Film Room: Derek Carr

Film Room: Derek Carr
Film Room: Derek Carr
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

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Arguably the most impressive offense in the NFL right now belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals aren't getting great quarterback play from Andy Dalton, but they have built a supporting cast around their quarterback that is allowing him to be extremely productive. It's a supporting cast that is both versatile and deep, with a coaching staff that understands how to play to its strengths both as a whole and in terms of using specific individuals. Even when Dalton plays poorly, they can still put up points and yards against good defenses because of their ability to exploit defenses in so many ways. Dalton hasn't played poorly this year, he has mostly been a solid player, but his production has vastly surpassed his performances.

While the Oakland Raiders aren't on the level of the Bengals, that appears to be the direction in which they are heading.

The Raiders are an unexpected 3-3 after seven weeks of the regular season. Jack Del Rio's team is on the precipice of competing in the playoff race over the second half of the season and everyone is talking about Derek Carr. Carr has seemingly taken the next step after an underwhelming rookie season. He is throwing the ball less often, but averaging more than 2.1 yards per attempt more than last season while completing 7.7 percent more of his passes. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a very impressive 11-3.

Like with the Bengals, though, it would be a mistake to focus too much on the quarterback. Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie has built a very impressive offense around his Carr, an offense that has provided the quality of pass protection and playmakers of which few teams can boast. The young quarterback has most definitely improved during his second season, but not to the degree that his numbers suggest.

As a rookie, Carr had problems taking care of the football. He didn't have a bad touchdown-to-interception ratio, but was one of the worst players tracked in my Interceptable Passes Project. His poor decision-making and accuracy, a product of ill-disciplined footwork, meant that he was repeatedly putting the ball at risk despite playing in a conservative offense behind an outstanding offensive line.

This season, Carr has been making better decisions and playing with better footwork to better take care of the football. His consistency in those areas has allowed him to be very productive in an offense that doesn't often ask him to play under pressure or push the ball downfield.

The setup of the offense is reflected in Carr's pass chart for the first seven games of the season. Every attempt he has made (except for spikes, intentional throwaways, and passes tipped at the line of scrimmage) is reflected by either a red cross or green tick. Red crosses are inaccurate passes while green ticks are accurate passes. As the chart shows, a huge percentage of Carr's passes come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. A lot of this is by design in the scheme, but also because Carr rushes to get rid of the ball so he checks down from a clean pocket more often than he holds it against pressure to make downfield reads.

Both of these aspects of the offense existed last year as Carr was frequently checking the ball down and previous offensive coordinator Greg Olson put the same emphasis on safer throws. However, this season, the Raiders' skill positions are better suited to turn those shorter throws into valuable gains. Promoting Latavius Murray to the starting lineup, drafting Amari Cooper, and signing a rejuvenated Michael Crabtree has made the offense as a whole dramatically more explosive.

According to Sports Info Solutions game charting, 801 of Carr's 1,460 passing yards this season have come after the catch. That's 54.9 percent of his total yardage coming after the receiver has caught the ball, the fifth-highest percentage of any quarterback in the league.

Against the San Diego Chargers this past Sunday, the Raiders' reliance on yards after the catch was highlighted. Carr threw three touchdown passes in the game, but two of those came on screen plays and accounted for 77 of his 289 yards.

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Cooper has played a huge role in elevating Carr's yards after the catch. Cooper has gained 519 receiving yards this season, including 292 with the ball in his hands. San Diego running back Danny Woodhead is the only player in the league with more yards after catch this season. The fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft, Cooper has surpassed expectations despite some notable drops because of his ability to create yards both on the ground and in the air. In the above play, Cooper accumulated 53 yards after the catch for a 52-yard touchdown reception.

It was a well-designed, perfectly executed screen play by all involved. Cooper sold a vertical release at the beginning of the play before working back to his quarterback. He had space to run because of his release, while slot receiver Seth Roberts worked outside to account for his man. The other initial defender was being accounted for by tight end Mychal Rivera, while two offensive linemen released into space to act as lead blockers for Cooper downfield.

