Josh Allen and the NFL's Roughing the Passer Problem
Week 5 began with a roughing the passer penalty on the fifth play from scrimmage of the Jets-Falcons Kipper Express, well before most of America even had time to pour our second cup of coffee. Week 5 ended in the wee hours of Monday morning with a roughing the passer penalty that erased a Chiefs interception and extended the final Bills touchdown drive, long after most folks gave up and went to bed.
Both fouls adhered directly to the strict letter of the written roughing the passer rule but only tangentially to its spirit. Neither hit was particularly brutal or placed Matt Ryan or Josh Allen in any peril. Both penalties had a minor-but-not-insignificant impact on the final outcome as they turned drive-ending defensive stops into positive offensive plays that led to scores. The penalties fostered quarterback safety in the broad sense that playing checkers instead of football would also foster quarterback safety.
A total of 48 roughing the passer penalties have been called through five weeks, putting the NFL on pace for 163.2 such fouls. That's the highest total by far in the NFL Penalties database, which dates back to 2009. The new 17th game is a factor, of course, but the league would still be on pace for 153.6 roughing fouls through 16 games. We can assume that's an all-time record: roughing the passer was rare through most of pro football history, because it required a broadsword.
Roughing the passer penalties have been on the increase for over a decade. Here are the annual totals since 2009:
Linear regression suggests that league-wide roughing the passer rates are increasing at about 5.4 penalties per season. That's just enough of an increase to be noticeable across the years, because while the fouls are still relatively uncommon, they are often game-changing, controversial, memorable events.
The league changed the roughing language before the 2018 season, adding a prohibition against "landing on top of [the quarterback] with all or most of the defender's weight." A small spike in fouls in 2018 sparked one of those brief national debates on officiating that pop up roughly this time each year. The brouhaha abated, but roughing penalties steadily increased.
The likely cause of the steady increase before and after 2018 is the knock-on effect of other safety-oriented rule changes, such as helmet-to-helmet targeting. Simple drift in rule interpretation is also a likely contributor to the increase. The dip in 2020 might just be fluctuation, though it might also have been caused by the absence of crowds, who often act as Foley artists, making big wallops seem even more dramatic/severe/punishable.
The problems with the current interpretation of roughing the passer are obvious. It's nearly impossible to land anywhere without "all or part of your body weight," because that's what "landing" means. Defenders must now aim for a tiny strike zone between the quarterback's torso and thighs, even as the quarterback ducks or spins to escape. An errant swat that strikes the helmet or a dive that catches the quarterback's shin can earn a 15-yard foul; it's important to protect brains and knees, which is all the more reason to give defenders a fair chance when they aim for the midsection. This year, it appears as though a defender cannot even help his cause by slowing before impact or turning to cushion the blow.
Further, roughing the passer is not uniformly enforced and is subject to lots of potential biases. The Jets have been flagged for 19 roughing the passer penalties but have benefited from just two since 2020. It looks as though bad teams don't get any benefit of the doubt. Land Clark's officiating crew called the foul 15 times in 2020 and five times so far this year. Bill Vinovich's crew called it twice in 2020 and zero times so far this year. That's unlikely to be a purely random split.
Also, the Texans, Ravens and Cardinals combined to benefit from just one roughing the passer penalty in 2020. The Bills benefitted from a league-high 10. The potential implications are left to the class as an exercise.
All we can do about the increase in roughing-the-passer penalties is grin, bear it, hope that the rules are enforced more uniformly, hope even harder they don't impact the outcomes of games too severely, and hope hardest of all that the NFL someday tweaks the interpretation of the foul with some language like the defender must apply additional downward force after the quarterback has fallen for a foul to occur.
Roughing the passer was initially designed to prevent dirty plays. It was rewritten to prevent dangerous plays. Now, it's turning into a "Gotcha." That's bad for the game. It's also dangerous, because some defender who thinks that he'll get flagged for anything he does might end up doing whatever he wants.
Former Jaguars to Watch
Let's do something a little different and use this week's Five to Watch segment to check in on the 2017 Jaguars defensive diaspora!
Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens: Campbell is sackless this year, but he recorded a third-down tackle for a loss on Monday night, followed by a blocked field goal, making the Ravens' overtime comeback over the Colts possible. The Ravens need all defensive hands on deck when they face the Chargers on Sunday.
Malik Jackson, Cleveland Browns: Jackson is having a positive impact for the Browns as an interior pass-rusher. He will spend Sunday helping Myles Garrett and others chase down Kyler Murray.
Yannick Ngakoue, Las Vegas Raiders: Ngakoue recorded a pair of sacks against the Bears last week. He'll try to keep the Raiders from falling into a pit of despair when they face the Broncos on Sunday.
Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams: Having a great year, of course. Ramsey will help take away the Giants' deep passing game on Sunday, leaving them with nothing.
A.J. Bouye, Carolina Panthers: Bouye has rebounded from some subpar years and is playing well as a slot cornerback. The Panthers and Vikings face off on Sunday to determine who will linger at the bottom of the playoff race and end up with the final NFC wild-card spot.
Tashaun Gipson, Chicago Bears: Gipson recorded a sack against the Raiders and recovered a fumble against the Bengals. He has been a major factor when healthy, and he gives the Bears a very slight chance to upset the Green Bay Packers. Receiver Allen Robinson, another Jaguars escapee, is still atoning for the sins of a past life, and will also help the Bears try to accomplish the unlikely on Sunday.
Dante Fowler, Atlanta Falcons: He's on bye this week, but Fowler is playing rather well, so we did not want to leave him out.
Gosh, that's a lot of defensive talent. Could you imagine what a defense with all of these players could accomplish in 2021? It would probably be a top-10 unit in DVOA, given an ordinary supplemental cast.
