Pass at Your Own Peril
Taking to the air has become the way of the NFL, but when do we reach the point where teams are passing too much, for the worse? We may already be there
The NFL is a passing league, we all know this. When you combine more talented passers and receivers coming up from the college ranks with the quarterback protection and defensive contact rules that put defenses at a disadvantage, it makes sense. It’s been almost too easy to throw.
But the feeling I’ve gotten the past couple of weeks is that some teams have gotten too pass happy, to their own detriment. Teams used to pass because it was advantageous, either because of personnel or scheme—that’s what the defense gave them. Now, teams throw just to throw. And it’s hurting the teams that don’t know their own limitations.
That’s what I've thought watching the games. But is that reality? I crunched a few numbers to see whether there was anything to that. The conclusion confirmed my hunch: teams are throwing more, and most are hurting themselves doing it.
So far this season, teams are 61.1 percent pass, 39.9 percent run. A year ago after four weeks, teams were 59 percent pass, 41 percent run. At the end of the 2012 season (since rushing attempts usually increase as the weather deteriorates) NFL teams had a 57.7/42.3 pass-run split.
I wanted to see how teams were affected by their change in balance. I took each team’s average number of rushing attempts through Week 4 in 2012, and compared that to this season. Seven teams have increased their rushing attempts by at least three per game. Thirteen have decreased their rushing attempts by at least three per game.
How has that affected them? To get a rough gauge, I subtracted each team’s 2012 DVOA rating (defense-adjusted value over average—a formula that breaks down every NFL play and compares that to the league average based on situation) from Football Outsiders to what they’ve posted this season. I used overall DVOA instead of offensive DVOA because I believe a running game helps all facets of a football team, when you factor in how it, in theory, gives a defense more rest on the sidelines.
You can see the results in the chart to the right (red highlights a negative DVOA difference). But here are the highlights:
• Of the seven teams that have increased their rushing attempts by more than three per game, only one (Oakland) has not improved as a team—and the Raiders’ -4.0 percent DVOA difference is not great. The other six have improved greatly, exhibited by a DVOA resurgence of between 16.3 percent and 41.4 percent.
• Of the 13 teams that have gone away from the run by more than three attempts per game, only the Dolphins—who had the largest drop in rush attempts, decreasing their emphasis by 12.8 per game—have improved (5.8 percent DVOA). Three teams have regressed in the single digits in DVOA, while seven have fallen in the double digits.
A perfect example of what a running game can do has been the Patriots. Through three weeks, a struggling pass offense helped keep New England to a 13.7 percent DVOA (11th in the NFL). Despite a lack of dependable targets for quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots had a 60/40 pass-run balance playing three games that were either close or in which they had command of (Bucs). But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in their best victory of the season, the Patriots had a perfect run/pass balance of 31 rushes and 31 pass attempts against the Falcons. As a result, the New England jumped to seventh in DVOA. Their overall number took a dip—mostly because the defense gave up a bunch of yards after the Falcons trailed by double digits—but their offensive DVOA went from –10.7 percent (23rd) to 2.6 percent (15th).
Conversely in that game, the Falcons continued to get more out of whack. In a first half that ended 10-10, the Patriots had 15 rushes and nine pass attempts. The Falcons had 11 rushes and 25 pass attempts. By the end of the game, Matt Ryan had dropped back 56 times, and the Falcons attempted 15 rushes despite the fact that the Patriots could be run on, even moreso after nose tackle Vince Wilfork left less than five minutes into the game. I don’t care if Steven Jackson didn’t play—that’s just wrong, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. So were the 43 pass attempts and 16—16!—rushes in the Falcons’ victory over the Rams, a game in which Atlanta led 24-3 at halftime.
• The Bengals were similarly skewed against the Browns. Despite not trailing by two scores until there were fewer than five minutes left in the game, the Bengals had Andy Dalton drop back 44 times, while only running the ball 20 times (four by Dalton). The Browns passed 41 times and rushed 30.
