Aaron Rodgers looks for some protection, the Chiefs look for a quarterback among the college ranks, and J.J. Watt looks for space on the mantle for an award he may not win. Plus, an in-depth look at the science of play-action passing and an expose on the Cult of Crunch Time. It is time for me to answer your questions and Tweets in another installment of the Mailbag.
All questions have been reformatted from the Twitterese.
Q: Which QB do you think the Chiefs will select with the first pick of the upcoming draft? Are any "franchise" up for grabs?
A: Bad news keeps getting worse for Chiefs fans. They are bummed that their team is terrible, but they console themselves with hopes of the first pick in the 2013 draft. They turn on Kansas State for some college football excitement, and they see the Wildcats beating the daylights out of West Virginia and Geno Smith - the guy most likely to be the first pick in the overall draft.
Smith's stock dropped after bad losses to K-State and Texas A&M, though his numbers looked better in the TCU game. I have not scouted any of these games. My earlier work on Smith suggests a great athlete with solid fundamentals and a good football IQ. When I see a top athlete losing shootouts in the Big 12 these days, I think of Ryan Tannehill, and without digging hard into the tape, Smith comes across to me as a slightly better Tannehill.
Matt Barkley is behind Door No. 2, and like Smith has been on the receiving end of some losses lately. Barkley has the quick release and the effortless throwing style scouts crave in a first-round pick, and he cannot be held all that accountable for 62-51 losses, but the Stanford game was a real dud, and he led some USC victories in which he looked unimpressive. I would take Smith over Barkley right now, but there is much evaluation to be done.
As of right now, I don't see an Andrew Luck or a Robert Griffin.
Q: What second-year players have made the biggest strides this season? Who's turned around a flagging career?
A: When Mikel Leshoure went from injury to marijuana incident to injury to suspension for the incident over the first 16 months of his NFL career, I wrote him off as one of those guys who, due to bad decisions and bad luck, would never get his career together. He has rushed for 375 yards and four touchdowns this year, and he could be the big back the Lions need to convert short-yardage situations and munch clock. He will never be a superstar, but he has erased a lot of doubt.
There were a lot of questions surrounding St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn at the start of last season: He was inactive for the first game and came off the bench for much of the season, a situation pass rusher who rarely notched a sack. He improved late in the year, when no one was watching the Rams anymore, and he has seven sacks this year. He is a load as a pass rusher, and he has tremendous upside.
Punters are not very exciting, but Matt Bosher of the Falcons was very inconsistent as a rookie. He has come around this season with a 39.8-yard net average. You could put Christian Ponder on this list, I suppose, though I was never that down on Ponder during his rookie season for a lost-cause team and am not that up on him now.
Q: Considering the play of Miller, Tillman, Watt and others, is defensive POY the toughest race to handicap at midpoint of season?
A: You picked three fine contenders. J.J. Watt now has 10.5 sacks and 10 passes defensed, and several of those batted passes occurred in the red zone. Von Miller's three-sack performance against the Bengals gave him nine on the year and showed just how critical he is to the Broncos in important games. Charles Tillman already had two pick-six interceptions before his insane effort against the Titans (four forced fumbles). Tillman makes an appealing candidate because he is a veteran who has had many solid, underappreciated years, and because the Bears defense is becoming one of the stories of the year.
Let's not forget Clay Matthews just because he had two quiet weeks. He draws as many double-teams and "roll away" passing strategies as any pass rusher I have seen in a decade. Jason Pierre-Paul has 6 ½ sacks, a pick-six and five passes defensed. Cameron Wake belongs in the discussion, as do some others.
My gut tells me that Watt will run away with the sack crown. He has two upcoming games against rookie Andrew Luck and a still-developing Colts offensive line, rematches with the Jaguars and Titans, and the highly sackable Jay Cutler on his slate. Watt has become the "story guy" for the Texans (somewhat deservedly), and his Monday Night effort against the Jets was seen by everyone. He is the odds-on favorite right now.
Q: How can the Packers offense be so good at pass blocking and so bad at run blocking?
A: Much of what we perceive as offensive line play is really quarterback play. The quarterback has as much of an effect on his own sack total, sometimes more of an effect, than his offensive line does. Aaron Rodgers has become very good at making his offensive lines look better than they are.
Let's explore a few ways that quarterbacks can make life easier for their offensive lines and, by extension, themselves:
Making smart reads and decisions at the line: Peyton Manning made some mediocre lines look great by reading the defense at the line of scrimmage, calling audibles and finding open receivers on blitzes. Rodgers is not in Manning's class at this (no one is), but he is pretty good.
Releasing the ball quickly: Dan Marino ran like a horseshoe crab, but his sack totals were always low because he had a lightning-quick release. Rodgers has very good release speed.
Sliding around the pocket: Tom Brady and Troy Aikman kept their sack totals low by feeling the pass rush and sliding out of danger. Often, taking one step forward can make all the difference, by changing angles to put the blocker between the defender and the quarterback. (Aikman was also protected by five monsters, but that doesn't change the fact that he helped his own cause.) Rodgers slides around the pocket well.
Scrambling wisely: Many scramblers have high sack totals because they hold the ball too long or take too many chances outside the pocket. Rodgers scrambles into trouble at times, but not as often as a Michael Vick. Mobile quarterbacks force defenders to "spy" instead of rushing, or to stay in their lanes instead of going gung-ho for the sack.
Rodgers rates a B+ or A- in all of these categories. He and his offensive line have one other huge advantage: the receiving corps. Some teams just cannot afford to rush more than four defenders against the Packers because they need extra manpower to cover the Packers' receivers. According to Football Outsiders, the Jaguars rushed five or more defenders just twice against the Packers two weeks ago. Yes, they are the Jaguars, but the Bears (who aren't very blitz-oriented anyway) rushed five or more just six times. With the defense on its heels, pass blocking is much easier.
