Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Dec 2015

ALEX: Week 13 and the Largest ALEX Plays Since 2006

by Scott Kacsmar

Detroit, you make things so difficult sometimes.

Green Bay's 61-yard Hail Mary touchdown on Thursday night is one for the ages, and still a good way to use the ALEX data to look at other bombs. While the Hail Mary is a desperation pass by nature and Aaron Rodgers threw it on first-and-10 for plus-51 ALEX, some people clearly did not expect him to throw a 61-yard bomb to the end zone. Right, Jim Caldwell? Realistically, Rodgers had to throw it even a bit further than that to make sure it landed past the goal line, but our data does not measure the depth of the end zone itself.

Looking at our data for all downs, this is actually the second-largest ALEX pass of 2015. Russell Wilson threw an interception on a 58-yard pass intended for Jermaine Kearse on second-and-6 for plus-52 ALEX. Looking at our data for all downs since 2006, it is frankly embarrassing that Caldwell was not defending for the Hail Mary, as Aaron Rodgers dominates this list of the 22 passes with greater than 50 ALEX:

The Largest ALEX Passes on Any Down (2006-2015 Regular Seasons)
Rk Year Week OFF DEF Quarterback Target DOWN TO GO QTR Time PYD YAC ALEX
1 2012 1 GB SF Aaron Rodgers Jordy Nelson 3 1 3 13:41 60 59
2 2006 16 ATL CAR Michael Vick Roddy White 1 10 4 0:14 67 57
3 2008 2 GB DET Aaron Rodgers Greg Jennings 3 4 4 8:13 59 55
3 2011 14 HOU CIN T.J. Yates Jacoby Jones 1 10 1 14:54 65 55
5 2008 1 MIN GB Tarvaris Jackson Bernard Berrian 2 2 2 2:33 56 54
5 2009 12 GB DET Aaron Rodgers Donald Driver 3 11 1 0:13 65 3 54
5 2010 6 WAS IND Donovan McNabb Brandon Banks 2 3 1 4:55 57 54
5 2012 10 ATL NO Matt Ryan Roddy White 3 1 4 0:24 55 54
9 2008 1 WAS NYG Jason Campbell Santana Moss 2 6 3 8:55 59 53
9 2014 9 WAS MIN Robert Griffin DeSean Jackson 1 10 4 0:06 63 53
11 2006 16 PHI DAL Jeff Garcia L.J. Smith 3 7 3 14:19 59 6 52
11 2013 16 SEA ARI Russell Wilson Jermaine Kearse 2 5 1 10:15 57 52
11 2014 8 BAL CIN Joe Flacco Kamar Aiken 2 2 4 10:48 54 52
11 2015 7 SEA SF Russell Wilson Jermaine Kearse 2 6 3 6:34 58 52
15 2007 16 NE MIA Tom Brady Randy Moss 2 5 4 14:16 56 51
15 2008 9 GB TEN Aaron Rodgers Greg Jennings 2 4 4 3:40 55 51
15 2009 1 ATL MIA Matt Ryan Roddy White 3 1 3 12:09 52 51
15 2010 14 GB DET Aaron Rodgers Greg Jennings 2 3 1 2:04 54 51
15 2011 2 CAR GB Cam Newton Steve Smith 2 6 4 2:00 57 5 51
15 2011 17 WAS PHI Rex Grossman Anthony Armstrong 2 3 2 12:33 54 51
15 2012 11 STL NYJ Sam Bradford Chris Givens 2 3 4 1:48 54 51
15 2015 13 GB DET Aaron Rodgers Richard Rodgers 1 10 4 0:00 61 0 51

Rodgers has two of the four completions on this list, which are the four plays that have a YAC total. Rodgers has the largest ALEX throw since 2006 at plus-59. He has the largest ALEX on a completion since 2006 at plus-54. He has the largest ALEX on a touchdown pass since 2006 at plus-51. He appears on this list six times, more than anyone else.

It's a bit scary that the fans can know about Rodgers' arm strength, but the coach paid the big bucks to defend the best quarterback in his conference -- in fact, the best in his division -- just did not respect his talent enough.

