Like everything else, deep passing is a skill -- actually, a set of skills -- and not every NFL quarterback's attributes align with the task. Quarterbacks who want to throw deep consistently must have more than just the proverbial howitzer for an arm. It's a tough thing to do well, and as the numbers show, there are all kinds of quarterbacks who can't do it well and do it anyway.
The deep pass is one of the most exciting plays in sports. There's nothing quite like a quarterback humming one downfield as his receiver beats great coverage to grab the ball, and each deep connection has the potential to swing a game. But like everything else, deep passing is a skill -- actually, a set of skills -- and not every NFL quarterback's attributes align with the task. Quarterbacks who want to throw deep consistently must have more than just the proverbial howitzer for an arm. They need to stay alive in the pocket long enough for their receivers to get downfield; they need to understand the specific speed with which their receivers run deeper routes; their receivers must be able to separate from deep coverage; and they must match up the velocity and arc of their throws with those receivers and patterns. It's a tough thing to do well, and there are all kinds of quarterbacks who can't do it well and do it anyway.
This season, the numbers say there are a few big names who should stick to the short stuff, at least for now (we'll define a deep pass as one that travels 20 yards in the air or more; unless otherwise indicated, all metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus):
Matt Ryan, Falcons: Ryan's recent issues with the deep ball have a lot to do with the fact that the Falcons lost three starting linemen to injury in the team's Week 4 loss to the Vikings. Through the first three weeks of the season, Ryan -- who completed just 15 deep passes all season in 2013 -- led the league with 10 completions of 20 yards or more in the air. He has just two since then, and the Falcons are 0-2 in those games. Not that his deep passing struggles have everything to do with it, but Ryan's deep-ball totals through five games are not good at all -- 12 completions in 28 attempts for 302 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
Nick Foles, Eagles: Ryan isn't the only quarterback whose deep ball potential has been scuttled by line injuries. With Philadelphia's pass protection in flux, Foles has completed two out of 15 deep passes for a touchdown and three picks in the last two games, after going 8-of-24 for three touchdowns and a pick in the first three games. That's from ESPN Stats & Info, who also reveals that over the last two weeks, the Eagles' points per drive average has plummeted from 2.23 to 0.87, and the team's scoring percentage has decreased from 44 percent to 17 percent in that same span.
Tom Brady, Patriots: Brady's issues with deep passing are multiple: a shaky offensive line, receivers who struggle to gain separation and Brady's occasional inability to line up with his targets. His accuracy percentage (10.5) on those passes this season is the worst in the NFL (Geno Smith is second at 17.6), with just two deep completions for 64 yards and a pick out of 19 attempts. Last season, he completed 20 of 66 deep passes -- not great, but certainly a better pace than he's on now.
However, there is reason for encouragement. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Brady was 7-of-12 on passes of 10 yards or more in New England's 43-17 skunking of the Bengals on Sunday night. And on passes of 10 yards or more to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright, Brady was 5-of-7 with a touchdown pass.
On the flip side, a handful of undersold signal-callers are actually getting it done downfield in the season's opening weeks.
Drew Stanton, Cardinals: Carson Palmer's backup has completed an impressive eight of 22 deep attempts for 235 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Rookie John Brown has both of those scores, but Michael Floyd has been Arizona's primary deep guy this year, with 11 targets and four catches for 173 yards.
Austin Davis, Rams: Davis isn't a perfect passer, but the man the Rams have handed their quarterback job to can certainly sling it deep, with 11 completions in 22 attempts this season for 346 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Kenny Britt leads the team with three deep catches for 100 yards and a touchdown on seven targets. Hill attempted two deep passes in his abbreviated time as the starter and completed neither.
Brian Hoyer, Browns: One of the reasons the Browns are playing surprisingly well: Hoyer seems to have a knack for the deep ball, completing 10 of 18 passes for 352 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Not bad for a passing game that was supposed to be sunk after Josh Gordon's suspension. Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel each have three deep catches for the team.
Other numbers that have caught our attention through Week 5:
• There's been a lot of talk about how well Cincinnati's offensive line has played this season, and justifiably so. But the best pass-blocking line in the league, at least per pressures allowed, resides elsewhere in Ohio. The Browns have allowed just 15 total pressures through four games to the 16 Cincy yielded in the same number of games -- two sacks, two quarterback hits and 11 hurries. Special mention should be given to rookie left guard Joel Bitonio, who has allowed no sacks, no hits and five hurries this season. He's also been a stellar addition in the run game. Even right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who was a turnstile in 2013, has clamped down. One thing that really helps, and sorry in advance for jinxing anybody here: No starting lineman for the Browns has missed a single snap so far this season.
• Buffalo's defensive surge this season has to do with a lot of people, starting with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but it's tough to find a more impressive contributor to that unit than defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Williams has been a stud for a long time, but this year, he's been ridiculously good, especially in pass pressure -- he leads all defensive tackles with 15 total pressures (one sack, four hits and 10 hurries) and stayed atop the rankings despite missing Buffalo's win over the Lions with a knee injury.
• Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians wasn't just sticking up for his player when he called the combo cut block on defensive end Calais Campbell in Sunday's loss to the Broncos the dirtiest play he'd ever seen. Arians has to be concerned about what the loss of Campbell for 3-4 weeks to a sprained MCL will do to his defensive line. Among 3-4 ends this season, Campbell has the highest overall stop rate with 17.6 percent negative plays created (Sheldon Richardson of the Jets ranks second at 13.6 percent). Campbell also leads the Cards with 12 total pressures, and that's where the injury could really hurt -- with Campbell, Darnell Dockett and John Abraham all out, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly leads the healthy members of Arizona's defense with nine total pressures. He doesn't have a sack this season, and Arizona has just four sacks in four games.