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Defensive Evaluation of Football Games in Sports Betting

| December 26, 2017 12:00 am PDT
Football Defense

When the betting public evaluates football games, they tend to concentrate most of their efforts on the offensive side of the ball. Most people watch games for entertainment, and the offense is the part of the game that’s most entertaining.

But smart sports bettors know they need to evaluate the entire football game, and the defense is as important as the offense. I’ve put together a complete guide to defensive evaluation of football games in sports betting.

It shows you how to tear apart every aspect of defensive football by team so you can make smart evaluations on upcoming games. Don’t make the mistake of thinking defensive evaluation is too hard or takes too much time.

Winning sports bettors tend to learn more about games and work harder at evaluating them than other gamblers. If you want to be a profitable football bettor, you need to work harder than losing gamblers.

You can use the information on this page for NFL games, NCAA games, CFL games, and any other football games you can find lines on. This page only deals with football as referred to by Americans, not soccer, which is called football by most of the world.

Points per Game

The simplest way to start evaluating the defense of a football team is by tracking how many points per game they give up. This number is a good way to quickly compare defenses of two or more teams.

This sounds easy, but the raw numbers only give a small and incomplete picture of the overall performance of a team’s defense. In the following sections, you’re going to learn many other ways to evaluate defensive teams, but before you move on, let’s dig deeper into points per game.

Not every point a team gives up is allowed by the defense.

Interception and fumble returns for touchdowns are given up by the offense, and punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns are given up by the coverage teams.

To get a true picture of how many points per game each defense gives up, you need to deduct all of the points listed above. As you’re going to learn in other sections, there are other important things to consider as well. The points given up when a defense starts with poor field position and how many points are given up with a big lead are also important considerations.

I start every defensive evaluation with points per game adjusted by offensive points given up and coverage team points, and add to my evaluation from there.

Yards per Game

Yards per game surrendered by each defense are the next thing I evaluate. Just like points per game, you have to dig deeper into the yards per game statistics to get a complete picture.

A team with a strong offense tends to give up more yards per game defensively simply because the defense tends to be on the field more. The same often happens when a team has a poor offense.

The other thing to consider is that some defenses are what I call “bend but don’t break” defenses. They tend to give up a great deal of yards in the middle of the field, but are able to clamp down when the opposing team gets close to the red zone. A “bend but don’t break” defense may give up a lot of yard and field goals, but they don’t give up many touchdowns.

This type of defense does a good job of keeping their team in a game and giving their offense a chance to win the game with a big play or two.

When you combine your evaluation of a defensive team’s points per game and yards per game, you have a solid way to compare two or more teams.

At this point, you’re starting to get a good picture of a defense’s overall ability. But if you want to be a winning sports bettor, you still have a great deal to add to your evaluation.

Average Yards per Play

The average yards per play given up by a defense is the next thing to evaluate. This is directly influenced by the ability of the offenses they face, but it’s still important. I compare each team’s yards per play against other teams and against the overall average for the league.

You also need to be aware of how many yards each defense gives up toward the end of games that have already been decided. When a team has a big lead, they give up more yards, because they play more prevent defense. They’re glad to give up yards in the middle of the field because it eats time off the clock.

In the NCAA, when a team gets a big lead, they often start playing second and third string defenders to get them some playing time. This can inflate yards per play, yards per game, and points per game averages.

Once you make adjustment for all of these things, you have a much better picture of each team’s defensive ability.

Average Rushing Yards and Passing Yards per Play

Now you want to break up the yards per play into averages for rushing and passing. You use these numbers when evaluating a defense against a team that passes or runs more.

A great defense is able to control both the passing and running game, but most defenses excel at one or the other. Sometimes the hardest games to handicap are the ones where one team has a great pass defense and the other has a great pass offense, or a great run defense is facing a great running offense.

When you evaluate average rushing yards and passing yards per attempt for the defense against the same numbers for the offense they’re facing, you can start to get a feel for how each team will perform.

The results will usually be close to the average of each team’s prior numbers, but a dominant team on one side of the ball can completely shut down the other team.