Week 13's Most Conservative Plays

The Lowest ALEX

Teams: Houston at Buffalo
Situation: third-and-28 at own 45, trailing 21-13 in third quarter with 4:43 left
Play: Brian Hoyer pass complete to Cecil Shorts for 11 yards
Air yards: minus-2
ALEX: minus-30

Another week, another give-up screen, but I have to criticize this one a bit more harshly. It was just a slip screen to Cecil Shorts, and while third-and-28 is ridiculous, the ball was at the Houston 45. Even if you got 20 yards, you could try a 53-yard field goal. Granted, Nick Novak does not have the greatest range, but this screen was very conservative for a trailing road team in the late stages of the third quarter.

A couple of good things can happen on a longer pass on third-and-long. One of them is drawing pass interference. This season's average DPI penalty is coming on a pass thrown 19.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. More than 42.4 percent of these penalties were on 20-plus-yard throws. You have DeAndre Hopkins, so throw one up.

A Notable Failure of the Week

Teams: New York Jets at New York Giants
Situation: third-and-13 at opponent 13, tied 20-20 in overtime with 8:54 left
Play: Ryan Fitzpatrick pass incomplete to Bilal Powell
Air yards: minus-2
ALEX: minus-15

This combines two things I really do not like: screens on third-and-long, and a failure to heavily pursue the touchdown in modified overtime. Ryan Fitzpatrick was having a strong game with nearly 400 yards passing, and much of his success came throwing to Brandon Marshall. Eric Decker also has good height for the red zone and had gone over 100 yards. Go to one of them against an overmatched secondary. Go for the win, because just kicking a field goal extends the game, and the Jets got lucky that the Giants missed the tying field goal. The Jets also already broke the screen game out with a 25-yard touchdown to Powell earlier in the game. Let's not get greedy here. This delayed running back screen was thrown high and tipped, which could have been a crucial turnover. You could also describe it as justice for not throwing a higher-percentage scoring pass.

Week 13's Most Aggressive Plays

The Highest ALEX

Teams: New England vs. Philadelphia
Situation: third-and-11 at own 30, tied 0-0 in first quarter with 9:36 left
Play: Tom Brady pass incomplete to Brandon LaFell
Air yards: 60
ALEX: plus-49

This was like a flashback to the 2007 Patriots, except LaFell is a very poor man's version of Randy Moss. The interesting part is this was Brady's first throw of the game, so he came out feeling good with a 60-yard bomb after spinning away from a pressure on a three-man rush. The pass was actually overthrown with Eric Rowe in coverage on LaFell.

A Notable Success of the Week

Teams: Houston at Buffalo
Situation: third-and-1 at own 49, trailing 21-13 in fourth quarter with 10:33 left
Play: Brian Hoyer to DeAndre Hopkins for 29 yards
Air yards: 29
ALEX: plus-28

Throwing to Hopkins in general is always a good thing, but I liked the way Houston sold the run with play-action on third-and-1 here, getting Hopkins in single coverage down the sideline with Ronald Darby. If the pass had failed, Houston could still have considered going for it on fourth down at midfield. The gamble for the big play was worth it. Hopkins went on to finish the drive with a touchdown catch.

