A Secret Shutdown Corner, An Untouchable Quarterback, and the Man Who Is Outplaying J.J. Watt…
Yes, we’re just two weeks into the 2015 season. But considering evidence from years past, these five early-season trends are worth noting
Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
One of the things I rail against most at PFF is when people call us an “analytics site”. It makes it sound as if we are a bunch of mathematicians trying to perform some sort of sabermetrics voodoo on football. I’m with the coach who said “so you want to tell me whether to go for it on fourth-and-2? Well what’s the sample size of my roster playing their roster, in 22-degree weather, when my right guard has a dodgy toe and my half-back broke up with his girlfriend last night?”
First and foremost we are a scouting site—scouting based purely on production—but also scouting based on hours of watching tape. Ninety-six thousand hours to be precise, logging and grading everything that happens across 332 NFL games (don’t forget the preseason) and 870 NCAA games every season.
So when Peter King gave me my assignment this week: “Give me five analytical nuggets, backed by numbers” I squirmed visibly. My first thought went to, What’s the sample size on new information after two games?
Then I put my negative self in a box and thought, What five things have we seen so far this year, in numbers and on tape, which may just carry through to Week 17? What have we seen in previous years that would substantiate them?
1. Bridgewater should cut out the play action
On paper it makes sense for a young quarterback, with the threat of a solid running game, to use play action. You just would, right? So it probably comes as no surprise to know that no one has used play action as much this year as Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater. He fakes the handoff on 33.9% of passing plays, well ahead of the NFL average of 18.8%.
However, here’s the surprising thing: His performance with it is not as good as when he doesn’t bother. He has a QB rating of 87.4 with play action and 95.6 without. So it’s a two-week sample size thing right? Not so fast. Last year, on nearly 500 drop-backs his, passer rating was 63.8 with play action and 92.4 without.
2. The best corner you’ve never heard of
After two games this year, the Panthers’ Josh Norman is our second-rated coverage corner. In 109 coverage snaps he’s been thrown at 21 times and allowed only nine to be completed for 55 yards, including one TD and one interception—a passer rating against of 46.3. Surely that’s an aberration brought on by facing the Jaguars and Texans in successive weeks?
It’s possible, but how does that account for his 53.9 passer rating against in 2014?
That was sixth-best in the NFL and based on over 400 coverage snaps.
After a rough rookie season in 2012, Norman lost his starting role and couldn’t get it back until Week 5 of last year. It’s unlikely he’ll lose it again.
3. Boy, can those Bengals pass protect
The least pressured quarterback in the NFL this year is the Bengals’ Andy Dalton. On only 17.5% of his dropbacks has he been disrupted in any way; he has yet to be sacked. Last year the Bengals were the second-best line at keeping their QB clean with pressure allowed on only 25% of plays. In 2013 it was the same exact numbers as last year. See a trend?
Dalton certainly gets rid of the ball quickly, though if that was all that was involved everyone would do it. This is a special group with a special coach—Paul Alexander. He’s in his 21st straight season as O-line coach and it shows up year in and year out.
With right tackle Andre Smith back from injury and center Russell Bodine massively improved over last year, this may be the best group in football.
4. Donald might be better than Watt this year
So this is the least plausible of the five. I agree it’s a stretch to think that anyone can be better than the player we’ve selected as the best in football three years in succession.
That said, the way Donald is playing is at a minimum on par with last year’s Watt and certainly better so far.
After two games we’ve graded him at +18.0 with Watt (who had a very un-Watt like game against the Panthers) +8.6. Watt has 10 QB disruptions (sacks, hits and hurries) and Donald eight.
Against the run it’s a similar story—both have six stops (tackles considered a loss for the offense) with Donald having a slightly higher rate, 11.8% against 10.7%.
So if the numbers are saying they are similar, why is Donald so far ahead on grade?
Because watching tape allows you to evaluate things you can’t do with numbers. Donald is getting positive grades for the disruption he’s causing that others benefit from. Watt is too, obviously, but at the moment not quite to that extent.
5. The ‘other guy’ from the TE class of 2013
One number I often do refer to is yards per route run (YPRR). It’s a particularly relevant measure of production for tight ends, where you need to account for time spent pass blocking.
With Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert (first round), Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz (second round) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (third round) getting a lot of ink, it always surprises me no one seems to talk about Washington’s Jordan Reed. Drafted 22 places after Kelce, it often feels like Reed is an afterthought.
The numbers tell a different story, as Reed ranks second in YPRR with 2.96, just behind Kelce (3.15) but ahead of Eifert (2.68, fourth) and a certain Rob Gronkowski (2.49, fifth).
Again, you can call foul based on insufficient data and again you’d be wrong given Reed was third last year too (behind Kelce and Gronkowski).
Keep an eye on him because once Washington realizes what they have, he may not stay hidden much longer.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.