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?
21 Nov 2013
by Cian Fahey
When the San Francisco 49ers replaced Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick during the 2012 regular season, nobody expected the young quarterback to explode in the fashion he did. Kaepernick's athleticism and ability to drive the ball down the field added a completely new dimension to what the 49ers could do.
During his first 10 starts, Kaepernick had 2,406 passing yards, 19 total touchdowns, six total turnovers and 502 rushing yards. While he can't be given sole credit for carrying the 49ers to the Super Bowl, he was a massive catalyst for their first Super Bowl trip in almost 20 years.
Because of his success in 2012, nobody expected him to fall as far as he has during the beginning of the 2013 season. In the first 10 games of this season, Kaepernick has just 1,802 passing yards, 14 total touchdowns, 11 total turnovers and 335 rushing yards. While the 49ers are 6-4 during that stretch, the Seattle Seahawks are 9-1 and running away with the NFC West.
Criticism for Kaepernick hasn't been as harsh as it could be because the offense around him doesn't appear to be as effective as it was in 2012. The 49ers still have a top offensive line, but it's not as dominant as it was last season. Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles has kept him sidelined all season, while Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis have both missed significant time. Without his best receivers and as dominant a running game, Kaepernick's flaws are being exposed and highlighted.
Trent Dilfer, who has proven to be an outstanding analyst for ESPN, accurately pointed out that Kaepernick struggles
During the 23-20 loss, Kaepernick threw for just 127 yards on 31 pass attempts, with two touchdowns and an interception. That is consistent with Kaepernick's output in every game this season except Week 1 when he threw for over 400 yards against the Green Bay Packers.
Has Kaepernick regressed after last season? Or is he being held back by his teammates this year?
The key lies in Dilfer's analysis. While Dilfer accurately pointed out that Kaepernick is "remedial" after he makes his first read, that's not something that began this year. The 49ers' passing attack primarily focused on just the first read in 2012. However, with Crabtree and an outstanding running game, it was much easier for Kaepernick to find those first reads. That doesn't mean he wasn't making very accurate, impressive passes, but it did mean he
Kaepernick wasn't being asked to do as much mentally last year as a Cam Newton, Andrew Luck or even Russell Wilson. With a lesser supporting cast this season, he needs to do these things but he simply hasn't developed to that point as a passer yet.
That doesn't mean that he won't ever reach his potential and become an all-around dominant player. There are a few very important aspects of his game that are holding him back. If these are corrected, he would dramatically improve his production on the field regardless of who his teammates are.
On Sunday against the Saints, Kaepernick had 33 qualifying plays that showed off his progression. On 28 of those he appeared to throw to his first read, with the other five going to his second read. During his best game of the season, Week 1 against the Packers, he had 40 qualifying plays and threw to his first read 33 times. When Kaepernick's first read isn't there, he often looks to run too quickly. He left the pocket too early and neglected open receivers 11 times against the Saints and Packers.
Ideally, Kaepernick wouldn't have these issues in his third season, but because of how long he spent on the sidelines and because he was considered a raw talent coming out of college he is still developing. Nobody should be worried about his long-term outlook based on his low production this season. What is worrisome for 49ers fans is the cautiousness that Kaepernick is playing with.
Jim Harbaugh seemingly preaches ball security with all of his quarterbacks, because Kaepernick and Alex Smith make very similar decisions consistently. The risk-reward balance on a given throw for both quarterbacks is always adjusted to avoid as much risk as possible. This keeps the turnover ratio down, but it also hurts the offense since many opportunities to move the ball are missed.
This cautious nature with the football wasn't as evident in Kaepernick last season or during Week 1 of this season. While that game is an outlier, Kaepernick's aggressive approach led to his success. He pushed the ball down the field to Vernon Davis, Kyle Williams and Anquan Boldin more than once against coverages that he has routinely turned down since. It should also be noted that since the defense was too preoccupied with stopping the run, Kaepernick had more opportunities with a season-high 39 attempts and his receivers made more plays on their own—5.3 YAC per reception.
Even if Kaepernick doesn't change how he reads defenses or start to make better decisions in the pocket, he could dramatically improve his output by simply being more aggressive. There is no question that he can make every throw and there is no question that he is a true dual-threat quarterback. His potential to turn into one of the most effective players in the league is still there. It won't take a massive overhaul to get the 49ers offense back on the right track.
