ALEX: Week 5
by Scott Kacsmar
We've been writing a lot in the last few months about a new metric 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.
The average ALEX on third down this season is plus-1.0, so the average third-down pass is being thrown one yard beyond the first-down marker (the "sticks"). Most quarterbacks have a positive ALEX, and the caliber of quarterbacks who are in the negative is usually very poor.
I wrote about this stat as "Air Minus Need Differential (AMND)" when looking at Zach Mettenberger in the offseason. That clunky name was also used in the Kansas City chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, which of course detailed the struggles Alex Smith has at being aggressive. That finally led to calling it ALEX, which we featured on ESPN Insider last week for the most aggressive and conservative quarterbacks since 2006.
Thanks to the growing interest from readers, we are starting a weekly ALEX feature here on FO. Starting next week, it will be a short feature each Monday afternoon. We'll look at the most significant ALEX plays from the week and update the rankings of qualified quarterbacks. 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. Eventually game charting will filter out those passes excluded in previous years, and correct any mistakes in the air yards data.
Week 5's Most Conservative Plays
The Lowest ALEX
Peyton Manning wasn't about to air out another pass to Charles Woodson, so the Broncos just went with a running back screen for an 8-yard gain. They were flagged for holding on the play, but Oakland obviously declined.
The Worst Play of the Week
Did Oakland lose track of the downs? It doesn't get more desperate than fourth-and-19 when you're down two scores in the final minutes. Yet the call was a screen to fullback Marcel Reece for a 4-yard gain. This is the worst ALEX play on fourth down in 2015, but what about on record?
Going back to 2006, Oakland's screen ranks as the 10th-lowest ALEX pass on fourth down. The 2008 Lions of 0-16 fame still hold the title belt. Against Jacksonville, Drew Stanton threw a 2-yard pass to Michael Gaines on fourth-and-34 for minus-32 ALEX. The play gained 13 yards.
Since 2006, on fourth down with at least 10 yards to go, there have been 18 passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Only one pass converted for a first down, and it was a fake field goal by the 2012 Packers against the Bears. Here is the breakdown of converting passes thrown on fourth-and-10 or longer since 2006:
- Thrown at or behind the LOS: 1-for-18 (5.6 percent)
- Thrown beyond the LOS, but short of the sticks: 39-for-154 (25.3 percent)
- Thrown at or beyond the sticks (positive ALEX): 118-for-341 (34.6 percent)
Come on, Oakland.
Week 5's Most Aggressive Plays
The Highest ALEX
Teams: Pittsburgh at San Diego
Situation: first-and-10 at own 31, trailing 20-17 in fourth quarter with 2:00 left
Play: Quarterback: Michael Vick to Darrius Heyward-Bey, incomplete
Air yards: 54
Michael Vick was our most aggressive ALEX quarterback in last week's ESPN Insider study. He led the league in ALEX on third down in 2006 and 2010. The Steelers mostly used him conservatively before Vick started unleashing bombs in the fourth quarter. This was a first-down play right out of the two-minute warning, but Vick underthrew the pass. Vick also had the week's third-highest ALEX play (plus-40) when he threw a Hail Mary to Darrius Heyward-Bey that was intercepted before halftime.
Speaking of Hail Mary throws, Brian Hoyer had the week's highest ALEX (plus-37) on a third or fourth-down play when he threw a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown on fourth-and-5 to Jaelen Strong before halftime against the Colts.
The Best Play of the Week
Teams: Pittsburgh at San Diego
Situation: first-and-10 at own 28, trailing 17-10 in fourth quarter with 7:55 left
Play: Michael Vick to Markus Wheaton for a 72-yard touchdown
Air yards: 42
It's just a coincidence our plays came from the same game again. Earlier in the quarter, Vick's first great deep ball of the night connected with Markus Wheaton on a double move to beat Brandon Flowers for a stunning 72-yard touchdown. The Steelers had produced three points on 10 drives prior to that point, and Ben Roethlisberger reportedly was the one who called this play for Vick. Of all the unexpected one-play touchdown drives, this would rank up there.
2015 ALEX Rankings Thru Week 5
Finally, here is our first weekly table to show where each qualified quarterback (minimum 20 passes) ranks in ALEX on third downs only (does not include fourth down like some other FO stats for third down do). There are also rankings for DYAR, average need yards (ranked from highest to lowest) and conversion rate.
Ben Roethlisberger's league-leading plus-9.4 ALEX is certainly not sustainable, but he is first in conversion rate while Michael Vick is currently last. Alex Smith is naturally last in ALEX, but he is really outdoing himself this year at minus-6.3. He has also been in the longest third-down situations, which only feeds Kansas City's conservatism.