The 2021 Jaguars defense ranks 31st in DVOA.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough examines a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
This week, we'll be looking at the empty backfield passing leaderboards, otherwise known as the "Matthew Stafford and a bunch of other guys" leaderboard.
Here are the numbers for all of the quarterbacks with more than 30 attempts from empty sets this season. I included NFL passer rating because it's a non-terrible quick-and-dirty metric for data like this.
Football Outsiders' Derrik Klassen explained on our podcast a few weeks ago that Stafford's ability to do more from an empty set than toss quick passes to his interior receivers is one of the big reasons he's such an upgrade over Jared Goff. Stafford averages a healthy 8.9 yards per attempt, while Cooper Kupp averages a whopping 17.2 yards per catch on 18 receptions over 27 targets.
Stafford's rate stats are impressive enough, but the fact that he's operating out of an empty backfield over a dozen times per game, twice as often as quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, illustrates just how unique the Stafford-Sean McVay Rams offense has become this year.
Four sacks and two interceptions ruin otherwise impressive empty-backfield numbers for Joe Burrow. Zac Taylor still doesn't have the offensive line he needs to deploy empty backfields as often as he does, but Taylor will be the last person to realize it. Burrow will never be a Stafford-like rifleman from the empty set, but he can grow into an almost Brady-like ball distributor if he survives.
The Vikings use so many constricted formations and 21-12-22 personnel that it's shocking to see Cousins third on this list. As you might expect, 25 of Cousins' targets went to Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen, for 20 receptions and 303 yards. A team that likes to run lots of empty sets might want to invest in a No. 3 and No. 4 receiver, but that's not how the Vikings do business.
The Raiders use empty sets mostly for a quick underneath game, with middling results. Hunter Renfrow is 8-of-10 for 79 yards on empty-set targets, Darren Waller 7-of-12 targets for 53 yards. It's all very adequate, like most of the Raiders offense.
Mahomes has thrown four touchdown passes from empty backfields from inside the 20 and three touchdowns on just four attempts from inside the 10. Stafford leads the league with eight empty-backfield passes from inside the 10-yard line. With the addition of Josh Gordon and likely absence of Clyde Edwards-Helaire for a few weeks, Andy Reid might want to consider emptying the backfield more frequently.
Rodgers and Brady are excellent football players.
Most teams have deployed empty-backfield sets between 20 and 31 times this year, or about four to six times per game. That indicates that empty sets fill the same niche in most offensive ecosystems: a mini-wrinkle to spread the offense, define a mismatch, set up a quick-throw opportunity, etc. Again, that just makes the Rams offense look even more remarkable.
As for rushing from an empty backfield, Trevor Lawrence leads the league with five carries for 29 yards and one touchdown. Urban Meyer thinks Lawrence is Tebow and that he can keep "fooling" opponents with empty-set draw plays at the goal line. Trey Lance has five carries for 19 yards and a touchdown. Lots of Lamar Jackson/Josh Allen types have four carries, as does Taysom Hill. But Jonathan Taylor leads the league with 38 rushing yards for this run, which officially counts as a carry from an empty backfield.
Some other notes:
- Dak Prescott has been sacked four times in just 24 empty-backfield dropbacks and averages just 7.3 yards per attempt. The Cowboys do so many other things well offensively that they might be better off scrapping their empty backfield package altogether.
- Andy Dalton and Justin Fields have attempted just three plays each from empty-backfield formations. Each has completed one pass for a combined 15 yards. Fields has been sacked twice. The Bears are more likely to deploy a sixth offensive lineman than an empty backfield. When discussing Matt Nagy, the formations and personnel groupings themselves are unlikely to be the problem.
- Lamar Jackson has thrown three interceptions from an empty backfield and has been pressured 16 times on 34 dropbacks. Such formations probably don't make best use of his diverse talents.
- Ryan Tannehill has thrown 20 passes from an empty backfield. His catchable pass rate of 73.7% is the lowest among starting quarterbacks. The Titans have a thin, injury-riddled receiving corps, issues along the offensive line, and Derrick Henry. Mike Vrabel should threaten to bite coordinator Todd Downing the next time he empties the backfield.
- Zach Wilson averages a league-low 42.9% completion rate and 3.5 yards per attempt from empty sets. As Leaderboard of the Week so often concludes: the Jets are the Jets are the Jets.
Walkthrough Thursday Night Sportsbook: Tampa Bay Buccaneers -6.5 at Philadelphia Eagles.
This line has remained under a touchdown because A) Tom Brady has a thumb injury he is being typically coy about; and B) the Eagles just beat the Panthers, and folks still think beating the Panthers is an accomplishment for some reason.
If Brady's thumb scares you away from just rolling with the Bucs, consider taking the Eagles with a +235 moneyline instead of the points. If Brady ends up throwing flutterballs like he did in 2020 against the Saints in Week 1 and the Bears, an Eagles upset becomes about as likely as a narrow Buccaneers win/Eagles cover, so you might as well go for the payout gusto.
Walkthrough isn't enough of a Philly homer to take that action. Instead, we're eyeing the Buccaneers (-4) to lead in the first half, because the Bucs have outscored opponents 79-57 in the first half, while the Eagles start every game with 20 consecutive screen passes and have therefore been outscored 69-44 in the first half.
Walkthrough also loves Longest Completion props, but both Brady and Jalen Hurts are way up at 38.5. Brady's thumb makes a long-completion wager a bad risk, while the house has figured out that Jalen Hurts completes at least one bomb per game after Nick Sirianni has established the screen. So instead, we're hitting some Thursday Night Lenny: Leonard Fournette Over 88.5 Rushing + Receiving Yards at -115.
If Brady is hurt, he'll force-feed Fournette both handoffs and screens, and not even Fournette can drop all of them.