Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

30 Nov 2015

ALEX: Week 12

by Scott Kacsmar

So far with ALEX, we have only looked at quarterbacks, but there are plans to study defenses and receivers in due time. Specifically for receivers, ALEX should add good context for the results we see with failed receptions, receiving plus-minus, and YAC+, as they are all related stats.

For a little reference into what numbers we are seeing this year, I looked at the 50 players with at least 20 third-down targets through Week 12. Here are the top 10 and bottom 10 in average ALEX, along with the player's conversion rate. Obviously those rates vary a lot as we have not yet filtered out the uncatchable targets from this 2015 data.


Top 10 Receivers in ALEX, 2015
Bottom 10 Receivers in ALEX, 2015
Player Team Targets ALEX Rk Conv% Player Team Targets ALEX Rk Conv%
A.J. Green CIN 22 10.1 1 59.1% Jason Witten DAL 21 -0.9 41 42.9%
Allen Robinson JAC 23 8.5 2 21.7% Randall Cobb GB 23 -1.0 42 30.4%
Kamar Aiken BAL 21 8.2 3 28.6% Jared Cook STL 20 -1.3 43 20.0%
Mike Evans TB 32 7.5 4 37.5% Keenan Allen SD 23 -1.3 44 56.5%
Ted Ginn Jr. CAR 20 7.3 5 40.0% Jarvis Landry MIA 32 -1.4 45 28.1%
Emmanuel Sanders DEN 30 7.1 6 56.7% Jeremy Maclin KC 22 -1.8 46 31.8%
Travis Benjamin CLE 23 7.0 7 39.1% Travis Kelce KC 21 -1.9 47 47.6%
Eric Decker NYJ 23 6.5 8 56.5% Jordan Reed WAS 24 -2.1 48 54.2%
Antonio Brown PIT 40 6.4 9 52.5% Danny Amendola NE 20 -4.3 49 55.0%
Alshon Jeffery CHI 21 6.3 10 47.6% Danny Woodhead SD 23 -7.3 50 30.4%
Minimum 20 third-down targets.

Not surprisingly, the bottom 10 includes some running backs and tight ends, as well as wideouts who are known for running short routes and/or playing with quarterbacks who favor a slot receiver. The top 10 is filled with No. 1 wide receivers (or "1Bs") who run a lot of deep routes, and it is surprising no Arizona receiver shows up on this list given Carson Palmer's vertical season in Bruce Arians' system. A.J. Green's conversion rate is very impressive given his high ALEX. The highest conversion rate in the 50-player sample belongs to New Orleans' Willie Snead (65.2 percent), while the lowest goes to St. Louis' Jared Cook (20.0 percent).

We'll get to more receiver data in the future, but here is the look back at Week 12's top ALEX decisions.

Week 12's Most Conservative Plays

The Lowest ALEX

Teams: Tampa Bay at Indianapolis
Situation: third-and-18 at own 12, leading 12-9 in third quarter with 8:45 left
Play: Jameis Winston pass incomplete to Doug Martin
Air yards: minus-7
ALEX: minus-25

We actually had a tie with two minus-25 ALEX plays, but both were very similar. Tom Brady just threw his away on a screen to James White in Denver, but here Winston lobbed a screen over Doug Martin's head. The Buccaneers were scoreless in the second half after a good start.

A Notable Failure of the Week

Teams: San Francisco vs. Arizona
Situation: fourth-and-20 at opponent 40, trailing 19-13 in fourth quarter with 1:20 left
Play: Blaine Gabbert to Anquan Boldin for 18 yards
Air yards: 18
ALEX: minus-2

Somehow the 49ers are getting decent play out of Blaine Gabbert, the quarterback with the lowest ALEX in the NFL since 2006. You can see his very interesting numbers in the tables below, but here was a crucial play with the game on the line. We see this every week in the NFL and I'm not sure who is mostly at fault, but on fourth-and-20, you cannot throw to a route that stops at 18 yards. That's what Gabbert and Boldin did, and the reciever was tackled immediately to end the drive. Pass protection was not an issue on this play, especially when a few extra tenths of a second was all Gabbert needed to hold the ball. There was not a defender camped out at the line, protecting the sticks. Boldin just turns back for the ball a couple of yards short of the sticks, and it makes no sense why offenses do this. I would rather throw a jump ball and let Boldin try to win that as long as it was deep enough to convert.

