6 NFL Defensive Averages for Winning Sports Bettors

NFL Defense Betting Averages

NFL handicapping requires the evaluation of three important areas.

First, almost every NFL handicapper focuses on offense, but few spend much time on special teams and defense. But you can’t ignore defense if you want to be a profitable NFL handicapper. The problem is figuring out exactly which defensive metrics help you win and which metrics just make things more complicated. You can spend years using trial and error, or you can learn from someone who’s already spent time and money working on the problem.

Here are the six most important defensive averages I’ve found when handicapping NFL games.

1. First Down Yards Per Play

The NFL is designed to be an offense first league. Therefore, the rules are set up to favor offenses and make the job of each defense harder.

The people who run the NFL know that fans want to see more scoring.

I know that some fans enjoy a defensive battle, but high scoring teams and games are more popular than low scoring teams and games.

But you have to learn how to handicap both sides of the ball in the NFL if you want to make a profit. I’ve found that the best defenses in the NFL are the ones that give up the fewest yards on first down.

In every NFL game, the offense and defense battle to move the ball down the field and stop the other team from moving the ball down the field. The offense has four downs to move the ball at least 10 yards, but the truth is that almost 100% of the time, if a team doesn’t get at least 10 yards in three downs, they punt.

A defense that can limit the offense to two yards or less on first down is playing ahead of the chains.

Just like an offense that can average five yards on first down is playing ahead of the chains. When a defense limits the yards they give up on first down, they’re more likely to get the offense in third and long yardage situations.

2. Third Down Stop Percentage

You just learned that the best defenses in the NFL limit the number of yards they give up on first down plays. The best defenses are also the best at getting off the field on third down.

The sole job of the defense is to get the ball back for the offense, and the main way to do this is to stop the opposing team from getting a first down.

If you track the numbers closely, you’re going to see that the defenses that have the best third down stop rates are the teams that force the longest average yards to go on third down.

You have to know which defenses do the best job getting off the field.

And you have to know which offenses do the best job converting third down plays. When you find a defense that does a good job getting off the field playing against a team who does a poor job converting third downs, you can use this information when handicapping the game.

3. Run Yards Per Play

The NFL is a passing league first, but a good running game can still help a team a great deal. But when a defense can shut down the running game, it forces the offense to be one dimensional. And when a defense knows the opposing team has to throw, the defense can create more pressure on the quarterback.

I closely track how many rushing yards every offense and defense in the NFL produces and gives up. In every game I handicap, I compare how well each offense can run the ball and how well each defense stops the run. You have to do the same thing if you want to win.

Remember that the teams who can average the most yards on first and second down tend to convert more first downs. So the teams that can limit the opposing yards gained on first and second down have the best odds of getting off the field.

Please Note:
More teams pass on first down than ever before in the NFL, but stopping the run is still an important part of defensive football. Track the run yards per play for every defense and offense in the NFL to compare them in each game.

4. Pass Yards Per Play

If the rushing yards a defense gives up per play are important, the passing yards a defense gives up per play are even more important. The best defenses in the NFL give up the fewest yards passing per play. But you also have to be careful looking at overall stats without perspective.

For example:
A team that’s usually up by more than one score in the second half of games tends to give up more passing yards because the opposing offense is throwing more often.

You need to decide how to account for sacks when you track passing yards per play that a defense gives up. I track the average yards without sacks and with sacks, so I have two different numbers for each defense. I also track average sacks per attempt, so I know which teams do the best job getting to the opposing quarterback.

And finally, I track average pressures per pass attempt as well.

When you have an NFL defense that gives up a low average yards per pass number and can pressure the quarterback, you’re looking at a defense that will give their team a good chance to win. Just like some NFL teams have a quarterback that always gives the team a chance to win, some NFL teams have a defensive unit that always gives their team a chance to win.

5. Bend But Don’t Break

The most difficult type of defense to evaluate in the NFL is a team that bends but doesn’t break. For example, some teams tend to give up a lot of yards for 80% of the playing field, but they tighten up when they get close to their end zone.

A team that plays good bend but don’t break defense can have average or poor statistics overall, but they tend to keep their teams in games more often than not. These teams still give up some touchdowns, but they tend to give up more field goals than touchdowns.

The truth is that I see these types of defenses far more in college football than I see them in the NFL. But this is an area where you need to watch defenses play and not rely 100% on statistics.

Please Note:
When I see a defense that ranks in the middle of the NFL, or in the lower half, and doesn’t give up as many points as other teams ranked close to them, I take a close look at the film to see if they play a bend and don’t break style.

I’ve found that the defenses that play this style well are usually good when they get points. A team that can keep their offense in the game that gets points is almost always a good value.

6. Points Per Quarter

The final defensive statistic that I recommend tracking is how many points each defense gives up per quarter.

I’m looking mostly for teams that don’t give up many points in the first and fourth quarters.
  • A team that doesn’t give up many points in the first quarter tends to give offense a chance to get a lead.
  • And a team that tightens up in the fourth quarter tends to keep their team in the game longer.

But you have to look at the fourth quarter for each team with perspective. Just like a team who gives up a lot of late passing yards because they’re ahead in the game, a team that’s up big in the fourth quarter is likely to give up more points.

You also need to remember that a defensive coordinator’s scheme is often different when the team is up by at least two scores.

For example:
A good defense might switch to a prevent type scheme that’s designed to run time off the clock without giving up big plays.


You have to do a thorough job of handicapping offenses in the NFL if you want to win, but you also have to spend time working on the defensive side of the ball too.

But most NFL bettors struggle to determine what they can use and what doesn’t help them win. Over the years, I’ve used a great deal of trial and error developing my NFL handicapping skills, and some things help more than others. The six defensive averages listed in this post are the most important metrics I use to compare defenses in the NFL.

When you incorporate these six defensive metrics into your handicapping, your NFL betting results should quickly improve.


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Rex Hoffman / Author

Rex Hoffman is a passionate sports writer, with over five years of experience covering sports journalism in line with the Vegas betting landscape. His favorite subjects include football, basketball, and baseball. As a Las Vegas resident, he enjoys finding an edge against the local sportsbooks and aims to share his extensive knowledge with both beginners and experienced bettors. Rex also dabbles in horse racing wagering and enjoys typical casino fare like blackjack and poker in his spare time.

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