Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
15 Oct 2013
by Mike Ridley
Everyone knows the narrative coming into Sunday's game between the Texans and the Rams. Matt Schaub had set an NFL record by having an interception returned for a touchdown in four straight games. This effectively shattered his confidence and made Gary Kubiak seriously ponder replacing him with T.J. Yates. The city of Houston began to revile him in such a manner they bought new jerseys just to burn them. In just four short weeks, Schaub had done something completely unthinkable in 2012; he had become the most scrutinized quarterback in the state of Texas.
So coming into this game, had you told Texans fans that Schaub would have a turnover-free day, Arian Foster would run for 141 yards on just 20 carries, and Houston would outgain St. Louis by nearly 2-to-1 while dominating the time of possession, they would've likely assumed the Texans ran away in a rout. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details.
Houston gave the game away thanks to sloppy play, bad penalties -- notably a 40-yard pass interference call -- and too many turnovers (a reoccurring theme in this column). The Texans committed four turnovers on the day while once again failing to generate a takeaway. Two of these turnovers directly resulted in touchdowns (welcome to the TAINTer Club, Mr. Yates), with one more leading to a field goal. This helped the Rams to become just the fourth team since 1991 to score 38 points or more while passing for less than 120 yards and netting less than 220 total yards.
Red zone performance also played a large role in deciding the outcome of this game. Sam Bradford and the Rams had a perfect day inside the 20, scoring touchdowns on all three opportunities. The Texans, on the other hand, continued to see long drives result in three points of less. They scored just 13 points on five red zone possessions (not including DeAndre Hopkins fumble at the St. Louis 14), with their lone touchdown coming long after the game was out of reach.
Just like the score, the VOA results were a blowout.
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Houston struggled in all three phases of the game Saturday. The offensive DVOA gets weighed down because of Gary Kubiak's propensity to run draw plays on third-and-long, despite Arian Foster's strong performance.
Halfway through the third quarter, Bradford hit Brian Quick on a slant for a four-yard touchdown to cap off a 79-yard drive, making the score 24-6. On the ensuing kickoff, Rodney McLeod torpedoed into return man Keshawn Martin. The ball popped out and fell into the hands of Daren Bates, who easily returned it for a touchdown, making the score 31-6 in the span of just six seconds.
In comparison to the last four weeks, Schaub had a fairly successful day. Although he couldn't produce any touchdowns, he did complete over 71 percent of his passes while reaching season highs in yards per attempt (8.9), QBR (63.5) and DVOA (11.8%). On a spreadsheet, these numbers present growth and hope for Houston's quarterback situation; on film, they tell a different story.
Watching Schaub's pass attempts shows how shaken his confidence is at this time. Multiple times, he failed to pull the trigger on deeper, riskier throws. Many of these led to Schaub either being sacked or hit, including the play that ended his day. When he did throw the ball, it was usually to wide-open targets on checkdowns or crossing routes. Of his 21 passes, just five went more than 10 yards downfield, with his longest being a 17-yard attempt to Hopkins in the end zone.
Schaub's refusal to throw in tight windows has a particularly damning effect in the red zone. With a smaller field, many of the checkdowns aren't available. As a result, the play-calling becomes more conservative and the offense sputters, often settling for three points instead of seven. If this offense is to regain any potency, Matt Schaub must regain his confidence.
On the other side of the field was Sam Bradford who, despite the lack of raw numbers, was the model of efficiency Sunday. Although he racked up just 117 passing yards, Bradford made great decisions with the ball and handled blitzes perfectly. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Bradford was 8-for-8 against Texan blitzes, including his three touchdown passes. The performance led to a QBR of 93.2, the highest of the week through Sunday's games, making this the first time Bradford has set the week's high mark.
After rushing his first two throws, Bradford settled down and went on to hit nine of his next 11 passes, including a 40-yard defensive pass interference penalty that played a large role in setting up the Rams' first touchdown. Bradford was able to take advantage of the Texans secondary, especially safety Shiloh Keo. Of the 17 throws Bradford made on afternoon, 12 were considered successful plays, leading to a DVOA of 107.2%, also the best of the week.
Six weeks through the season, Bradford is showing signs of coming into his own. ESPN Stats & Info noted he became the first NFC West quarterback to have two consecutive three-touchdown games since Kurt Warner in 2007. He now owns a 13-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio that is third best in the league. With the emergence of Zac Stacy, the Rams have become much more balanced on offense, easing Bradford's burden. Without the need to push the ball downfield, he can deliver the short, quick throws he excels at.
The Rams may have come away with the upset, but it wasn’t because they stopped the run. After Foster ran through their defense at 7.1 yards per carry, the Rams are now 31st in the league against the run, allowing 130.5 yards per game, including a 165.3 yard average over last four contests.
Things only look to get worse for the Rams. Over the next four weeks, they’ll face the second, fourth and eighth ranked rush offenses by DVOA. If the Rams hope to stop any of these teams on the ground, they’ll need improved play out of their back seven. St. Louis ranks 29th in 2nd Level Yards and 30th in Open Field Yards.
In Houston, the quarterback situation went from bad to worse. Despite all the grief Schaub had been given the last several weeks, he’s the only real option they have at quarterback. T.J. Yates has failed to deliver in his two relief appearances. On Sunday, he amassed a Gabbert-ian -102.4% DVOA, highlighted by his pick-six and end zone interception. With Schaub's status for Sunday uncertain, Yates and Case Keenum are both options for a Texans team heading into Arrowhead to face DVOA's top-rated defense. With Kansas City coming off a 10-sack performance against Oakland, it's likely to be a long day for whoever gets the call.
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