"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
18 Jul 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
Our previous looks at catch radius focused on mostly AFC teams (Miami, Pittsburgh, Denver and Cincinnati). Our final studies for 2013 feature 12 of the best receivers in the NFC, including every leading receiver in the NFC East, the consensus-best receiver in the league and (coming next week) the cache of weapons for Josh McCown.
First and foremost, we are studying wide receivers with this approach, but it's only natural that the quarterback's accuracy becomes a point of interest as well. The caliber of receiver featured this week is better than past studies, but the quarterbacks are not as good. Perhaps for that reason, the latest results are much different. Sixteen of the first 19 seasons I studied saw the receiver catch at least 60 percent of his receptions at the chest level. This time, only one out of 12 hit that mark, and it's one of the last names anyone would expect.
Other factors for the difference could be that we mostly looked at No. 1 receivers this time, so there's a larger sample size of catches. In theory, the defensive coverage should be better as well, forcing tougher throws. These 12 receivers are also 2.1 inches taller (on average) than past groups. Height seems to be a factor, but not quite in the way I originally hypothesized. While the total sample is up to 2,309 catches, we are still mostly looking at one season of data for everyone, so there's a lot more work to be done in determining if there's any consistency in these numbers. What I do know is just from looking at 2013 film, some receivers displayed tendencies that made their seasons unique.
The following table shows the 2013 receiving breakdown (regular season only) for seven receivers, including the average depth of reception (Dist) and rate of screens or smoke passes.
|2013 Receptions Breakdown|
|Calvin Johnson||6-5||84||12.3||5 (6.0%)|
|Jordy Nelson||6-3||85||10.7||8 (9.4%)|
|DeSean Jackson||5-10||82||10.3||18 (22.0%)|
|Victor Cruz||6-0||73||10.2||2 (2.7%)|
|Julio Jones||6-4||41||8.2||11 (26.8%)|
|Dez Bryant||6-2||93||7.7||6 (6.5%)|
|Pierre Garcon||6-0||113||6.1||25 (22.1%)|
We start with three of the best in the game. Note that all images are captured from NFL Game Rewind at the point of initial contact with the ball.
The NFC North is home to some of the very best "skill players" in the league. Calvin Johnson has been heavily praised for years, but Jordy Nelson shined last year as a true No. 1 receiver in Green Bay. Meanwhile, down south, Julio Jones was once nicknamed "Waffle House" because he's always open, but how did he do in an injury-shortened 2013 season? The following table shows each receiver's catch radius.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii|
|Type of Catch||C.Johnson||Pct.||J.Nelson||Pct.||J.Jones||Pct.|
|Above the head||9||10.7%||9||10.6%||5||12.2%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||2||2.4%||6||7.1%||0||0.0%|
|Over the shoulder||5||6.0%||2||2.4%||2||4.9%|
|Pass thrown wide||6||7.1%||10||11.8%||4||9.8%|
Johnson's combination of size and athleticism make him arguably the scariest wide-receiver matchup in the NFL. What really surprised me about his season is just how often he catches slants. I didn't track the total and can't say if this has been the status quo in Detroit in previous seasons, but in 2013 it sure felt like a quarter of Johnson's catches were on slants, some of which he turned into huge gains.
Among the 12 NFC receivers I studied (including a few we'll get to in another article next week), Johnson had the deepest average reception at 12.3 yards, but Johnson's not really used like a traditional deep threat with go routes galore. He only had five over-the-shoulder catches, and three of those came in the fourth quarter against Dallas. Another was a 14-yard touchdown against Chicago. Johnson's special gift is ability to leap and win jump balls in ridiculous coverage. Against Cincinnati, Johnson hauled in a jump ball with three defenders around him for a 50-yard touchdown on third-and-18 (top left). That's not the only time he made an absurd catch over multiple defenders, and that's the kind of luxury Johnson gives his quarterback.
You're just not getting most of those catches with Nate Burleson, which is why Matthew Stafford gets a bad reputation for living off Johnson's excellence. But overall I found Stafford's role in this shared production to be adequate. The pass down the seam against Dallas to set up a game-winning quarterback sneak was perfection from Stafford and Johnson.
The Pro Bowl can be a real atrocity at times. In 2011, Jordy Nelson had 1,263 receiving yards and 15 touchdown catches on one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. He didn't make the Pro Bowl, but that's okay. He wasn't a full-time starter yet, and during that season there was a lot of talk about part of his success being due to the color of his skin. There aren't many successful white wide receivers in the NFL today, and that's just stating a fact. Even this year, Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor still joked about calling Nelson "White Chocolate." People continue to take notice of Nelson's skin color, but last year they should have only seen a damn good wide receiver.
(Ed. Note: Have you seen Brian Hartline's KUBIAK projection yet? Did you see how we project his numbers slightly lower than the last two seasons and still have him like 100 places higher than average draft position? Um, yeah. -- Aaron Schatz)
Nelson is the master of working the sideline. All of these catches came early last season with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. The Week 1 game in San Francisco alone was a worthy highlight reel for Nelson.
