Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
21 Apr 2014
by Rivers McCown
The Houston Texans finished 2-14 in 2013, ensuring them the No. 1 pick in the draft, despite having two of the best players in the NFL. J.J. Watt is the one the national media has spent most of the past two years talking about, but we are all guilty of forgetting about Dre.
Andre Johnson was the most-targeted receiver in the NFL in 2013. (He tied Pierre Garcon for the honor with 181 targets.) Johnson did it playing most of the season next to DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round pick who showed some promise.
The hasty conclusion is to look at Johnson's high target total and his low (-2.3%) DVOA, then say "The Texans need to spread the ball around." That may be true to an extent, but I believe that the driving forces behind Johnson's inefficient year were beyond his control.
I looked at where Johnson lined up before each snap, and then gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use. In fact, I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.
The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wide receiver stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:
Here are my observations:
"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard. "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Red numbers show a Success Rate of 50 percent or higher. Black numbers show a Success Rate between 40-49 percent, and blue numbers show a Success Rate of 39 percent or lower.
1. So you've decided to pass on third down
You're Gary Kubiak, it's third-and-long, and you are going to pass.
You would think that this would mean throwing beyond the sticks, as done by every other coach in today's game. You would think.
On Johnson's 26 third-and-long targets, he managed a 34.6 percent success rate. That's because quarterbacks threw 10 of them short of the sticks. Johnson is a powerful receiver who still has a lot of speed, but elusiveness is not his forte. Asking him to dance past people in the open field is a misuse of his talent -- that's why the Texans didn't throw many wideout screens in his direction.
I put most of the blame for this on Kubiak, and not on the Texans quarterbacks. It happened with both quarterbacks on the field. After Houston fired Kubiak in Week 14, the Texans threw three of their four deepest third-down attempts to Johnson over their last three games.
This was one of the biggest problems Houston dealt with last season. The offense became stale and predictable, and didn't take many chances downfield. I'm not an insider, but it felt like this was a directive of coaching rather than quarterbacks getting quick feet. Andre Johnson is effective at most things on a football field, but dominating the open field is not one of them.
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
2. Curls curls curls
Earlier I referred to how the Texans were kind of predictable. I figure a good illustration of this would be to talk about the short passing game for the first six weeks of the season. Matt Schaub threw a pass longer than 20 yards a grand total of zero times before he was first injured (and then benched) against the Rams. That limited Johnson's route tree to curls, intermediate posts/corners, slants, ins, outs, flags, and double moves.
The Texans threw 23 curls in his direction by Week 6, and 21 of those were before Week 6's The Schaubbening against the Rams.
How were defenses playing Johnson at that point? Let me bring you back to Week 5's Sunday Night Football game against the 49ers. Schaub threw a pick-six on the first Texans offensive series of the game. Johnson ran a quick out, and a defender picked off Schaub's pass and returned it for a touchdown. But it wasn't his defender -- it was another defender playing a short zone in that same area. Teams were giving Schaub's arm such little respect that it was as if they thought it almost inconceivable that he'd throw deep. And the Texans just kept on bludgeoning their opponents with short routes.
These are the kinds of things that lead to firing your coach and trading your quarterback. These are the kinds of things that can lead a receiver as good as Andre Johnson to have a -2.3% DVOA. Johnson is an excellent target for a curl route. Just not when you throw 44 of them at him in the same season.
Much as you should not taunt Happy Fun Ball, you should not play zone coverage against the Texans if you can avoid it.
The standout part of Johnson's game -- despite coming out of Miami as a rather raw physical specimen of a receiver -- is that he is exceptional at reading coverages. I've done four of these pieces now. While most receivers play better against zone coverage, nobody I've researched beats up on zones like Johnson does. He settles down in the right spot so fast that he can even draw targets when he's not the first read.
4. Yes, quarterback was a problem
Andrew Potter, who helps me compile this data, pointed out something interesting to me. He counted at least five targets where Johnson was open early in his route, but by the time the quarterback finally threw the ball to him, it was too late.
And it wasn't just that the quarterbacks were bad at this one area of the game. We've been over Schaub's deep ball issues already in this piece, but he had his share of puzzling balls in the short game too. His accuracy in general declined, not just his accuracy on deep passes. Case Keenum has a maddening tendency to put the ball up for grabs when there's nothing here. Keenum also battled accuracy issues in the short game, and had a problem moving on to his secondary reads.
Nothing changed for Andre Johnson last season. He was healthy enough to play 16 games for the second straight year, and scouts that claim that he has lost a step are not off base. It just doesn't matter. He's such a well-balanced receiver that he could afford to lose a step and still be one of the five best wideouts in the NFL. He's excellent at shielding the ball in traffic. He's still got all the physical tools that made him a high first-round pick when he came into the league.
All he needs is a quarterback and an offensive system that take advantage of his skills before it's too late. That's something that NFL scouts said in 2007. It's pretty sad that they can still say it now.
3 comments, Last at 22 Apr 2014, 1:31pm by Mr Shush