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» Impact of the NFL's Kickoff Rule Change

After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?

02 Oct 2012

Any Given Sunday: Rams Over Seahawks

by Rivers McCown

Coming into this week's 19-13 letdown against St. Louis, Seattle had put on a show on Monday Night Football. No, I'm not talking about the disputed Golden Tate Hail Mary catch, I'm talking about the job they did putting pressure on Aaron Rodgers.

As J.J. Cooper tirelessly documented, the Seahawks notched eight first-half sacks on one of (if not the) the best quarterbacks in the NFL. If not for the fact that it shared a stage with one of the most memorable officiating gaffes in the history of sports, Seattle's defense would have been under the spotlight for the entire rest of the week.

The problem was that they had zero second-half sacks. The Packers adjusted, fixed their routes and protection schemes, and worked in some quicker drops.

If there was one glaring weakness the Rams faced coming into Sunday's game, it was their utter inability to keep Sam Bradford clean. Free-agent signee Scott Wells went on injured reserve with a broken foot, and left tackle Rodger Saffold was out with an MCL sprain. The Rams came into this game with a tackle tandem of Jets reject Wayne Hunter and Chiefs reject Barry Richardson on opposite sides of Bradford. The offensive line was ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate through Week 3's games, which was right on pace with what they did in 2011, when they finished 28th.

But instead of Bradford getting pummeled, the Rams followed that Packers second-half tape to a T. Seattle notched just two sacks, and most of their pressure came inside from tackles Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch.

Obviously, the Rams domination on special teams played a key role in their victory this week. Greg Zuerlein deserves a ton of credit, as does the play we'll talk about in a second. But to be able to win on special teams, the Rams had to duel the Seahawks to a draw on the field, and the big reason they were able to do that is that they schemed away from Seattle's sacks.

By the VOA

Is that our fourth-straight Dewey Defeats VOA game to lead off the season? You better believe it is. Special teams comes out a lot closer than you would think based on the way the game unfolded, for three reasons:

a) the touchdown play gets scored under offense/defense, not special teams;

b) the onside kick is not included in the special teams rating because it is a "non-predictive" play (St. Louis won't be called upon to defend against surprise onside kicks very often);

c) the Rams allowed a 69-yard return to Leon Washington and returned one of their own kickoffs to the five-yard line.

Dewey Defeats Rams
Team Total VOA OFF VOA DEF VOA ST VOA
SEA 8.9% -18.3% -20.4% 6.8%
STL -3.3% -27.0% -15.2% 8.5%

For those curious about the touchdown and DVOA: we may end up switching fake field goals and punts from offense/defense to special teams at some point, but that's not how it is now.

Call of the Game

St. Louis' lone touchdown of the game came on a play you might not see again for years. The kicking team came on to the field for fourth-and-goal at the Seattle 2 after Bradford's pass to Danny Amendola was short-hopped, but Amendola never left the field. Because of that, he was able to avoid an illegal substitution penalty for being out wide on an attempt, and none of the Seahawks special teams players noticed him hanging out on an island outside.

The ball was snapped, the throw from punter Johnny Hekker was a lazy strike, and the Rams had one of the easiest touchdowns you'll ever see. Pete Carroll admitted that he was furiously trying to call timeout, but couldn't get the attention of an official.

To lead off the third quarter, Carroll attempted a surprise onside kick. It failed. The Rams recovered, kicked another field goal, and put Seattle in a nine-point hole with a rookie quarterback that they don't completely trust at this point. St. Louis' rush made sure that it was a lead that would never be relinquished.

Spotlight on Russell Wilson

Seattle's rookie quarterback is playing ... well, like a rookie. Russell Wilson isn't getting to his secondary reads. His ability to escape pressure is top-notch, but completely unfocused at the NFL level right now; he ran himself into a few sacks or hits that he shouldn't have been taking. He also pulled a few rabbits out of his hat, but as we all know, that's not a sustainable formula for NFL success on its own.

