Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Oct 2015

ALEX: Week 7

by Scott Kacsmar

There were some really good ALEX plays to highlight this week , but I wanted to start by clearing up some confusion from last week's ALEX update. The stats in the table below with the rankings are all for third downs only. Fourth down is not included, which is rare for Football Outsiders since a lot of our third-down stats do include fourth down.

The reason I exclude fourth down is because that situation is played differently in regards to ALEX. If you are throwing a fourth-down pass, then the play must be pretty important to convert. It is not uncommon to see a team with a huge lead just run on a fourth down, not worrying if they convert or not. A pass is a little different. There can at least be some value to not converting on third down, such as shortening a field goal attempt or fourth-down attempt. You can also give your punting unit some extra room. Failing on fourth down does not come with any clear advantage. The average ALEX numbers by season also reflect that teams are more aware of throwing beyond the sticks on fourth down. Here are those numbers for the period of 2006-2015.

Average ALEX by Down and Season
Year 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
2006 -0.54 -0.71 1.77 4.52
2007 -0.83 -0.54 1.11 3.54
2008 -0.87 -0.86 1.30 4.19
2009 -0.94 -1.25 1.15 4.41
2010 -1.11 -1.01 1.37 5.44
2011 -1.05 -0.45 1.22 4.26
2012 -0.88 -0.61 1.44 4.15
2013 -1.41 -0.69 1.20 4.44
2014 -1.59 -1.05 1.48 3.35
2015 -2.05 -1.28 1.06 4.83
AVG -1.13 -0.84 1.31 4.31

These numbers are subject to change once we filter out plays via charting, but currently this 2015 season has the lowest ALEX for downs 1-3. Offenses are on pace for the most YAC-dependent season on record, which helps to explain the record pace for completions (23.0 per game) and completion percentage (63.8 percent).

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 7's Most Conservative Plays

The Lowest ALEX

Teams: Detroit vs. Minnesota
Situation: third-and-22 at opponent 38, leading 14-6 in second quarter with 5:48 left
Play: Matthew Stafford to Theo Riddick for 4 yards
Air yards: minus-5
ALEX: minus-27

Stafford had just taken another sack, so the Lions probably thought this screen to Riddick was going to break for more yards than it did to set up a shorter field goal. Instead, Chad Greenway made the tackle after a 4-yard gain and the Lions had to kick a 52-yard field goal. This wasn't even the most maddening thing the Lions did on third-and-long on Sunday. In the fourth quarter, trailing 28-17 and facing third-and-13, the Lions pitched the ball to Riddick again for a 1-yard loss. There may never be a greater example of having absurd trust in Theo Riddick than what the Lions showed in Sunday's loss.

A Notable Failure of the Week

Teams: Dallas at New York Giants
Situation: fourth-and-8 at opponent 30, trailing 27-20 in fourth quarter with 1:56 left
Play: Matt Cassel to James Hanna for 6 yards
Air yards: 2
ALEX: minus-6

We had some good choices from Tennessee and Philadelphia, but those will be covered in Clutch Encounters tomorrow. This was a very crucial fourth-down play in the final two minutes. The Giants rushed four, Matt Cassel had time, but he still checked down to James Hanna, who was engulfed by three Giants two yards short of the sticks. Dallas never got another chance after muffing a punt to end the game.

For starters, why was Hanna even on the field? He started the game and seemingly has moved ahead of the disappointing Gavin Escobar, but why have him run a route when he's so slow? Dallas' personnel should have been a running back, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Devin Street as its five eligible receivers. Hanna has two targets all season and this was the second one. It's a bad decision to have him out there and it was a bad decision by Cassel to throw his way. Cassel had plenty of time and room to move to his left and make something happen. He did that (moving to his right) on the previous touchdown drive in the quarter. He also had Darren McFadden to his left, who has a better chance of running faster and/or breaking a tackle to convert than Hanna ever did. This was just a lousy play with the game on the line.

Since 2006, we rarely see a minus-6 ALEX throw on fourth down. Of the 25 times it's happened, 11 converted for a first down. However, all of those conversions were to faster backs and wideouts, and half were thrown over the middle. Passes to tight ends were 0-for-4.

Week 7's Most Aggressive Plays

The Highest ALEX

Teams: Washington vs. Tampa Bay
Situation: third-and-6 at own 18, trailing 10-0 in first quarter with 3:53 left
Play: Kirk Cousins pass incomplete to Andre Roberts
Air yards: 37
ALEX: plus-31

Yeah, you like that? This wasn't a good throw, as it was nearly intercepted, but I don't mind that play on third down when you are already down 10-0. An interception could have served as a punt. Cousins gave his receiver a chance to make a play, but the Washington comeback was several drives away from starting.

