Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
14 Nov 2013
by Cian Fahey
For over a decade, Ed Reed was a unique player in the NFL. Despite being a coverage free safety, Reed was arguably the most intimidating player in the league. Quarterbacks always had to be aware of where Reed was. His presence dramatically altered how both the opposing offense and his own defense were able to approach the game. It is very rare for a safety to affect the game like Reed did in his prime, though Earl Thomas is trying his best to assume that lofty status.
Thomas doesn't play the game in the same way as Reed did during his prime. Reed was a very intelligent, hard-hitting and opportunistic player during his prime with the Baltimore Ravens. Thomas is also quite an intelligent player, but his value on the field isn't measured in how many big hits he lands or how many turnovers he creates. Thomas' value lies in how the Seattle Seahawks anchor their defense off of his ability to cover vast amounts of space faster than anyone else in the league.
Against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, Thomas made just two plays on the ball. He broke up a pass to Steven Jackson to end the first drive of the game and he tackled Roddy White after a 20-yard gain soon after. Yet, his impact in that game may have been greater than anyone else's.
Thomas played every single defensive snap and was usually the deepest player on the field. Excluding a kneel-down play at the end of the second quarter, Thomas was the deepest defender on the field 53 out of 57 times. Of those 53 snaps, he was in a single-high safety setup—lined up near the center of the field and at least seven yards deeper than the next defender—an incredible 34 times. On average, Thomas lined up 16.05 yards away from the line of scrimmage and 6.82 yards deeper than the next-deepest defender. When you only look at those 34 snaps in a single-high safety setup, Thomas lined up 16.76 yards away from the line of scrimmage and an incredible 9.5 yards away from the next closest defender on average.
These numbers mean that Thomas spends a huge amount of time playing in space and that the Seahawks trust him to cover a huge amount of ground while they are incredibly aggressive with the rest of their defense. While most free safeties are there to clean up any mistakes from players in front of them, Thomas literally covers for every defender in front of him on most plays.
The Falcons averaged 3.77 yards on 13 carries from running backs in the game, but Steven Jackson finished the game with just 11 yards on nine carries. The Falcons were unable to block the Seahawks' talented defensive linemen, but more importantly the Seahawks were able to crowd the line of scrimmage and shoot defenders through gaps over and over to stop Jackson. These aggressive formations are only possible because of Thomas' ability on the back end.
Thomas isn't a reliable tackler in space, so his greatest contribution to the run game is his unique coverage ability that gives the Seahawks formation flexibility. Even though he misses too many tackles, he does still contribute directly as a run defender. Much like he does in coverage, Thomas closes on running backs exceptionally quickly. He often misses the tackle when he arrives, but because he comes at such speed and is so aggressive, he routinely redirects running backs to save first downs in situations when most safeties wouldn't have reached the back before the first down marker. Because the Seahawks have a group of linebackers and secondary players who will flow to the football, he doesn't have to be a dominant tackler to make big plays in the run game.
As much flexibility as Thomas gives to the Seahawks' run defense, he is still a safety who does his best work in pass coverage. Because they were overmatched, the Falcons rarely ever threw the ball down the field. When they did, they had no real success as they finished the game with just two receptions of at least 20 yards. Julio Jones' absence had a lot to do with that, but that shouldn't diminish what Thomas does in coverage.
While Thomas dramatically helps the defense, the talent around him also aids his play. The question of who is more valuable to the Seahawks between Thomas and Richard Sherman has no answer as both players make each other more valuable, and neither is more important than the other. Thomas is less likely to fall for pump fakes to Sherman's side of the field when the quarterback tries to manipulate him in coverage, while Thomas can be more aggressive to the other side of the field. Rarely does Thomas beat the ball there, but he does close off the throwing window and is often in position to force the receiver to make a more difficult catch or potentially make an interception if the ball is tipped towards him.
His speed is clear for everyone to see, but he doesn't get enough credit for his ability to read plays as they are developing. He rarely leaves his position too early and knows when to be aggressive and when to be cautious. Much like Sherman, Thomas' aggressiveness is often mistaken for recklessness. Both are very intelligent and versatile.
While he doesn't do it often and he was very harshly penalized for pass interference on this play, Thomas also has outstanding coverage abilities as a slot cornerback. Because of the personnel on the Seahawks, Thomas has primarily kept to his deep safety spot, but on another team he could easily play a role similar to the one Eric Berry plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Just like Reed during his prime, Thomas isn't a perfect player but he is a unique talent who affects the game in ways that no other safety in the NFL does. His value to the Seahawks defense surpasses his speed or his flexibility, he is a cornerstone of a unit that boasts more talent than any other in the league. His reliance on his physical traits means that he may suffer a similar decline to Reed, but that likely won't come for another decade or so because he is still just 24 years old.