• In a loss to the Bills, the Ravens had nine rushes and 54 passes; Buffalo had 24 passes and 55 rushes.
• In a 13-10 game, the Cardinals and Buccaneers—who both have mediocre to poor quarterback play—combined for 84 pass attempts and 51 rushes. Who exactly on the Buccaneers staff thought it would be a good idea to drop back rookie Mike Glennon 45 times in his first career start?
• The Texans had great balance as they took a commanding 20-6 lead over the Seahawks. Once it was cut to 20-13 in the fourth quarter, the Texans’ next series went: incomplete pass, sack, short pass, punt. Same score, looking to ice the game, Houston had four Arian Foster rushes for 17 yards, and then Matt Schaub threw a game-tying pick-6.
• The Giants and Steelers are a combined 0-8. They’re also rushing a combined 12 fewer times per game.
• Washington finally won last weekend for the first time against the Raiders. Wouldn’t you know it, it rushed and passed 32 times. In its Week 3 27-20 loss to the Lions, Washington didn’t trail by more than two scores until there was 3:56 remaining in the game. For the game, gimpy quarterback Robert Griffin III dropped back 52 times, compared to 22 rushes (six by Griffin). For the season, Washington is averaging 12 fewer rushing attempts per game.
Sometimes I get the feeling offensive coordinators are just trying to prove how smart they are, and show what cool route combination they come up with next. Nobody cares, and it’s not helping your team. Run the ball more. You’ll thank me later.
Could we be seeing a changing of the guard this weekend in the NFC North? It’s distinctly possible when the Lions (3-1) visit Lambeau Field and the Packers (1-2). Green Bay had the bye week to get healthy and put its disappointing loss to the Bengals behind them. The Packers are going to be hard-pressed to stop the Lions’ offense. Green Bay hasn’t generated much pressure on the quarterback (No. 30 in The MMQB's pressure rating), and the Lions have protected well (second in pressure rate allowed). So the question is, will Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense be able to keep pace? It will come down to whether or not the Packers’ patchwork line can continue to do a solid job (eighth in our ratings) against the explosive defensive line of the Lions (third in pressure points but 10th when adjusted for snaps). If the Packers can protect Rodgers, and he doesn’t hold the ball, the Lions’ cornerbacks are ripe for the taking by the Packers' receivers. That being said, in five games against the Lions since 2010, Rodgers has had mediocre numbers (for him): 66.1 completion percentage, seven touchdowns, four interceptions, sacked 12 times and a rating of 98.2. The Packers are looking for their 22nd straight victory against the Lions at Lambeau. A loss would drop Green Bay to 1-3, make for interesting times around the team.
(More thoughts on Page 2)
… and 10
1. The showdown between Chicago and New Orleans will be won in the trenches. With their injuries on defense, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has relied almost exclusively on nickel and dime packages. That means they should be weaker against the run, and they have, ranked third against the pass and 30th against the run, according to Football Outsiders. The Dolphins had the right idea with 96 yards on 16 carries and 13 pass attempts in the first half on Monday night. But two turnovers that were turned into touchdowns doomed them. They ran the ball three times in the second half. The way to beat the Saints is to run the ball, take care of it, and hit them with the pass when the Saints have to commit a safety to help against the run. Look for a big game from Matt Forte, who has received some excellent blocking on the edges from his receivers.
2. I have to give Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib kudos for the job he did against the Falcons' top receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, on Sunday night. Yes, he received a decent amount of help over the top from safeties, which allowed him to be more aggressive underneath, and he got away with some handsy coverage. But you play with the techniques you know you can get away with. It’s been a marked turnaround for Talib during his first full season in the Patriots’ system. He was a bit overrated last season, considering he’s the same guy that got torched by rookie Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hartline last season. That Talib is gone. He has now started to fulfill his immense talent because his technique is night-and-day better.