Cooper set up his first blocker with a perfectly timed cut. From there he was accelerating to space, but still showed off the awareness and athleticism to recognize the recovering defender from the outside and cut back against his momentum. That cut allowed him to trot into the end zone for a touchdown that was made to look all too easy.

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Cooper was expected to be explosive, but the Raiders likely signed Michael Crabtree more in hope than expectation. The 28-year old former first-round pick had watched his career continuously decline with the San Francisco 49ers over recent years. Poor health and a bad situation combined to make Crabtree an unimpactful player. In Oakland, he is playing faster. His refined route running is more prevalent, his ball skills are more consistent, and his burst is more apparent. He has caught 33 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns with 89 yards after the catch -- 25 of which came on the above play against the Chargers.

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Again, this is a perfectly executed screen. It is a similar play call to the one that led to Cooper's score. Crabtree sells the downfield route before working back infield behind his slot receiver. He is in space with multiple blockers ahead of him. Crabtree makes one defender miss before finding his way into the end zone for a relatively easy score. This isn't a common play for Crabtree -- he is better working downfield than taking underneath passes for big gains -- but he can do it. He ranks 90th in receiving yards in the NFL so far this season, a low number for a starting receiver but not low for the Raiders. That is because Oakland has three other players who have more YAC than Crabtree: Murray, Cooper, and Marcel Reece.

Carr has 193 pass attempts this season, including 21 screen plays. That's a rate of 10.9 percent, the seventh-highest percentage in the league. Only five teams have gained more yards on screens than Oakland, while only one team has more touchdowns. (Again, stats from Sports Info Solutions charting.) The Raiders aren't just a YAC-based offense on screen plays though. Carr has 569 yards after the catch on non-screen plays; that is more total YAC than nine quarterbacks who have at least 70 pass attempts. Murray, Reece, and Roy Helu have the most YAC for the Raiders outside of Cooper and Crabtree. This is because of Carr's tendency to check the ball down quickly combined with their ability to create yards in space.

Football Outsiders' own Scott Kacsmar has recently begun looking at where quarterbacks throw the ball on third down this season with his weekly ALEX updates. Kacsmar ranks quarterbacks from those who throw the ball past the first down marker to those who throw the ball short of the first down marker. So far this season, Carr ranks in the bottom third in the league in terms of where the ball lands, but he still has the seventh-highest conversion rate. That is because of the quality of the Raiders' skill position players in space. This has been highlighted at different times throughout the season, but never more so than against the Chicago Bears.

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Based on Cooper's actions, this appears to be a predetermined throw to the flat on third-and-8. Cooper doesn't look to run a route, but he is also not blocking downfield for Murray, who catches the ball in the flat. Because nobody is blocking for him, this doesn't qualify as a screen play, but the concept is similar: get the ball into Murray's hands in space and let him work from there. Murray has to reach back for the ball because Carr threw off his back foot, but he shows off the comfort in his ball skills and athleticism to do this without breaking stride. From there he is able to accelerate away from the defender trying to track him from the middle of the field before finishing the play aggressively to assure himself of the first down. This play gained 11 yards, with all 11 coming after the catch.

With Carr, there are positive checkdowns and negative checkdowns. Positive checkdowns put the receiver in space with a chance to run for a first down. Negative checkdowns put the receiver in a situation where he is covered and needs to make one or more defenders miss to get close to the first-down marker. In the Raiders offense, the negative checkdowns are less of an issue because they have backs and tight ends who can make defenders miss in space. In this Bears game, there were examples of both.

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On this play, Carr makes a smart decision. Reece is left wide open underneath because the secondary has dropped too deep in their assignments. The quarterback's pass is slightly off and he forces Reece to adjust unnecessarily, but he still put the ball to the outside so the back could catch the ball and turn upfield in one fluid motion. As Reece turns around, a defensive back attempts to close on him but can only meet him at the first-down marker, where he has no chance of preventing the offense from converting for a first down.

This was a positive checkdown on third-and-8.