Whether the pass is low, wide or high, Nelson can adjust to the ball with the best of them. He's also quite good after the catch, though that's not our main focus here. A big part of his game is the back-shoulder catch, which he and Rodgers have timed so well together. After Nelson's early success, it reached a point where announcers called his catches "back-shoulder throws" when some were just simple comebacks. I noticed towards the middle of the season Nelson started lining up in the slot more as Green Bay found different ways to get him the ball. That became important once Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone. Scott Tolzien completed 15 passes to Nelson and only three of them were thrown accurately to the chest. Still, while the quarterback play was lacking, Nelson continued to make difficult plays for Tolzien and Matt Flynn. Trailing 26-3 in Dallas, Nelson spearheaded a comeback win in the third quarter with a touchdown where he ripped the ball away from Orlando Scandrick in the end zone. On the next drive, Nelson hauled in a pass thrown wide with one hand (bottom) on third-and-10 to lead another touchdown drive.
The Packers needed a win in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North. Rodgers was back, but Green Bay trailed 28-27 in Chicago and the game was on the line with two minutes to go and a big fourth-and-1 looming. Rodgers trusted Nelson with a low throw, and he delivered with a diving catch.
Eleven wide receivers were credited for a Pro Bowl in 2013, and Nelson was not one of them despite not having Rodgers for half the season. Nelson only caught 43.5 percent of his receptions at the chest-level in 2013, the second-lowest season of the 31 studied. What more can Nelson do to get credit as one of the best receivers in the NFL?
General perception says Julio Jones was having an elite season for Atlanta before a foot injury caused him to miss the final 11 games. This had a big impact on Matt Ryan's play and hurt the Falcons' record. There's definitely some reality to that too, but Jones' five games of film were not all that impressive last year.
Jones had production -- through five games his 41 catches were tied for the league lead and his 580 receiving yards were the second most in the NFL. But 26.8 percent of his catches were just screens or smoke passes. It's hard to make big plays on those, especially when his ability after the catch isn't as dominant as a Demaryius Thomas or Calvin Johnson. Jones ranked a career-low 45th in DVOA in 2013. Too often the Falcons used him like he was Harry Douglas instead of the 6-foot-4 athletic freak he's capable of being.
What Jones did well to highlight his production was to make his two greatest catches of the season in the fourth quarter of his two prime-time appearances (Patriots and Jets). They are pictured below.
That's an awesome one-handed effort to beat Antonio Cromartie, and the throw against the Patriots was high and wide, but Jones still brought it down for 49 yards. That's great, but Jones' season left me wanting more in ways beyond just more games.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii: NFC East Studs|
|Type of Catch||D.Bryant||Pct.||D.Jackson||Pct.||P.Garcon||Pct.||V.Cruz||Pct.|
|Above the head||10||10.8%||4||4.9%||10||8.8%||10||13.7%|
|Below the waist||2||2.2%||1||1.2%||2||1.8%||1||1.4%|
|Diving to ground||0||0.0%||1||1.2%||3||2.7%||1||1.4%|
|Over the shoulder||2||2.2%||10||12.2%||1||0.9%||6||8.2%|
|Pass thrown wide||12||12.9%||12||14.6%||16||14.2%||4||5.5%|
What is it about the No. 88 bringing a physical style to the receiving position in Dallas? Like Michael Irvin before him, Dez Bryant gets away with his share of contact. While past Dallas teams relied on Emmitt Smith in the red zone, the Cowboys have been relying on Bryant. He's excellent at getting position in the end zone on fades and he also high-points the ball. With his aggressive style, I'm surprised Dallas rarely throws him any screens/smokes. He gained at least two yards (more than that on YAC alone) on all six of those plays last season. Bryant didn't catch anything while diving, but he did snatch two below the waist, which is really hard to do in motion. He wasn't much of a deep threat last year, but he'll continue to be the red-zone threat in this offense.
Here's a little sampling of Bryant in his zone (and one rare case of a below-the-waist catch).
The reason Cortland Finnegan is on the ground (top left) is because Bryant pushed him down, or maybe Finnegan tried flopping. Either way, that's another touchdown for the guy with 25 of them since 2012.
Jackson had a career year in Chip Kelly's offense, and the creative system certainly played a big role in producing those numbers (82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns). He even had some plays where he lined up at running back and became an easy outlet option for the quarterback. Talk about getting your No. 1 receiver away from tough cornerback coverage -- unless you're playing Oakland, which found coverage optional in 2013. Jackson had 18 screens/smokes, and made nearly as many catches on drag routes when the Eagles just ran everyone deep and cleared the middle for him. You can call Jackson the "Drag King."
Speed is obviously Jackson's biggest asset, so I wasn't expecting a robust catch radius for the 5-foot-10 deep threat, but I was surprised at just how often his catches came with little defensive coverage. Still, his rate of over-the-shoulder catches (12.2 percent) was the highest I have found yet. He also had eight catches marked as chest-low, but still gained anywhere from 10 to 21 yards on all eight plays despite crouching or kneeling down for the ball.