2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 13

The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 30 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 7.5 47.9% 3 64.7% 6 71 6.7 36
2 Carson Palmer ARI 4.0 52.8% 1 100.3% 2 108 7.3 26
3 Tyrod Taylor BUF 3.8 40.5% 24 53.0% 10 84 8.0 10
4 Jay Cutler CHI 3.4 45.8% 6 54.5% 9 107 6.4 37
5 Aaron Rodgers GB 3.3 36.8% 28 44.1% 15 95 7.9 16
6 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 3.2 41.7% 19 41.8% 16 115 7.4 23
7 Cam Newton CAR 2.9 38.8% 25 39.8% 17 98 7.9 15
8 Blake Bortles JAC 2.7 41.8% 18 38.1% 18 122 7.4 24
9 Andrew Luck IND 2.6 42.0% 17 47.5% 14 69 7.6 21
10 Johnny Manziel CLE 2.5 41.0% 23 91.4% 3 39 8.7 1
11 Brian Hoyer HOU 2.2 43.5% 11 48.4% 13 85 7.7 18
12 Andy Dalton CIN 2.2 44.1% 9 65.5% 5 93 7.8 17
13 Joe Flacco BAL 1.8 34.0% 32 -11.4% 31 103 7.0 32
14 Matt Hasselbeck IND 1.6 41.7% 20 -34.2% 36 48 6.8 34
15 Peyton Manning DEN 1.6 32.7% 34 -33.3% 35 98 8.2 8
16 Russell Wilson SEA 1.6 44.7% 7 64.2% 7 94 7.1 31
17 Josh McCown CLE 1.5 51.3% 2 108.6% 1 78 7.2 28
18 Matt Ryan ATL 1.2 46.8% 4 25.3% 24 126 6.7 35
19 Marcus Mariota TEN 1.2 43.2% 14 26.4% 22 88 8.0 11
Rk Quarterback Team ALEX CONV% Rk DVOA Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk
20 Tom Brady NE 1.1 46.4% 5 68.0% 4 110 7.5 22
21 Brock Osweiler DEN 0.9 37.1% 27 -14.5% 32 35 6.9 33
22 Tony Romo DAL 0.9 44.1% 8 -24.4% 34 34 6.4 38
23 Derek Carr OAK 0.9 43.3% 12 49.9% 12 120 7.7 20
24 Jameis Winston TB 0.8 42.7% 15 11.6% 27 117 8.2 9
25 Eli Manning NYG 0.8 41.3% 22 22.4% 25 126 7.3 25
26 Kirk Cousins WAS 0.7 44.1% 10 31.9% 20 118 7.2 29
27 Colin Kaepernick SF 0.7 33.8% 33 10.7% 28 74 7.7 19
28 Drew Brees NO 0.6 43.2% 13 50.2% 11 125 8.2 7
29 Ryan Tannehill MIA 0.4 28.3% 35 -11.2% 30 113 8.6 2
30 Nick Foles STL 0.3 24.4% 38 -38.6% 37 119 8.3 6
31 Blaine Gabbert SF 0.3 27.8% 36 28.8% 21 36 7.9 14
32 Matt Cassel DAL 0.3 41.5% 21 59.3% 8 41 7.1 30
33 Ryan Mallett HOU 0.2 35.7% 30 -40.5% 38 42 7.2 27
34 Philip Rivers SD 0.2 42.6% 16 32.2% 19 122 8.5 3
35 Matthew Stafford DET 0.0 37.4% 26 -17.5% 33 115 8.0 12
36 Teddy Bridgewater MIN -0.2 35.7% 29 26.2% 23 98 7.9 13
37 Sam Bradford PHI -1.0 27.3% 37 -8.1% 29 99 8.5 4
38 Alex Smith KC -3.4 34.3% 31 21.6% 26 99 8.5 5

Ben Roethlisberger is still on pace to have the largest ALEX season yet, topping Michael Vick's mark of 6.97 in 2006. Alex Smith is still in line for a three-peat of bringing up the rear, and the first season to be under minus-3.

For Monday night, Kirk Cousins has done well on short and medium distances, but third-and-long has been a struggle.

Next, ALEX is presented in splits by distance: short (1-3 yards), medium (4-7 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.

Two of the top four quarterbacks in third-and-long conversion rate -- Tony Romo and Josh McCown -- are out for the season with collarbone injuries Also, I had to laugh when I saw Alex Smith and Blaine Gabbert were by far the two lowest ALEX passers on third-and-long this season. They have the two lowest career ALEX averages of any active starter since 2006. You are who you are, I guess.

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 07 Dec 2015

12 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2015, 12:47pm by bravehoptoad

Comments

1
by techvet :: Mon, 12/07/2015 - 9:34pm

Big Ben and Alex Smith are each in a class by themselves, but for different reasons.

2
by greybeard :: Mon, 12/07/2015 - 11:57pm

Big Ben is surrended by much more talented teammates. Yet only have two points per game higher scoring than Alex Smith.

3
by tuluse :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 3:09am

What if you only count games Ben played?

7
by greybeard :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 9:36pm

That is what I did. Otherwise KC and PIT are about the same I believe.