Most importantly though, his pre-snap diagnosis and hot reads are a problem. The Rams were able to create havoc with Wilson when they brought the heat. Jeff Fisher was a big fan of the slot corner blitz in Tennessee, and bringing it against a rookie quarterback created some predictable results. But for now, let's start with a simple one.

The scenario: Seattle has a third-and-2 at their own 35, trying to get some momentum after a Richard Sherman interception. Seattle runs the shotgun, with four wideouts and tight end Evan Moore split out to the left hash. St. Louis counters with a single high safety nickel set, with both of it's linebackers showing blitz.

Notice the three-on-two advantage the Seahawks have on the near side of the field in that first picture. That should be a glowing red light for a quarterback: this is where the ball needs to go. A pre-snap adjustment should have been made to take advantage of what the Rams were doing.

The ball is snapped, and the Rams send five, dropping Jo-Lonn Dunbar into coverage. But instead of looking to his left, Wilson takes the snap and locks directly on to his primary read.

See the wide-open receiver in that shot? Yeah, that's not his primary read. Feel ignored, Ben Obomanu.

He tries to force the ball to Tate, and gets very lucky that the ball was tipped at the line, because Tate was completely blanketed by the defense.

Notice the bracketed coverage. And hey, for good measure, let's go see how the other side of the field fared...

Sorry Sidney, but it is not.

Second-and-15 from the Seattle 44. The Seahawks desperately need to get into a convertable third-down situation. Here's the slot corner blitz I was talking about, again, Seattle comes out with Wilson in the shotgun. Instead of four wideouts, we have three wideouts, a tight end, and Robert Turbin in the slot. St. Louis has two high safeties in the nickel at the start of the play.

Cortland Finnegan, circled, is the one coming on the blitz. That means that Wilson's left is again going to have an advantage in the short passing game. That means that Wilson is again going to ignore this and lock on to his primary target.

And again, we see zero pre-snap checks from Wilson. I don't want to throw out the possibility that they know Finnegan is coming and don't want Wilson to have to pass around him. (Same goes for the first play.) But it just seems really out of sync with their plan considering they are trying to minimize the impact that Wilson can have on the game. It's a tough throw to the right with tight coverage, or an easy throw to the left.

Wilson's head is stuck on Turbin. A running back on a linebacker in space isn't exactly the most appealing matchup, but thankfully Turbin is able to create some good space from the linebacker and Wilson, to his credit, steps up and delivers a strike.

So if it's a successful play, why are we yapping, McCown? Because we are process-oriented rather than results-focused. This was a nice throw, and Turbin did a terrific job of getting depth. Not every running back in the league is going to beat a linebacker in man-to-man coverage.

Meanwhile, how'd that left side turn out?

Doug Baldwin with no one within five yards of him.

I'm not saying that Wilson is doomed, that he's a bad quarterback, or that these plays are entirely his fault. The coaching staff may have called for him to go to the right no matter what. They may not let him audible. There are a few explanations that go beyond "he is not getting the job done on his presnap reads."

But Wilson is locking on to his primary targets on the tape. And it's costing Seattle yards in a season where they have one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 02 Oct 2012

23 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2012, 6:21pm by InTheBoilerRoom

Comments

1
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 2:34pm

Nice article, the pics help. In the play where Wilson is missing Obanamu is it possible that this is an example of Wilson not being able to see over the line? If it was caused by his lack of stature then a slot blitz would be a good idea, with the receiver likely to release into the middle of the field and be missed by Wilson.

2
by max :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 2:58pm

Zuerlein goes 4/4 on FGs, with one from 58 and another from 60. First time ever in the history of the NFL. The Rams score one TD on STs and sniff out an onside kick. And the Seahawk have a better STs score because they had one long KO return that led to a FG and the Rams had one short KO return. Something's wrong with your model fellas.

max

6
by Paddy Pat :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:22pm

The Rams had a better ST score for the game, and he made a point of explaining that the touchdown didn't count as a ST play in the FO metric. Did you even read the piece?

7
by DavidL :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:23pm

Positive ST is good, so the Rams come out ahead. Just not as far ahead as they would if the fake counted for ST instead of offense.

