One stat that matters for every NFL team
“Stats are for losers.”
You’ve heard that from coach after coach, up to and including Bill Belichick, and though Coach B knows better (he’s had Ernie Adams and a cadre of metric and situational analysts for decades), there are coaches and executives who still believe this, and it’s too bad for them. While base statistics and advanced metrics aren’t the be-all and end-all, the ability to match numbers to tape puts you ahead of the pack — whether you’re an analyst, a coach, or an executive.
To that end, let’s take a look at one number of meaning for every NFL team coming into the 2021 season. Whether you believe that stats matter or not, we promise to make them as relevant as possible.
(All statistics include postseason performances whenever possible and applicable. All advanced metrics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions, Pro Football Reference, and Football Outsiders unless otherwise indicated).
Arizona Cardinals: 29%
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Last season, Cardinals head coach and offensive play-designer Kliff Kingsbury had one of the NFL’s most static and uninteresting passing offenses. It was bad enough that Kingsbury put DeAndre Hopkins as Kyler Murray’s backside iso receiver about 97% of the time without giving him pre-snap motion to help Hopkins with matchups and assist quarterback Kyler Murray overall, but Kingsbury’s lack of motion both to inform and to disrupt was disconcerting — especially when you consider how much it helped his offense when the Cardinals used it. In 2020, Arizona ranked dead last in plays with pre-snap motion with just 150 (29% of their offensive snaps), but they ranked fifth in Sports Info Solutions’ Positive Play Rate when they did use it. In 2021, Kingsbury’s third season in control of this offense, it would behoove him to get his guys moving pre-snap to help everybody out.
Atlanta Falcons: 8.7
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)
8.7 was the yards per play Titans quarterbacks (mostly Ryan Tannehill) averaged with pre-snap motion, up from 8.0 yards per pass without it. That’s not surprising, as motion has been proven to be a cheat code for most quarterbacks. Not so though for Matt Ryan, Falcons new head coach and former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s new quarterback. Per Football Outsiders, Ryan’s percentage of pre-snap motion has decreased with each of his last three offensive coordinators (Kyle Shanahan 53%, Steve Sarkisian 48.5%, Dirk Koetter 39.2%), and his yards per pass has been lower with motion than without in each case. Ryan averaged 8.2 yards per pass with Shanahan and 10.5 YPP without it, 7.9 YPP with motion under Sarkisian and 8.0 without, and 6.7 YPP with motion under Koetter and 7.7 YPA without it. Last season, the Titans used motion on 55.4% of their passing plays, averaging 8.7 YPP with it, and 8.0 YPP without it. And as Ryan recently told me, he’s not opposed to motion at all — especially with Smith in charge. “If you think about the last four years, it’s been a lot of [offensive coordinators] Steve Sarkisian and Dirk Koetter, and I think both those guys had a little bit of a different flavor in what they do,” Ryan said. “I think that the motion portion of it is a big part of putting mental stress on defenses. I think you’ll see more of that moving forward.”
Baltimore Ravens: 177
(Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)
J.K. Dobbins led all Ravens rushers not named Lamar Jackson last season with 890 yards and 10 touchdowns on 153 carries including the postseason, so losing Dobbins for the entire 2021 season to a torn ACL is quite a blow. Or, at least it would be quite a blow for most teams to lose their leading rusher, but in Baltimore, Greg Roman’s multiple run concepts tend to make things… if not talent-proof, at least extremely favorable to anyone who pounds the rock. Exhibit A for the Ravens this season might be Gus Edwards, the undrafted free agent out of Rutgers entering his fourth NFL season. In 2020, Edwards gained 803 yards and scored six touchdowns on 162 carries, and he also ranked nicely in Football Outsiders‘ DYAR (season-cumulative) and DVOA (play-by-play) metrics. Edwards’ DYAR of 177 ranked 10th among all qualifying backs. Dobbins did rank sixth in DYAR and first in DVOA, but perhaps the dropoff isn’t what it would be on other teams. “We’ve had confidence in Gus, really, since his rookie season,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently said. “I mean, he was an undrafted player that really impressed us. He made his way onto the roster in the regular season, and he’s done nothing but impress since. He’s our kind of guy. He’s really built for what we do. He’s going to get more of a workload now, not to say that it won’t still be a committee. But Gus is definitely going to get a lot of work, and we feel great about that.” As they should.
Buffalo Bills: 79.4
(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
Josh Allen’s nearly unprecedented Year 3 bump in productivity and efficiency is the primary reason the Bills are a sexy pick to go to their first Super Bowl since the end of the 1993 season (and no, Bills fans, we are not discussing the result of that Super Bowl, or the three that preceded it). In any event, Buffalo has as stacked a roster as you’ll find in the league — put together estimably by general manager Brandon Beane and coached up equally estimably by Sean McDermott and his staff. Buffalo’s secondary is another reason the Bills should be taken entirely seriously this season — while Allen is more than capable of creating explosive plays, the trio of cornerback Tre’Davious White and safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are as good as it gets. Slot cornerback Taron Johnson also showed up last season with two pick-sixes, including one of Lamar Jackson in the divisional playoff win over the Ravens. All good there. The bookend position opposite White at outside cornerback is a bit less defined, but could be sewn up this season. In 2020, Levi Wallace got the majority of the reps there, with 686 snaps at outside cornerback. On those snaps, Wallace allowed 38 catches on 68 targets for 462 yards, 128 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, two interceptions, six pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 79.4. This was a decided improvement over the five touchdowns and 93.2 opponent passer rating he allowed in the 2019 season. Wallace gave up two of those 2020 touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 80.8 from Week 10 of the regular season through the AFC Championship Game, and the obvious hope is that the Alabama alum, now entering his fourth NFL season, is ready to rise to the next level, and make Buffalo’s secondary as lockdown as it needs to be.
Carolina Panthers: 42.1%
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
42.1% was the rate at which former Jets and current Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold found himself pressured on passing snaps last season, and that led the league among quarterbacks who took at least 50% of their teams’ snaps last season, per PFF. When pressured with the Jets (and admittedly in Adam Gase’s dumpster fire of an offense) in 2020, Darnold completed 55 of 126 passes for 678 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 81.7, which was the lowest in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. (Carson Wentz finished second-to-last at 82.5). As Darnold has moved to a new team via trade, and we all know how awful Gase has been, perhaps we’d be willing to accept that Darnold is in a more favorable environment as regards pressure. Then, we look at the Panthers’ starting offensive line, and… well, we’re not so sure. Center Matt Paradis and right tackle Taylor Moton are good enough (Moton is actually excellent), but outside of that, when you’re dealing with new additions like Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving, who have been historically leaky in pass protection for other teams, it’s fair to say that Darnold may want to take a lot of short dropbacks in Joe Brady’s offense. Darnold was pressured on 10 of his 29 preseason dropbacks with the Panthers, completing five of eight passes for 34 yards, which confirms the checkdown theory.
Chicago Bears: 111.6
(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
When Bears head coach Matt Nagy has said that he’d rather not expose rookie quarterback Justin Fields to the rigors of the NFL behind his highly questionable offensive line, most people take it for yet another sign that Andy Dalton was going to be the Bears’ Week 1 starter no matter how well Fields played in the preseason. We don’t know that, but we do know that Nagy is ignoring Fields’ ability make things happen under pressure at a level that transcends his college abilities. Last season for Ohio State, Fields was pressured on 84 of his 281 dropbacks, completing 20 passes on 48 attempts for 279 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 54.1. When kept clean in the pocket, Fields threw 18 touchdowns to two interceptions, and a passer rating of 138.3, per PFF. Move to the 2021 preseason, and Fields (who played behind a backup line until the preseason finale against the Titans) was pressured on 29 of his 62 dropbacks, completing 13 of 18 passes for 133 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 111.6. That included this ridiculous touchdown pass to tight end Jesper Horsted (who made this week’s Secret Superstars team). https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1431776787634163714 How has Dalton fared this preseason under pressure, and with more time behind the starting front five? He’s completed three of seven passes for 21 yards, 3.0 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 50.3. Oh, and Dalton has taken two sacks on 23 dropbacks, compared to Fields’ three on 62 dropbacks. If you can still figure out why Dalton is starting ahead of Fields when the Bears take on the Rams on September 9, please let us know.
Cincinnati Bengals: 341
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
341 was the number of zero- to three-step drops Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow took in 2020, which ranked eighth in the league. This despite the fact that Burrow’s season ended in Week 11, when he suffered a torn ACL and a torn MCL against the Washington Football Team. On those short drops, Burrow took 26 sacks and 108 pressures — only Carson Wentz had more sacks than Burrow through Week 11 on short drops, and only Josh Allen took more pressures. We saw what happened to Wentz last season, and Allen has a unique ability to make throws under pressure, while Burrow is now trying to make a comeback behind an offensive line that isn’t much better than the lines he had in 2020. The hope is that left tackle Jonah Williams can stay healthy for a full season at left tackle, and other than that… well, at least Bobby Hart is out of the picture. Burrow (who did throw 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions on shorter drops) may just have to get used to getting rid of the ball as quickly as humanly possible.
Cleveland Browns: 35
(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Last season, Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley led the NFL with 16 catches of 20 or more air yards for 475 yards and two touchdowns. Tyreek Hill led the league with eight touchdown catches on just 13 deep receptions. No surprise there, and Hill is already in mid-season form in that regard. The Browns estimably overhauled their secondary this offseason to contend with Hill and Patrick Mahomes as they try to scale the top of the AFC, but winning in today’s NFL is about more than stopping explosive plays — you also have to create them. And this is where the Browns might have some issues. Including the postseason, the Browns had a total of 35 deep receptions. If Odell Beckham Jr. is healthy and the Beckham of old, perhaps there’s no worry at all, but last season, Beckham played in just seven games, catching just three deep passes on nine attempts for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Rashard Higgins led the team with eight deep receptions on 13 targets for 219 yards and two touchdowns, and no other Browns receiver had more than six deep catches (Jarvis Landry). The Browns seem to be all set to take on the Chiefs and Bills for the AFC crown, but will this take away from their potential when things accelerate against those killer passing games?
Dallas Cowboys: 106.5
(Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports)
Throughout his history as a head coach and defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn has preferred to use Cover-1 and Cover-3 as his primary coverages, and his new job is to turn around a Dallas pass defense that was, to put it charitably, awful in 2020. Dak Prescott’s injury got the majority of the headlines last season, and justifiably so, but the Cowboys’ Mike Nolan-led defense wasn’t great in any capacity, and it was especially porous against the pass, allowing 34 touchdowns and just nine picks. Ostensibly, Quinn’s single-high concepts should allow Dallas defenders to play more quickly and more freely, but last season, in Cover-1 and Cover-3, per Sports Info Solutions, the Cowboys allowed 19 touchdowns, just three interceptions, and an opponent QBR of 106.5 — only the Lions, Jaguars, and Jets gave up a worse QBR in those coverages. Where was Quinn last season? With the Falcons, who allowed 28 touchdowns (tied with the Lions for the NFL’s worst mark), nine interceptions, and an opponent QBR of 103.2 — fifth-worst in the league, just behind the Cowboys. Which is to say that we may want to pump the brakes on the thought that Quinn can come in and fix this thing overnight.
Denver Broncos: 112.5
(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
The Broncos have named Teddy Bridgewater their Week 1 starter in part because Drew Lock’s variance between good and not so good has been an issue, but should Lock come into any games this season, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur should build as much play-action as possible into the game plan. 112.5 was Lock’s passer rating when using play-action last season. Lock built that passer rating by completing 68 of 103 play-action passes for 809 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions in 2020. This was no fluke. In the 2021 preseason, Lock completed The difference in 2020 for Lock was quite startling. With play-action, he’s a top 10 quarterback from an efficiency perspective. Without it, he’s kind of lost in the wilderness. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1426640667619467265
Detroit Lions: 5
(AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Five is the number of interceptions Jared Goff threw in 2020 for the Rams when using play-action, which tied him with Carson Wentz for the most in the league last season. That Goff couldn’t figure out how to get things done last season in what is usually a pretty decent cheat code for quarterbacks is representative of the fall from grace he’s taken over the last three seasons. In 2018, when the Rams went all the way to Super Bowl LIII, Goff was absolutely ridiculous with play-action, leading the league with 16 touchdowns, and throwing just two interceptions. But there were warning signs late in that season as teams started to figure Goff out, and they stopped biting on Sean McVay’s jet motion stuff. In 2019, Goff threw four touchdowns and five picks with play-action — only Baker Mayfield had more play-action interceptions with six. Now that Goff is in charge of the Lions’ offense, Detroit is the place where Goff will try to turn things around, but his regression in all the concepts that used to make him great is, to put it kindly, worrisome.
Green Bay Packers: 15
(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
15 is the number of touchdown passes Davante Adams caught last season against Cover-0 or single-high (Cover-1 and Cover-1) coverage. That led the league by a pretty decent margin — Minnesota’s Adam Thielen finished second with 12, and Las Vegas’ Darren Waller finished third with nine. Basically, if you don’t have extra safety help against Adams, he’ll vaporize you. Overall, Adams had 74 receptions on 97 targets for 989 yards, and 602 air yards. However, against two-high defenses (Cover-2, 2-Man, Cover-4, Cover-6, Tampa-2), Adams caught just 32 passes on 42 targets for 335 yards, 238 air yards, and two touchdowns. Not that there’s any automatic elimination strategy against the NFL’s best receiver, but if you want to at least minimize the damage Adams can do to your defense, running two safeties deep is a decent way to start.
Houston Texans: 13
(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
The Texans franchise is basically several dumpster fires colliding for all kinds of reasons. You can look up and down their roster and legitimately wonder if this team will win a single game in 2021. Adding to the issues, of course, is Deshaun Watson’s legal situation, which has already had head coach David Culley (the poor guy) announcing that Watson will sit on the bench Week 1 against the Jaguars in favor of Tyrod Taylor. Here’s the thing: Taylor has been a good quarterback at times throughout his career, especially when he played for the Bills from 2015 through 2017, made the Pro Bowl in 2015, and threw 51 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions in his only legitimate time as a starter. Last we heard from Taylor, he was unfortunately getting his lung punctured by a member of the Chargers’ medical staff while he was given a pain-killing shot, which led to the ascent of Justin Herbert. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly should give Taylor as much play-action as possible as long as he’s the starter, because personnel ain’t gonna do it. During his three seasons with the Bills, Taylor threw 13 touchdown passes and just two picks when using play-action, and in 2020, the Jaguars allowed 15 touchdowns against play-action — only the Titans and Cowboys were worse in that department. We can’t take the Texans seriously in any game at this point, but there’s one way to at least make this thing competitive.
Indianapolis Colts: 3.8
(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)
Carson Wentz’s rehabilitation as a professional quarterback after an absolutely horrible 2020 season has hit several snags — the former Eagle and current Colt has been dealing with a foot injury, and his place on the Colts’ Reserve/COVID list, and we won’t even get into his interesting opinions on getting vaccinated. The thought was that current Colts head coach and former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich could bring Wentz back to… well, if not the top-tier form he showed earlier in his career, at least a version of Wentz that’s better than the mechanical failure we saw last season. Just how bad was Wentz last season? He was the league’s worst quarterback in the situations that are supposed to be layups — stuff designed to get quarterbacks comfortable. No quarterback last season had a worse Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt on throws of zero- to three-step drops than Wentz’s 3.6 (in comparison, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers tied the league lead with 8.3 among quarterbacks with at least 100 short-drop attempts), and no quarterback had more short-drop interceptions than Wentz’s 14. Denver’s Drew Lock, now Teddy Bridgewater’s backup, finished second with 13. Tom Brady had 11, but he’s Tom Brady. Wentz’s time with the Colts has not started estimably, and there is a ton of work to do to get him even back to league-average.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 120.8
(Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)
120.8 was Trevor Lawrence’s passer rating when he wasn’t pressured in his first NFL preseason, and Lawrence was under pressure too often for multiple reasons. The Jaguars’ offensive line rotations didn’t do enough to protect him, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer didn’t do nearly enough to give him open receivers on his first (or second, or third) reads, and there were times when Lawrence simply stared down the proverbial barrel too long before things fell apart. But when he had a clean pocket, Lawrence completed 25 of 32 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Lawrence’s comparative passer rating of 67.0 when under pressure is informative — no quarterback is better under pressure than in a clean pocket, but when you have a guy dropping to nearly half his efficiency when pass-rushers are in his kitchen, that is Not Good. Lawrence completed six of 12 passes for 67 yards under pressure, and though the fault of this drop in efficiency can be split between just about everybody involved, the efforts of Bevell and Schottenheimer to give their rookie more and better route concepts against the Cowboys in the preseason finale didn’t hurt one bit. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/lists/blessed-with-better-route-concepts-trevor-lawrence-has-a-fiery-day-vs-cowboys/
Kansas City Chiefs: 6.9
(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
6.9 is the yards per carry former Oklahoma and current Chiefs center Creed Humphrey helped to create when blocking in gap schemes, which he did on 48% of Oklahoma’s plays from 2018 though 2020. Last season, the Chiefs were more of a zone-blocking team, but with the additions of Humphrey, former Patriots guard Joe Thuney, former Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, and the in-house promotions of guard Trey Smith and tackle Lucas Niang, it’s safe to say that you can expect a bit more ground-and-pound in Andy Reid’s offense this season. What could that look like? Watch Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense, and imagine overlaying that onto what Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and the rest of Kansas City’s offensive assassins have already established, and this could be a lot of fun. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1434212792886710282
Las Vegas Raiders: 15
(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
The Raiders selected Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 draft, and given that Ruggs’ 4.27 track speed very much showed up on tape during his time with the Crimson Tide, you would have expected Jon Gruden and his staff to make Ruggs a big deal as a deep threat in his rookie season. It didn’t happen. In 13 games and 12 starts in 2020, Ruggs was targeted just 15 times on passes of 20 or more air yards, catching five for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Both Nelson Agholor and Darren Waller had more deep targets than did the speedy rookie, and Gruden said in June that Ruggs’ lack of a real offseason in his rookie year, combined with COVID complications, made Ruggs more of a decoy to make things happen for the team’s other deep targets. Now, Agholor is in New England, and though Waller is still an estimable deep target, the Raiders had better get Ruggs going as a deep guy if they’re to advance in what could be a very tough AFC West.
Los Angeles Chargers: 9
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Former Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz recently had a great Twitter thread about how important it is for quarterbacks to be able to convert on third-and-6+ situations. Schwartz hypothesized that it’s easier for quarterbacks to succeed on first and second down, and tougher when it’s third-and-long, and the quarterback is in the eye of the figurative hurricane. It’s an interesting thought, and Patrick Mahomes, Schwartz’s former quarterback, led the league with 26 completions past the sticks on third-and-6+ last season. But it was Justin Herbert who did more to push the ball into the end zone last season in such situations. Per Sports Info Solutions, Herbert led the NFL in touchdown passes on third-and-6 or more, completing 21 such passes on 46 attempts for 456 yards, 340 air yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.5. Not bad for a rookie, as they say.
Los Angeles Rams: 13
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
People are very high on the Rams’ 2021 prospects, and for one good reason — the upgrade at quarterback from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford. We already went over Goff’s unfortunate regression in the Lions portion of this article, and the corresponding bump in play McVay will get from Stafford should allow him to unleash the entire playbook as enemy defenses. One staple of the McVay playbook is the use of pre-snap motion, and one reason the Rams were happy to trade Goff to the Lions along with a ton of high draft picks for Stafford was Stafford’s relative efficiency when using motion. In 2020, Goff was perhaps the NFL’s worst quarterback when using pre-snap motion, throwing just eight touchdowns and matching that with eight interceptions. Stafford, when using far less advanced versions of motion, completed 147 of 226 passes for 1,734 yards, 852 air yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions. If Stafford can cut out a few of the YOLO balls with motion and stay within scheme, the Rams’ passing attack could make life extremely difficult for the rest of the league.
Miami Dolphins: 118.6
(ALLEN EYESTONE / THE PALM BEACH POST)
The Dolphins appear to be pretty loaded at just about every position coming into the 2021 season — they finished 10-6 in 2020, just missed the playoffs, and between general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores, there’s a brain trust that got quite a bit ahead of the rebuilding timeline for a franchise that finished 5-11 the season before, and gutted its way past any “Tankathon” talk. The only question that remains for the Dolphins — and it’s a pretty big one — is what they have in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Is Tagovailoa the quarterback who put up more than his share of credible performances in his rookie season, or is he too much of the guy Flores had to bench against the Broncos in Week 11 because he wasn’t sure what he was seeing against Vic Fangio’s brilliant defense? https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2020/11/23/tua-tagovailoa-benched-brian-flores-dolphins-ryan-fitzpatrick/ Tagovailoa has shown a bit more zip on his intermediate and deep throws this preseason, which is nice, but if Flores and dueling offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey want to make the most of Tagovailoa’s potential, they should consider calling more run-pass options. Last season, Tagovailoa completed 25 of 33 RPO passing attempts for 183 yards, 96 air yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 118.6, 10th-highest in the NFL. The Dolphins might not get a bunch of shot plays this way, but RPOs have helped Tagovailoa get and stay in rhythm going back to his college days, and the Dolphins have enough else on the ball to make a playoff run. It’s time to make their quarterback more comfortable.
Minnesota Vikings: 3
(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
Three is the number of interceptions Minnesota’s cornerbacks came up with in 2020, which is obviously less than optimal. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is one of the best defensive minds of his era, and he’s especially astute as a secondary coach, so you can only imagine his frustration with Minnesota’s cornerback situation over the last couple seasons. Veterans Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes were released after disastrous seasons in 2019, and it was hoped that rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler would pick up the slack. That’s a lot to ask for two first-year NFL cornerbacks, no matter how good they are, and neither Gladney nor Dantzler were able to bring enough to the party. Gladney is no longer with the team — he was released in August after he was indicted on felony assault charges, and that’s easier to do when the player in question allows seven touchdowns and has no interceptions. Dantzler was a bit better, especially down the stretch — the Mississippi State alum allowed no touchdowns and had two picks in the second half of the 2020 regular season — but the Vikings’ cornerback situation remains highly volatile. They signed veteran Bashaud Breeland this offseason, and last we saw of Breeland this preseason, he was getting nuked against former Chiefs teammate Tyreek Hill on a miscommunication with safety Camryn Bynum. https://twitter.com/PFF/status/1431409555540430853
New England Patriots: 131.4
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
There were those who were concerned that Alabama quarterback Mac Jones would struggle in the NFL because of his lack of second-reaction ability — the ability, in other words, to get outside the pocket and make plays when under pressure. Tom Brady has proven the exception to the rule that in today’s NFL, you’d best have a quarterback with second-reaction ability if you want to succeed, but that’s because Brady has the mental acuity to destroy any defense, and he’s the best in-pocket mover in NFL history. Not that we’re putting Jones in Brady’s rarefied air anytime soon, but the Patriots may have been on to something when they took Jones with the 15th overall pick. Through his first preseason, the rookie showed impressive ability to shuffle in the pocket under pressure to make timing throws… https://twitter.com/MattBowen41/status/1428796078263083010 …and that goes back to his college days. In 2020, Jones was by far the most efficient of the top draftable quarterbacks when under pressure, completing 56 of 88 passes for 976 yards, 556 air yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions. And when he was asked to make downfield throws under pressure? No problem. Jones completed seven passes of 20 or more air yards on 11 pressured attempts for 347 yards, 239 air yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Yes, Jones was buttressed by an incendiary receiver group and the brilliant play-calling of Steve Sarkisian last season, but last time we checked, the Patriots have a pretty decent group of targets all of a sudden, and their coaching staff has done a few notable things.
New Orleans Saints: 25
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
In naming Jameis Winston their Week 1 starter over Taysom Hill, the Saints certainly hope that Winston has calmed the rogue gene that caused him to throw 88 picks in five seasons with the Buccaneers — including, of course, his “historic” 2019 season, in which he became the first NFL quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. The interesting thing about Winston’s interceptions in that season was the relatively low number that came on deep balls — just five on passes of 20 or more air yards, and nine of his 33 touchdowns came on deep balls. The other 25 picks were split pretty evenly between throws of 0-9 air yards (12) and throws of 10-19 air yards (13). Winston missed a lot of short and intermediate reads back then, which led to a lot of cornerbacks jumping his routes and returning interceptions for touchdowns — he had seven pick-sixes in 2019. Winston also had six interceptions on opening drives in 2019, which is not the way you want to get any game going. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2019/12/21/a-solemn-review-of-jameis-winstons-six-opening-drive-interceptions/ How will things be different under Sean Payton in New Orleans’ offense? Well, Payton is one of the NFL’s best offensive play-designers, and a big part of that is his ability to scheme stuff wide open in those same short and intermediate areas that have given Winston so much trouble in the past. And we are of the opinion that if Winston can keep the productivity up and cut his error rate to a reasonable position, a career rebirth is not out of the question.
New York Giants: 138.6
(AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)
Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seems a step behind when it comes to maximizing what makes quarterback Daniel Jones potentially above-average. Jones’ penchant for making big plays downfield as a deep passer in 2020, as opposed to the number of opportunities he had to do so, would be Exhibit A in that argument. Last season, Jones completed 20 of 43 passes of 20 or more air yards for six touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 132.5, which was the highest among any quarterback taking at least 20% of his teams’ snaps. But those 43 deep attempts tied him for 21st in the league with Gardner Minshew and Jared Goff. Here’s the thing — Jones was below-average in efficiency on every other distance. He threw no touchdowns and four interceptions on passes of 10-19 air yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions on passes of 0-9 air yards, and on passes behind the line of scrimmage, no touchdowns and no picks. If the Giants are to really see what they have in Jones, it’s time to let him throw it deep more often, and see how it goes.
New York Jets: 20
(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)
20 is the number of touchdown passes Zach Wilson threw for BYU in 2020, which tied him with Ole Miss’s Matt Corral for the NCAA lead. The difference is that Corral threw eight interceptions off play-action passes last season, and Wilson threw… well, none. All in all, he completed 89 of 123 play-action attempts for 1,548 yards and a passer rating of 154.0. Not that Wilson was a disaster without play-action — he completed 156 of 214 non-play-action attempts for 2,146 yards, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.5 — but Wilson’s play-action numbers are especially relevant as he’s now working with Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, the former Kyle Shanahan assistant who’s a big proponent of play-action himself. In the 2021 preseason, Wilson completed five of six play-action passes for 75 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a perfect passer rating of 158.3. So, you can expect a lot more of this when the Jets take the field for the regular season.
Philadelphia Eagles: 82.2
(Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
Last season, Justin Herbert led all quarterbacks who took at least 20% of their teams’ offensive snaps with a passer rating of 99.4 under pressure. That’s what happens when you complete 110 of 193 passes for 1,468 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. After that, the list of quarterbacks with high passer ratings under pressure is pretty much who you’d expect — Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Gardner Minshew… Wait, what? Gardner Minshew had a top-10 passer rating under pressure? Yes he did, and he did so on a 1-15 team with a reductive offense that did not play to his strengths. When pressured in 2020, Minshew completed 42 of 96 passes for 548 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception, and a passer rating of 82.2. Minshew’s average depth of target was 12.0 under pressure, which means that he wasn’t just checking down. Now that the Jags traded Minshew to the Eagles, there’s an interesting competition afoot. Last season when under pressure, ostensible starter Jalen Hurts completed 15 of 47 passes under pressure for 283 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 59.1 — down in the bottom quarter of starting quarterbacks along with Daniel Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, and Taysom Hill. We’re not saying, we’re just saying.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 5
(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Last season, Steelers cornerbacks totaled eight interceptions, and five of them went out the door in free agency — three from Mike Hilton, who went to the Bengals in free agency, and two from Steven Nelson, who was cut in March in a cap-saving move and signed with the Eagles. Now, you can expect last year’s NFL-best defense to still be pretty darned good, especially up front, but we raised an eyebrow when Pittsburgh traded for veteran Ahkello Witherspoon last week, given that Witherspoon was benched for performance reasons multiple times with the 49ers and was falling down Seattle’s depth chart before the trade, and outside of Joe Haden and Cam Sutton, there isn’t much certainty at some very important positions. Losing Hilton especially could come back to bite the team, as he was an outstanding slot defender last season, and they’re still figuring out how (and with whom) to replace him. Undrafted free agent rookie Shakur Brown played the most slot snaps in the preseason and didn’t fare well, and while Sutton is a good slot guy, is he a better option outside? We can but wait and see.
San Francisco 49ers: 111.9
(Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)
This was the passer rating North Dakota State’s Trey Lance had in 2019 when given the benefit of pre-snap motion. Lance completed 91 of 139 passes for 1,122 yards, 659 air yards, nine touchdowns, and no interceptions. My colleague Mark Schofield has already done a deep dive on the schematic similarities between what the Bison ran with Lance and what Kyle Shanahan likes to do, and you can add Lance’s ability to rip a defense apart with pre-snap motion to that picture. Last season, the 49ers ranked first in the NFL in pre-snap motion plays at 73%. But they also ranked 19th in Positive Play Rate, because between them, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard threw 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions with the benefit of motion, while taking 29 sacks. This is not what Kyle Shanahan had in mind, and it’s yet one more reason you can expect Lance to become the 49ers’ quarterback of the future much closer to the present.
Seattle Seahawks: 28
(Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
28 was the number of touchdown passes thrown by Russell Wilson in the first half of the 2020 season — Weeks 1-10 — which led the NFL. In Weeks 11 through the postseason, however, Wilson threw just 14 touchdown passes, and the wild-card loss to the Rams, in which Wilson completed just 11 of 27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, five sacks, and a passer rating of 72.1, was the nadir of a series of games in which Seattle’s tendency to be schematically uninteresting with its passing game caught up to the franchise. The hope is that with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who replaced Brian Schottenheimer, Wilson will be able to benefit from some of the concepts Waldron learned with the Rams as Sean McVay’s passing game coordinator. A few hallmarks of the McVay offense are heavy play-action, creative pre-snap motion, and tight receiver splits out of interesting personnel packages to widen the field for the quarterback’s targets. The Seahawks will never be a pass-happy team under Pete Carroll, but they can be a great deal more interesting and efficient in the passing game, and perhaps Waldron has the formula to get the most out of Wilson — which, as we have seen, is quite a lot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11.4
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
11.4 is the Buccaneers’ yards per play average, per Football Outsiders, when they used play-action from Weeks 14-17 of the regular season. It was late in the 2020 regular season that head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich finally realized that Tom Brady fares better with play-action and pre-snap motion than without, and the difference was… well, all the difference. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2021/07/21/tom-brady-bruce-arians-joe-biden-donald-trump/ The offense’s rate of play-action increased from 18.5% to 15.5%, and from Weeks 14-17, the team’s yards per play rated first in the NFL both with and without play-action, where it was still 8.9. The Bucs increased their play-action frequency to 28.5% in the postseason and still averaged 9.7 YPP with it, though the YPP dropped to 6.1 without. Add in the team’s increased use of pre-snap motion late in the season and in the playoffs, and it could easily be posited that this offense of the defending Super Bowl champs will be even better in 2021 — a frightening thought for the rest of the league.
Tennessee Titans: 22
(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
22 was the number of touchdowns the Titans allowed in man coverage (Cover-0, Cover-1, and 2-Man) in 2020, which tied them with the Lions for the league’s worst mark in that department. Except that the Lions had four interceptions in man coverage, and the Titans had just one. Tennessee’s EPA/Play allowed in man coverage was 0.19, tied with the Jaguars and Raiders for the league’s third-worst mark, and only the Browns allowed a higher Positive Play Rate (51.1%) than Tennessee’s 50.4%. The kids on Tennessee’s secondary may be alright, though. In the 2021 preseason, second-year cornerback Kristian Fulton allowed an opponent passer rating of 39.6 in man coverage, rookie Caleb Farley gave up an OPR of 58.3, and rookie Elijah Molden allowed an OPR of 77.1 in the slot. If the Titans can present credible man coverage across the board in 2021, they have the look of Super Bowl contenders. If not? Well, let’s hope Julio Jones catches about 40 touchdown passes, because that’s what it would take to overcome such a defensive debacle.
Washington Football Team: 134
(Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)
134 was the number of dropbacks the Football Team played in man coverage in 2020, which tied with the Chargers for the sixth-lowest total in the league. And in man coverage last season, Washington allowed 70 completions on 134 attempts for 858 yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a QBR allowed of 70.2. That doesn’t quite put them in the “Don’t play man if you can’t play man” category (hello, Lions and Titans), but defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio might want to call more of it anyway, and free agent acquisition William Jackson III is the reason why. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2021/03/16/cornerback-william-jackson-iii-washington-football-team-2021-nfl-free-agency/ In 2020, despite a Bengals defense in which you often wondered just exactly what the heck everybody was doing, Jackson was targeted 40 times in 227 man coverage snaps in 2020, allowing just 15 receptions for 187 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.5%, which ranked fourth among cornerbacks with at least 25 targets in man coverage. And when you have perhaps the NFL’s best overall defensive line, it’s okay to have your defensive backs go one-on-one all over the field with opposing receivers. Washington ranked third in Defensive DVOA last season, and they just might be first overall this season. Jackson, and a more aggressive set of coverage concepts, might just put them over the top.