While Kaepernick and the 49ers have failed to meet expectations so far this season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers have made strides in the right direction. The Panthers are 7-3 amidst a six game winning streak, with their most recent victory coming over the New England Patriots on Monday night during which Newton had another outstanding performance.
He still misses throws at times, because his inconsistent footwork causes some passes to float over receivers, but he is currently the most refined dual-threat quarterback. Ever since he entered the league in 2011, Newton has been able to put up huge numbers. He had a record-setting rookie season, with 35 total touchdowns and over 4,000 passing yards, but it's his development since that has created a huge void between Kaepernick and him.
Kaepernick gets more attention because of his dramatic arrival into the starting lineup and because he played for a dramatically better team, but Newton has been a better all-around player since Week 1 of his rookie season. They aren't similar quarterbacks in terms of style, but they are asked to do similar things. Physically, Newton is closer to Andrew Luck than he is to Kaepernick, while Kaepernick is actually a more accurate passer. However, when it comes to reading coverages, going through progressions and decision-making in the pocket, Newton is more advanced.
Even during one of Newton's worst games of the season, two weeks ago against Kaepernick's 49ers, he was still showing aspects of his game that simply aren't evident in Kaepernick's.
Newton has time to survey the defense before this snap. The Panthers come out with four receivers, three to the right and one to the left, and a running back next to Newton in the backfield. This pushes the 49ers' safeties back and draws the left outside linebacker into space away from the line of scrimmage. That linebacker is Newton's second read, as his first is the right outside linebacker who is pressing the line of scrimmage.
Even before the ball is snapped, Newton is looking at the right outside linebacker. He wants to throw the ball to Steve Smith who is running a curl route on the left side of the offense. Once Newton sees the right outside linebacker begin to drop backwards into the flat, he immediately understands that throw won't be there. Before the linebacker has taken a third step, Newton has already spun his head around to survey the other side of the field.
Newton sees that the 49ers are only rushing their three defensive linemen and that the rest of the defense is playing zone coverage. Because he understands the route combinations on the right side of his defense, he knows that the left outside linebacker is his second read. If the left outside linebacker goes with the slot receiver who is running infield, then he should throw the ball to his outside receiver who is running a curl route. If the left outside linebacker drifts outside, then he must quickly fit the ball to his receiver running across the middle of the field.
His second read stays with the receiver running infield, so Newton immediately throws the ball to Tedd Ginn who is open outside. The ball is thrown accurately and on time, so Ginn is able to turn downfield to get the eight yards needed for a first down.
Newton was far from perfect in this game, especially in the first half. He threw an interception when he overthrew a receiver by the sideline because he didn't set his feet, but soon after the above play he made another very impressive play that you would expect from a high-caliber pocket passer.
The Panthers spread the field again with Newton in the shotgun. The 49ers are hinting at zone coverage with all of their defenders playing off, including both inside linebackers. Newton will ultimately look to manipulate one of those linebackers with his eyes before he lets the ball go downfield.
With two extra blockers, Newton knows he has time to survey the field when he gets to the top of his drop. He quickly recognises that the 49ers are indeed playing zone coverage, but he still keeps his eyes on Steve Smith even though it's very unlikely that he comes free from the coverage.
Newton focuses on Smith long enough to widen Patrick Willis. Because Willis is reading the quarterback's eyes and can't see that Smith has run down the sideline, he has to move where Newton is looking. As soon as Willis fully commits to moving sideways, Newton looks back towards the middle of the field where he knows his slot receiver is running a deep in route.
He can't immediately let go of the ball, so he holds it for a short moment and steps up into a cleaner area of the pocket. Newton then lets the ball go before his receiver comes free, hitting him in stride for a 10+ yard gain between three defenders.
Creating positive plays is one thing, but more importantly, Newton is also avoiding more negative plays and missing fewer opportunities because of his development as a pocket passer. In close games such as their victories over the 49ers and Patriots, these abilities prove crucial.
If Newton cleans up his inconsistencies with his accuracy, then he would easily be on the level of Luck and Wilson. Luck and Wilson are clearly the two best young quarterbacks in the NFL because both do what Newton does at his best on a more consistent basis.
Regardless of where he stands amongst his peers, Newton has proven that he can be a quarterback who starts and produces in this league for years to come. Even when his ability to carry the running game diminishes, he should have enough awareness and intelligence to convert to an exclusive pocket-passer. That kind of potential is what makes him a franchise quarterback.
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