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.
02 Apr 2009
by Mike Tanier
Walkthrough completed the quiz "Which NFL quarterback are you?" with the result Bruce Gradkowski. Take the Quiz!
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Question 1: How much jewelry do you usually wear?
a) Three rings.
b) One ring.
c) One old ring from about 13 years ago.
d) No rings, not even ring tones.
Question 2: Which of the following do you enjoy doing the most?
a) Nailing supermodels.
b) Filming commercials.
c) Pondering retirement.
d) Skipping offseason workouts.
e) Electrocuting animals.
Question 3: Your worst enemy in the world would call you...
a) A guy who lost his competitive edge when he got married.
b) An overrated choke artist.
c) You have transcended the need for mortal enemies.
d) "My quarterback."
Question 4: You usually confront your problems by...
a) Throwing a screen to Wes Welker.
b) Creating an elaborate last-second plan to circumvent the problem.
d) Ignoring phone calls.
e) Running around in circles.
Question 5: Where do you see yourself in five years?
d) Detroit, Tampa ... anywhere but Denver.
e) Reality television.
Now, invite five other people to take the quiz! Comb your friend list and select five people to whom you can admit -- without feeling creepy or socially backward -- that you sit around taking random online quizzes. Then make them uncomfortable by inviting them to do the same, even though your real-world relationship with these so-called friends hasn't progressed beyond the "how you doin'?" stage.
You'll have to score your own quizzes and post your own results, folks. But if you answered "d" a lot, you may want to call a realtor.
What do Jason Witten, Billy Miller, and Tony Scheffler have in common? Besides the fact that they are tight ends, smart guy?
The answer: They were among the best tight ends in the league at running the seamer last year.
The seamer (or seam route) is a deep pass pattern up the middle of the field, usually run by the tight end or a slot receiver. The receiver's goal is to attack the lane between two zone defenders. Even if the receiver doesn't get open, he creates space over the middle of the field by forcing the deep safeties to cover him.
You'll often read that a tight end possesses the "speed to stretch the seam," but there's no real way to measure how good a tight end is at running this particular route. That doesn't mean we cannot try. At Football Outsiders, we're awash in play-by-play data, as well as the results of our Game Charting projects. We don't specifically label plays as "seamers," but the official play-by-play categorizes each pass by location: short left, right, or middle; deep left, right or middle. It's a simple matter to sift through the data to find every pass thrown to a tight end in the deep middle of the field. Not all of these passes are seamers, and not every seam route will get labeled as a "deep middle" pass, but the data will give us a sense of how well the tight end works that area of the field.
Here are the numbers for all of the tight ends who were thrown five or more passes in the deep middle of the field in 2008:
|Top Tight Ends on Deep Middle Routes, 2008|
These are tiny data samples, so we shouldn't draw any major conclusions. The data can best be used to corroborate some opinions (Jason Witten is good) and make minor adjustments to other opinions (maybe Robert Royal is good at something).
Some surprising names were left off the list. Antonio Gates, for example, was just 1-of-3 in the deep middle of the field, for 25 yards. Kellen Winslow was 3-of-4 for 64 yards. Greg Olson was 2-of-2 for 40 yards. Tony Gonzalez was just 1-of-2. I checked the "deep right" and "deep left" data, and none of these guys were targeted deep very often last year. There are a variety of reasons: Winslow had quarterback issues, Gonzo is getting old, Gates played on a team with several deep-threat receivers. Again, we must be wary of the data sample: Only three or four passes separate these tight ends from the middle of the list. Players like Gates and Winslow would rank near the top of the chart if we look at two- or three-year windows: Winslow, for example, was 9-of-15 for 207 yards in the deep middle in 2007. Long-term analysis is a project for later in the spring, perhaps in a publication.
The data does add a little color to our knowledge of each team's offensive schemes. We're all familiar with Clark's and Witten's games, but it's easy to overlook how often the Saints throw over the middle to their tight ends. Miller caught eight seamers, and Jeremy Shockey was 3-of-4 over the middle for 72 yards. The Broncos loved to throw seamers last year as well. Both teams ran wide-open offenses with lots of empty backfield sets; with wide receivers running tunnel screens and working the short routes, it's easy to see how a good tight end would be able to slip into a coverage gap. And of course, both teams threw a million passes, so we would expect high totals in every passing category.
The presence of players like Davis, Lewis, Miller, and Shiancoe near the top of the list isn't surprising when you realize that these tight ends were often the best receivers on the field for their teams. Again, we can't draw massive conclusions from seven passes. Instead, we'll use the list as mild support for non-controversial conclusions: Miller is a pretty darn good player on a bad team, Davis is a talented disappointment, the Jaguars really need better receivers.
