From Deebo to Tua: 10 Stats to Shape the Super Bowl Stretch
NFL Week 12 - Can Tua Tagovailoa sustain his success throwing past the sticks? Will Justin Herbert get to throw more than 5 yards downfield now that Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are healthy? How far can the San Francisco 49ers go in 2022 with the latest version of their YAC-happy offense? Can anyone cover Travis Kelce? Can the Philadelphia Eagles defense force better opponents into third-and-long situations? What sadist came up with the Cincinnati Bengals' late-season schedule?
This Thanksgiving weekend edition of Walkthrough is all about the stats, splits, and questions that will determine who reaches Super Bowl LVII. To keep this column fresh for a day or two so we can all enjoy some stuffing, teams that are playing on Thanksgiving itself are not included. Did you hear that, touchy Patriots fans who perceive it as a slight whenever your team isn't mentioned? They're excluded from this column! So are the Buffalo Bills! So stop sending angry emails!
And with that unnecessary-but-holiday-appropriate jolt of familial hostility, let's start the countdown:
10. Seattle Seahawks: Bad Throw Percentage
DVOA: Geno Smith ranks sixth in the NFL in both DVOA and DYAR.
Raw Numbers: Smith's bad throw percentage, per Pro Football Reference, is an NFL-best 9.4%.
Pro Football Reference began tracking bad throws and bad throw rates in 2018. Smith's rate of 9.4% is the lowest on record and the only figure for a starting quarterback under 10% in their data set. So either Geno has become more accurate than even late-career Drew Brees or he's due for at least a partial course correction. Even Geno's truest believers must acknowledge that the latter is more likely.
There are other signs of unsustainability in the Seahawks' offensive portfolio. For example, the Seahawks rank first in the NFL with 1.70 open-field rushing yards per carry. Kenneth Walker has had runs of 74, 69, 34, 21, and 21 yards, plus 11 rushes of 10 to 19 yards. Rashaad Penny had runs of 41, 36, 26, and 26 yards, plus five rushes of 10 to 19 yards.
Our open field yards metric is tricky to understand, so let's spell things out. The Seahawks average 5.0 yards per rush, fifth best in the NFL. An average of 1.70 of those yards per rush came 10 yards past the line of scrimmage on the plays listed above (plus a few carries by DeeJay Dallas). If they averaged a closer-to-NFL-median 0.8 open-field yards per carry, they would rank about 20th in yards per rush.
To come at this another way, Walker's success rate of 40% ranks 36th in the NFL. Success rate is like a running back's batting average, so Walker is a slugger who has hit a bunch of dingers but strikes out a lot.
So what happens if the Seahawks' gash runs arrive less frequently and Smith's accuracy drops below its current historic rate?
A 49ers-Chiefs-Jets stretch from Week 15 to Week 17 will likely determine the Seahawks' fate. The 49ers and Jets are stingy on defense, the 49ers could cut off the Seahawks' path to a division crown, and it's hard to stay balanced against the Chiefs. The Seahawks may well prove to be "good enough for 2022" instead of truly "good" when all is said and done. Either way, it has been a surprising, encouraging season.
9. Cincinnati Bengals: Future Strength of Schedule
DVOA: Toughest in the NFL, by far.
Raw Numbers: Upcoming Bengals opponents have a combined record of 43-27.
The Bengals visit the 7-3 Titans next week, then host the 8-2 Chiefs in Week 13. The 3-7 Browns look like a breather at first, but the Browns beat the Bengals 32-13 in their last meeting, and their new quarterback will have shaken the rust off by the Week 14 rematch.
Tom Brady in Tampa Bay with a playoff berth on the line in mid-December? Sounds challenging. Then a visit to Foxborough to face Brady's ghost, also with playoff berths potentially on the line. Finally, a two-game homestand against the Bills and Ravens.
Ja'Marr Chase should be back for much of that stretch run. Joe Burrow has performed well in Chase's absence: 71-of-102, 793 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, a 69.6% completion rate, 7.8 yards per attempt. The Bengals can hang with any opponent. (Read our latest Film Room about them here.) But they'll be battling uphill while the Ravens try not to trip over Jaguars/Broncos/Falcons types.
Anything can happen if the Bengals find themselves in the wild-card soup with the Chargers and AFC East teams thanks to a few late-season losses. And if the Bengals do survive their tower fight to reach the playoffs, they'll just face another one when they get there.
8. Kansas City Chiefs: Passing to Travis Kelce
DYAR: Kelce ranks first overall among tight ends, third in DVOA.
Raw Numbers: 69 catches (Gronk would be proud) for 855 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Kelce is busily tying his Pro Football Hall of Fame portfolio up in a red ribbon and bow for 2022. Here are some splits:
- Three 100-yard performances in the Chiefs' last five games;
- 15 receptions on 21 targets for 10 touchdowns and two other first downs in the red zone;
- 40 catches on 60 targets for 463 yards and eight touchdowns in games decided by seven points or less;
- 18-191-7 receiving against AFC West foes;
- 29-367-7 when the Chiefs are trailing.
