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.
03 Sep 2009
by Mike Tanier
Now that Jay Cutler is the Bears quarterback, offensive coordinator Ron Turner can run the kind of offense he wants to run. He no longer has to scheme to hide the weaknesses of Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton and he has a full complement of solid-if-unspectacular weapons in his offensive arsenal. While Turner will always be among the league's more conservative play-callers, the Bears offense should be much more attack-oriented than it has been in years.
I watched tape of the last two Bears preseason games to learn more about what the team plans to do offensively this year. Two things stood out in the game tape: the ways Turner uses his base personnel in unusual formations to create mismatches, and the rhythm passing dimension that Cutler adds to the Bears offense.
While fullback Jason McKie is a nominal starter, the Bears usually deploy a two-tight end base personnel grouping: running back Matt Forte, tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, and receivers Devin Hester and Earl Bennett. This grouping gives Turner great formation flexibility. Olsen can line up at tight end, in the slot, at wide receiver, or even at fullback. Forte is effective as a back or a slot receiver. Clark is enough of a receiving threat to challenge defenders from the flex position. Hester must be accounted for by the deep safeties wherever he lines up. Turner can switch from power formations to a spread attack without changing personnel, and defenses get in trouble when trying to fight the Bears base package with a standard 4-3 defense.
|Figure 1: Hester Curl Route|
Against the Giants in the second preseason game, Turner did a great job playing mix-and-match with his base personnel. Figure 1 shows Jay Cutler in shotgun, with Olsen split wide right and Hester in the slot. Despite the pass-oriented formation, the Giants are in a standard 4-3 defense, showing Cover-2 as a pre-snap read. This is preseason, of course, so the Giants didn't game-plan extensively to stop the Bears. In a real game, they may have called a more aggressive defense. But it's likely that they would have stayed in a base 4-3 personnel grouping: Based on the players the Bears had on the field, the Giants couldn't determine any run-pass tendencies when they broke the huddle.
The Bears run a simple pass play, with Hester and Forte running flat routes. Clark wipes the outside linebacker responsible for Hester in man or Cover-2 zone, but it really doesn't matter, as no linebacker is going to cover or tackle Hester in the open field. It's an easy read for Cutler, and Hester turns upfield for first-down yardage.
|Figure 2: Olsen Bubble Screen|
On the next play, Turner deploys the same personnel in a trips-right formation. Here, Olsen is a slot receiver between Clark and Hester. (There's a mistake in the diagram. Hester should be a yard behind the line of scrimmage. It's preseason for me, too!) Again, the Giants respond with a 4-3 base package. Olsen is now uncovered on the line of scrimmage, so the Bears run a bubble screen. Olsen drifts away from the formation, and Cutler floats him the football while Hester blocks his cornerback. After the catch, it's Olsen against a linebacker: another mismatch.
The Olsen bubble screen may have been a sight adjustment at the line of scrimmage; That is, Cutler and Olsen may have altered their routes at the line when they saw the coverage. Whether it was an adjustment, it's an example of something Cutler does very well: making quick reads and delivering the ball immediately on short passes. Rex Grossman was horrible at line-of-scrimmage adjustments. Kyle Orton was better, but his release was slower and his accuracy less reliable. Cutler delivers these short passes on time and on target.
|Figure 3: Olsen Out Route|
On the next drive, Turner again deploys a trips-right formation, this time with Cutler in shotgun. Once again, the Giants are in a 4-3 defense. The Bears attack downfield on this play, with Clark, Olsen, and Hester running leveled routes. Hester runs a fly pattern, and his great speed forces the safety to stay deep. Clark runs a curl underneath, with Olsen running a deep out at about 15 yards. The Giants linebacker (Mathias Kiwanuka) gets stuck in a no-man's land between Clark and Olsen, and Cutler fires the ball to the wide-open Olsen.
Again, the Giants didn't game-plan specifically for the Bears. In a real game, defensive coordinators will scheme to protect pass-rushing linebackers like Kiwanuka so they don't have to defend players like Olsen in deep zones. Both Olsen and Forte, however, are fast enough to beat all but the best linebackers, and Hester's presence requires defenses to keep safeties deep. Defenses may go nickel when the Bears deploy two tight ends. When that happens, it will open up opportunities for the running game, and it still may not be enough to stop the Bears' underneath passing attack.
|Figure 4: Olsen Seam Route|
Let's look at a few other formations and plays the Bears run from their two-tight end grouping. In Figure 4, the Bears start with trips left, but Forte motions to the right side to empty the backfield. The Broncos adjust by splitting an outside linebacker to cover Forte. This is a good sign that the Broncos are in man coverage. That means another linebacker is isolated on Olsen, with deep safety support from Brian Dawkins. Olsen releases wide and runs up the numbers, beating his defender almost immediately. Cutler's throw is perfectly timed: Olsen makes the catch before Dawkins can arrive. The versatility of the base personnel allowed Turner to empty the backfield and create an easy read for Cutler. Cutler's touch and timing made it easy for him to throw into a tight window.
