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What the Statistical Oddities From 2018 Tell Us About the 2019 NFL Season

Play-action, tight windows, and clean pockets: The most interesting stats from 2018 show just how much the NFL is a quarterback’s league

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If you’re like me, you spend inordinate amounts of time trawling NFL statistical databases, including Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, AirYards.com, Sharp Football Stats, NFL Next Gen Stats and Pro-Football-Reference. But as the smorgasbord of NFL stat sites continues to expand, it’s easy to get lost in a vast sea of numbers, so I sifted through charts, spreadsheets, and search queries and collected a few of the most interesting, strange, or illuminating statistical nuggets I could find from the 2018 season. I’ve done this column every year for each of the last three seasons, and this year, just about every stat I dug up reflects the present state of the NFL as a quarterback-driven and offense-centric league. Let’s dig in to what these numbers could mean for 2019.

The Steelers Hate Play-Action

NFL teams have increasingly leaned on play-action passes during the last few seasons. The leaguewide rate rose from 18 percent in 2016 all the way to 24 percent in 2018, per the Football Outsiders Almanac. That movement was spearheaded last year by a few of the league’s best offenses and quarterbacks, with the Rams’ Jared Goff, the Eagles’ Carson Wentz, the Patriots’ Tom Brady, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes each finishing with play-action rates above 30 percent. Those numbers should only rise in 2019, and the reason is simple: Play-action fakes work. When the quarterback fakes a handoff, it puts defenders in a bind. Safeties, linebackers, and defensive linemen must read their keys to react to the offensive play, and even one false step in the wrong direction—toward the line of scrimmage in anticipation of a run play, for instance—can be enough to put them out of position to make a play against the pass. As FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer notes, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in 2018 averaged 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action dropbacks than on all other plays, and offensive coordinators are likely still just scratching the surface of the potential that deception creates.

The Steelers, though, have resisted that trend. In fact, they’ve gone the other direction: Pittsburgh used a play-action fake on a league-low 12 percent of its dropback attempts last year, per Football Outsiders’ charting, just one point higher than their league-low 11 percent rate in 2017. That may seem like an archaic—perhaps even backwards—approach, but the fact is, Roethlisberger is one of the few quarterbacks who simply performs better in straight dropback situations than with the help of a play-action fake. The veteran passer finished with a passer rating of 85.6 on play-action attempts last year, per Pro Football Focus—29th among 37 qualifying quarterbacks—and completed 67 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two picks. Without play-action, Roethlisberger posted a 98.0 passer rating (tied for seventh best). He threw 32 touchdowns to 14 picks on those attempts. As Football Outsiders points out, this statistical quirk isn’t anything new, either: “For four straight years, the Steelers have a better DVOA without play-action, even though the league as a whole always has a better DVOA with play-action.”

There are likely multiple reasons the Steelers cut against the grain in this particular area. For one, Pittsburgh favors empty backfield sets far more than any other team: Per Football Outsiders, the Steelers lined up without a running back in the backfield on a league-high 18 percent of snaps last season—more than double the league average of 8.2 percent. Going with empty-set looks eliminates the ability to fake a run, but it does spread the defense thin and help identify mismatches—especially when executed by a veteran quarterback like Roethlisberger, who has full control to change the play at the line of scrimmage. But even if the Steelers run the ball a little more in 2019 (no team attempted more passes last season) and use fewer empty backfield sets this season, I wouldn’t expect their play-action rate to go up a whole lot. Not with Roethlisberger under center, anyway; Big Ben may simply not be comfortable turning his back to the defense to execute the play-action fake. Some quarterbacks prefer to drop back with their eyes downfield so they can see how the defense reacts from the jump. That seems to be Roethlisberger’s preference, and the numbers back him up there.

Patrick Mahomes Didn’t Force It

When I picture Mahomes’s 2018 season, the general image that comes to mind is of the dynamic playmaker throwing some seemingly impossible no-look pass, off one foot, into tight coverage and exactly where only his receiver can get it for a touchdown. The ball is either on fire in my mind’s eye, or it turns into a missile right when it leaves his hand. That’s probably not based entirely in reality, but that’s just how impressive Mahomes was last year. He was doing things I’ve never seen a quarterback do.

