Inside the Isolator: Notes & Findings Taking You Into Week 1's Kickoff

inside the isolator

Warren Sharp

Friday, September 1, 2017 8:24 PM GMT

Friday, Sep. 1, 2017 8:24 PM GMT

It's Time. the opening weekend of NFL action is just days away, so lets run through some of my notes and go over what we do and don't want to see from teams this year.

What I want to see from teams this season is …

… to throw more passes to tight ends. The NFL game has changed.  For years it was about running the ball and #1 WRs.  Teams still use 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) on 60% of their plays, league wide.  But the future of NFL efficiency is fewer wide receivers, not more.  Take a look at the passing success rate of various grouping packages.  (and here is your key:  the first number is the RBs, the 2nd number is TEs, and the 3rd number [obtain by taking the number 5 and subtracting RBs and TEs] is WRs).  We’ll only hit those groupings run last year on at least 200 plays, and we’ll start with the WR heavy packages and then transition into the TE/RB heavy formations:

- 11 personnel [3 WRs]:  49% success rate, 103 rating, 7.2 yards per attempt

- 10 personnel [4 WRs]: 41% success rate, 82 rating, 6.3 ypa

- 12 personnel [2 WRs]: 52% success rate, 122 rating, 7.6 ypa

- 21 personnel [2 WRs]: 51% success rate, 131 rating, 8.2 ypa

- 22 personnel [1 WR]:  53% success rate, 146 rating, 7.5 ypa

- 13 personnel [1 WR]: 55% success rate, 144 rating, 8.5 ypa

It’s pretty obvious where the efficiency lies.  Thanks to the data from Sharp Football Stats, I can tell you that targeting the TE when in 11 personnel (3 WRs on the field) has a higher efficiency (53% success, 93 rating) than targeting one of the WRs (48% success, 87 rating) from 11.  League-wide, targeting TEs produces a higher success rate (53%) than targeting WRs (50%) or RBs (46%).  There are many factors, but it starts with how they align and who is assigned coverage.  From the jump, it’s a benefit to the offense to target that TE.

… more runs on 2nd and short.  Of any down or distance, the easiest down/distance to convert into a first down is 2nd and short. And it is significantly easier to convert when running the football as opposed to passing. All too often, teams do not understand the importance of efficiency on this particular down and distance and waste opportunity.  A huge 70% of all 2nd and short run plays gain first downs.  Also, importantly only 0.7% result in a turnover.   Meanwhile, only 52% of pass plays gain first downs, and a whopping 3.4% resulted in turnovers while and 2.5% result in sacks.  far too often, they are hesitant to run the ball on 2nd and short to obtain what is a slam dunk first down, and instead favor a shot play with a low hit rate and a substantial turnover rate.  There is a reason even a tremendous passing offense like the Patriots called 76% run plays on 2nd and short last year.  Looking at standard down situations (1st and 10, 2nd and any measure of 10 or less, 3rd and any measure of 10 or less), the only down situation which saw a higher turnover rate than 2nd and 1-2 yards to go was 3rd and 10.

… more runs in the red zone.  Most teams get far too pass happy in the red zone when running in the red zone is quite efficient.  On short yardage, as should be obvious, it is particularly effective.  Still, on 3rd or 4th and 1-3 yards to go, teams called pass 55% and only 49% were successful in generating a first down.  Meanwhile, while teams preferred calling passes, runs in the same situation were successful over 61% of the time.  That is a massive efficiency edge.  Additionally, there were zero turnovers and zero sacks (clearly), whereas over 8% of pass plays were negative (turnover or sack).  But even on early downs, run plays have a higher success rate than do pass plays.  Inside the red zone, run plays are successful on early downs 49% of the time, whereas pass plays are successful just 43% of the time. 

What I don’t want to see from teams this season is…

…jumbo packages.  RB runs out of jumbo on 3rd or 4th down and 1 are successful 43% of the time. Compare that to RB runs with at least one wide receiver on the field in those same situations, which are successful 69% of the time, and you can see why it’s not particularly smart to trot on your jumbo personnel. Particularly because it gives zero threat to pass on 3rd or 4th down. [removing goal line plunge jumbo entirely, the RB success rates are 14% better in non-jumbo as opposed to 26% better from the 1 yard line, but this could be due to lower sample size producing higher variance.] Even the Patriots, who are one of the most efficient teams in the NFL, were 30% more successful (80%) when running their RB with at least one WR on the field on 3rd/4th down and 1 than they were when running their BR from jumbo formation.  On the 1 yard line, RB-runs from jumbo formations were successful just 38% of the time. And when in jumbo formation on the 1 yard line on 3rd/4th down, teams would run the ball 86% of the time. The few passes they attempted were never successful (0% success rate).  But, add 1 wide receiver to give more of a threat to pass (and thus, non-jumbo formation), and RB runs posted a 45% success rate (up from 38% without a WR). While teams primarily still ran the ball (79% run), passes became much more successful at 57% (up from 0% without a WR).  Add another wide receiver to place two on the field, and suddenly we’re at peak efficiency. RB runs posted a 73% success rate. And while teams were still run heavy (71% run), passes were 100% successful, with each pass recording a TD.