|Figure 5: Bennett Flat Route|
Figure 5 shows the Bears in a single setback formation with four tight receivers. Notice that the tight ends are aligned outside the wide receivers. The primary advantage of this formation is that it can force the defense to cover wide receivers with underneath defenders like safeties or linebackers. On this play, Turner wants to keep the cornerbacks away from Bennett and Hester, so he has Clark and Olsen run corner routes. Bennett and Hester start inside before working the flats. The Broncos are in zone coverage, but Olsen's speed forces the cornerback to backpedal far enough to create room in the flat for Bennett. A quick read and strike by Cutler results in easy yardage.
|Figure 6: Forte Trail Route|
Figure 6 is a play you saw on Sunday night's highlight reel: Forte's touchdown at the end of the second quarter. Once again, the Bears are using their two-tight end grouping, this time in a shotgun formation with receivers paired on the left and right. The Broncos are now in a nickel defense, and the pre-snap read suggests a Cover-4: They plan to blanket the end zone with zone defenders.
We'll call this a "trail" route combination. Hester runs a drag route. Forte leaves the backfield, threatens the flat briefly, then follows Hester. Clark runs a cross in the back of the end zone to force the safeties to stay deep. This route is designed to pull the underneath zone defenders away from Forte. It works perfectly: The linebackers are forced to cover Hester as he runs through their zones, leaving them out of position when Forte runs the same route a moment later. The Broncos' pass rush nearly disrupts the play, but Cutler rolls away and tosses a strike to Forte.
The Bears' versatility has another distinct advantage: It makes it easy for Turner and Cutler to run the no-huddle. The Bears ran a few successful no-huddle series against the Giants. They were probably reluctant to try it in front of the hostile Denver crowd, but the no-huddle offense could be an excellent weapon for the Bears. They can spread the field early in series, coaxing the defense into a nickel or dime package, then shift into a power formation and pound the ball without making any substitutions. Or they can run early, get the defense into a 4-3 package, then look to mismatch Olsen and Forte against linebackers. With rhythm passing, the no-huddle threat, and dynamic weapons like Hester, Forte, and Olsen growing into their roles, the Bears offense will be unpredictable and exciting. That's something you don't hear every year.
Not Another Johnson: We all make fun of Chad Ochocinco for changing his name. We really should be thanking him. There's a great receiver named Calvin Johnson and a top running back named Chris Johnson, plus Charles Johnson, Charlie Johnson, another Chris Johnson, Curtis Johnson, Chad Jackson, and Chevis Jackson. That's too many C. Johnsons and C. Jacksons for one league.
When looking over your opponent's fantasy lineup on Sunday morning, the name C. Johnson used to only narrow things down. Sure, it only took another second or two to isolate the correct Johnson, but then you had to write an explicit note to yourself before heading to the sports bar. "Receivers: Steve Smith (Carolina, NOT New York) and Calvin Johnson (Lions, NOT Chad the nutjob from Cincinnati). When Ochocinco unveiled his new name last year, long before it was stitched on his jersey, you probably started writing his name as "Ocho" or just "85," if you had reason to write it at all. "Ochocinco" causes far less confusion than "Johnson" or "C.Johnson." With one act of name-changing lunacy, Ochocinco joined the elite group of players we can easily identify by one or two syllables or characters.
If only Ray Lewis had changed his name to Cinq-deux in 1999, articles about the Ravens' Super Bowl season wouldn't be so tedious to read.
A Proofreading Appeel: The people who print the peel-off stickers for fantasy football drafts need to work on their quality control. In one recent draft, we discovered some new players named Marcus Colston and Shonn Green who may be related to the Saints wide receiver and Jets running back.
Now, I am the last person with room to talk when it comes to spelling (last week's Walkthrough, filled with obscure backup defenders, nearly killed our copy editors), but I defend myself by pointing out that a typical article contains hundreds of names, facts, stats and Justice League references -- all of which must be proofread before a deadline. The stickers come from a database that contains only names, positions, and teams. In Colston's case, the company must not have proofread their database for several years; either that, or they re-enter all the names every year, which is crazy.
On the plus side, Colston is no longer listed at tight end.
But Can I Start Mike Vrabel at Tight End? While on the subject of fantasy football: If you play in an Individual Defensive Players (IDP) league, the increase in 3-4 defenses may be driving you crazy. The biggest problem this season is that defensive ends are moving to linebacker, but the fantasy services are listing them as defensive linemen. Aaron Kampman and Elvis Dumervil are two important examples. Both Kampman and Dumervil are officially linebackers this year, but the sites I subscribe to consider them linemen.
