Lee, the popular defensive coordinator and The Athletic writer, shows the data-driven philosophy behind his decision-making and how to get better on that all-important third down.

Want to take this on the go? Download the PDF version of Diante Lee's defensive KPIs, and learn the research behind them, in Blitz Essentials Vol. 2.

Watch starting at the 10:00 mark as Lee talks about his defensive KPIs before getting into the film. Below, Lee expands further on the rationale behind the goals he sets for his defense.

Every head coach and coordinator must fit their own version of success around what’s available to them each year. 

Most of these goals have been borrowed and modified from a great deal of college and NFL defensive coordinators and head coaches that have influenced me over the years. Here’s how I came up with them:

Less than three yards per rush

This is all about first down. If we see that an offense has a high run tendency, and we can keep this metric at three yards per play or lower, that’s an efficient defense. It’s important to set the front and/or run targeted pressures to stymie your opponent's most used and most effective runs, which may not be the same if it’s an offense with a heavy run tendency.

In some cases, getting an offense into second and long changes tendencies so sharply, you’re essentially defending their third-down offense twice. That keeps your key coverages and pass pressures in play throughout the game, which will feed other metrics.

Less than six yards per pass

This is a second-down goal for us. Whether it’s a shot play alert (typically in second and short situations) or picking up cheap yardage on second and medium or longer to move the chains or make third downs manageable (typically where we see RPO, quick game, screens and/or draws), we want to have coverages each week that match what we expect to see from their base passing game by the down and distance. 

Forcing checkdowns on deeper concepts, contesting the ball on intermediate passes, and allowing little catch-and-run opportunities on shorter passes allows us to reach our situational goals.

Win 70 percent of conversion (3rd & 4th) downs

The first two goals feed into our approach on conversion downs. If we meet or exceed our goals on first and second, we set up advantageous third-down opportunities.

We treat conversion downs as their own world of football, and hone in on players as much as we do the plays themselves. Once we identify their go-to calls, we want to focus in on who the players are that can cause us problems, and who the players are we can take advantage of. For example, we may use a bear front to load up the box against a dangerous running back one week. That same front may serve us well against an offensive line that struggles at protecting on the interior.

Create more havoc plays (tackles for loss + sacks) than explosive plays allowed (runs/passes for 12+ yards)

Much like conversion downs, we feel like creating negative plays revolves around creating advantages for our best players. Limiting explosives comes down to neutralizing their best. These are personnel-based solutions for our opponents. 

Identify the matchup problems and opportunities in a general sense, and scout out when an offense likes to get their best player the ball—and when you can get your best players in the backfield for tackles for loss, or sacks.

    Finish each game with at least three takeaways (and ultimately a +2 turnover margin)

    This is self-explanatory. Turnover opportunities are volatile (thus, rarely promised), but converting as many chances as you can gets your unit off the field, gives your unit scoring chances, and creates unexpected opportunity for your own offense. If I can create two additional chances for my offense, I’ll be exponentially harder to beat.

    Win 60 percent of red zone appearances

    In my mind, two-thirds of your red-zone defense is done before the ball even reaches the plus-20. At every level of football, the best thing you can do to protect your unit in red zone situations is to keep an offense from ever reaching the field zone in the first place. 

    Defenses winning on conversion downs means changes in possession, and less red zone trips. Allowing fewer explosive plays means longer drives to reach the red zone, jacking up the degree of difficulty on offenses—and creating negative plays means more long-yardage situations, which accomplishes the same. Forcing turnovers ends a possession altogether, which is the goal.

    Once your unit has its backs against the wall, it's so important that you hone in on every tendency you can identify. That means double moves, quarterback run schemes, trick plays, shifts and motions, unconventional formations, and anything in-between are in play. The best players on an offense are the ones tasked with punching it in, so be sure that your fronts, coverage shells, and pressures are adaptable to red zone situations.

    Ultimately, get off the field by any means. Stopping an offense inside the 20 is difficult business, so don’t kick yourself over drives that end in field goal attempts. If you can get a red zone possession to end in a takeaway or turnover on downs, throw a party with your players—they truly accomplished something!

    Allow less than 1.5 points per possession

    You put all of this together, and you keep offenses out of the end zone. Instead of setting a points per game metric, I felt it was more prudent to measure scoring by possession, borrowing from advanced metrics used in the NBA. 

    If your offense is hurry-up/no-huddle, setting hard 13 points allowed per game goals may be unrealistic–—especially if you must share players on both sides of the ball. But if your defense is on the field for 12 drives and they allow 17 points, you won roughly three-quarters of your possessions. That was likely accomplished by performing at a high level on conversion downs, creating negative plays, taking away their best players/plays, and keeping your opponent out of the red zone.

    We don’t really talk about points per possession as much in football, but I think it’s a great way for us to get across that it’s not always about the final number on the scoreboard, but the contextual information of, how many times we were on the field, and how did we do each time we had to hit the field?

    Here are some key performance indicators based off those goals:

    Even in the things that are highlighted in red, you can still see a lot of success in there. We only lost the turnover margin once in 2021. We only had a couple games where we didn’t get to where we wanted to be in havoc plus-minus. 

    On third down success, you’ll see in Week 2 we won half, but we didn’t meet our goal. That’s on me the coach. I’m not coming in on Monday and cutting these guys down in film sessions about them missing out on one or two opportunities on third down that would have allowed us to meet this goal that we have in terms of a metric. 

    That’s more on me, going back and watching Saturday and Sunday, and asking myself, did I prep them well enough for third and long? Did we have everything scouted out properly? Could have simulated more pressure? Could we have played more coverages? Did I have the right personnel on the field? 

    This way, when I am facing the guys on Monday, I can say I didn’t do enough here, but let’s look at what I had called, and can we address it in terms of our approach, in order to be more successful next time out?

    As we look at what correlates to our success, a good havoc plus-minus puts us in a better position to be good on third down, which gets us off the field, which gets us out of the red zone, which puts us in a position where we can win football games. I think that bears out in these results.

    Want to take this on the go? Download the PDF version of Diante Lee's defensive KPIs, and learn the research behind them, in Blitz Essentials Vol. 2.