On Sunday, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Ben Roethlisberger is expected to ask the Pittsburgh Steelers to explore trade options in the offseason. The Steelers, Roethlisberger and a few local beat writers immediately shot down the notion, but Rapoport is not generally one for baseless speculation. If Roethlisberger was considering asking for a trade, it would make sense for both sides involved.
The Steelers roster is no longer worthy of being considered a contender. The current roster has many issues, but even more when you look forward to next season and beyond. Potentially, the Steelers could need a new starting left tackle, starting wide receiver, starting left guard, starting right tackle, starting defensive end, starting nose tackle, starting inside linebacker, starting outside linebacker, starting free safety and a starting cornerback after this year. That's without even considering how poor their depth is and how many young players simply haven't been good enough. As Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers have shown in recent times, having a franchise quarterback isn't worth it if the roster around their quarterback is lacking in effective talent.
There is just one problem. While Ben Roethlisberger is still considered a franchise quarterback, he doesn't play like one. Even though the Steelers have many problems this year, Roethlisberger hasn't done enough to be excused of accountability. Rather, the almost 32-year-old has been a part of the problem in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger has never been a typical elite quarterback like Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. He never really carried an offense on an offensive-reliant team, but he did always make big plays out of nothing and consistently give his teammates the best chance to succeed. Instead of doing that this year, Roethlisberger has consistently missed throws and failed to be the elusive play-extender of the past.
Roethlisberger is not only consistently missing passes, but he's also throwing many completed passes with terrible ball placement that either forces the receiver to make a very difficult catch or takes away potential yards after the catch. This is something that Roethlisberger could get away with in the past because the Steelers played with an elite defense and he made enough big plays to counter his mistakes on the smaller ones. However, those big plays are fewer now and those that do come are primarily a result of great wide receiver play rather than great quarterback play.
Looking at last week's game, the Steelers had six big plays (touchdown passes or 20+ yard passing plays). Of those six big plays, only two were impressive downfield throws from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. One was down the sideline and the other was a back-shoulder throw. Brown had another 40 yard reception, but Roethlisberger was actually slightly late on the throw which forced Brown to work back across the field for the big gain. Two more went to Jerricho Cotchery, one of which saw Cotchery evade Stephon Gilmore in space before escaping down the sideline and the other was a touchdown where Cotchery created a huge window to throw into on a fade route. The final play was the closest to Roethlisberger of old, as he avoided pressure in the pocket by dumping the ball off to Le'veon Bell in space.
The Steelers receivers haven't been consistent either outside of Brown, but they are responsible for too high a percentage of the big plays on the offense. Roethlisberger is facilitating them at times, but he's not creating plays as he used to and he's missing too many passes that offset the accurate ones.
Roethlisberger's deep passing has been atrocious. He has overthrown and under-thrown too many passes and is often not giving his receivers a chance to even go up and get it. Against the Bills last weekend, Roethlisberger threw an interception to Jairus Byrd that looked all too familiar for one of his deep attempts. He was throwing the ball to Markus Wheaton and the throw was so far off that it looked like the duo had misunderstood each other's intentions. With Wheaton being a rookie who has missed time, it was natural to blame him. However, there is no route that would have made the throw look acceptable.
He's no longer playing like an elite quarterback. Being 32 isn't an issue, but being 32 with a long injury list and a career of beatings worse than most his age will undoubtedly shorten his career and limit his impact later in his career.
With his level of play and the potential for the future, it's unlikely that any team gives the Steelers a worthwhile package of draft picks for Roethlisberger. Alex Smith's two second round picks should set the standard, but it's hard to argue that Roethlisberger is even worth that considering how he has played recently and the beating his body has taken. Instead of fitting in with a new team like Smith in Kansas City, Roethlisberger should be treated more like what Brett Favre was when he joined the Minnesota Vikings.
Favre was older, but the setup of the offense was more fitting with Adrian Peterson as the focal point. It was a similar setup to what the Steelers have looked to build towards in recent seasons. Todd Haley was brought in to run a balanced offense, the offensive line was supposed to feature two first round picks, two second round picks and a prioritized free agent, while Le'veon Bell was drafted to be the feature back. For a variety of reasons, that hasn't worked out.
Whether the Steelers do it or they trade him to someone who will, Roethlisberger needs a lot more help to be successful at this stage of his career than he did in the past.
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