A linebacker's statistics are very different than a lineman's. A linebacker makes many more tackles and is much more likely to record an interception than a lineman is. The problem isn't that severe when a pass-rushing 4-3 end becomes a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker, but it's still a problem. Kampman had 62 total tackles last year, a high total for a lineman. He could easily have 75 to 80 this season to go with about 10 sacks. Plug that kind of production into a defensive line slot on an IDP team, and you have a big advantage over someone using true defensive linemen.
In a few years, some IDP leagues may want to designate a spot for the "hybrid" or "bandit" so each team can select its own end/linebacker tweener. By then, every fantasy team may have its own "Wildcat" too, so commissioners won't have to field questions about whether Pat White can fill a receiver's slot.
Curses: One more fantasy observation. Our "Curse of 370" theory of running back overuse gets a lot of press, which means it attracts a lot of criticism. Most of the criticism is of the knee-jerk variety: people who just hear the slogan "Curse of 370" and think that we're naïve about the forces, like regression to the mean, that affect a running back's statistics. Other critics think that the term Curse of 370 is a little too pat, which it is: If you evaluate complicated ideas based simply on slogans, headlines, and sound bites, you'll find the whole world pretty pat.
Michael Turner is the current 370 poster boy and curse skeptics are predicting a banner year for him. He's ranked in the top five by nearly every fantasy service, and the only draft I've seen him slip out of the top five in was the Football Outsiders office draft. (Results to be published later today!) I've read a few "never mind the silly curse" remarks about Turner around the Internet, which warms my heart, because it means the writer is reacting to our research.
If you don't believe the Curse of 370, think it's sloppy research or that our puny stats can't measure the heart of a competitor, fine. But are you sure you want to make Turner your object lesson? A player who had one great year on a worst-to-first Cinderella team? A player with a great (though currently injured) backup in Jerious Norwood? A running back with no receiving value, which will take him out of some games when the Falcons fall behind? A player whose team acquired Tony Gonzalez, a great goal-line receiver who could leech five touchdowns from Turner just by being himself?
Our projections for Turner hover around 1,200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, depending on which version of KUBIAK you download. We don't predict that his leg will fall off from overuse. We don't think he'll retire in October. We think the Falcons offense will decline, that Matt Ryan will throw more passes, that Gonzo will take away some goal-line touchdowns, and yes, that Turner will be a little less effective. Put them all together and his numbers will drop significantly. It's not voodoo. It's not junk science. It's common sense. Ignore it at your peril.
Check out the Extremities on the Hottie: What's the antonym for "extremities?" Shinebox McDaniels blazed a whole new trail of disinformation on Sunday night when he refused to provide any information about Broncos injuries, describing them only as ailments in the "lower extremities" or "upper extremities."
Putting aside the fetishized secrecy of the injury updates (coming soon: "We can neither confirm nor deny that Eddie Royal has elbows."), Shinebox has painted himself into a corner because he has no way to describe an injury to the torso. Sure, he could say that a player has an injury in his "midsection," but that hews close to actual information, and it doesn't drip with enough contempt for the media and fans. We need something vague yet bitingly disdainful.
Let's coin a new phrase -- "incrmities" -- for use exclusively in Broncos injury reports. A Google search resulted in zero matches, which is impressive in itself, so the word is ours for the taking. It's awkward, vague, and almost totally useless, putting it on a par with the word "impactful." I hope it will be a hit. All it will take is a few cracked Kyle Orton ribs.
Next week, I'll develop a few swine flu euphemisms for the Dolphins, who hopefully don't develop swine flu.
OK, let me practice: N period F period L period.
Wow, those periods do make it look more important, more timeless, more ... I dunno, fit to print.
Those periods can only mean one thing: The game previews you used to enjoy every week in Walkthrough are moving to a new home, The New York Times.
This is a win-win-win for Walkthrough fans. The game previews will be available free online on Friday, so all you have to do is click the "FO in the Media" link in the box on the top right of the FO home page and you are there. All of the other stuff you love about Walkthrough -- diagrams, jokes, Babylon 5 references -- will appear absolutely free here on Football Outsiders. And I get paid twice for content that ran as one big article last year; that's the third win.
Just to clarify, here's where you will find all the Walkthrough-related content you love during the 2009 season:
A pick in a Giants-Cowboys Game: New York Times.
A diagram of an Eli Manning touchdown: Walkthrough.
A brief joke comparing the Packers 2008 season to a Final Destination movie: New York Times.
A 3,000-word parody combining The Canterbury Tales, Star Trek III, and the Chan Gailey firing: Walkthrough.
An investigative report on the impact of refinery waste on the fishing industry in Bunderthut Bay, Alaska: New York Times, though probably not in my article.
A somewhat apologetic explanation of why the Eagles rank first in DVOA despite an 0-6 record and the start of the Tyler Thigpen era: Football Outsiders, though probably not Walkthrough.
Simple enough, right? So stop back early and often. I'll be the guy chained to the laptop!
50 comments, Last at 08 Sep 2009, 11:35am by LnGrrrR