… running back passes on 3rd down.  How often do we hear the term “3rd down back”.  The scat back who comes in on 3rd down because he’s adept at catching passes out of the backfield.  Why are such players used?  If you answered “because they can pass block” and the team needs to pass the ball, go sit in the corner.  There is little likelihood these players are the best pass blockers that could be used.  Teams that use 3rd down backs inherently sacrifice pass protection, in order to achieve the main goal:  because he’s an outlet receiver if downfield weapons are covered or if the pass rush comes too quickly for routes to develop.  The primary reason he is there is to catch the ball.  On 3rd and 1, as discussed earlier, most teams run.  But 16% of the time they throw to RBs, and unfortunately, these are 10% less successful than passes to other positions.   On 3rd and 2-4, 81% of the time teams are passing.  Of the total passes, 16% go to RBs and of these, the success rate (55%) is nearly equivalent to WR passes (54%), but TE passes (61%) are still dominant.  But anything 5 yards and longer and the success rate to RBs drops precipitously.  At 5 yards to go, only 47% are successful.  Six yards?  41%.  Seven yards?  22%.  Meanwhile, passes to all other positions with 7 yards to go have a 44% success rate, exactly double that of what a RB target provides.

… trying to “establish our identity” instead of simply attacking their opponents weaknesses.  Even efficient run teams, but especially inefficient ones, should not attack at an opponent’s strength.  An example of a team who understands this is (unsurprisingly) the Patriots.  For years, the Patriots have employed a strategy against strong run teams.  Surprisingly, while I’ve been discussing this for years, it is not well known or at least I haven’t seen it broken by numbers.  Against opponents with great run defenses allowing less than 3.4 yards per carry as established through at least week 8, the Patriots go pass heavy.  When comparing pass attempts to RB runs, it’s not even close:   The Patriots go 73% pass in the first half and 72% pass overall.  In 2014 and earlier, they went a bit more pass-heavy from the start, such as 77%-82% pass in the first half.  To see that in numbers, they are 27 first half passes to 6 first half rushes.  It’s that significant a margin.  More recently, they’ve been a bit more balanced at times to start games, in the 67% pass range.  But when one or two series with a bit more balance doesn’t work, they just go pass heavy the rest of the way through.  Teams should feel free to test their opponent on the first series or two.  Even if you’re a run heavy team with a solid run game, you want to see if you’ll have success.  That’s fine.  But when it doesn’t work, forget balance.  Balance means first down carries of 1 yard that immediately put a team behind schedule. 

What I found is…

… in Jacksonville last year, in weeks 11, 12, 13, 15 and 17, the Jaguars led at some point in the second half but lost every single game.  If less than 3 WRs on any play, they went 100% run, with a 29% run success rate.  If 3 WRs on any play, 65% pass including 78% pass after first down, with a 29% pass success rate.

… avoid LeGarrette Blount in Philadelphia:  this preseason he has 13 att, 36 yds, 2.77 ypc, 0 TD.  He posted a 15% success rate.  This year the Eagles face the 3rd toughest schedule of run defenses.

… the Broncos plan to go shotgun heavy this year but are using a quarterback (Trevor Siemian) who has been terrible in the shotgun:  he posted a 54% success rate under center and a 43.7% success rate.  However, when in shotgun inside the opponent’s 35-yard line, Siemian’s struggles were evident.  His success rate dropped from nearly 60% down to 37%.  Even on shorter passes, his success rate was extremely poor.  Overall, he dropped from 8% better than average when under center to approximately 8% worse than average when operating out of the shotgun.

… the last two years, Marcus Mariota has struggled tremendously throwing to his right and has been dominant everywhere else.  In 2015:

To the right:  86/146, 58.9%, 6.4 YPA, 82 RTG, 8:5 TD:INT

Everywhere else:  144/218, 66.1%, 8.6 YPA, 100 RTG, 11:5 TD:INT

In 2016:

To the right:  86/146, 58.9%, 6.4 YPA, 82 RTG, 8:5 TD:INT

Everywhere else:  144/218, 66.1%, 8.6 YPA, 100 RTG, 11:5 TD:INT

I watched every single Mariota throw to the right and compiled them into a 10-minute clip.  It’s not pretty.

[/]{"component":"video", "type":"youtube", "url":"", "videoSize":"Large" }[/]

What you need to know is…

… enjoy the veteran quarterback crop while you can.  Very soon, we’ll likely be without Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  The caliber of quarterback play could diminish rapidly over the next 3 years unless unproven players show they can be great for more than one, random season.

… the Broncos schedule is brutal.  This season, Denver plays four games against top-5 opponents (teams projected to win the most games this year).  Only one team plays more top-5 games (Chiefs).  They play six top-10 games (only the Dolphins play more top-10 teams).  The 7 games post-bye week are brutal when factoring in the travel. 

… the Seahawks schedule is set up nice for success this year.  While Seattle gets a huge boost to their average thanks to playing in the NFC West against the Rams and 49ers, they play only four top-10 games, second fewest in the league.  I have them with the second easiest schedule in the NFL this season overall.

… I love Ted Ginn this year.  He’s a total late round flyer at WR57, but for the first time in his last 7 seasons, Ginn won’t be playing on a team with a top-10 defense.  The Saints defense has been bottom 3 the last 3 years, and now has Cam Newton targeting him.  He offers immense upside if he can stay healthy, as the Saints will have to throw early and often to win games, something Ginn’s prior teams (Carolina, Arizona and San Francisco) didn’t need to do.

… if you’re not using the free metrics at Sharp Football Stats, you’re missing out on the newest revolution in NFL analytics for free, for public consumption.  If you’re not following me on Twitter (@SharpFootball) you’re missing a ton of useful, actionable and free information.


About the author:  Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) is a licensed Professional Engineer and is an inventor of custom & predictive NFL analytics/visualized data. He owns Sharp Football Analysis and Sharp Football Stats. His work has been seen at ESPN, FOX, the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and many other news/sports sites. He authored the bestselling 'Warren Sharp's 2017 Football Preview', available on Amazon or in PDF

comment here