3. It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with Talib, an impending free agent. If the same trade with the Bucs was available today in the post-Aaron Hernandez era, it’s likely the Patriots wouldn’t have made the deal given Talib’s laundry list of off-field issues. But he’s been in the building now for a year, and he was a top performer in the offseason program, so the Patriots have much more information to go on. They also can’t say they were duped if a big-money contract for Talib blows up in their face once he gets paid. And Talib may be looking to do that: at 27, this will be his best and maybe last chance for a big-money deal.
4. If Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden thinks his team (another which has rushed the ball less season) is going to beat the Patriots with Andy Dalton outdueling Tom Brady, he’s wrong. The Patriots prefer to play with both safeties back, which they did most of the game against the Falcons. They can get away with that most years when the front seven is stuffing the run without much help. But this season the Patriots haven’t been great stopping the run, and that effort is going to be hurt even more with Vince Wilfork done for the season. If the Bengals are successful controlling the game on the ground, New England will lose.
5. It’s going to be very tough for released Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to make a difference anywhere this season. To do that, he'd have land in a familiar system. Given that his last two offensive coordinators were Mike Sullivan (former Giants quarterbacks coach) and Greg Olson (current Raiders offensive coordinator), the Giants and Raiders would make sense—with Oakland making the most. However, Olson didn’t show much confidence in a young Freeman to take care of the ball, so the passing game was overly conservative. But things change.
6. If Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t get things turned around quickly, he may be looking for another job after this season—if not sooner. It’s been distressing to see the lack of imagination he’s used when it has come to deploying eighth overall pick Tavon Austin. Start with his position, or how he’s used. Austin isn’t a receiver, he's a multi-faceted offensive weapon. Only Schottenheimer deploys Austin as a slot receiver. That’s not his game. The Rams should be using his speed in different ways on every snap. Schottenheimer should have spent time with Rich Rodriguez and Dan Halgorsen, Austin’s two coaches at West Virginia, who also happen to be two of the brightest offensive minds in the game. They’d tell Schottenheimer to start with a handful of Jet sweeps a game—where the player comes in motion sprinting nearly at full speed in front of the quarterback—and getting some handoffs, shovel passes and direct snaps. That would force the offense to react to Austin’s speed, and open up openings for other players on play fakes. There has been none of that. It’s been mind-numbingly boring.
7. Expect Colts coach Chuck Pagano to be drilling containment into the heads of outside linebackers Robert Mathis and Erik Walden in advance of Sunday’s game against the Seahawks. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been at his best—and making up for some terrible pass protection—when he’s used his feet to set up plays. That’s what keyed the comeback against the Texans, thanks to the terrible containment and lack of discipline that outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus showed in the second half. Defenders almost have to resist the urge to rush Wilson, because most times he’s going to get away. Then all you’ve done is open up a huge running lane.
8. The Ravens’ decision to trade for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe only reinforces what we said two weeks ago: Baltimore’s offensive line has been as much of a problem as the lack of viable targets have been. The Ravens' brass probably thinks the trade could at least send a jolt into the other underacheivers in the unit, most notably left guard Kelechi Osemele. But the biggest problem, from this view, is still center Gino Gradkowski. He’s giving up pressure way too easily up the middle, which is even more of an issue with a sedentary pocket quarterback like Joe Flacco.
9. Expect Peyton Manning and his Four Horsemen of targets—Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas—to take aim at the Cowboys’ two young safeties, J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church. They’ve played very well for the most part this season, but the Broncos, with all their motion and adjustments, are about as tough of a challenge as they’re going to see. We’ll know how good Wilcox and Church are after this one. Know this: Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin knows he can’t sit in Tampa 2 and expect to slow down the Broncos, not that Kiffin has done that to this point.
10. Tough luck for Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer to go down with an apparently serious knee injury against the Bills. Have to feel for Hoyer, who is one of the good guys in the league. He sat behind Tom Brady for three seasons, and then was a victim of circumstance last year when he didn’t make the final cut. Quarterback transitions into another system are nearly impossible during the season, but Hoyer finally got a shot when he signed with his hometown Browns. He quickly ascended into the starting role, and then reeled off two victories in his first two starts before the injury.