One last factoid before we move on: the average pass to a tight end over the deep middle travels about 18 to 22 yards in the air. That's confirmed by the 2007 Game Charting data. It's rare to see a pass thrown 30 yards to a tight end, and almost all 30-plus-yard receptions by tight ends are catch-and-run situations. That makes sense: tight ends like Gates, Witten, and Clark are fast enough to threaten a safety and force him to back up, but they aren't fast enough to beat a safety in a footrace to the deep post.
|Figure 1: Strong TE Seam|
The data above showed that even the best tight ends are only thrown about a dozen deep passes over the middle. So why is seam-splitting speed so darn important?
The answer lies in the split-second timing of pass route combinations. The tight end may not be the primary target when he runs the seam, but must be able to pull the deep safeties out of position. The threat of a pass up the deep seam is as important as the actual reception.
Figure 1 shows a route combination designed to beat a Cover-2 defense. The wide receiver, running an in-route at about 12 yards, is the primary target. The running back leaks into the flat to occupy the cornerback. The tight end runs a deep route directly at the safety. As drawn, this isn't technically a seam route, but it's a similar route with the same goal. In this example, the tight end is a speedster in the Gates/Witten class.
With a fast tight end running up the middle, the deep safety on the left must start to backpedal. The left linebacker, who's responsible for covering the tight end in the underneath zone, trades him off once he races through. Neither the safety nor the linebacker is in position to defend the in-route. Those three steps of backpedal by the safety make a huge difference in a play that takes about 2.5 seconds to unfold.
|Figure 2: Weak TE Seam|
In Figure 2, the tight end is much slower on his route. Here, the safety isn't forced to backpedal immediately, and the linebacker can take longer drifting back in underneath coverage. Both defenders are in much better position to make a play on the in-route. If the offensive coordinator doesn't feel that his tight end is fast enough to threaten that safety, he may have to scrap this play; without the backpedal, the safety could easily jump this route for an interception.
So seam-splitting speed is important, even if the tight end doesn't get the ball very much. That's why guys like L.J. Smith and Jerramy Stevens keep getting jobs: They may drop passes, fumble, and make mistakes, but coordinators want their downfield speed to open up the rest of the offense.
Would you like a not-so-inside look at what makes some of this year's prospects tick? If so, check out Imatopprospect.com.
The concept is simple. Six highly-touted draftees -- K-State quarterback Josh Freeman, USC linebacker Brian Cushing, Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler, Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, and Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin -- join forces to blog about their pre-draft experiences in one convenient location. The sits is powered by "Ning," the latest social networking Facebook/Twitter wannabe, and is no doubt the brainchild of the players' agents.
As you might expect, this is hardly an unfiltered, uncensored look at the players' lives. Most of the blog entries are safe, tame, and bland; there's little doubt that an agent or handler checked each one before going live. The players work hard to be upbeat and to self-promote without sounding cocky. Each recounts the highlights of his offseason with peppy-but-measured enthusiasm.
"I guess it's safe to say that I absolutely crushed my Pro Day!" wrote Maybin on March 20. "I ran A 4.5 forty, I had a 10'10" broad jump, I had a 40.5" vertical, and I believe I excelled in my drills and interviews." Heyward-Bey was also upbeat. "Pro Day went smooth ... I went 14 for 15 on catches so I'd say that's a pretty solid day on the field." Freeman expressed eerily similar sentiments. "Pro Day was yesterday and I killed it! In a good way. Or so I hear." It would be interesting to see one of these kids explain away a 5.88 forty time or a shouting match with a scout, but don't hold your breath. For the record, the players' optimism was more or less matched by the independent opinions on various scouting sites.
There's a little more to the blogs than log rolling and smoke blowing. Freeman tracks his team visits and interviews: a workout with the Rams, dinner with the Jets coaches, a talk with Mike Shula in Jacksonville, and so on. Freeman's comings and goings can be tracked in local newspapers, and Freeman doesn't discuss many particulars of the meetings, but it's helpful to have all of his travels outlined in one place. USC linebacker Brian Cushing talks about his music ("Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Jay-Z") and his diet ("6:30: a turkey souvlaki Greek sandwich wrap with celery. 8:30: salmon with a baked potato, with a little butter and broccoli"). Heyward-Bay admits that a prospect's life isn't all workouts and souvlaki. "My new found interest is Guitar Hero. I brought it 3 days ago and I'm already hooked. I've destroyed the medium and hard level. Now I have to tackle expert. Any takers?"
Cushing's diet and Heyward-Bay's guitar heroism may find themselves woven into my draft commentary. That's the danger these kids face: Anything they say can and will be used against them by hungry journalists. The little details of the blog help to humanize these prospects, which is a wonderful thing: Without the butter-broccoli potato, Cushing is just another height-weight-40 time with a few hours of game video and a mound of scouting jargon. But even benign details could come back to haunt a prospect, which is why these personal blogs are so oddly impersonal. If one of these kids were to do something rash, like post a photo of a girlfriend or make too-boastful a statement about his talents, the hyenas would swarm.
