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Correlating Factors: Run Defense and ATS Success

   by Bryan Leonard - 10/22/2011

Good handicappers know how to make lines based on power ratings, home field and public perception. Other numbers, however, that are easier to identify mustn't be overlooked, either, when analyzing games and point spreads each week. Here's one anyone can utilize: Run defense.
This is one of the basics when it comes to winning football. And speaking of basics, if you can't stop the run, the opponent doesn't need to pass. This is something that was evident when Nebraska and Oklahoma dominated the Big 8 and Big 12 during the 1970s and 80s. Those teams had powerful running games under Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne, and many times they'd face teams that simply couldn't stop the run.
While we don't find this kind of extreme disparity in the NFL, examining run defense is still an important angle when attempting to identify strengths, weaknesses and mismatches. After five weeks of one recent NFL season, which were the worst two teams defensively against the run? Cincinnati ranked 32nd allowing 165 rushing yards a game while Carolina (which may surprise you) ranked 31st allowing 159 yards per game. While the Panthers poor defense may be a shock, it's no surprise that those teams have been giving up a ton of points. What also stood out was their spread records: The Bengals started 0-5 against the number and Carolina was 0-3 ATS on the road.
This season the biggest NFL surprise might be the Cincy defense, which has been outstanding. The Bengals can collapse the pocket with a good young D-line, led by DE Jonathan Fanene, who consistently beats double teams, and tackle Geno Atkins. Speaking of defense, the under is 11-3 in the Bengals last 14 games as a home favorite. Stopping the run has been a huge part of their surprising start.
Simply put, teams that can't stop the run are most likely to give up a lot of points. And the only way they can then be effective at winning (SU and ATS) is to have a terrific offense that can mask that deficiency. This happened with the 2003 Chiefs, who allowed more yards per carry than any other team in the NFL (over 5 yards per pop), yet they were able to make the playoffs with an explosive offense. At least until the Colts ripped them in the playoffs, winning as a road dog.
Speaking of the Chiefs, they began the next season ranked 25th defensively against the run, allowing 135 yards and 4.5 yards per carry each game. That translated into a 1-4 SU/ATS start. The Saints had a lot of problems on defense for years, and that season New Orleans ranked 27th at stopping the run (143 yards allowed pg) during their 2-3 SU/1-4 ATS start. When they improved the run defense, they got much better, including a Super Bowl title in the 2009 campaign.
By now you get the point: It's tougher to cover the number when you struggle against the run. Before winning the title last season, the Packers were another great example a few years ago. After an opening day win over Carolina, Green Bay suffered key defensive injuries and went 0-4 SU/ATS, allowing 32 points per game. The run defense is giving up a whopping 149 yards and 4.9 ypc.
Here's another way to slice it: There were only four NFL teams that season allowing over 5 yards per rushing attempt, the Titans, Packers, Rams and Bengals. Their combined spread record: 6-16 ATS! You have to keep track of teams on a daily basis to determine if injuries or defensive adjustments are taking place. These things can influence a team's effectiveness against the run. The 2003 Patriots were average against the run early, until Ted Washington (leg problems) and other defensive players got healthy and New England improved dramatically against the run the second half of last season. But if you've found a team that can't stop the run consistently, make sure this is not a weakness the opponent can exploit if you plan on backing them. Otherwise, you can find it profitable to bet against teams that can't stop the run.

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