2021 Slot vs. Wide: Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford Lead
NFL Preseason Week 1 - Our annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game continues thanks to the charting efforts from our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Last time, we looked at wide receivers, where we saw Cooper Kupp dominate in the slot and Ja'Marr Chase stack up big numbers out wide. It will not shock you to see Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow atop those same categories as we shift to the passers. That isn't always the case, but with Kupp and Chase so far ahead of the rest of the pack, their quarterbacks join them atop the pile.
That's not to say there's nothing unexpected about these results, so we can dive in a little deeper and see what we can find.
The following table shows the data for the 34 qualified passers from 2021. Each player's DYAR, DVOA, and number of targets are shown on passes to receivers both in the slot and split wide. The table is sorted by descending Slot%, which is passes thrown to players who were lined up in the slot as a percentage of passes thrown to players at wide receiver positions (i.e., slot and wide are included, but not at tight end or in the backfield). That does include passes to tight ends and running backs if they lined up in traditional wideout positions. Note that the charting labels come from players' locations on the field regardless of the positioning of their teammates. A receiver on one side of the formation who was a few feet away from the offensive line was considered to be in the slot even if he was the widest receiver on that side.
|Quarterbacks, Slot vs. Wide, 2021|
Going Wide in the AFC North
In this article last year, we noted that 2020 was the first time we saw every single quarterback throw to the slot more often than they threw wide. Slot passing has become more and more prevalent and, generally speaking, has been more efficient on a per-play basis; it's the direction the league has been sliding in over the past half-decade.
Don't tell that to the AFC North, however. We had two passers throw wide more often than to the slot last year in Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Burrow. Burrow just squeaked over the 50% line as he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl, but Roethlisberger had the lowest slot percentage since Deshaun Watson in 2017. The Steelers quarterback of record, be it Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph, has had the lowest slot percentage in the league in each of the last three seasons, but this was a new low point for them. Both passers saw significant drops in their slot percentage from 2020. Roethlisberger had an 8.7% drop, going from 51.9% to 43.2%, while Burrow's 9.4% drop was the second-largest in the league.
In both cases, personnel was probably the deciding factor. You don't have to dig hard to figure out why Burrow's numbers shifted—Ja'Marr Chase is really good, Ja'Marr Chase doesn't line up in the slot, Joe Burrow liked to throw the ball to Ja'Marr Chase. Slot percentage is really about scheme and receiver talent, as opposed to a quarterback's personal preferences. It's not that Burrow suddenly got better at looking slightly further to his right. It's that when he looked slightly further afield in 2020, he saw the ghost of A.J. Green, and when he looked there in 2021, he saw Ja'Marr Chase. If Burrow's wide percentage hadn't increased, we would be having serious talks about his decision-making skills. Similarly, we talked in the receivers article about how the worst wide receiver in the slot last season was Pittsburgh's Ray-Ray McCloud, as the Steelers never really figured out what to do after JuJu Smith-Schuster went down with a shoulder injury.
We'll get back to Burrow shortly, but other passers saw their slot percentage change significantly in 2021. There's no stat out there that says "this is a scheme stat" more than the fact that Jared Goff saw his slot percentage decrease the most in 2021 (-12.6%) moving from Los Angeles to Detroit, while Matthew Stafford saw his slot percentage increase the most (+8.9%) moving from Detroit to Los Angeles. Pretty much every other significant change for returning passers came from either a change in location (Teddy Bridgewater, Andy Dalton) or a change in playcaller (Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan).
The one sort of exception to that is Daniel Jones, who saw his slot percentage drop -7.9% from 2020. Jones did get a new playcaller when Freddie Kitchens replaced Jason Garrett in November, but the drop started well before that happened. Some of it is Kenny Golladay coming in to take some of those wide targets, but I think it's also fair to say that trying to analyze the 2021 Giants offense for signs of logic or coherence is a fool's errand.
Same Team, Different Results
While most of an individual quarterback's slot percentage is based on scheme and receivers, that doesn't mean that two players in the same situation will perform identically. Two teams had a pair of qualified quarterbacks with substantially different target distributions.
One was the Baltimore Ravens, were Lamar Jackson (64.4%) threw to the slot far more often than Tyler Huntley did (54.9%). One of the knocks on Jackson throughout his career to this point is his lack of either desire or ability to throw the ball outside. Jackson had 32.4% of his targets marked as over the middle, second to only Jimmy Garoppolo among qualified passers last season. That's going to correlate with slot percentage, as Jackson was less likely than your average quarterback to, say, look for the deep go routes on the outside. The extent to which this is a problem is probably overstated, and Jackson deserve a lot of credit for finding any targets considering the Ravens' injury woes in 2021. But it's worth noting that, given the same sets of receivers and the same coaching, Jackson looked inside far more than Huntley did. And with both Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins out of town, Jackson will be missing his top two wide targets in 2021. Can you build an offense solely out of players in the slot? Maybe they need to find someone who had a cup of coffee with Sean McVay to short these things out.
