Tired of empty Turkey Day calories? Get lean before Thanksgiving with three healthy Playbook Page snacks: a remembrance of Gronkowski’s past, an in-depth breakdown of Robert Griffin’s passing depth, and an explanation of why the Lions can have too much of a good thing in the red zone.
Patriots at Jets: Gronking and Nothingness
The loss of Rob Gronkowski will have an incalculable effect on the Patriots’ offense, particularly when they face the Jets on Thursday night. Gronkowski’s influence extends beyond his 53 catches and ten touchdowns this year, or his 12 catches and two touchdowns against the Jets last season, or his two touchdowns against the Jets earlier this season. His presence allows the Patriots to use the formations and personnel groupings that create mismatches for other players. When a Patriots teammate is open, it’s often because Gronkowski occupied the attention of the defense.
Figure 1 shows a play from the second Jets-Patriots game of last season. The Patriots are in a shotgun “four receiver” package, but two of the receivers are actually tight ends Gronkowski (87) and Aaron Hernandez (81). The running back is Danny Woodhead (39), another versatile player who sometimes lines up in the slot. The Patriots have been using these tactics for years, but the point bears repeating: with two tight ends and a running back who can line up anywhere in the field, the Patriots can deploy anything from a power-running formation to a five-receiver spread using the same personnel. This forces the defense to make an immediate compromise. The Jets are using 3-3-5 personnel on this play, and they are stuck with it, even if it forces linebackers to cover speedy targets like Hernandez and Woodhead.
The Jets decide to neutralize Gronkowski by assigning him to Antonio Cromartie (31) in man coverage. All Pro Darrelle Revis (24) handles Wes Welker (83). With both Gronkowski and Welker on one side of the formation (plus Woodhead, who could leak into a pass pattern), the Jets assign an extra safety in deep support. For good measure, the free safety lines up 20 yards deep, fearing a tight end up the seam. The Jets provide extra insurance because Calvin Pace (95) is blitzing from the offensive left, and they anticipate Brady throwing into the blitz.
All the extra support on the Gronkowski side comes at a price: Hernandez is covered by a linebacker, and Deion Branch (84) is covered by nickel cornerback Kyle Wilson (20). Wilson was one of the league’s best nickel corners last year (with Revis injured, he is now a starter), but the assignment he faces on this play is untenable. There is no deep safety on his side. The center is close to the left hashmark, and Branch is lined up tight, so there are acres of space along the sideline for the veteran receiver to work with.
Wilson’s only choice in this situation is to make sure Branch stays in front of him and hope that the blitz arrives before Brady spots his longtime teammate. That does not happen: Branch runs Wilson off and angles to the sideline, Brady delvers the ball right on time, and Branch turns upfield for a 14-yard gain.
Hernandez (ankle) is expected back this week, and while Hernandez does not play Gronkowski’s exact position in the Patriots offense (their tight end roles are highly specialized), he can play a similar role in the passing game. But Hernandez does not require Cromartie-level attention, meaning that receivers like Julian Edelman cannot expect to face nickel-and-dime defenders.
On a play like Figure 1, Cromartie can now cover Welker or Brandon Lloyd, the safeties can play more honestly, and the ripple effect will be felt down the line of Patriots receivers. For the Patriots team that scored 141 points in the last three games, that would not appear to be much of a problem. But for the Patriots team that often finds itself in an all-out war against a very familiar foe, the loss of a matchup edge could be critical.
Redskins at Cowboys: The Remarkable Mister Griffin
Robert Griffin is on pace to break a variety of rookie records, including the quarterback rating record, the interception percentage record, and the records for most fawning articles and sweatiest commercials. With his 14-of-15 autopsy of the Eagles defense on Sunday, Griffin also put himself on pace to break the rookie completion percentage record set by Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Roethlisberger completed 66.4% of his passes. Griffin has completed 67.1 percent.
Completion percentage gets a bad rap from old-timey analysts, who claim that it is little more than a measure of how many screens and four-yard passes on third-and-10 a quarterback throws. Griffin has been criticized (constructively, I hope) on exactly those two fronts in previous Playbook Page articles. His impressive NFL debut against the Saints was padded somewhat by seven completions behind the line of scrimmage, and as of two weeks ago he had completed just two first down passes on 3rd-and-long all year, a surprisingly low total for a player who does so many things well.