On the season, Gabbert is 0-of-15 at converting on third-and-long, so an 18-yard pass on fourth-and-20 starts to make sense.

Week 12's Most Aggressive Plays

The Highest ALEX

Teams: Pittsburgh at Seattle
Situation: third-and-1 at own 47, leading 21-20 in third quarter with 0:25 left
Play: Ben Roethlisberger pass incomplete to Martavis Bryant
Air yards: 51
ALEX: plus-50

If Mike Tomlin can ever get on the same page as his quarterback in managing aggressiveness, then the Steelers would be doing better. Roethlisberger has been slinging it deep all year, and it's hard to blame him here with Bryant in single coverage deep with DeShawn Shead. Bryant had some struggles at the catch point on Sunday. Here he was able to pull the ball away from Shead, but Shead still recovered to strip the ball away for your typical defensed/dropped incompletion. The Steelers punted on fourth-and-1 from midfield, because they weren't close enough for Landry Jones to try another fake field goal, obviously.

A Notable Success of the Week

Teams: New York Giants at Washington
Situation: fourth-and-16 at opponent 40, trailing 20-0 in fourth quarter with 10:19 left
Play: Eli Manning to Rueben Randle for a 40-yard touchdown
Air yards: 30
ALEX: plus-14

You have nothing to lose when down 20-0 in the fourth quarter, so why not attack on fourth-and-16 in opponent territory? Some teams have actually punted in this situation, though we have not seen that since 2012. When Eli Manning is the quarterback, he is willing to throw any pass, and it paid off here with a good throw to Randle for a touchdown to get this comeback attempt started. Quarterbacks were only 2-of-18 at converting on fourth-and-16 since 2006, and all five attempts thrown over 25 yards were actually defensed. Rare success here.

2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 12

The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 26 passes) ranks in ALEX on third down only. There are also rankings for DVOA, average need yards (ranked from highest to lowest), and conversion rate.