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The above plays have been paired together because they are both negative checkdowns from the quarterback. One results in a touchdown, but only because Helu was able to evade the attention of two defenders in the flat. The first throw put Murray in the exact same position; he lost 4 yards. What Helu did, though, was brilliant. He should not have gotten near the end zone, but his skill in space allowed him to excel. Murray failed to make the same play, but expecting him to make it, or even expecting Helu to repeat the feat on any kind of regular basis, would be irrational.

Carr had time and space in the pocket on both plays. He didn't need to put his teammates in the positions that he did.

Adding explosive and elusive skill-position players to an already outstanding offensive line has helped to make Carr more productive. Changing the coaching staff has put the quarterback in position to play to his strengths more than his weaknesses. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is a retread coach who has failed many times in many different roles with many different teams. However, so far in Oakland, he is showing off an understanding of how to play to the strengths of his available personnel.

This is made no more evident than by how he has managed Carr's dropbacks.

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Carr is a quarterback with great arm talent who can make consistently good pre-snap reads. Where he falters is when he is asked to hold the ball in the pocket or throw against pressure. The quick-throw options in the Raiders' offense allow Carr to show off his pre-snap ability, while the quality of his offensive line means he faces very little pressure. Musgrave has taken further measures to keep Carr away from pressure and out of situations where he has to manage the pocket by giving him deep drops from shotgun formations on a regular basis. With Carr's arm talent, his passes can still be thrown on time from a deeper position on the field.

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In the above play against the Chicago Bears, Carr makes a precision throw downfield to Cooper for the touchdown. It's a hugely impressive play from the quarterback. When you rewatch the play, the throw is made even more impressive Carr's position deep behind the line of scrimmage. As part of a shotgun alignment he began the play 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, then dropped back another 6 or 7 yards further. Not only that, Musgrave dropped him at an angle so the pocket rolled with Carr before he settled into it.

Rushing the passer in this situation is almost impossible. The trade-off for that completely clean pocket is a deeper release point on the field, but the velocity of Carr's pass allowed him to catch up to Cooper's route in the end zone just in time. The Raiders throw from this depth seemingly more often than any other team in the league. If you go back and look at the checkdown example to Reece from earlier in this article, you will now notice that Carr dropped 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball.

The Raiders may not be a contender in the AFC yet and they may still have a lot of work to do, but they are definitely heading in the right direction. Replacing veteran starters who have either excelled unexpectedly or acted as stop-gaps will be the next challenge for Reggie McKenzie. Top of that list should be soon-to-be 33-year-old starting left tackle Donald Penn and 39-year-old starting safety Charles Woodson.


3 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2015, 12:24pm

#1 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Oct 28, 2015 - 12:02pm

Great article.

I think most football fans criminally underrate the ability to consistently hit these sort of passes - (and ALEX kind or reinforces this). Passes that are short aren't necessarily passes that are easy to make - the reads have to be made quicker and the progressions have to be faster - and the ball has to come out fast. There are more than a few NFL quarterbacks who are never able to do this (despite being able to throw beautiful long balls).

" So far this season, Carr ranks in the bottom third in the league in terms of where the ball lands, but he still has the seventh-highest conversion rate."

It's funny - because that's about where Tom Brady is (Re ALEX - Brady is a couple spots lower than Carr - and is #3 in conversion rate) - and I see a lot of the Patriots offensive implementations in Oakland. ALEX is certainly interesting, but I'm not sure it's actually meaningful.

As a general thought - It's really frustrating to me watching football games and seeing teams not adapting their schemes to their talent - it blows my mind that these are supposed to be the 32 best football coaches in the world, and they can't see that what they're doing has very little chance of success - so any time someone points out a team actually adjusting - it makes me smile a bit.

Points: 0

#2 by Raiderfan // Oct 28, 2015 - 4:11pm

Excellent article.

Points: 0

#3 by jtr // Oct 31, 2015 - 12:24pm

Great stuff Cian. Appreciate the focus on a successful player on a team that doesn't get much attention or national TV time.

Points: 0

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