Mahomes is certainly more capable than just about anyone on the planet to make those awesome frozen-rope throws into triple coverage, but he didn’t actually have to attempt those types of passes all that often. Playing in Andy Reid’s wide-open “Spread Coast” offense, Mahomes almost always had receivers running relatively open downfield, whether that was Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, or one of the team’s running backs. He just had to find them. As Sharp Football’s Dan Pizzuta recently wrote, just 11 percent of Mahomes’s regular-season passes were considered “aggressive”—i.e., throws into tight windows, which is defined by the NFL’s Next Gen Stats as one yard or fewer of separation—which tied with Marcus Mariota for lowest rate among passers heading into 2019 with a starting job. That’s pretty incredible considering Mahomes’s average depth of target (9.5 yards) ranked seventh-deepest leaguewide.

Kansas City’s offense almost perfectly marries its quarterback and play-caller. Mahomes can deliver shocking, unbelievable passes when the team really needs him to, but most of the time, he’s simply operating with cold-blooded efficiency and playing within the confines of Reid’s scheme. It’s his accuracy, timing, and sound decision-making—not necessarily his rocket arm—that win the day. One of my favorite ways to measure the baseline quality of a quarterback is to simply look at their performance when they’re kept clean in the pocket; it’s not a perfect method, obviously, but when you eliminate defensive pressure as a variable, it can paint a picture of how well a quarterback can sit in the pocket, read the defense, and pick it apart. Unsurprisingly, Mahomes led the way when kept clean last year, per PFF, and coasted to an NFL-best 134.2 passer rating with 41 touchdowns and just four picks on those plays.

Regression to the mean is a powerful, almost inevitable force and it wouldn’t be surprising if Mahomes fails to crack 50 touchdowns in 2019. But outside of total touchdowns (an inherently high-variance stat), it wouldn’t surprise me either if Mahomes is as efficient (or more efficient) in 2019 in most other measures, whether we’re talking completion percentage (66.0), yards per attempt (8.8), or passer rating (113.8).

When a Clean Pocket Wasn’t Enough

Another reason I love to look at clean-pocket performance is that it’s an intuitively “accurate” stat that lines up with the eye test: Among quarterbacks with at least 350 dropbacks last year, those at the top of that list are a who’s who of the league’s established elite at the position: Mahomes, Drew Brees, Wilson, Goff, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton, Wentz, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Andrew Luck, Roethlisberger, Brady … you get it.

On the other hand, when a quarterback struggles to pass from a clean pocket, it raises pretty major red flags about their ability to process what they’re seeing, make decisions, and deliver on time and accurately downfield. Among the players at the bottom of the list for clean-pocket efficiency for 2018, we find a trio of rookies: Sam Darnold (93.9 passer rating), Josh Rosen (80.9), and Josh Allen (79.8). That’s not all that surprising, though; it’s exceedingly tough to make the transition to the NFL.

Poor play from a clean pocket is one thing for a rookie, but it’s far more concerning when you see it from a veteran. A few well-established, longtime starters found themselves near the end of the clean-pocket efficiency list in 2018; Short term, unless Matt Stafford, Jameis Winston, and Joe Flacco improve their efficiency from a clean pocket, none of the Lions, Bucs, or Broncos will sniff the postseason in 2019. Longer term, repeat clean-pocket performances from that trio could change the directions of their franchises in 2020 and beyond.

Stafford had one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2018. He tossed just 21 touchdowns and 11 picks, and dropped below the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career (among seasons he started 16 games). It was especially concerning that seven of those 11 interceptions came from a clean pocket, and his 96.0 passer rating when he wasn’t pressured ranked just 23rd out of 30 qualifying passers. The Lions will hope new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can help solve some of those woes; they’re banking on it, really, because Detroit can’t get out of Stafford’s contract until at least 2021. The Buccaneers and Broncos can, at least, move on from their respective starters if Winston (who threw 10 of his 14 interceptions last year from a clean pocket) and Flacco (whose 94.9 passer rating from a clean pocket ranked 24th of 30 quarterbacks) don’t improve in 2019.

Deshaun Watson Didn’t Crack Under Pressure

Of course, there’s more to a quarterback than simply operating from a clean pocket. The best of the best separate themselves by making plays under duress. The guys who can step up, evade pressure, keep their eyes downfield, and still fire a strike downfield will play longer—and have more success—in this league. It’s especially valuable to have a quarterback who can thrive under pressure when you’re a team that struggles to put together a competent offensive line. Like, say, the Texans.