Rk Quarterback Team ALEX CONV% Rk DVOA Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk
1 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 7.4 46.7% 6 55.0% 10 60 6.9 33
2 Carson Palmer ARI 4.0 53.2% 2 83.0% 4 94 7.0 31
3 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 4.0 41.6% 19 37.4% 18 101 7.3 24
4 Aaron Rodgers GB 3.2 37.1% 27 43.5% 15 89 7.7 19
5 Tyrod Taylor BUF 3.2 40.5% 22 46.8% 13 74 8.2 10
6 Jay Cutler CHI 3.0 46.9% 5 61.2% 6 96 6.3 38
7 Andrew Luck IND 2.6 42.0% 18 52.4% 11 69 7.6 21
8 Cam Newton CAR 2.5 39.1% 23 40.7% 17 92 7.9 14
9 Johnny Manziel CLE 2.5 41.0% 21 90.3% 2 39 8.7 1
10 Matt Hasselbeck IND 2.5 45.0% 8 8.2% 29 40 6.9 34
11 Blake Bortles JAC 2.2 38.2% 25 30.0% 20 110 7.8 16
12 Andy Dalton CIN 2.2 45.5% 7 69.2% 5 88 7.9 13
13 Brock Osweiler DEN 2.1 37.0% 28 -27.1% 34 27 6.6 35
14 Joe Flacco BAL 1.8 34.0% 32 -10.3% 31 103 7.0 32
15 Russell Wilson SEA 1.7 43.2% 14 57.7% 7 88 7.2 28
16 Brian Hoyer HOU 1.7 43.8% 13 46.7% 14 73 7.6 20
17 Peyton Manning DEN 1.6 32.7% 34 -35.6% 36 98 8.2 8
18 Josh McCown CLE 1.4 54.3% 1 128.7% 1 70 7.2 26
19 Matt Ryan ATL 1.4 47.4% 4 24.9% 23 116 6.6 36
Rk Quarterback Team ALEX CONV% Rk DVOA Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk
20 Marcus Mariota TEN 1.1 38.8% 24 9.1% 28 80 8.0 12
21 Tom Brady NE 0.9 48.0% 3 88.6% 3 98 7.4 23
22 Jameis Winston TB 0.9 42.9% 16 11.0% 27 112 8.2 7
23 Derek Carr OAK 0.9 44.6% 9 56.7% 8 112 7.5 22
24 Tony Romo DAL 0.9 44.1% 10 -27.8% 35 34 6.4 37
25 Drew Brees NO 0.8 44.0% 12 47.0% 12 116 8.2 9
26 Kirk Cousins WAS 0.7 44.1% 11 32.6% 19 118 7.2 27
27 Blaine Gabbert SF 0.7 25.9% 37 42.9% 16 27 7.7 17
28 Eli Manning NYG 0.7 42.5% 17 15.4% 25 113 7.2 29
29 Colin Kaepernick SF 0.7 33.8% 33 14.0% 26 74 7.7 18
30 Philip Rivers SD 0.4 42.9% 15 25.3% 22 112 8.3 6
31 Matt Cassel DAL 0.3 41.5% 20 56.3% 9 41 7.1 30
32 Ryan Mallett HOU 0.2 35.7% 30 -39.6% 38 42 7.2 25
33 Ryan Tannehill MIA 0.2 28.6% 35 -6.8% 30 105 8.7 2
34 Nick Foles STL 0.1 25.9% 36 -37.8% 37 108 8.5 3
35 Matthew Stafford DET 0.0 37.5% 26 -22.4% 33 104 8.0 11
36 Teddy Bridgewater MIN -0.1 36.3% 29 26.7% 21 91 7.8 15
37 Sam Bradford PHI -1.0 25.0% 38 -21.5% 32 88 8.5 5
38 Alex Smith KC -3.4 34.0% 31 22.3% 24 94 8.5 4

Tonight marks the return of "Third Down McCown" in Cleveland. We'll see if he can keep up his ridiculous numbers, though third-and-medium has been a problem area.

Next, ALEX is presented in splits by distance: short (1 to 3 yards to go), medium (4 to 7 yards) and long (8-plus yards). The colors indicate where a player is well above average (darker green) versus below average (darker red). Those conversion rates are also shown with a ranking.

Ben Roethlisberger is taking third-and-short aggression to a new level this year. He may not be converting at the highest rate on those plays, but he's looking for the big plays, his DVOA is above average (26.3%) and I think it helps him excel in third-and-long where he's not as aggressive, but has been very successful in situations that favor the vertical game. Carson Palmer is having a similar season for Arizona, and his conversion rate is the highest among quarterbacks who started every game.

Blaine Gabbert is looking to have positive ALEX for a change, but his conversion rate is poor because of the aforementioned 0-for-15 mark on third-and-long. He's actually having success on the other distances so far, though it has only been a few games for him.

Note: these numbers are subject to change at season's end. The data on 2006-2014 is the same as what we use for stats like receiving plus-minus and YAC+, which excludes passes that are thrown away, batted at the line or when the quarterback was hit in motion. The 2015 data currently includes all passes, but game charting will filter out those passes that were not truly aimed or intentional.

For those new to this metric, it is called Air Less Expected, or ALEX for short. ALEX measures the average difference between how far a quarterback threw a pass (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. If a quarterback throws a pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-15, that would be minus-20 ALEX. The best application of ALEX is to look at third and fourth down when it's really crucial to get 100 percent of the need yards to extend the drive.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 30 Nov 2015

1 comment, Last at 30 Nov 2015, 7:27pm by Perfundle

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Mon, 11/30/2015 - 7:27pm

"You have nothing to lose when down 20-0 in the fourth quarter, so why not attack on fourth-and-16 in opponent territory? Some teams have actually punted in this situation, though we have not seen that since 2012."

I'm not sure what "this situation" means here, but Chicago punted on 4th-and-1 on their own 46 down 20-0 with 2:35 to go in the 3rd quarter against Seattle.