ALEX Week 15: Ben Roethlisberger's Risk Taking
by Scott Kacsmar
Ben Roethlisberger has essentially been leading ALEX on third down for the entire season. His aggressive style has paid off as the Steelers have been racking up points in franchise-record fashion. One of the ways Roethlisberger has stood out this year is the way he attacks on third-and-short (defined as 3 yards or less to go). Often a running down, Roethlisberger has used this situation to take deep shots to his wide receivers. This season, there have been five passes on third-and-short with an ALEX of at least 40, and that includes a Hail Mary listed below. Roethlisberger has three of them, completing two.
The overall success of Pittsburgh's offense and the willingness to attack in short-yardage situations has helped Roethlisberger to have the lowest average need yards on third down this season. His 6.5 average is a half-yard less than the next closest quarterback (Joe Flacco at 7.0 yards).
Keep in mind that Roethlisberger has missed more than four complete games, so we are talking about just 26 passes on third-and-short from him this year. But on those plays his ALEX is a whopping 12.7. The other 2015 quarterbacks average a 4.4 ALEX in that situation. Roethlisberger has been able to convert 61.5 percent of those plays, so he is making his aggressive style pay off. I wanted to look at the data from 2006-2014 to see just where his season stands in ALEX on third-and-short. As it turns out, a familiar name kept popping up.
|Highest ALEX on Third-and-Short, 2006-2014 (Min. 15 Passes)|
Roethlisberger's 12.7 ALEX could easily smash the previous record by Eli Manning in 2009, but it is Aaron Rodgers with three of the top five seasons. He has been the most aggressive quarterback on third-and-short in the last decade, and his results have usually justified the strategy. This season, Rodgers has struggled on third down in general, but his ALEX on third-and-short is still well above average at 5.9. The problem is he ranks 32nd in conversion rate (32.0 percent). In the offseason, we'll have time to look at this deeper with respect to field position and the scoring margin. Sometimes the essentialness of the first down trumps the possibility of a big play.
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As long as Roethlisberger continues his success, Steelers fans should not mind the occasional bomb on third-and-2. If anything, an interception in that situation will hurt less down the field than a short pass to a linebacker that never should have been thrown. Not to point to anything specific there…
Week 15's Most Conservative Plays
The Lowest ALEX
Teams: Dallas vs. New York Jets
Situation: third-and-30 at own 14, trailing 6-3 in second quarter with 14:14 left
Play: Matt Cassel pass complete to James Hanna for 17 yards
Air yards: minus-4
The night was not long for Matt Cassel, but he still found a way to take a 19-yard sack so he could throw a screen for his longest gain of the game. Passer rating just loved that drive. It is still hard to fathom how Cassel managed to throw an interception on an intentional grounding play.
A Notable Failure of the Week
Those negative-ALEX plays on fourth down are killers. With the game almost on the line, Brock Osweiler was very quick to check down to his running back, but the throw was off target and Ryan Shazier was right there in coverage anyway. Watching the play back, Emmanuel Sanders, who had a monster game against his former team, had a great look down the sideline in coverage with William Gay. Sanders usually gets his deep shots on quick throws anyway, and one there may have gone a long way in tying this game.
Osweiler quick to go checkdown on 4th-and-5. I think Sanders had a great shot vs. Gay down sideline pic.twitter.com/91fvuFyqXb
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 21, 2015
Week 15's Most Aggressive Plays
The Highest ALEX
The Hail Mary is not an aggressive call in this situation, though Detroit probably would not have expected it. It is a little unfortunate that Jeffery takes the hit for the target here, because this was thrown into a crowd a good 5 yards short of the end zone. Cutler may have put a little more air (and care) on the ball if this had been for all the marbles and not a first-half play.
Believe it or not, but Jimmy Clausen actually hit a Hail Mary for a touchdown before halftime to Kamar Aiken against the Chiefs. Four Chiefs watched Aiken catch the ball inside the 5-yard line and run into the end zone. They must have been blinded by those brutal uniforms the Ravens had on.
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A Notable Success of the Week
This is the kind of play that makes Arizona such a fun offense to watch this season. The game was still close, and a lot of teams in this situation would look for the short throw to move the chains, but Bruce Arians is always scheming to get players deep. Carson Palmer picked probably his best single-coverage option on the field and gave Michael Floyd a shot to make a play down the right sideline. Floyd pulled the ball in with one hand and got his knee down for a big 29-yard gain. Arizona ran in the score on the next play and never looked back on its way to a big win.
2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 15
The following table shows where each qualified quarterback (minimum 50 passes) ranks in ALEX on third down only. There are also rankings for DVOA, average need yards (ranked from highest to lowest), and conversion rate.
Next, ALEX is presented in splits by distance: short (1 to 3 yards), medium (4 to 7 yards) and long (8-plus yards). The colors indicate where a player is well above average (darker green) versus below average (darker red). Those conversion rates are also shown with a ranking.
The NFC West is something else here. Carson Palmer continues to have a fantastic season, while Russell Wilson has climbed to fourth in conversion rate with a pretty average ALEX approach. Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick were benched for obvious reasons, but Blaine Gabbert has still been dreadful for San Francisco too.
Note: these numbers are subject to change at season's end. The data on 2006-2014 is the same as what we use for stats like receiving plus-minus and YAC+, which excludes passes that are thrown away, batted at the line or when the quarterback was hit in motion. The 2015 data currently includes all passes, but game charting will filter out those passes that were not truly aimed or intentional.
For those new to this metric, it is called Air Less Expected, or ALEX for short. ALEX measures the average difference between how far a quarterback threw a pass (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. If a quarterback throws a pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-15, that would be minus-20 ALEX. The best application of ALEX is to look at third and fourth down when it's really crucial to get 100 percent of the need yards to extend the drive.