A Notable Success of the Week

Teams: New Orleans at Indianapolis
Situation: third-and-8 at own 3, leading 27-14 in fourth quarter with 8:54 left
Play: Drew Brees to Brandin Cooks for 47 yards (first down)
Air yards: 32
ALEX: plus-24

With the Colts hoping to mount a fourth-quarter comeback, Brees silenced the crowd with a huge completion while standing in his own end zone. His bucket throw landed perfectly for Brandin Cooks, who beat Greg Toler down the right sideline. So many teams get conservative in this situation, backed up in their own end, but the Saints are an offense that trust its quarterback. Brees threw on all three plays here, but hit the big pass on third down for a 47-yard gain. The Saints didn't get another first down on the drive, but that conversion drained another two minutes off the clock and dramatically flipped field position.

Since 2006, there have only been 18 passes with at least 20 ALEX on third down from inside a team's own five. This was the sixth conversion and the first since the 2010 season. Good job by the Saints in a situation we rarely see.

2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 7

The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 25 passes) ranks in ALEX on third down only. 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 9.4 292 3 27 7.5 20 63.0% 1
2 Carson Palmer ARI 6.7 251 9 42 6.7 30 45.2% 11
3 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 5.4 233 11 59 6.8 28 45.8% 10
4 Blake Bortles JAC 3.8 150 17 66 7.8 18 37.9% 21
5 Russell Wilson SEA 3.2 154 15 53 6.4 33 43.4% 14
6 Brian Hoyer HOU 2.8 206 13 48 8.0 13 45.8% 9
7 Andy Dalton CIN 2.6 241 10 44 8.0 11 50.0% 5
8 Tyrod Taylor BUF 2.5 94 20 37 8.4 7 40.5% 16
9 Joe Flacco BAL 2.4 -159 33 63 7.2 24 30.2% 30
10 Jay Cutler CHI 2.0 279 6 48 6.6 31 54.2% 2
11 Aaron Rodgers GB 1.9 141 18 43 6.8 27 39.5% 18
12 Matt Ryan ATL 1.8 284 5 73 6.6 32 46.6% 6
13 Cam Newton CAR 1.4 39 24 47 8.1 10 36.2% 25
14 Andrew Luck IND 1.1 152 16 45 8.4 5 37.8% 22
15 Josh McCown CLE 1.0 467 1 59 7.4 22 52.5% 4
16 Drew Brees NO 0.9 286 4 78 7.8 16 44.9% 13
Rk Quarterback Team ALEX DYAR Rk Passes Avg. Need Rk CONV% Rk
17 Kirk Cousins WAS 0.9 257 7 82 7.0 25 46.3% 8
18 Colin Kaepernick SF 0.6 85 21 60 7.9 15 38.3% 20
19 Peyton Manning DEN 0.5 -129 31 73 7.7 19 32.9% 28
20 Nick Foles STL 0.4 -140 32 61 8.5 4 27.9% 31
21 Teddy Bridgewater MIN 0.3 185 14 55 7.9 14 36.4% 24
22 Ryan Mallett HOU 0.2 -76 29 42 7.2 23 35.7% 26
23 Matthew Stafford DET -0.1 -84 30 64 8.2 8 37.5% 23
24 Philip Rivers SD -0.1 36 25 72 7.8 17 41.7% 15
25 Ryan Tannehill MIA -0.3 23 26 56 8.2 9 26.8% 32
26 Derek Carr OAK -0.3 212 12 58 7.4 21 46.6% 7
27 Jameis Winston TB -0.3 -16 27 60 8.8 2 38.3% 19
28 Marcus Mariota TEN -0.4 95 19 42 8.4 6 40.5% 17
29 Tom Brady NE -0.4 309 2 47 6.7 29 53.2% 3
30 Eli Manning NYG -0.5 257 8 69 7.0 26 44.9% 12
31 Sam Bradford PHI -0.6 -48 28 71 8.6 3 25.4% 33
32 Brandon Weeden DAL -2.4 81 22 25 8.0 12 32.0% 29
33 Alex Smith KC -3.6 70 23 63 9.1 1 33.3% 27

For those curious, Zach Mettenberger's ALEX is minus-5.7 this season. Last year he ranked 39th out of 40, so not much has changed there. Landry Jones checks in at minus-1.3 on 10 plays after Michael Vick was plus-0.3 with the lowest conversion rate. The Steelers will hope to see Ben Roethlisberger continue playing at a high level with this year's vertical success.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 26 Oct 2015

2 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2015, 10:08pm by tuluse

Comments

1
by ChrisS :: Tue, 10/27/2015 - 12:00pm

After the Lions pitch to Riddick I thought why not punt on third down if you are going to do that? I seem to have that thought more frequently as I watch more and more conservative third down play calls.

2
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/28/2015 - 10:08pm

So Cutler finally passes his nemesis Josh McCown for 2nd highest 3rd down conversion rate.

Also, Cutler faces the 31st longest 3rd downs out of 33 ranked QBs. Have I told you all how awesome Adam Gase is?