You usually don’t see complete domination on one side of the ball as much in the NFL as in some NCAA games, but it can happen. Some NCAA defenses are so good at stopping the run that they turn most of their opponents into one-dimensional teams.

The reason average yards per play is more important than total yards is because it’s a more level playing field when evaluating games. You need to look at all statistics in the way that gives you the most realistic comparison.

Minutes per Game

The average number of minutes played by each defense per game is important as well. Defenses that are forced to play more minutes are more likely to wear down toward the end of games.

Teams that have offensive counterparts that eat up a lot of clock are kept fresher and are more able to keep at their top performance level.

The teams that have to play more minutes also tend to have more injuries on defense. This is simply because playing tired and making more plays leads to greater chance of injury, but the end result is all that’s important.

Like most of the ways you evaluate defenses, you also need to compare the average defensive minutes against the average offensive minutes for the next opponent. Once again, the results are usually close to an average of the two numbers.

I also evaluate the average points per minute played by each defense and offense. This way, I can predict a score based on the expected minutes each team is on the field in the game I’m evaluating.

While a few winning football bettors are able to just watch games and evaluate them for betting purposes, most of them rely on statistics. None of the things I use to evaluate a game require an advanced degree in mathematics or statistics, but you need to learn how to use as much math as possible when picking games.

Plus/Minus Turnovers

Turnovers are such an important part of the outcome of football games that they should be evaluated on their own. Every time a defense creates a turnover, they keep the other team from scoring, and either score or give their offense an opportunity to score.

This can create a swing as high as 14 points. Some teams are good at creating turnovers, and others aren’t. The important thing to know when evaluating games is which teams are likely to create a turnover, because a single turnover can be the difference between winning and losing.

You can easily find plus/minus turnover numbers for teams, and you should use them when evaluating games, but also look at just the turnovers created by the defensive units.

In isolation, the turnover numbers only get you so far, but when you evaluate them for every team in the league, you can see which teams are better at it than others.

Just make sure that you understand how things work in statistics when one or two numbers are far outside the norm. When a number is far outside the norm, it doesn’t fit with the rest of your numbers.

Here’s an example:

Say you’re evaluating 10 defenses and they have the following turnover numbers for the season. You can see that one of them is quite a bit different than the others.

  • Team A 12 turnovers created
  • Team B 6 turnovers created
  • Team C 6 turnovers created
  • Team D 5 turnovers created
  • Team E 5 turnovers created
  • Team F 5 turnovers created
  • Team G 4 turnovers created
  • Team H 3 turnovers created
  • Team I 3 turnovers created
  • Team J 2 turnovers created

In this example, it’s clear that team A has many more turnovers created than a normal team. If you take the average number of turnovers created for the 10 teams by adding the total turnovers and dividing by 10, you see the average is 5.1 per team.

Team A has over twice the average, so this is outside the norm. Team J only has two turnovers created, so they create less than half the average.

Overall, it’s easy to say that team A is good at creating turnovers and team I isn’t good at creating them. And this observation is correct.

But as a sports bettor, the danger when evaluating numbers that are so far from the average is that it’s hard for a team to continue operating this far out of the norm.

What usually happens is that the team that’s far from the norm starts moving back toward the average instead of continuing to widen the gap. This means that you must be careful not to give too much of an adjustment to teams like team A or team J for their turnover totals.

This is a fine line, and every once in a while, a team is able to overcome the tendency to move back toward average, but the longer they play, the closer they tend to move toward average as a whole.

Sacks and Sack Percentage

Teams that are able to sack the opposing quarterback more are better than those who can’t. This is common sense, but you need to fully understand what a sack does.

Each sack eliminates a down and increases the number of yards needed for a first down. It also helps create better field position when the team is forced to punt.

But total sacks are only part of what you need be aware of.

A better way to track sacks is to determine the percentage of times a defense is able to record a sack-per-pass attempt. This number gives a better way to compare two or more defenses.

Sacks aren’t as important as turnovers created, but they’re close. A sack in an important situation can turn a game around just like a big turnover can.

Hurries and Quarterback Hits

Hurries and quarterback hits aren’t popular statistics, but every time a quarterback is hurried, it creates a situation where a mistake can be made. And each hit a quarterback takes increases the chance of injury and fatigue.

