The NFL is a matchup-driven league. On each play, there are many individual matchups occurring that can swing the outcome. Teams that can scheme more optimal matchups for themselves and mismatches for their opponents often end up with a win.
Mismatches come in many forms, such as finding a way to get Aaron Donald one on one with your opponent’s worst lineman or splitting Aaron Jones out wide on a linebacker. For this analysis, we will use Sports Info Solutions charting data to focus on the latter case of mismatches, which will be defined as a linebacker lined up pre-snap directly across from a running back or wide receiver in the slot or out wide.
How LB vs. WR/RB Mismatches Affect the Game
Offenses that can create these mismatches in the passing game increase their chances of big plays and successful plays in general. Forcing the defense to line up linebackers in space directly across from dynamic athletes is a win for the offense. Even the most athletic linebackers are generally at a disadvantage in these situations.
Offenses average minus-1.2 EPA per 60 plays when they do not create one of these mismatches. This increases to 1.8 EPA Per 60 Plays when there is a mismatch. That is an increase across all plays that have a mismatch present, regardless of if a team actually attempts to exploit it. When teams target a mismatch when facing man coverage (the most disadvantageous situation for a linebacker to be in), their EPA Per 60 jumps to 19.4. Although this isn’t the most common occurrence, defenses still, unfortunately, find themselves with a linebacker being put in this situation on about 8% of man coverage snaps.
LB vs. WR/RB mismatches are generally only talked about in reference to the passing game, but they can be a difference-maker on run plays as well. Designed run plays with a mismatch present have an EPA Per 60 of minus-1.2, as opposed to an EPA Per 60 of minus-4.8 for run plays without a mismatch. This is most likely due to a linebacker being displaced from the box, creating more running room for the offense.
Mismatches by Team
As explained above, being able to create LB vs. WR/RB mismatches can be extremely beneficial to an offense. Now let’s take a look at the offenses that have been able to create the most and fewest mismatches so far this season:
Teams w/ the Most Mismatches Created
|Team||% of Offense Snaps w/ LB vs. WR/RB Mismatch|
Teams w/ the Fewest Mismatches Created
|Team||% of Offense Snaps w/ LB vs. WR/RB Mismatch|
The Cardinals top the list so far this season, showing that NFL defenses might need to adjust some more to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. The Cardinals use 10 personnel on 35% of their snaps, which is way above the second-place Patriots at 6%. Defenses that face them are forced to use nickel or dime packages or rely on linebackers to cover in space, which is happening more often than it should. Even though the Cardinals lead the league in spread formation and personnel usage, defenses still use base personnel 16% of the time, which is near the bottom but still ahead of three other teams.
Teams that see less base personnel than the Cardinals include both the Eagles and the Chiefs, who find themselves at the bottom of the league in mismatches created. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of creating mismatches, it simply means defenses have adjusted to their offenses with an extreme use of nickel and dime packages. This explains why the Chiefs went from one of the best teams at creating mismatches a year ago, to one of the worst. However, this potentially leads to other types of mismatches for both the Eagles and Chiefs offenses.
Some other noteworthy teams in terms of mismatches created include offenses from the Sean McVay coaching tree. The Rams continue to be near the top of the league this season by creating a mismatch on 8% of their plays. Two of McVay’s disciples, Zac Taylor of the Bengals and Matt Lafleur of the Packers, have their teams in the top half of the league (8.8% and 7.2% respectively) after replacing coaches that failed to do so last season.
Mismatches by Player
While creating mismatches has a lot to do with the offensive scheme and the defensive personnel on the field, it also helps to have versatile skill position players that are able to line up in multiple spots. The following table shows the players that have provided the most total EPA on mismatch targets so far this season.
Player Mismatch Stats
|Player||Snaps w/ Mismatch||Mismatch Targets||EPA on Targets|
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that lining a linebacker up against receivers such as Courtland Sutton, Corey Davis, or Mike Evans is going to result in a lot of value for the offense. It also shouldn’t be surprising to see the Chargers Swiss Army Knife, Austin Ekeler, near the top of the leaderboard. Ekeler is a dynamic receiving back, and with the return of Melvin Gordon he has basically transitioned into a receiver. J.D. McKissic, a decent receiving back in his own right, rounds out the top five players who have gained the most EPA from mismatch targets.
Individual matchups are a critical part of every play, and creating mismatches within them can swing the outcomes of games. Analyzing LB vs. WR/RB mismatches is just one way to look at matchups, but they are an important factor that increases an offense’s efficiency. They improve both the passing and running games. Defenses are forced to adjust to teams that continuously exploit these mismatches and that in turn can create mismatches in other places on the field.