Sites like Imatopprospect.com will become far more common in the years to come. Prospects are forced to spout thousands of self-evident soundbytes before and after the draft. Instead of forcing them to say "I just want to get ready to help whatever team drafts me" a thousand times, they can type it once, add a few details about their favorite video games or sandwiches, then get back to lifting and running. Fans can keep track of their favorite players, writers can grab the tidbits or info they need, and agents can breathe easier knowing that they've streamlined the flow of quasi-information.
Plus, you do get those moments that remind you just how stressful the draft experience is for these 20-something kids. "Doing these personal team workouts and sitting around the house is all I do now. My friends are on spring break in warm weather states and I'm sitting in the house on call," wrote Heyward-Bey. "The only time I have to talk about how steep and rugged it is climbing up the mountain is when I reach the top," wrote Maybin.
These are young men in the midst of a grueling, sometimes dehumanizing process. We shouldn't begrudge them a little Guitar Hero.
I still haven't exhausted my supply of unused play diagrams from last year. In honor of Jay Cutler's imminent departure from Denver, this week's diagram features one of his biggest 2008 highlights: a 36-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley against the Jets.
|Figure 3: Broncos Stack Cross|
The Jets are clearly showing blitz on this third-and-2 pass, and they run a stunt with a safety and linebacker on the offensive left. Their likely goal in a short yardage situation is to blow up any tomfoolery on that side, like a sweep or draw by Peyton Hillis (22) or a tunnel screen to Brandon Marshall (19). In fact, the Broncos appear to be setting up some kind of quick pass: Marshall motions toward the formation presnap, then runs underneath Stokley, who stems toward the cornerback as if he is preparing to block or run interference.
This play is successful because Marshall and Stokley sell their routes, and because the Broncos keep seven blockers in for protection. Hillis and the tight end create a safe rolling pocket, and Cutler can slide to his right to find a throwing lane. Marshall's feint worked perfectly: The safety covering Stokley moved forward to cover or tackle Marshall on the short route. When Marshall crossed back under Stokley, it created momentary confusion, and the safety was in no position to get deep. Good design, good read and throw by Cutler, good execution, touchdown.
Cutler will be gone by September, but plays like this will still be a part of the Broncos attack. Josh McDaniels was never shy about drawing up screens and fake screens in New England, and he'll have the raw materials to work with in Marshall, Eddie Royal, Tony Scheffler, and other weapons. If anything, the Broncos offense may grow even more spread-oriented than it was in the last days of Mike Shanahan.
All McDaniels needs is a quarterback who can run the system. He appeared to have one in Cutler. Cutler rode the hype roller coaster last year: He was a magazine cover boy in October, but the detractors lined up around the block when the Broncos missed the playoffs. Cutler had the worst 4,500-yard, 25-touchdown season in history, which is like being the ugliest centerfold or the dumbest nuclear engineer. DVOA and DYAR certainly thought he did pretty well. Cutler has his faults, but McDaniels' eagerness to alienate him appears to be inexperience/hubris/foolhardiness at this point. Young quarterbacks who can throw for 4,500 yards don't grow on trees, and they aren't sitting around in the middle of the draft board, either.
What will you be doing for the draft this year? Watching every pick with breathless anticipation? Following online or on the portable device of your choice? Actually enjoying the spring weather, knowing that all of the information you need will be available by Sunday evening?
If you answered A and B, then be sure to hang out on the Internet with me. I'll be in the Big Apple, live-blogging the big event for The New York Times. That's right: Walkthrough Takes Manhattan! I'll be following the picks, trades, and news, mixing scouting, jokes, and Football Outsiders wisdom all through the first two rounds.
I'm not the only FO writer blogging the big event. We'll be making a few more announcements over the next two weeks, but I'm only exaggerating a little when I say that FO will take over the Internet that weekend. There's no reason to be bored between picks; we'll keep you surfing, reading, and chatting all weekend long.
In other news, this is a great time to join Walkthrough Readers on Facebook. I'll be posting a few new topics on the message board. First, I want to know about your draft-day habits. How many of you watch the whole draft? Just the first round? Do you fold laundry and pay bills while watching the late rounds? Do you have a party? Drink? Play drinking games? Do you think watching the draft is ridiculous? Talk to other readers, and I may use some of the discussions in a future Walkthrough.
Second, I am looking for gamers, and I don't mean guys who play a little Madden. I am looking for Strat-o-Matic players, Statis Pro Players, and so on: guys who still harbor a love for tabletop or text-based football games. June is coming, and there isn't much real football to talk about during the dog days, so I'm looking for some old-school dice rollers and card flippers to share their experiences. Grab an old APBA card, roll a 66, wonder why linemen have a "kicker" rating, and get in the game!
33 comments, Last at 14 Apr 2009, 4:04pm by German Physicist