Q: Will the Pats' recent acquisition from the Bucs make a difference? ~@MarkRMason1
A: The Patriots traded for Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib last week for a mid-round draft pick; Talib is suspended next week because of a substance abuse violation. The Patriots took a risk on Talib because they had to.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots allow opponents' No. 1 receivers to gain 69.9 yards per game (a solid figure), No. 2 receivers to gain 36.0 yards per game (among the league's better figures) and all other receivers to gain 82.1 yards per game, the second-worst figure in the NFL. Tight ends average 72.9 yards per game, another high figure. Think of Jacoby Jones catching three long passes for the Ravens against the Patriots, Doug Baldwin catching a 50-yard touchdown for the Seahawks or Donald Jones hauling in a 68-yard touchdown for the Bills, and you get the idea.
It's important to remember that the numbers quoted above interact with each other. Teams like the Ravens, Seahawks and Bills, with good receiver depth, game plan to get the No. 3 guy open deep against the Patriots, which makes the Patriots' numbers against the top receivers look a little better. Teams like the Jets, with no receiver depth, attack with tight end Dustin Keller (seven catches, 93 yards) and find they can have success forcing balls to their top receivers, too (Jeremy Kerley had 120 receiving yards against the Patriots). The Patriots are simply a body or two short in the secondary. Even if Talib comes off suspension and performs like an adequate nickel corner, he will plug a major leak. If he plays like the good-but-inconsistent starter he was before the suspension, the other Patriots cornerbacks slide down the depth chart and plug the same leak.
Remember that since 2007, the goal of the Patriots defense has been to hold opponents around 21 points so they can win 38-21 games. The Patriots can get better by adding "pretty good" defenders, and their veteran roster can assume some personality risks.
Q: If crunch-time performance is so important for quarterbacks, how should we define it? Is the fourth quarter comeback the only measure?
A: There are many reasons to NOT equate fourth-quarter comebacks with crunch-time performance. Many of those reasons are obvious. A quarterback cannot lead a comeback unless his team is behind, so what are the circumstances that forced that team to come back? Three interceptions? If the quarterback leads a 39-yard drive to set up a 51-yard game winning field goal, has he really done something special? If the quarterback leads a touchdown drive to take a one-point lead with one minute left, but the opponent kicks a game winning field goal, should the quarterback be criticized for leaving too much time on the clock? The Cult of Crunch Time invites that kind of fuzzy reasoning.
There has never been, in the history of the universe, a quarterback who was ineffective in regular situations but suddenly got better in "crunch time" for any significant portion of his career. Whether there have been effective quarterbacks who suddenly became ineffective in the clutch is more arguable; there are quarterbacks with great stats but bad playoff records and reputations, but on closer inspection such players either a) had very tangible weaknesses, like non-pinpoint accuracy, that are harder to hide when trying to lead a comeback or beat a playoff opponent, or b) better actual records than their reputations suggest.
Instead of subscribing to the Cult of Crunch Time, we need to be serious about scouting the real strengths and weaknesses of each quarterback to see why some may play poorly in some situations against certain opponents. That takes a lot of hard work and real knowledge, which is why so many people fall back on "he can/can't get it done in 'crunch time.'"
Matt Ryan is probably the man down the well right now when it comes to crunch time. There is no reason to think he cannot win playoff games. Unless the Falcons keep asking him to run sneaks on fourth-and-one. Which they won't.
Q: Why is play-action not used for most pass plays? It seems like the only downside is that the offense has one less receiver -- is there some other issue?
A: Teams have been using play-action on about 21 percent of pass plays this season, which is not far off the averages of the last few seasons. Play-action passes are netting about 7.1 yards per pass attempt, non-play action passes 6.2 yards per attempt, but you cannot read too much into raw averages. Play-action is rarely used in third-and-long situations, when passing efficiency plummets, and the totals are small enough that a handful of big plays off play action (like four receptions of 70+ yards) can move the percentages by a tenth of a point or so.
When a team runs play action, several things happen in addition to the fake handoff. The offensive line blocks as if the play is a run; this action, not the quality of the quarterback's fake, is often what sucks in the linebackers, who key on the linemen. The quarterback takes a five- or (more often) seven-step drop, which combines with the fake handoff to slow down the timing of the play. As a result, receivers run longer routes, either deeper down the field or across the middle, so their routes match the timing of the action in the backfield. Finally, as you mentioned, the running back is typically eliminated from the pass pattern. Often, a fullback or tight end also blocks, limiting the total number of receivers.
Each of these strategies has an inherent strength and weakness. Run blocking slows down pass rushers but puts blockers in no position to stop a defender assigned to ignore keys and just crash the backfield; it is hard to create a traditional pocket for the quarterback to throw from. Longer drops allow receivers to run deep, but they take away quick rhythm passes and give that crashing defender plenty of time to arrive. Time spent faking a handoff is time not spent reading the defense. Turning the running back into a decoy and a tight end into a blocker confuses the defense and improves pass protection, but fewer receivers in the pattern patterns not only give the quarterback fewer options, but make it easier for defenders in coverage. It is easy to play free safety with one receiver running deep than with three receivers running deep.
Like every strategy, then, play-action is a cost-benefit tradeoff. For teams like the Redskins and Texans, play-action is a vital part of the game plan, because so many of their passing plays are designed to imitate their running plays. For the Packers, too much play action would just slow things down. The fact that play action remains a common tactic, even as the handoff itself is evaporating from gameplans, speaks to how useful its benefits are.