Jackson's drag routes provide a great opportunity to look at differences in how these plays get charted. Below is Jackson catching a pass from Michael Vick (top) and from Nick Foles (bottom) on a drag route. Vick's pass is thrown wide, but still correctly out in front of the receiver, even if he has to make a pretty good extension to bring in the pass. This gets marked as "thrown wide." On Foles' pass, we really don't see any separation between the receiver and ball, so when that happens, this type of play gets marked as "chest level" or "eye level" depending on how high the ball is on the receiver. As Foles has demonstrated, not every pass thrown on a slant or over the middle needs to be thrown wide. Vick may have been more willing to throw wide with the defender coming, but that can leave the receiver vulnerable to his arms getting chopped at to knock the ball away.
There might be different opinions on what's "better" here, but personally I like what Foles did to put the ball right on the receiver. I think Vick's throw would be harder to catch. This isn't to say Foles was always way more accurate than Vick last year, but it's just a good example of the difference between catches on the same type of play.
If Jackson is the Drag King, then Pierre Garcon might be the Drag Qu--OK, maybe we shouldn't go there. But there is a lot of talent overlap between Jackson and Garcon, which should be interesting to watch in Washington this year. Garcon led the league with 113 receptions, and not surprisingly he was helped to that point with 25 screens/smokes. Both Garcon and Jackson had 22 percent of their receptions come on such plays, and Garcon did run some drag routes much like Jackson, though he's not quite as fast.
Garcon's catch of the year had some of the same elements his catch of the year in 2010 had: a game with Peyton Manning, the Washington Redskins and his one hand.
Garcon had four one-handed catches last season -- the most I have studied so far. He even caught a pass with one hand while lying on the ground against San Diego. His only over-the-shoulder catch was a 53-yard touchdown thrown by Kirk Cousins against Atlanta, but Garcon likes to balance the amazing catch with the maddening mistake from time to time.
Garcon was involved in a controversial ending in Week 13 against the Giants on Sunday Night Football. The officials botched the down-marker on the field, and the game ended after Garcon fumbled away a completion on fourth down. The whole moment may have been avoided if Robert Griffin III threw a better pass on second down, which is the play that started the whole mess. Garcon caught the pass that was behind him with one hand and pulled it to his body, but ended up short of the first down. If Griffin threw a better pass out in front of Garcon, then the Redskins would have the first down and avoided any officiating error. Even the fourth-down pass Garcon fumbled was thrown a little too wide.
Washington will have Jay Gruden running his offense this season, so we probably can't expect all the screens and drag routes Jackson and Garcon had last year. I did not see a ton of that with A.J. Green and Marvin Jones in Cincinnati with Gruden, however those are different types of receivers. These are smaller, faster guys. Washington should be fine as long as it's not predictably treating Jackson as the deep threat and Garcon as the underneath guy every week. Keep defenses guessing from week to week.
Cruz had a great start to the season with three touchdown catches in Dallas (Week 1), and he had three 100-yard receiving games in the first four weeks of the season. One of his best catches of the year was an over-the-shoulder grab for 51 yards against Denver (Week 2). What I love about the picture is Cruz was still looking up at the sky to track the ball, which had already landed in his outstretched hands. I have a real Al Davis-like fetish for the deep passing game when it works like this.
So what happened the rest of the season? Cruz caught just one more touchdown and had just one more 100-yard game. He missed two games to injury too, but a large part of this decline has to go on Eli Manning's head in what was probably his most difficult season yet. The younger Manning's accuracy has always been inconsistent, so I was kind of expecting a lot of great catches from Cruz. He didn't disappoint with 13.7 percent of his catches coming above his head (average is 7.7 percent). Cruz is a slot receiver, though he's not in the Wes Welker mold since he actually runs a lot of vertical routes too. His average depth of reception (10.2 yards) dwarfs Welker's (6.2) last year, along with other receivers known for a deeper reputation. Cruz only had two smokes, meaning he didn't get a single designed screen, which is a bit puzzling since he's a pretty good runner after the catch. Kevin Gilbride is out at offensive coordinator, by the way.
Out of this week's receivers, Cruz had the lowest rate of catches that were thrown wide (5.5 percent), which could be a positive for Manning, or a negative if you believe quarterbacks need to lead their receivers more often.
Something we can all agree on is that a quarterback can get his receiver into trouble with an inaccurate pass. While that's usually in the form of an injury, a quarterback can increase his receiver's chances of fumbling as well. In the rematch with Dallas, Manning threw a very low pass to Cruz, but he was able to catch it below his waist. However, there's that wasted motion of bringing the ball up to protect it, and two defenders engulfed Cruz and eventually stripped him of the ball. The Cowboys returned that fumble for a big touchdown. It was hard to grab a clear pic of the catch, but here's the All-22 angle.
I wouldn't say this throw directly caused Cruz to fumble, but this is how a bad throw can lead to trouble.
Next week: We'll look at the three duos of talented pass catchers Josh McCown has played with in his career, along with the conclusion to our 2013 catch radius studies.
20 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2017, 3:42pm by adamstrauss