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?
27 Nov 2013
by Cian Fahey
Over the last two weeks, the St. Louis Rams have outscored their opponents by a score of 80-29. The stability of Kellen Clemens, the consistency of Zac Stacy and the explosion of Tavon Austin has sparked the offense during that time. However, just as he has done throughout the whole season, defensive end Robert Quinn has also played a huge part in their recent success.
Quinn has 13 sacks and six forced fumbles in 11 starts this year, which is 1.5 more sacks and five more fumbles than he had all of last season. Against the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears inlast two games, Quinn has three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Quinn was part of the illustrious top half of the first round of the 2011 draft class that also included Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith. Quinn went after all of those players, as he fell to 14th. Quinn's talent was never in question, but a benign brain tumor and an NCAA suspension while at North Carolina appeared to affect his draft stock. Since he was drafted, he has had no real health issues and has no infractions with either the NFL or the law.
During that time, Quinn has slowly developed from a situational pass rusher as a rookie into an all-pro caliber every-down defensive end. He has played 556 snaps so far this season, more than any other Rams defensive lineman, and is working on becoming dominant in all aspects of the game. While he came out of college as a speed rusher, Quinn has built the upper body strength to stand up offensive tackles and battle past offensive guards in the running game. He won't consistently hold down double teams, but with Michael Brockers and the rest of the talented defensive line in St. Louis teams rarely get to double down on him.
Quinn's development into an all-around player is admirable, but in today's NFL he will always be celebrated for his outstanding pass-rushing ability. That ability was apparent when Quinn was a rookie and even more of it was on show during his second season. When he became a starter last year, Quinn got to the quarterback 11 times and beat very talented offensive tackles such as Jeff Backus, Trent Williams, Joe Staley, Cordy Glenn and Russell Okung.
Typically talented pass-rushers coming out of college have to develop or refine their technique as they grow in the NFL. Quinn didn't have issues like that early in his professional career. Instead, he has just become more consistent and filled out physically. Quinn hasn't necessarily gotten bulkier, but he does appear to be much stronger and even faster this year than he was last season.
Last season, I analyzed Quinn's sacks and found that he was faster to the quarterback than the other top sack-getters: “Excluding Chris Long, because of all the unblocked sacks he had, only Cameron Wake was quicker to the quarterback than [Quinn] of the players studied. [Quinn] was only slightly faster than J.J. Watt.” Not only was Quinn beating better offensive tackles than most of the other top rated rushers, he was also doing it much faster. Remarkably, Quinn is faster to the quarterback this season.
Quinn's mean (average) sack time is 3.11 seconds this season, which is a negligible improvement over his mean of 3.13 seconds last season. Because both of his two longest sacks have come this season, the difference in the means understates how much faster Quinn is playing this season.
Last year: “Playing on the quarterback’s blindside, you would like to see Quinn attack the football more often, but considering his list of priorities in terms of his development, it’s a minor detail for the moment.” This year he has been incredible at pressuring the quarterback's ball security. He has six forced fumbles, but more importantly he has attacked the football on nine of his 13 sacks compared to two of 11 sacks last season.
Generally sacks are used to determine who is the best pass-rusher. Understanding who is creating sacks and who is benefiting from favorable situations or good coverage is very important. If Watt is commanding double-teams on every single snap, he is less likely to get to the quarterback than someone who is getting a free run whenever he rushes the passer. That doesn't mean Watt is a worse pass-rusher.
On Quinn's first 13 sacks of this season, he didn't beat a double-team once. He has been chipped by a tight end or running back before two sacks and three of his sacks came when he didn't beat an offensive lineman. If you assign a primary reason for each sack, Quinn was the primary reason for nine of his 13 sacks. The others came on a well-defended screen play, a blown assignment and two extended plays. Seven of Quinn's sacks have come on third down, with six coming in the first quarter.
Quinn has lined up as a right defensive end for each of his sacks and he used his speed to beat an offensive lineman nine times. Of the eight times he penetrated the pocket by getting past the outside shoulder of the left tackle. twice he faked an inside rush before exploding outside, and six times he simply exploded off the line to get an advantageous position against the offensive tackle before dragging him to the quarterback. Once Quinn gets that advantageous position to begin the play, there is no redirecting him as a testament to his improved strength.
Twice Quinn ran a designed stunt with a teammate for a sack. One of those plays in particular showed off his outstanding acceleration and speed. Against the Seahawks he stunted behind two defenders and went from the outside shoulder of the left tackle to right shoulder of talented center Max Unger who couldn't react quickly enough to Quinn coming from a blind-spot.
The first round of the 2011 NFL draft may be remembered as one of the greatest ever. Along with Cam Newton, Miller, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Patrick Peterson, Smith, Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, Nick Fairley, Mike Pouncey and Cameron Jordan, Robert Quinn has a chance to be one of the most notable members of that class. Quinn's physical talents and relentless high-motor ensures that he won't be going away in the near future.
