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19 Oct 2015

ALEX: Week 6

by Scott Kacsmar

Has ALEX entered your Sunday lexicon yet after watching some quarterbacks fail to challenge the sticks on third down? Week 6 actually featured the highest average ALEX (plus-2.6) of any week this season. That's nearly double the average of last week (plus-1.4).

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. Here is where we review the week's most conservative and aggressive plays by ALEX on third and fourth downs.

Week 6's Most Conservative Plays

The Lowest ALEX

Teams: Denver at Cleveland
Situation: third-and-20 at own 10, leading 10-7 in third quarter with 6:36 left
Play: Peyton Manning to C.J. Anderson for 11 yards
Air yards: minus-6
ALEX: minus-26

For the second week in a row, the lowest ALEX play was Peyton Manning dumping a screen to C.J. Anderson on third-and-forever. Holding was not called on the offensive line this time, but it was a holding penalty on Max Garcia that led to the third-and-20 situation.

A Notable Play of the Week

Teams: New England at Indianapolis
Situation: third-and-17 at opponent 41, trailing 21-17 in second quarter with 0:24 left
Play: Tom Brady to Danny Amendola for 19 yards (first down)
Air yards: minus-3
ALEX: minus-20

This play worked for the offense, but we can still use this space to discuss defensive efforts on these third-down plays as well. Instead of settling for a 59-yard field goal that would be a reasonable possibility for Stephen Gostkowski indoors, the Patriots ran what certainly looked like a give-up play to make the field goal shorter. However, Danny Amendola took the bubble screen, and with good blocking out front, he was able to weave ahead for 19 yards and a first down. New England nearly cashed this unexpected first down in for a touchdown, but Scott Chandler was flagged for offensive pass interference in the end zone. A field goal was ultimately kicked.

How rare was that conversion? This season, on third down with at least 15 yards to go, passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage have converted on 3-of-41 plays (7.3 percent). That is very consistent with the findings over the period of 2006-2014 (7.3 percent). For those curious, this is the first time Tom Brady has such a conversion since 2006. Eli Manning and Jay Cutler have the most with four each. Amendola is only the ninth wide receiver with such a conversion since 2006, as this is usually done with a running back on a screen or checkdown.

And to think, this was far down the list of Indianapolis screw-ups on Sunday night.

Week 6's Most Aggressive Plays

The Highest ALEX

Teams: Chicago at Detroit
Situation: third-and-2 at own 48, trailing 21-13 in third quarter with 12:31 left
Play: Jay Cutler to Marquess Wilson for 46 yards (first down)
Air yards: 39
ALEX: plus-37

For being a gunslinger, there is nothing remarkable about Jay Cutler's ALEX. He has an average ranking of 18th since 2007. On this play, he did a good job of stepping up and throwing Marquess Wilson open for a big gain as Rashean Mathis was not looking for the ball until it was too late. It was a big play, but unfortunately the drive ended with Cutler's red-zone interception. Mathis got his payback.

A Notable Play of the Week

Teams: San Francisco vs. Baltimore
Situation: third-and-1 at own 23, leading 3-0 in first quarter with 4:49 left
Play: Colin Kaepernick to Bruce Miller for 52 yards (first down)
Air yards: 24
ALEX: plus-23

This was just a great play from the 49ers, who showed a run formation, but Colin Kaepernick's play-action pass was enough to move the linebackers forward while Bruce Miller, a streaking fullback, got wide open behind the defense for a huge gain. Miller had three catches for 89 yards in the first quarter and this was the highlight of his day.

They won't always be this easy, but you are probably wondering about the benefits of throwing a 20-plus yard pass on third-and-1 when the expectation is for something much shorter (or a run). It's not done often, but the results are not bad from 2006-2014:

• Third-and-1 pass thrown 20-plus yards: 74-of-156 conversions (47.4 percent) with 17.0 yards per attempt
• Third-and-1 pass thrown under 20 yards: 945-of-1459 conversions (64.8 percent) with 5.7 yards per attempt.

2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 6

The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 20 passes) ranks in ALEX on third down only (no fourth downs). There are also rankings for DYAR, average need yards (ranked from highest to lowest) and conversion rate.

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.

