clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Do Star Cornerbacks Improve a Pass Rush?

New, comments
Chicago Bears v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Bears had a strong pass rush last season, with a sack percentage of 6.5%, good for 7th overall in the NFL. Meanwhile, they were 23rd overall in terms of passer rating allowed and 29th in terms of interception rate compared to pass attempts. Some of that disparity is due to the quarterbacks they faced, but some of it is simply a product of having one position group of notably lower quality than the other.

The Bears’ secondary wasn’t very good in 2016.

However, it is possible that this discrepancy is a mere blip. It could be that most of the time, a star defensive back makes a front seven look better and vice versa. Obviously, it is nearly impossible to sort out which is the cause and which is the effect (i.e. does the elite corner give the pass rush a chance to get home or does the intimidating pass rush make it easier to play corner?), but there should be some relationship between the two. Disparities like the Bears’ high sack rate but poor pass defense should be oddities.

It’s nearly impossible to come up with a definition that will make anyone happy when it comes to “top cornerback,” so I cast as wide of a net as possible. In order to be able to pull rankings that looked at completed seasons, I focused on the 2015 NFL season and only looked at rankings that were compiled after the 2015 season concluded but before the 2016 season began. For lovers of the eye test, I pulled rankings from Bleacher Report, For The Win, and Sports Illustrated (via 247Sports). For analytics fans, I looked at three measures from Football Outsiders: Adjusted Yards per Target, Adjusted Success Rate, and Estimated Target Rate. I had no interest in PFF, which sometimes pretends to be analytics but is more of a group-think eye test system.

In order to consider a player an elite corner, I wanted to see the player ranked in the Top 15 on multiple boards; for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I broadened this to Top 20 after a moment. This left me four players who were so dominant as to appear on almost all of the boards, except for Patrick Peterson, who appeared on all of the boards.

2015 Patrick Peterson was a force of nature. His worst ranking on any of the six boards under consideration was his Effective Target Rate, which was fourth.

Elite Corners

Player Team # of Boards Team Sacks Team Sack Rate
Player Team # of Boards Team Sacks Team Sack Rate
Peterson ARI 6 #20 (36) #19 (5.9%)
Norman CAR 5 #6 (44) #15 (6.3%)
Revis NYJ 5 #13 (39) #17 (6.1%)
Talib DEN 5* #1 (52) #1 (8.3%)
*Talib was 16th and 19th on two different boards

Note that there was really no correspondence between “having an elite corner” and “having a top pass rush”, at least to the ability that can be measured easily.

The actual ranks and performances are all over the place. Peterson was unquestionably the dominant corner of 2015, but Arizona managed only a middling level of sacks or sacks per attempt. The same is true for Revis. Norman presents a rare chance to test (very loosely) cause and effect, in that he left for Washington in 2016; amusingly, both the Panthers and Dan Snyder’s team saw their sack performance increase after this move.

Aqib Talib would seem to provide a sliver of hope to those holding out hope that an elite cornerback really does benefit a pass rush, except (as noted on the table), he was Top 15 on only three boards, and the Denver defense is solid front-to-back.

Based only on this quick study, I find no reason to think that an elite corner transforms a pass rush. Obviously, different parts of a defense aid one another. Still, these two elements of a defense seem to operate independently of one another. However, I’m not done. Sound off below on what you think should measured when it comes to testing this belief. If it’s practical, I’ll look into it.