A sprawling committee of wide receivers has picked up much of the slack left by Tyreek Hill. Still, if opponents can shut down Kelce, they can (mostly) shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. But no one can cover Kelce right now, not even Chargers designated Kelce-stopper Derwin James.
The upcoming Chiefs schedule is pretty silky. A 13-4 finish is likely, 14-3 is possible, and 15-2 is plausible. Kelce can make sure that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Arrowhead Stadium. No other contender in the AFC wants that. But there's not much they can do about it.
7. San Francisco 49ers: Yards After Catch
Raw Numbers: 7.0 YAC per reception, first in the NFL.
You are probably hip to the 49ers' need for YAC: Jimmy Garoppolo is a point guard, Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey are the penetrators, Brandon Aiyuk is the occasional-use long-range threat, and George Kittle mans the low post. It's a system which, combined with excellent defense, often carries the 49ers to the Final Four.
Here are some splits to flesh things out:
- The 49ers averaged 6.6 YAC/reception in 2021, first in the league. They averaged 6.2 YAC/reception in 2020, first in the league. They averaged 6.6 YAC/reception in 2019, first in the league. Spot a trend? They averaged 7.0 YAC/reception in 2018, first in the league.
- McCaffrey ranks seventh in the NFL with 8.8 YAC/reception for the 49ers and Panthers. Samuel ranks eighth in the NFL and first among wide receivers with 8.7 YAC/reception. Kittle ranks 33rd in the league and fifth among tight ends with 6.7 YAC/reception.
The 49ers' third-and-long offensive DVOA ranks sixth in the NFL. Jimmy Garoppolo averages 8.3 yards per attempt on passes in front of the sticks on third-and-7-plus, the third-best figure in the NFL. He averages just 8.9 yards per attempt on third-and-long passes past the sticks, 19th in the NFL. Deebo and Company allow the 49ers to move the sticks without asking Garoppolo to throw deep. With a defense that allowed just 40 points in the last three games, that may be all they need.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: First-Down Rushing
Raw Numbers: 128 rushes, 429 yards, 3.4 yards per first-down rush, one touchdown, 10 first downs.
Leonard Fournette averages 3.4 yards per first-down rush on 80 carries. Rachaad White averages 4.0 yards per first-down rush, though 29- and 18-yard gains against the Seahawks juice his figures.
You know the drill here: minimal gains on first downs turn into third-and-long situations, and Tom Brady doesn't handle third-and-long quite like he used to. Brady has produced just nine first downs on 58 attempts (including two sacks) on third down with 7-plus yards to go.
The Buccaneers beat the Seahawks in Week 10 by running the ball capably (if not spectacularly) and allowing Brady to throw downfield on his own terms. The Buccaneers will need to replicate that formula against feisty late-season opponents such as the 49ers, Bengals, and (yes) Falcons if they hope to win the NFC South and become The Team No One Wants to Face in the Playoffs.
5. Tennessee Titans Red Zone Conversion Rate
DVOA: First in red zone offense; second in goal-to-go offense.
Raw Numbers: 20 touchdowns on 27 red zone trips, a 74.1% conversion rate.
The Titans' tribute-to-1977 offense leaves them with little margin for error. If they mount a drive, it simply must end in a touchdown. Fortunately, their raw red zone touchdown conversion rate ranks second in the NFL, behind only the Bengals.
Derrick Henry has rushed 26 times for 82 yards and nine touchdowns in the red zone. Henry has also thrown a touchdown pass, as Packers fans are well aware. Ryan Tannehill is 22-of-35 for 175 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions in the red zone, exceptional numbers for a quarterback who is very ordinary across the other 80 yards of the field.
The Titans' most dangerous red zone threat has been change-up back Dontrell Hilliard, with three catches on five targets for 34 yards and three touchdowns. That may not be the best indicator of sustainability. Robert Woods has six catches on eight targets for 45 yards but just one touchdown; he saw three of those targets against the Packers, so perhaps the Titans are opening their red zone package up a bit.
It's one thing to beat the Colts and Jaguars by scores such as 17-10 and 19-10 and another to try to hold off opponents such as the Bengals, Eagles, and Cowboys down the stretch, or the Chiefs/Ravens/Bills in the playoffs. The Titans aren't suddenly going to turn into the Dolphins offensively, so they need every single point that the opponent is willing to hand them.
4. Baltimore Ravens: Second-Half Offense
Raw Numbers: 5.9 yards per rush in the second half; 6.6 yards per pass attempt, seven passing touchdowns, four interceptions, nine sacks, 61.3% completion rate.
