Smarter Stats: Most unexpected developments at quarter mark
Two NFC South teams sought to improve their secondaries in the offseason by giving long-term deals to seemingly underrated players. The New Orleans Saints signed ex-Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract with $26.3 million guaranteed to shore up a secondary that had been shaky at best. It isn't any better now, and Byrd is clearly struggling -- he underwent back surgery in May, and that delayed his preparation with his new team, but he's missed five run tackles against four made, and though he hasn't been targeted much just yet (five receptions allowed on eight targets), things aren't working out so far for Byrd in Rob Ryan's scheme.
In Buffalo, Byrd was more frequently tasked with patrolling the deep third of the field, and outside of Seattle's Earl Thomas, there are few in the league who can do that better. But Byrd can be a liability in short and intermediate coverage, and his embarrassing whiff on Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray in the Saints' 38-17 Sunday night loss to the Cowboys had to be embarrassing on film day. This is how not to take an angle, kids.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers disposed of Darrelle Revis in favor of former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who made himself a relative mint with an outstanding 2013 season. Verner got a four-year, $25.5 million deal in Tampa after allowing 39 receptions on 79 targets for 579 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 55.9 (third-best in the NFL among qualifying cornerbacks). However, Verner seems to be another player lost in a scheme that doesn't do him any favors. In four games for the Bucs this season, he's allowed 16 receptions on 20 targets for 269 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and an opponent passer rating of 152.1.
What's the problem? Based on film study, it appears that the Bucs are asking Verner to play more tentatively, to anticipate what receivers might do in less aggressive zone concepts when Verner's primary attribute is his ability to stick and stay with receivers all over the field. Many of his catches and yards allowed this season appear to be a function of bail coverage in which he's hanging back and preventing big gains. He can also be outrun by faster receivers if he's not sticking and staying on his man from the snap.
Neither Byrd's nor Verner's situations are unfixable, but the Saints and Bucs may have to do a better job of meeting their new acquisitions halfway and understanding what they do well -- and what they don't.
More stats that we found interesting this week (unless otherwise indicated, all metrics come from Pro Football Focus):
• New England's passing game has been a disaster this season. That's not really up for debate, but the cause of said disaster certainly is. Some will say that the talent around Tom Brady has atrophied to the point where no quarterback could be expected to succeed, and others will insist that at age 37, Brady is on the downside of his amazing career, and that's the real issue.
What we know regarding the talent around him is that his pass protection is certainly subpar -- he's had an average of 2.33 seconds from snap to throw this season, third-worst in the league. But when throwing the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, Brady's a far more efficient quarterback. He's completing 66.7 percent of his passes to 40.5 when he takes 2.6 seconds or more, and his quarterback rating drops from 88.9 to 56.6 when he has 2.6 seconds or more.
So, that might lead us to assume that when Brady has more time and throws a deep ball, that's where the problems really start to present themselves. The numbers bear that out, and they're not at all pretty. This season, Brady has completed one of the 16 attempts he's thrown 20 or more yards in the air, and he's thrown one interception, as well. Never good when you throw as many balls to the other guys as you do to your own. That accuracy percentage is by far the lowest in the NFL this season -- Andy Dalton is second at 20 percent (2 of 10). Last year, Brady completed 20 of 66 deep passes for 694 yards, four touchdowns and four picks -- that 39.4 accuracy percentage was 25th in the NFL (lower than Brandon Weeden's!), but still not as worrisome as what's going on this season.
Pro Football Focus says five different receivers have been targeted on those deep throws, with Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell leading the way, and no dropped passes tabulated. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Brady has under- or over-thrown his receivers on a league-leading 25.5 percent of his passes. Such evaluations can be subjective, as those grading the throws don't always know what routes are being run. But more and more, it appears that Brady is regressing, and whether it's his fault or not isn't really relevant. The Patriots are fighting for their lives on offense in a way they never have before in the Brady/Belichick era.
Now, for some pleasant surprises:
• Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is pacing the league in rushing, and he's doing it not only with an outstanding offensive line, but also with a supernatural ability to break tackles and make gains after first contact. He's caused 31 missed tackles through four games (Chris Ivory of the Jets ranks second with 19), and he's averaging 3.34 yards per attempt after contact. He also leads the league in runs of 15 yards or more with 10, and he's gained 216 yards on those plays. Think of it this way -- on 10 percent of his attempts this season (he has 99 total carries so far), Murray has blown up a defense for at least a first down and a half. If he stays healthy, and Dallas' line maintains its current level of play, I don't see a slowdown here.
• As we detailed last week, the Packers were stuck in a stodgy formation nightmare in which they were running "11" personnel (one tight end, one back, three receivers) far too often and giving away formation and scheme advantages. Against the Bears last Sunday, Green Bay re-jiggered the system, going with far more "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends) and several more advanced slot concepts in which Chicago defenders would have to trail two inside receivers on the same side, often in man coverage. It didn't work out well for the Bears, who lost, 38-17. One thing's for sure -- when Randall Cobb is in the slot, good things happen for Aaron Rodgers. Cobb is tied with Victor Cruz for the league's most slot targets this season (28), and he paces the field in catches (20) and touchdowns (five).
• There's been some legitimate MVP talk regarding Andrew Luck, but if there's one positive aspect of the Colts' 2014 season people aren't talking enough about, it's the play of their starting cornerbacks. Vontae Davis leads all qualifying pass defenders with a ridiculous 22.6 quarterback rating allowed (six receptions, 54 yards, no touchdowns and one pick on 15 targets), and Greg Toler has a 47.9 opposing quarterback rating allowed, with 14 catches on 30 targets for 170 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.