Griffin has improved dramatically as a downfield passer, as the breakdown of his passes by air length in Table 1 shows. The data reveals that Griffin still gets some mileage from screen passes, but screens aren’t the only high-percentage passes he throws:
Robert Griffin Passes by Air Length
|Zero or Less||61||53||86.9||280||4.6||2||0|
|1 to 10 Yards||134||83||61.9||741||5.5||4||2|
|11 to 20 Yards||57||41||71.9||824||14.5||2||1|
The “Holy Moly” numbers are the passes in the 11-to-20 yard range. The NFL completion rate on passes of this length is 55.1. Griffin throws these mid-range passes about as often as he throws screens, is completing them at a remarkable rate, and is generating the bulk of his passing production on passes that travel ten or more yards downfield.
As for third-and-long, Griffin has had just two dropbacks in that situation since the last time we visited his data. One was a sack, and Griffin still needs to work on avoiding sacks on third downs, when defenses will not bite on play-action fakes. The second attempt was a 61-yard touchdown to Santana Moss on 3rd-and-10. It was a daring, risky throw into double coverage, but it is the kind of throw a great quarterback must make from time to time.
The completion percentage record itself doesn’t matter. What matters is Griffin’s ability to play high-percentage football. As he completes more mid-range passes, learns to pick his spots on bombs, and keeps the screen and option games in his repertoire, he takes the critical next steps from “great rookie” to “great quarterback,” steps that many recent rookie sensations failed to take.
Texans at Lions: Goal Line Force Field
Fantasy football players are very aware that Calvin Johnson has caught just three touchdown passes this season. Johnson’s scoring drought received so much attention that many fans will be surprised to learn that the Lions are not a bad red zone team. The Lions rank ninth in the NFL in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 60.5% of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Football Outsiders, which breaks down red zone performance more analytically, ranks the Lions 15th: not great, but not the victims of some mysterious curse, either.
With such a weapons-laden offense, however, the Lions should not be in the middle of the red zone efficiency pack. They should be near the top. Table 2 breaks down their passing game in both the red zone and goal-to-go situations. The table shows that the Lions are willing to spread the ball around inside the 20-yard line, and that there may be a downside to this generosity.
Lions Passing Game in Red Zone (Left) and Goal-to-Go (Right)
The table shows that teammates like Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young have picked up the slack for Johnson, who is just having a hard time connecting with Matthew Stafford. The Lions miss crafty veteran Nate Burleson as a fourth option, but Ryan Broyles leads the “others” with two touchdowns. The two players who appear to be overused in the red zone are tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Joique Bell, though most of Bell’s targets occur around the 17-yard line, where screens and dump-offs are still viable strategies.
When you see Scheffler’s high targets and low production, you probably think that Scheffler is drawing the softest coverage because defenders are stacking up on Johnson and the other top receivers. And you are right in some cases. But there are times when the Lions offense simply confounds itself in the red zone.
Take the Lions first-quarter sequence against the Packers on Sunday as an example. After a 53-yard catch by Johnson gets them into the red zone, Stafford looks for Johnson isolated against A.J. Hawk on a seam route but overthrows the ball. Stafford is at fault on the play: Johnson would have scored if he could get his hands on the throw, and Johnson can get his hands on some pretty inaccurate throws. On second down, Stafford completes a short pass to Scheffler at the two-yard line. Two Packers defenders shadow Johnson into the end zone on this play, so the checkdown is a smart choice.
On third down, the Lions insert an extra offensive lineman and replace Pettigrew and Scheffler with blocking tight end Will Heller. They want the Packers to think they are running. The Packers may think they are running, but that doesn’t stop them from putting two defenders on Johnson, who is split wide right. In fact, the Lions attempt a double fake-out, and Stafford really wants to throw a slant to Titus Young on the left! But a defender cuts off Stafford’s passing angle, forcing the quarterback to roll right, where Johnson is tangled up with his two defenders. The result is a sack and a Jason Hanson field goal.
That was a lot of over-engineering, and the goal was not to get the ball to Johnson, but to Young. Young has since been suspended for a week, and there are indications that the Lions were not happy with him prior to the Packers game, which makes you wonder why they would run a goal-line play for him.
The Lions must execute better and not overthink things in their red zone passing offense. They must also trust their red zone rushing offense. Mikel Leshoure has scored five short rushing touchdowns and averages 3.5 yards per carry in the red zone: a good average for a tough running situation. Football Outsiders ranks the Lions 19th in red zone passing but 9th in rushing, so those short tosses to the second tight end and slants to a doghouse receiver aren’t playing to their strengths. If Johnson is going to take two defenders everywhere he goes, then the Lions should let Leshoure take a few more whacks at the rest of the short-handed defense.