The Ravens appear to have left their fourth-quarter catastrophes in the past. The Browns, Buccaneers, and Panthers all played them tough late in the game but could not muster comebacks, though the Browns provided a mighty scare in Week 7.
The Ravens average a remarkable 7.4 yards per third-quarter rush, and that has helped them both put some distance between opponents—they have outscored their foes 68-36 in third quarters—and melt away the clock against weaker competition. Lamar Jackson has thrown just one interception and not fumbled at all in the last four games after an early season speckled with late-game turnover disasters.
The Ravens face the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Broncos at home, and Steelers in Pittsburgh over the next three weeks: all very winnable games, but each a potential trap. If the Ravens can run well, stay balanced, and avoid fourth-quarter self-destruction, they will have no trouble cruising to a playoff berth.
3. Philadelphia Eagles Third-Down Defense
DVOA: The Eagles defense ranks 23rd against third-and-short, 14th against third-and-medium, first against third-and-long.
Raw Numbers: Opponents have converted 21-of-27 rushing attempts against the Eagles on third-/fourth-and-3 yards or less. Opponents have converted just nine first downs on 52 passing attempts (including sacks) against the Eagles on third-/fourth-and-7-plus, with 10 sacks, five interceptions, and 11 failed completions.
The Eagles schedule, an early-season punchline, has grown stouter: the Packers, Titans, Giants, and even the Bears are no pushovers, and the Eagles visit the Cowboys on Christmas Eve. To stay atop the NFC, they must force opponents into third-and-long situations that spotlight the talents of their pass rush and secondary.
The best way to force third-and-long is to stop the run on early downs. The Eagles defense allows 4.5 yards per rush on first downs—a high-but-not-alarming figure—but a shocking 6.8 yards per carry on second-and-7-or-more. It's an invitation to run twice and set up third-and-short that the Titans and Giants are certain to accept.
The Eagles added Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph last week to beef up their defensive line rotation. The old-timey newcomers got the job done (more or less) against the Colts. Time will tell if the Eagles truly did shore up one of their few remaining weaknesses.
2. Los Angeles Chargers: Air Yards
DVOA: The Chargers rank 19th in the NFL in passing DVOA.
Raw Numbers: 6.1 air yards per attempt, 4.3 air yards per completion, both figures 31st in NFL.
Only the Colts throw shorter passes than the Chargers. Only the Cardinals complete shorter passes than the Chargers. But don't blame Justin Herbert, because you'll get kicked off the Internet if you do!
Seriously, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams were injured for weeks, there are two rookies starting on the Chargers offensive line, Herbert himself battled a rib injury for a while, and coordinator Joe Lombardi has always had a penchant for the short game. The Chargers were dumping so many passes into the flat a few weeks ago that they made the Steelers look like the Greatest Show on Turf.
Allen and Williams' return allowed Lombardi to open things up again in the narrow 30-27 Week 11 loss to the Chiefs. With Herbert's playmakers healthy, the Chargers should have little trouble with the Cardinals and Raiders in their upcoming two-week desert road trip. (Chargers-Cardinals really threatened to be a horizontal passing clinic before the Chargers receivers returned.)
The real challenge comes when the Chargers host the Dolphins and Titans in Weeks 14 and 15. They can seize control of their playoff destiny by winning those games. But they won't be able to do it with a steady diet of 4.3-yard passes. And Herbert's doubters will howl if the Chargers once again fail to secure a wild-card berth.
Depending on how things go, Walkthrough might even join them.
1. Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa Passing Beyond the Sticks
Raw Numbers: 88-of-126, 1,617 yards, 14 touchdowns, three interceptions, 69.8% completion rate, 12.8 yards per attempt.
You see, the thing about passes past the sticks is that they are passes past the sticks. If completed, they almost automatically result in first downs. (Tyreek Hill sometimes runs backwards, but you get the idea.) And completing over 70% of the sort of passes that all but guarantee first downs is a good thing. Tagovailoa would still rank fourth in the NFL in completion rate if he had never thrown a pass in front of the sticks in 2022! That's absolutely astonishing.
We need to set the never-ending Tagovailoa debate aside in the weeks to come and realize that we may be witnessing a historic passing game at work. Tua-Tyreek-Waddle are doing Marino-Duper-Clayton or Warner-Bruce-Holt things, even with era adjustments factored in. And the Dolphins' running game/defense appear good enough to come along for the ride.
If the Tua Trio keeps this up, not only will the Dolphins cruise into the playoffs as the NFL's most dangerous team (you heard me, Bills fans), but they could leave a trail of broken 49ers, Chargers, Patriots, and Jets postseason dreams in their wake.
And if the Dolphins play like they have since Tagovailoa's return from a concussion, a first-round playoff bye is a distinct 6.9% possibility.