4
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 3:12am

A player like Martavis would be wasted in Kansas City, and if Antonio Brown developed in an Alex Smith offense, he'd probably be Albert Wilson right now.

And really, points per game? I think one QB might have a lot more to do with his team's scoring than the other. I miss having Burke's data from ANS, but ESPN has Roethlisberger with about 11 more EPA than Smith despite missing over four games. He has nearly twice as much DYAR too and over 500 more YAR.

8
by greybeard :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 9:44pm

What part of Big Ben being surrounded by better talent do you not agree with?
I would say that if you switched the 10 players around the QB, KC would score more points than they do today and PIT would score less.

I know of no WR that were better without Alex Smith than he was with Alex Smith so what proof do you have that Antonio Brown would go from the best WR in the league to the 50th best if I am being generous.

9
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 10:30pm

I agree that Brown and Bryant are better than Maclin and [insert WR], but it stops there. I also will never agree with the notion that better WRs make the QB. If that was true, the Steelers' passing game wouldn't just disappear when Roethlisberger isn't playing the way it does. You're also defending a QB who went an entire season without being able to throw a single TD pass to a WR.

Dwayne Bowe had his best seasons with Matt Cassel in 2010-11. And I think it was pretty clear that Michael Crabtree came on in SF once the 49ers switched to Colin Kaepernick in 2012. Crabtree is also having a fine season in Oakland with Derek Carr right now. Jeremy Maclin was better last year than he is this year.

10
by greybeard :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 11:02pm

Why the strawman on the notion that better WRs make the QB? I said Ben has better talent around him. Never said he was a product of his WRs.

Dwane Bowe is #4 receiver on Browns. And his best Cassel year was 2 years before Alex Smith. Tell me how Alex Smith made him #4 WRs on Browns who paid him 9 million dollars. Did you advise Browns that he was just fine receiver and Smith was holding him back and pay him $9 million?

It is not at all clear that Crabtree was better with Kap as he was having a very good year with Smith in 2012 as well. The difference between Kap and Smith is Smith distributed the ball more and Kap locked on Crab all the time. He got 3 targets per game more with Kap. Also Crabtree significantly benefited from being #2 WRs and drawing lesser CBs. And while he is having a fine year for a #2 it is 11.5 yards/catch. He is getting a lot of volume. I see a mediocre WRs which what he happened to be with Smith as well - and always injured on top of that-.

"You're also defending a QB who went an entire season without being able to throw a single TD pass to a WR." Is that really an argument? What difference does it make how the offense scores? He threw 18 TDs and there is like 3 cases where all AJ Jenkins had to was to not go out of bounds on his own or trip on himself to score TDs. Is it possible that the reason he did not threw WR TDs is because he was throwing to Browns' #4 WRs, and AJ Jenkins? Much better to throw the ball to Kelce and Charles. It seems like he was being smart.

I thoroughly enjoy that Alex Smith, your poster child of this stat, is the QB of offense which is #6 best passing offense by points, by DVOA and #7 on points per drive and #6 on passing plays with 25 yards or more despite being surrounded by at best an average level of talent around him.

11
by greybeard :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 11:07pm

BTW, by which metric was Maclin better than last year? I mean I think DYAR and DVOA for individual players are just useless data but at least I do not work for football outsiders. Marlin is projected to have higher DYAR- with lower number of targets and one fewer game- this year. So far he has much better DVOA (15 versus 7%) and ranking (15 versus 26).

12
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 12/09/2015 - 12:47pm

I know of no WR that were better without Alex Smith than he was with Alex Smith....

Seems like all SF WRs threw a little party when Smith got benched in 2008. (And Vernon Davis cried a little.)

5
by justanothersteve :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 4:34pm

Not only did Rodgers have 5 previous long ALEX plays, three of them were against Detroit. I know Caldwell wasn't the coach during those previous attempts, but it's still funny.

I don't know how far back you intend to take ALEX, but I'm curious how Favre and Elway would compare in ALEX.

6
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 12/08/2015 - 6:44pm

Unless ESPN gets more data for QBR, I don't think we'll be able to go past 2006. The data is probably out there somewhere (STATS LLC?) if they have things like YAC going back to 1992.