Rk Quarterback Team ALEX DYAR Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk CONV% Rk
1 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 9.4 293 2 27 7.5 20 63.0% 1
2 Carson Palmer ARI 6.7 243 5 42 6.7 32 45.2% 12
3 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 5.7 134 15 47 6.9 28 42.6% 16
4 Matt Hasselbeck IND 4.8 31 25 21 6.7 31 38.1% 23
5 Blake Bortles JAC 4.1 131 16 58 7.4 21 37.9% 24
6 Brian Hoyer HOU 3.7 160 12 36 8.1 12 47.2% 9
7 Russell Wilson SEA 3.6 159 13 49 6.3 35 44.9% 13
8 Andy Dalton CIN 2.6 230 6 44 8.0 13 50.0% 5
9 Tyrod Taylor BUF 2.5 84 20 37 8.4 7 40.5% 18
10 Joe Flacco BAL 2.4 -160 35 63 7.2 25 30.2% 32
11 Jay Cutler CHI 2.0 261 3 48 6.6 33 54.2% 3
12 Aaron Rodgers GB 1.9 129 17 43 6.8 29 39.5% 20
13 Josh McCown CLE 1.8 409 1 53 7.2 23 54.7% 2
14 Matt Ryan ATL 1.7 219 7 62 6.5 34 48.4% 6
15 Drew Brees NO 1.6 244 4 61 7.6 19 47.5% 8
16 Cam Newton CAR 1.4 78 22 41 8.3 8 39.0% 21
17 Colin Kaepernick SF 1.1 103 19 51 7.6 18 43.1% 15
Rk Quarterback Team ALEX DYAR Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk CONV% Rk
18 Andrew Luck IND 0.8 144 14 37 8.4 6 43.2% 14
19 Teddy Bridgewater MIN 0.5 119 18 48 8.1 11 33.3% 27
20 Nick Foles STL 0.5 -102 32 53 8.4 4 30.2% 31
21 Peyton Manning DEN 0.5 -150 34 73 7.7 17 32.9% 28
22 Kirk Cousins WAS 0.3 183 9 73 7.3 22 46.6% 10
23 Michael Vick PIT 0.3 0 27 24 7.8 16 16.7% 35
24 Ryan Mallett HOU 0.2 -81 30 42 7.2 24 35.7% 25
25 Ryan Tannehill MIA 0.2 -3 28 51 8.2 9 27.5% 33
26 Derek Carr OAK 0.0 182 11 50 7.1 26 48.0% 7
27 Matthew Stafford DET -0.2 -117 33 59 7.8 15 39.0% 22
28 Marcus Mariota TEN -0.4 84 21 42 8.4 5 40.5% 19
29 Eli Manning NYG -0.4 216 8 53 7.0 27 45.3% 11
30 Philip Rivers SD -0.5 54 24 62 8.2 10 41.9% 17
31 Jameis Winston TB -0.5 -91 31 52 8.9 3 34.6% 26
32 Sam Bradford PHI -0.8 -51 29 45 9.3 2 20.0% 34
33 Tom Brady NE -1.3 182 10 35 6.7 30 51.4% 4
34 Brandon Weeden DAL -2.4 77 23 25 8.0 14 32.0% 29
35 Alex Smith KC -4.5 22 26 52 9.5 1 30.8% 30

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 19 Oct 2015

10 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2015, 7:36pm by Vincent Verhei

Comments

1
by nat :: Mon, 10/19/2015 - 4:54pm

How rare was that conversion? This season, on third down with at least 15 yards to go, passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage have converted on 3-of-41 plays (7.3 percent). That is very consistent with the findings over the period of 2006-2014 (7.3 percent).
Checking other 2006-14 numbers for comparison...

Rushing 6.8% conversion rate
All Pass Plays (includes sacks) 11.7% conversion rate

It would be interesting to separate designed screens from check downs behind the line, since check downs are a result of a failed attempt to throw down field. Also, one would suspect that sacks should nearly all be counted as non-screens given the play design. Ditto for scrambles.

It seems like any conversion on 3rd and 15+ is pretty rare regardless, and that calling rushes, screens, and passes across the line of scrimmage (both short of the sticks and beyond) all have a place in a good strategy.

2
by tuluse :: Mon, 10/19/2015 - 7:07pm

Hey Cutler is 3rd in 3rd down conversion this year. Pretty cool for Bears fans.

Of course he's no Josh McCown :)

3
by ChristopherS :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 2:24pm

+1

4
by b1ff :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 3:08pm

Am I reading that right? On *average* Sam Bradford and Alex Smith need 9+ yards on 3rd downs?!

Oh wait, is that just for plays on which they chose to pass on 3rd down?

5
by Vincent Verhei :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 3:26pm

Yes, and yes. That is the average yards to go when Bradford and Smith have dropped back to pass on third/fourth downs.

6
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 4:01pm

Only third-down throws. The reason I don't include fourth down is because it's a more desperate situation and the numbers reflect that. The average ALEX on fourth down is often above 4.0 each season. On third down, it's in the 1.2-1.4 range. On third down, there is at least some value to shorter throws like field position or helping to make a FG or 4th-down attempt easier. On 4th down, you really should be trying to convert at all costs if you are passing in that situation.

7
by Vincent Verhei :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 4:09pm

I stand corrected.

8
by b1ff :: Tue, 10/20/2015 - 9:17pm

so is that more because they tend to run on 3rd and short-medium, or because they are constantly in 3rd and very long situations?

9
by Scott Kacsmar :: Wed, 10/21/2015 - 12:28pm

The Chiefs and Eagles? You're more likely to see Eagles run on third-and-short, but overall, I'd say both offenses need to get better on first and second down.

10
by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 10/22/2015 - 7:36pm

Here's a link to each team's basic third-down numbers:

http://pfref.com/tiny/P8XTG

Kansas City's average third-down play has come with 8.49 yards to go, the highest in the league. Philadelphia is fourth-most at 7.94.

New England is lowest at 5.84.