where the turnovers came furiously for Williams as they ranked 2nd in the NFL with 31 turnovers. A huge improvement over the 13 the Browns had each of the two seasons prior. 14 of those were fumble recoveries which can certainly regress, but they still had 17 interceptions.
It appeared Williams’ defense caught up with what defenses needed in the league his last season: more emphasis on stopping the pass and less on the run as their pass defense ranked 7th and rushing defense was not very good. This was a rarity for Williams who will need to continue this with the Jets defense who have in recent years struggled against the pass.
Williams definitely has done some good work in his past, but I am not sure I put him on the level of Wade Phillips who seemingly always makes magic with his defenses. Surprising thing for me was seeing Williams’ reliance on defensive linemen to create sacks since we have heard so much about his blitzing approach. That makes the need for a dominant defensive end or two even more necessary (if this wasn’t apparent from watching the Jets the past few years already).
Also surprising is how well his defenses do against the run. I expected to see top of the line pass defenses and mediocre rushing defenses, and it was quite the opposite. That did change in Cleveland and will need to continue with the Jets considering the newer direction of football, though teams are showing the value of the run especially in the playoffs this year. Here’s to hoping he puts it all together for the next season (or two or three) with the Jets.
If you want to deep dive into the data yourself, you can view and filter the visual below to your liking: