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What a Handful of Odd NFL Stats From 2017 Could Tell Us About 2018

Every season has statistical quirks, but will these teams and players continue their trends or regress toward the mean?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

From Football Outsiders to Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference to NFL Next Gen Stats—and all the dozens of excellent data sources in between—there are now more NFL stats at our disposal than ever before. With that explosion of metrics, it’s easy to get lost in that ever-growing sea of numbers, so I’m here to help. After digging through charts, spreadsheets, tweets, and search queries, I put together a list of a few of the most interesting, strange, or illuminating statistical nuggets from the 2017 season that I could find—along with what those numbers could mean for 2018.

Marcus Mariota was more efficient under pressure than when he was kept clean.

Every NFL quarterback must learn to operate in chaos—keeping their eyes downfield and their wits about them when that inevitable pressure comes. But any pro passer would take a clean pocket and plenty of time over trying to get rid of the ball with a 285-pound pass rusher in his face. That is, maybe except for Mariota.

Last year, the Titans’ signal-caller somehow performed better as pass rushers closed in, completing 53.3 percent of his passes (fifth best among qualifying QBs, per Pro Football Focus), with five touchdowns, two picks, and an 82.7 passer rating (third best, behind only Tom Brady and Jameis Winston). Compare those numbers to when he was kept clean in the pocket: A 64.7 percent completion rate (27th); eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions (tied for most); and a dismal 78.2 passer rating, which ranked 28th, ahead of only rookie DeShone Kizer.

It’s certainly encouraging that Mariota was near the top of the league under pressure, but his numbers when not pressured are, to say the least, disconcerting. For obvious reasons, basically every quarterback in the league performs more efficiently when not pressured—including, usually, Mariota (who posted a 103.3 passer rating from a clean pocket in 2016, compared to a 72.6 passer rating under pressure that season). His issues last year might be partly attributable to Mike Mularkey’s predictable and archaic scheme—which at times failed to give Mariota open receivers downfield. But far too often, Mariota simply made bad reads or throws (or both).

I expect that under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who cut his teeth under Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, Mariota will see a hell of a lot more open receivers downfield. If the Titans want to make a big jump on offense this year, Mariota needs to prove that those clean-pocket numbers from last year were just a statistical outlier.

Speaking of pocket quality, it might surprise you to learn which defense was the best at getting pressure.

No team put pressure on opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate last year than … drumroll, please … the Redskins! The Redskins? Yep—per Football Outsiders’ premium charting data, Washington got pressure on a league-high 36.7 percent of opponent pass plays—the highest quarterback pressure rate, in fact, of any team in the league over the past three seasons (which is as far back as their tracking goes). Not all of these pressures produced sacks, of course—Washington finished fourth in the league with an 8.1 percent adjusted sack rate while racking up 42 quarterback takedowns on the year (seventh)—but a league-best 90 percent of those sacks were of the high-quality variety; just four came on non-pressure plays like coverage sacks or situations where the quarterback ran himself into trouble.

In other words, the Redskins defensive front was as underrated as it was disruptive. That unit got consistent pressure on opposing passers, whether it came from its top edge rushers (like Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, who combined for 21.0 sacks) or via blitz (47.6 percent of which generated pressure, sixth best). That performance is even more intriguing when you consider that top pick Jonathan Allen missed all but five games; add him back into the mix, along with the team’s top selection this year, Daron Payne, and we may not be sleeping on Washington’s defensive front for much longer.

Albert Wilson was incredibly strong at the catch point … and after it.

Wilson was mostly an afterthought in Kansas City’s offense last year, overshadowed by speedster Tyreek Hill, dynamic tight end Travis Kelce, and rookie rushing champ Kareem Hunt. But while quietly collecting 42 catches for 554 yards and three touchdowns, Wilson proved to be one of the league’s toughest competitors at the catch point, racking up a 72.4 percent catch rate on contested passes—good for fourth best in the league.

Now with the Dolphins, the 5-foot-9, 201-pound former Chief was plenty effective after winning those contested passes, too, establishing himself among the league’s elite as a run-after-the-catch playmaker. Wilson finished a close third (among receivers) behind Golden Tate and Jarvis Landry in forced missed tackles (15) last year, and averaged 7.5 yards after the catch, second only to L.A.’s Tyrell Williams. In fact, he ranks first among all wide receivers in missed tackles forced per reception since he came into the NFL in 2014.

The 25-year-old has big shoes to fill to (at least partially) replace Landry in the Dolphins’ passing attack, but these two metrics might make it a lot more clear why Miami signed Wilson this offseason to a three-year deal worth up to $24 million. He could be in for a breakout performance.

The Saints broke a ton of tackles; the Buccaneers … not so much.

While we’re on the subject of missed tackles, it might not surprise you to find out that New Orleans led the league last year in the percentage of plays with a broken tackle (14.2 percent, per Football Outsiders). That group was, of course, led by running backs Alvin Kamara (66 broken tackles, sixth) and Mark Ingram (56 broken tackles, 12th)—and despite Ingram’s four-game suspension to start the year, the Saints will likely have no trouble repeating that performance again in 2018.

On the other side of the coin, we see Tampa Bay, whose offense broke a tackle on a league-worst 7.2 percent of its plays. It’s not too surprising, then, that the team selected USC running back Ronald Jones in the second round of the draft. Jones forced 59 missed tackles for the Trojans last year, per PFF, second among draft-eligible backs, and could help provide the spark the Bucs offense needs in that area.

Philip Rivers was a magician at avoiding sacks.