No quarterback was under pressure more often last season than Deshaun Watson, who had pass rushers in his face on 44.7 percent of his dropbacks, per PFF. Luckily for Houston, no quarterback performed better under pressure last year than Watson, who compiled an 88.2 passer rating on those plays (first), completing 57.9 percent of his passes (third) with nine touchdowns (tied for second) and five picks.

Houston’s (rash, perhaps irresponsible) move to acquire left tackle Laremy Tunsil last weekend should help improve Watson’s blindside protection in 2019, but it won’t completely solve all the team’s pass-protection woes. Sacks and pressure are both strongly correlated to a quarterback’s playing style; quick-release experts can simply avoid pressure by getting the ball out of their hands before pass rushers arrive. That hasn’t been Watson’s style thus far in his career; in 2018, his 3.01 seconds to throw was the fourth-longest time in the league (out of 30 passers). Unless Watson changes drastically in that area, he will have to keep improvising, and his performance under pressure could be the barometer for the team’s overall potential this year.

That Other Reason the Ravens Decided to Run

The Ravens’ offense underwent an amazing metamorphosis partway through last season and shifted from a pass-heavy approach under Flacco to the most run-centric scheme in the league under rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. The main reason for that change was obvious: It catered to Jackson’s elite skill set as a runner. But the decision to go all in on the ground game probably got a boost from the fact that no one in the Ravens’ receiving corps could catch the damn ball.

Three of the top 10 most drops-prone pass catchers in the NFL last year were on Baltimore’s offense. Michael Crabtree, who dropped 11 of his 65 catchable targets for a league-worst 16.9 percent drop rate, led the way, but was joined by John Brown (14.3 percent drop rate, with seven drops on 49 targets) and Willie Snead IV (7.5 percent drop rate). Unsurprisingly, the team completely revamped that pass-catching corps during the offseason: Snead remains, but the Ravens spent a first-round pick on Marquise Brown and a third-rounder on Myles Boykin. Baltimore’s banking on an upgrade in not just playmaking talent from that duo, but in simple pass-catching reliability. They’ll need it if Jackson’s prediction for around 30 passes a game comes true. That’d be a jump from last year, when the rookie averaged 22.5 attempts in his seven starts.

Throw Caution to the Wind

Some teams are just objectively more fun to watch than others. Last year, the Buccaneers and Bills—a pair of typically, well, boring squads—were way more entertaining than I thought they’d be. And it related directly to their vertically aggressive passing offenses.

The Buccaneers were the first to explode onto the scene by employing a wide-open Air Raid attack under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who tasked journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with attacking downfield relentlessly. Tampa Bay shocked the Saints and Eagles in the first two weeks of the season and racked up nearly 1,000 yards of offense and 75 points en route to a 2-0 start. The defense-challenged Bucs faded as the year went on, and Fitzpatrick traded off with Winston for the starting job, but it’s pretty astonishing to look at the yards per attempt column for the entire 2018 season and see Fitzpatrick right there at the top. The 36-year-old signal-caller threw for 2,366 yards on 246 attempts in eight games, good for 9.6 yards per attempt, nearly a full yard per attempt more than the second-place finisher and league MVP, Mahomes (8.8). Of course, Fitz threw a few too many picks and took a few too many sacks, but he also injected some life into a listless franchise.

The same can be said about Josh Allen and the Bills. The jury is definitely still out on whether Allen will emerge as a reliable, efficient quarterback in Buffalo, but Allen’s big arm and aggressive style made the Bills worth watching in 2018. No quarterback threw deep at a higher rate than Allen last season, who tossed it at least 20 yards on 19.7 percent of his throws, per PFF. Toward the end of the season, Buffalo’s general strategy was to spread the field with four receivers, send them all deep, and if Allen didn’t get an open receiver on his first or second read, just let him take off running. I’m not sure if that’s a viable long-term approach for Allen, who threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions on his deep passes to compile a 62.9 passer rating on those throws that ranked 29th out of 35 qualifying passers, per PFF. But it sure as hell isn’t boring, and I am looking forward to seeing what Buffalo coordinator Brian Daboll dials up for Allen in 2019.