The other team with notable splits was the Chicago Bears, where Andy Dalton targeted the slot 68.0% of the time to Justin Fields' 62.1%. Fields was the more aggressive passer, and Matt Nagy and Bill Lazor responded by giving Fields looks downfield and near the boundaries that Dalton simply wasn't going to make considering the gap in arm strength between the two. Fields was third from the bottom in DVOA to wide targets, but jumps to 12th best if you only look at deep shots to wide players—and that qualifies as a highlight, considering how bad Fields' numbers were as a rookie. Interestingly, the lion's share of Allen Robinson's slot targets came with Fields and not Dalton, even after adjusting for opportunities—58.3% of Robinson's targets from Fields were from the slot, compared to 42.9% from Dalton. Explaining Robinson's 2021 season is extraordinarily difficult.
And now we come back to Burrow. We only have data going back to 2016, but the previous leader in wide DYAR was Aaron Rodgers with 460 in 2016. Burrow's 482 sets the new standard there—thank you, 17th game. Burrow had a 194-DYAR lead over second-place Tom Brady, the biggest gap between first and second place by a wide margin. Burrow was the only qualified passer in 2021 to hit a double-digit DVOA going out wide; he was just leaps and bounds more effective looking to the edges of the field than any other passer.
And Burrow did all of this basically only targeting Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. They account for 170 of his 196 wide targets, with no one else hitting double digits. That's unusual—Brady, for instance, had Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Tyler Johnson, and Breshad Perriman all hit double-digit targets out wide; third-place Kyler Murray found double-digit targets for A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Antoine Wesley, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore. The Bengals stayed healthy at receiver all year, which helps, but it's still unusual for a passer to rely on two guys to that extreme. We'll see if Burrow and the Bengals spread the ball around more as their young talent continues to develop, or if it's going to be a relatively predictable scheme once again.
Burrow was basically the only good quarterback to have a better DVOA throwing wide than throwing to the slot. You could make an argument for Teddy Bridgewater, the only other passer to have positive DVOA in both splits and a higher DVOA out wide, but if that's where we're scrounging for big names, we have a problem. Most of the players who were better out wide simply aren't good—Jacoby Brissett, Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton, and Taylor Heinicke are your top four, and none of them will be starting for the same team in 2022.
Matthew Stafford has always been good throwing to the slot—he had 413 DYAR and an 11.7% DVOA in Detroit in 2020—so we can't credit all of his success last season to Cooper Kupp or Sean McVay. But, well, it's a lot easier to hit 700 DYAR and top our tables when you're throwing roughly one zillion routes to 2021's slot king. Stafford's DVOA drops down to -0.4% if you exclude Kupp's slot targets; the Stafford-to-Tyler Higbee connection never really took off. But it turns out that a lot of quarterbacks look worse when you remove a record-setting season from their numbers, so we'll just admire Stafford's numbers for what they were. Stafford did not set the record for most DYAR on throws to the slot despite the 17th game; that still belongs to 2016 MVP Matt Ryan with 789. Stafford joins Ryan and 2018 Jared Goff as the only quarterbacks to top 650 DYAR on throws to the slot—or, at least, they were the only ones until Patrick Mahomes did it this year as well, breaking up the McVay/Shanahan club thanks to having an extra game to work with. And also being very good, which often helps these sorts of things.
Stafford ends up atop the DYAR list because of volume, but he falls down to eighth in DVOA. Kirk Cousins takes the top spot there at 21.9%, though I'd argue that Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes finishing in the 20.0% neighborhood with significantly more attempts than Cousins are the more impressive results last season.
Rodgers and Mahomes are also interesting because they finished the year with negative DVOA out wide, despite being, well, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Nearly all of their success in 2021 came with players lined up inside. And for Rodgers, most of that wide success went directly to DeVante Adams—he had a 21.5% DVOA targeting Adams wide, but a -32.6% DVOA targeting anyone else. Rodgers' top returning wide target from 2021 is Aaron Jones with nine targets. Suffice it to say, there are questions about the Packers' receiver corps this season.
Those questions exist for the Chiefs some, too, but the Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill connection wasn't always firing on all cylinders in 2021. Mahomes had a -2.2% DVOA targeting Hill split wide, mostly because the deep ball wasn't there. Mahomes targeted Hill eight times on deep shots split wide, and Hill only caught two of them. This was something that had to get fixed between them even if Hill had stayed (they had a 32.3% DVOA hooking up wide in 2020), so perhaps it's less concerning than you might think at first blush that Hill is gone now—at least, when it comes to those wide targets. Replacing the 265 DYAR that Mahomes-to-Hill generated out of the slot is a different matter. Mahomes' slot DVOA only drops from 19.4% to 19.1% if you take Hill out of the equation, but finding someone that good on that much volume is a tough ask.