(At minimum, I'd think defending a fake should count as ST, because the defense doesn't get warning of what's coming, and is typically playing their standard kick/punt crew.)

8
by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:44pm

I added this above, but the other issue is that the surprise onside kick isn't included in special teams DVOA. Obviously, this is not because this wasn't a good play by St. Louis, but it is a "non-predictive" play.

As far as fakes being included in offense/defense rather than special teams, it would just be a bit of work to move them from one place to the other, and it would require creating some sort of new special teams category (or perhaps considering fakes also as "non-predictive" plays). It would just be some work, and there have been more important things to do each time I updated DVOA over the last few years.

Perhaps what I need to do is create a special "non-predictive special teams" value that would account for good plays that don't usually correlate to future success, but do help explain past success. That would include fakes, blocked field goals, blocked punts, onside kicks, and two-point conversions.

10
by Paddy Pat :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:56pm

double post. Sorry

9
by Paddy Pat :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:55pm

Are blocked field goals and XPs really non-predictive? I remember a certain Carolina team that was pretty effective at blocking kicks, and Arizona has acquired that reputation more recently. Fear of a blocked kick may have influenced Gostkowski's miss. However rare such plays are... perhaps there's just not a sufficiently viable sample for analysis? Ie. one team may be 1/200th more likely to block a kick than another?

16
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 4:43am

Functionally, it's exactly the same. If one team blocks 0.001% of PATs, and another team blocks 0.005% of PATs, in a year, they'll both block, on average, zero. The other team is, however, in fact 5 times more likely to block a kick.

The problem is that you can only estimate a team's ability to do something given the data that you have. If one of those teams *does* block a kick, and they score 60 touchdowns in a year, your best estimate for their rate of blocking a kick is somewhere in the ~0.02% range. Which is very wrong for both of the teams.

Basically, because the rate is so low, there's essentially no way to differentiate between the two teams. And so a team doing some fluke play that virtually never happens ends up not predicting future success at all. So you don't include it.

17
by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:06am

Shouldn't two point conversions just be scored on regular offense/defense, with the associated modifiers of fourth down redzone plays? Maybe scaled back slightly to reflect that the maximum gain on it is 2 points, rather than 6.

Is there a punishment for Seattle for a failed onside kick? I would have thought there'd be one just by virtue of the poor distance gained on the kickoff.

Fakes are probably problematic to include by default, because quite a few "fakes", particularly failed ones, are simply broken plays where there's a bad snap on a field goal, or rushers getting to a punter, and the holder or punter just tries to make something happen, rather than a designed fake.

3
by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:19pm

Seriously, though, I'd like to hear what the Rams did in pass protection that prevented sacks (other than Bradford just throwing the ball away). Hunter, in particular, was much-maligned in New York, and that was at RIGHT tackle. Now he's on the money side, and apparently competent?

Are college offenses really as simple as the skills these quarterbacks graduate with imply? Russell Wilson not being able to get to the backside of a play is pretty depressing for a starting quarterback. And he is far from the only one (far from the only STARTER) with this problem.

5
by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:21pm

Also, in the second and 15 play, was there any opportunity to check to a WR screen up top? The slot is totally uncovered.

23
by InTheBoilerRoom :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:21pm

That was the very first thing I thought when looking at that pre-snap alignment, as well.

18
by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:16am

At a guess, judging from interviews and whatnot with players, I think it might be the speed, more than the complexity. Every player in the NFL is basically as quick and as instinctive as the top 10% of players they might face in college (its probably the top 5% actually).

The only paradigm I can think of to compare it is imagine you're playing Madden on slow speed setting on Pro, and then you bump it up to All-Madden on very fast. It might not be much more complex, but even if it isn't it will seem it because its that much faster.

I should emphasise that this is a wild guess.

4
by Paddy Pat :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 3:20pm

Much improved with the circling in the diagrams! Great column! The Russell Wilson saga is frustrating, as he had a superb preseason that seemed appropriately awarded him the starting gig, but he really probably should be yanked for a while to sit and learn while Flynn gets a chance to demonstrate replacement level skills.