Even if a team doesn’t get as many sacks as another team, if they can hurry and hit the quarterback a high percentage of the time, they can still be effective.

Every time the defense forces a mistake, it helps their team win the game. Many interceptions are created by the quarterback being hurried. Track hits and hurries for each defense and also track them per pass attempt.

When you track hits and hurries by pass attempt, it offers an accurate comparison from team to team. It also helps you predict how many are likely when a team is facing a team that tends to throw more or less than other teams.

Stops for Loss

Stops for loss are almost the same as sacks, but they’re often overlooked by sports bettors. They eliminate a down and add to the total yards needed for a first down.

They also improve the field position on eventual punts. I count them the same as sacks when evaluating games.

Track total stops for loss, the average yards lost on each stop, and the percentage of stop-for-loss plays per run play overall.

A team that does a good job of getting a few stop-for-losses and sacks each game can be a powerful defensive unit, even if they don’t do as well as other defenses in other categories. Every stop for loss and sack puts additional pressure on the opposing offense, which can lead to more mistakes and turnovers.

Opponent Average Starting Field Position

It’s important to know the average starting field position the team’s defense begins drives on. This is created by the offense, kick-off team, and punt team, but it helps evaluate the true effectiveness of a defense.

A team that constantly has to try to stop the opposing offense on a short field is at a distinct disadvantage to a team that starts with the opposing team deep in their own territory.

Football offenses are based on timing and precision blocking and throwing.

The more offensive plays a team must take, the higher the chances of a mistake. Mistakes made by offenses help the defense.

Of course, the more plays the defense is forced to play, the more tired they get. This often balances out over the course of a game and season, but you can’t assume that this is always the case. If you want to be a winning football bettor, you need to look for every small advantage you can find.

When you evaluate defenses, you need to know everything you possibly can about them to make accurate predictions. The opponent’s average starting field position won’t tell you much by itself, but when you incorporate it with your other evaluation methods, it helps you use the entire picture.

Good and Bad Competition

The defensive results in football can be skewed based on the competition. A team that has played a series of weak offense teams will have better defensive statistics than should be expected against better teams.

A prime example of this is early-season schedules played by many good NCAA football teams. They fill their early schedules with weak teams because they know that a good record is needed to secure a bowl game bid.

Before a powerful team like Alabama or Ohio State gets into league play, they usually play many weak non-league opponents. They usually dominate these early season games and the defensive statistics look good.

But when they get into league play and face good teams like Georgia, Auburn, Penn State, and Michigan, the defenses are facing much better competition.

The other side of this is also true, and you can use this information when evaluating small-conference play. A small-conference team that plays a series of early season games against good teams and is able to perform at a decent level defensively is probably going to start doing much better when they get into conference play.

As I evaluate each defense, I consider their schedule to the current point in the season and make adjustments based on who they have played and who they’re getting ready to play.


At this point in the evaluation process, you should have an almost complete picture of the effectiveness of the defense of each team. You should be able to predict the expected outcome of an upcoming game and have a clear picture of the value offered on the game in comparison to the lines offered by the bookmakers.

But you should use one final piece to complete the puzzle. I always consider the defensive coordinators and sometimes the other defensive coaches in each matchup.

The tendencies of defensive coordinators can offer the final thing you need to know to make a profitable pick, especially in a game with a tight line.

Here are a few questions involving defensive coaches that I try to answer:

Do they blitz a lot, and how does the team

they’re facing handle added pressure?

Can the defensive staff make good adjustments during the game and at halftime, or do they struggle to make the changes needed to adjust to the offense?

Do they have a track record of dominating weaker teams and struggling against strong teams, or are they able to get their players to rise to the challenge in big games?

By answering these questions and any others you can think of, you should be able to make your final adjustments and place more profitable wagers.


If you find yourself thinking about how hard it is to thoroughly evaluate the defensive side of the ball in football, you’re right. But this is a good thing if you want to be a winning sports bettor, because most people are too lazy to do what they need to do to become winners.

When you follow the advice on this page about defensive evaluation of football games in sports betting, you’re going to know everything you need to know to make profitable wagers.



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