When the Tennessee Titans selected Justin Hunter in the second round of the 2013 draft, it was unclear what their thought-process was. At the time, the Titans had Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Damian Williams on their roster so wide receiver was definitely not a need. The Titans seemingly were fascinated by Hunter's physical talent and felt that they couldn't pass up on him regardless of other options who appeared to be better fits.
Hunter is 22 years old and he is officially listed at 6-foot-4, 205-pounds. He played three seasons in college, but sat out the majority of two of those seasons. He was a backup freshman in 2010 and he tore his ACL early in 2011. Hunter had big numbers in 2012 and played every game, but he didn't look completely comfortable on the field and struggled with his focus at times, and consequently his draft stock suffered.
Those focus issues may have been a result of his extended recovery from injury, because they haven't shown up during his rookie season. As expected, Hunter hasn't played a huge amount, but what he has done has been exceptionally impressive. Not only is Hunter not dropping passes, but he's consistently made phenomenal big plays down the field despite only being a role player.
Hunter's first two receptions of his career went for touchdowns. While one came on a questionable non-call of offensive pass-interference, both were outstanding receptions over tight coverage in the end zone. Of Hunter's seven receptions that came before Week 12, three went for at least 16 yards and each was an incredibly difficult reception. It is no surprise that Hunter put up big numbers when he finally became a focal point of the offense in Week 12.
Against the Oakland Raiders, Hunter was targeted six times and he had six receptions. He had another huge reception for a touchdown, but this time he caught the ball 20 yards down the field before shaking two defenders and sprinting down the sideline to the end zone. What stood out against the Raiders wasn't that play, but rather his other five receptions. Four of those receptions came on third and long and were converted into first downs. Two of those third down conversions came over the middle in traffic, one saw him adjust to a bad throw and three of the four came late in the fourth quarter on the final drive of the game. Hunter showed crisp route running, situational awareness, bravery against potential big hits and soft hands.
Even though Hunter was a curious addition at draft time, it now looks more like a stroke of brilliance. Part is Hunter's massive potential, but it's also his potential relationship with former first round pick Kendall Wright.
Wright was the 20th overall pick of the 2012 draft, but he had a relatively unremarkable rookie season. He started just five games, played in 15, and caught 64 passes for 626 yards and four touchdowns. Wright caught a lot of passes, but didn't make enough plays down the field to be considered a weapon. This season he already has 65 receptions for 763 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, on third and fourth down Wright leads the league in receptions and is third in targets. He averages 11.4 yards per reception on third or fourth down and 16 of his 25 receptions have gone for first downs along with both of his touchdowns (Stats courtesy of FootballGuys.com).
With the change in Wright's role in the offense it is remarkable than he has even a modest growth in his average yards per catch. The Titans use Wright in a similar way to the how the New England Patriots used Wes Welker in the past. He primarily runs shallow or intermediate routes, allowing Washington, Hunter and tight end Delanie Walker to work further downfield. Wright is essentially Welker with greater length. Teams have found it impossible to contain him underneath as he runs away from linebackers, safeties or cornerbacks with his quickness before making hands catches that allow him to continue running with the ball downfield.
Much like Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, many will overlook Wright because he is not the towering athlete who catches the ball over defenders downfield, but that is what makes Wright and Hunter's potential relationship so appealing. While it is too early to say Hunter will be even close to Randy Moss' level, they share similar receiving traits. Hunter plays the game in that style and has outlandish physical attributes that comfortably translate to the football field. With Wright working the middle of the field like Welker, the Titans have a pair of receivers who complement each other the way the two former Patriots did.
On Sunday against the Raiders, we saw the first real glimpse of both receivers at their very best. Both had over 100 yards in the same game, but Wright should have had even more than his 103 yards as he had two receptions negated because of holding penalties. The game-winning touchdown was too easy for Wright, as he and Hunter ran a route combination that perfectly exposed the zone defense of the Raiders, but a play 60 seconds or so before that one showed off Wright's ability.
Wright starts in the slot to the left with Hunter outside of him. Hunter runs down the sideline to draw the outside defender away from Wright as he runs a whip route (which is essentially a horizontal double move towards the sideline). Wright actually stumbles as he plants his foot at point two of the route shown above, but he is still quick enough to recover and create separation before the ball arrives. When the ball does arrive, Wright catches it with his arms extended in front of him and his legs still in stride. This allows him to continue downfield at speed.
Being able to maintain his speed allows Wright to brush off the diving tackle of the first defender, before he shakes the second defender and extends the play until Charles Woodson tackles him. Wright's quickness, precision in his routes, natural catching ability and his vision with the ball in his hands makes him a big play threat even when he catches the ball underneath. For these reasons, Wright has been at his best on screen plays.
It's obviously premature to suggest both of these players are on the level of hall of famers such as Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but the talent is undeniably there. Wright has less to prove than Hunter, because he has proven his consistency from week-to-week this season, but he will need to show that he can produce like this for more than one season. Hunter on the other hand has to prove his consistency. His only real knock is that his sample size is too small right now. If his focus issues that hit him in college return, then he may never prove to be a difference-making receiver, but if they don't, it's hard to see him being anything but a constant big-play threat.
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