11
by Joseph :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 4:23pm

Now, I don't understand QB'ing at an NFL level, but I thought that on certain pass plays, the QB decides what the order of his reads should be based on the defensive look. Or is this just a luxury given the great QB's of the NFL? [Since I follow the Saints, Brees does this kind of stuff, but I doubt it's an every play-type thing.]

12
by tuluse :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:04pm

I think it depends on the system. I believe the Bill Walsh WCO, had the QB decided which side of the field he was going to look at based on his pre-snap read. Then he had a primary and secondary target on that side, with a dump off on the opposite side.

13
by ScottD (not verified) :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:54pm

I think it's pretty common for NFL rookie QB to be given simple reads. I remember in Peyton Manning's rookie season, he only used half the field for a portion of the season. The part this article doesn't cover is when the defense fools the QB's pre-snap read which is probably a big problem for rookie QBs.

14
by DRohan :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:57pm

I think you're right. Even if a QB could adjust to secondary receivers in college, things happen a lot faster in the pros. So narrowing the focus for a rookie makes sense.

15
by bob smith (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:09am

The Wilson issue is looming large over Seattle. The question is not whether he is making Rookie mistakes, but whether he has any special abilities that make this learning curve worthwhile.

I see nothing in Wilson that was not found in T-Jaxson or Flynn. Where is the upside? What does he offer that is distinctly better than average? Why did we spend a third round pick on this player?

This is the largest Bust that the Seattle GM has come up with, and I am sure a third round offensive lineman or tight end would have improved this team more.

19
by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:25am

I think you're wrong to write him off. I'd only caught bits of Seahawks games before this one, so I wasn't really sure what Wilson was like. In the opening drive my thoughts were along the lines of "Oh God, we're going to get killed." It looked like he made accurate throws, stayed calm under pressure and escaped good chances for sacks to make plays.

That didn't last, and he looked like a rookie after that. Nervous in the pocket, locked on to reads and generally never really too much of a danger to the Rams. Or at least that's what rookie QBs used to look like before they all started throwing for 4,000 yards anyway.

I think he'll be a good player. I'm not sure that having him come in and start was the best plan though. I get that if you have two guys who are broadly equal and one is a rookie and one isn't, starting the rookie is probably the better long term plan, but I can't imagine that Flynn and Wilson are equal. I think he'll improve your team long term more than a third rounder in another position would have done, but I do question the wisdom of starting him over Flynn this season. At this point, he's not a particularly good player.

I tend to judge the picks of other teams in the division (I'm a Rams fan) by whether its annoys me or not that you have those players. For example, your secondary annoys me. You signing Flynn didn't particularly annoy me, but currently having Wilson does.

20
by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 10:32am

Just a note on the pictures - I think it would be helpful to have a few arrows and whatnot on the presnap ones showing roughly who will be going where. Because currently you kind of need to scroll between two diagrams to look at who goes where. For example, on the first one, you say "Jo-Lonn Dunbar drops into coverage", but its not clear which guy up at the line is Dunbar, and you need to scroll between the first two pictures to figure it out and work out where Dunbar dropped to.

I love the pictures, and think they are way better than the previous play art (although its a little annoying that in this era of HD the coaches' film cameras aren't producing great quality pictures!), but I think some limited bits of play art drawn on top of them would be handy.

21
by Mike1982 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:08pm

You're right: on the first one, Wilson should have checked to a now screen to the wide side. If I can put myself inside his head for a moment, here's what I think his thought process was. He saw 1-high, figured he had man coverage to the boundary, and further figured that, with double slants called, his receivers would win inside. Instead, the Rams went with a type of 3 deep-3 under fire zone and the DB had a low bracket on his primary. He should have worked to the secondary receiver in his outside-in progression (Obomanu), but with pressure bearing down from both sides, he just flung it and hoped for the best.

It looks from the cut-ups like he would not have had time to work the backside of his progression on either play. Hard to tell without a full speed look, though.

22
by Mostly Anonymous (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:25pm

Does DVOA (or VOA) consider a field goal kickers max distance?