This may come as a shock: Sacks are bad. They’re demoralizing; they can be dangerous; they often lead to turnovers—and when they don’t, more often than not, they are drive killers. So while quarterback throwaways, dump-offs, or scrambles can sometimes feel like defeats, they’re almost always superior outcome than if that QB were to freeze in the headlights or try to make something out of nothing, and then take a sack.

Rivers was king in avoiding those drive-killing sacks last year. The Chargers’ veteran signal-caller was sacked a career-low 18 times (fewest in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks). He did this despite facing pressure on 37.4 percent of his dropbacks (eighth most) with a sacks-to-pressured dropbacks rate of just 8.1 percent, per PFF, which was easily best in the league (his sack rate on all dropbacks was a league-low 3 percent). For context, Tom Brady—another master at avoiding sacks—was sacked on 17.9 percent of his pressured dropbacks and on 5.7 percent of all his passing snaps.

Some of Rivers’s success was due to his skill at getting the ball out quickly; some of it was his talent in completing throws from a muddied pocket; and, of course, some of it was due, simply, to his willingness to chuck the ball out of bounds to see another down (he finished second in the NFL behind Russell Wilson with 29 throwaways). And while there are always multiple factors at play, it’s no coincidence that the Chargers offense was among the league’s most efficient last year, finishing ranked second in pass DVOA, sixth in drive success rate, and second in (fewest) three-and-outs per drive.

If Rivers can produce a repeat performance in that key area, L.A. could be due for a big year on offense. Of course, that’s no given, considering he’s been sacked an average of 38 times a year the five seasons prior.

The Browns turned the ball over a lot. Like, way too much.

You know what else is bad for offenses? Turnovers! And the Browns were easily the worst in the league in that realm, coughing up the ball an incredible 41 times last year (worst of any team since 2013). It’s little wonder this club failed to win a game; everything else being equal, imagine how different things could’ve been had Cleveland not lost the turnover battle three-to-one in three separate three-point losses: The 31-28 loss to the Colts in Week 3; the 17-14 loss to the Jets in Week 5; and the 12-9 loss to the Titans in Week 7. How different would things have looked in their 19-7 loss to the Jags in Week 11 had the Browns not turned the ball over five times? And would they have emerged victorious had they not lost the turnover battle two-to-zero in their 19-10 loss to the Chargers in Week 13? Or in their 27-21 loss to the Packers in Week 14?

Of the team’s 41 turnovers, a league-high 28 came via interception (also the most for any team since 2013). That’s a important stat to watch this year—and crucially, it’s an area in which Cleveland actually has a strong chance for drastic improvement. Newly acquired quarterback Tyrod Taylor (who looks like the likely starter) may not be the most aggressive quarterback in the league, but he’s tossed just 18 picks on 1,217 attempts in seven years in the league—a career interception rate of just 1.4 percent, which, if it did qualify for Pro Football Reference’s career rankings (1,500 minimum attempts), would make him … the best of all time. Taylor is unusually skilled at taking care of the football—and that factor alone could help the team to a few extra wins in 2018. If Baker Mayfield does wins the job, it won’t be a surprise if the team makes it his top priority to better protect the football.

Jared Goff’s second half was probably better than you think.

The Rams’ offense didn’t exactly fly under the radar last year as it scored a league-best 478 points just one year after finishing dead last in the same category. But while Sean McVay and Todd Gurley get a lot of the hype around that offensive explosion (and look, they both should—McVay’s scheme is brilliant and Gurley jumps over people just about every week), we still might be sleeping on just how well Goff played, too, particularly during the second half of the season.

From Week 9 on, the second-year pro out of Cal threw 19 touchdowns—the most in the NFL—and just three picks and averaged 8.18 yards per attempt (sixth). He ranked first in adjusted yards per attempt (9.14) and passer rating (109.4) in that stretch, and led L.A. to a 6-2 finish. That late-season progression—a result, in part, of Goff getting fully comfortable in McVay’s complex new offense—portends big things. After a full offseason learning the nuances of the playbook and making subtle changes to last year’s successful concepts, the sky’s the limit for what Goff—and the Rams offense—can do in 2018.

The Rams ran the fastest offense; the Bears were slowest.

As long as we’re talking about the Rams, no team ran its offense at a more breakneck pace in score-neutral situations. Excluding plays run during blowouts, at the end of the half, or in the fourth quarter and overtime, L.A. snapped the ball every 27.9 seconds. That’s not quite Chip Kelly-type tempo, but it was the fastest in the league—and based on how well it worked last year (plus McVay’s general non-stop, high-energy demeanor), it’s hard to see that changing too much in 2018. There’s even a chance that as Goff gets more comfortable in the playbook and improves in his ability to diagnose defenses during the pre-snap phase, the Rams might end up going even faster this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Bears were the slowest situation-neutral offense in the league last year, snapping the ball every 33.31 seconds. That was a reflection of John Fox’s conservative nature, but will the offense under new head coach Matt Nagy change drastically? In scheme, yes—Nagy’s set to install the West Coast/spread style hybrid system he ran under Andy Reid in Kansas City last year, and his aggressive approach is, in some ways, the antithesis of Fox’s old school, run-heavy, and predictable style—a shift that should pay huge dividends for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. But the pace at which the Bears play on offense might not change all that much. Nagy wants his offense to be aggressive yet “calculated.” We’ll have to wait to find out exactly what that means, but last year, Kansas City was the second-slowest situation-neutral offense in the NFL, running a play every 32.57 seconds. The Bears’ new-look scheme is almost sure to be better, and way more fun to watch; but if it’s anything like what Reid, Nagy, and the Chiefs ran last year, it just might not be a whole lot faster.