- The league has never seen a start to the season like this, with passing yards and touchdowns through the roof, and monster games from some unlikely quarterbacks. We look at the factors playing into the phenomenon—no, it’s not all about the body-weight rule—and ask when (or whether) defenses will catch up
- Plus, pro and college players in the spotlight this weekend, and your questions from around the NFL
When Jared Goff’s plant foot hit grass at the bottom of his drop with 1:30 left in the first half last Thursday, there were eight Viking defenders within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. When he let the ball go, there was only one within 20 yards of new Ram Brandin Cooks, sprinting to the post. And the rest, really, was academic.
We’ve seen this scene unfold everywhere in the NFL this fall.
First down. Receiver coming uninterrupted off the line, and unbothered by the threat of contact. Defense geared to respect the run. Offense raring to take a shot. Touchdown.
“They are playing aggressively on early downs,” said one rival quarterbacks coach. “And that’s a trend sweeping the league.”
It’s sweeping the league, mainly because it’s working—and just as the league wants it to. With an influx of gunslinging young quarterbacks, rules changes geared towards juicing offenses, unintended consequences of other rules changes and coaches more open-minded than ever before, passing numbers and scoring have exploded. It’s like money play after money play, straight out of Madden 98.
Explaining it is a little more complicated than just hitting buttons. But the statistics are crystal clear:
• There have been 228 touchdown passes through four weeks, breaking the previous high-water mark of 205 (2013).
• The league’s collective completion percentage (65.4) and passer rating (94.5) are also four-week records, topping marks set in 2014 (64.3, 91.5).
• Passing yards through four weeks (32,215) also ran at an all-time high, edging the mark set in 2016 (31,616).
• Eleven quarterbacks have more than 1,200 yards through four weeks. The previous four-week high there was seven, in 2011.
• Seven quarterbacks have double-digit touchdown passes, and 10 have a triple-digit passer rating. Both are four-week high water marks.
• There have also been more touchdowns (344) and points (3030) through four weeks than ever before.
So what gives? We’re going to get to your mail and to players to watch for the weekend, both in college and the pros, in a minute, but we’re leading off this week’s Game Plan by working to tell you why the NFL’s longstanding desire for Big 12-style scoring and pyrotechnics came together in a wild September (and spilled over in Patrick Mahomes’ crazy October 1).
And after hitting up a bunch of coaches, on both sides of the ball, as well as scouts, the one-line conclusion I came to is that there is no one thing you can assign all of this to. Instead, it’s a number of changes, some made to push this offensive shift, and some helping the NFL get there organically. So let’s dive into the reasons, in no specific order:
1. Rules changes: This is the most obvious, and goes back a decade to when the illegal contact rules were emphasized, handcuffing defensive backs. Now, with the helmet rule and body-weight rule in the spotlight, teams see apparent examples on film of safeties pulling up on potential kill shots, and linebackers lowering their target area. So naturally, that goes into coaching. “The middle of the field is a danger-free zone,” one pro scouting director texted me. “You used to face certain teams, like Seattle, with certain players, and unless you wanted to lose guys, you stayed away. You don’t have to be as concerned about that, and even if you get hit, it’ll probably be a penalty.” Those flags extend drives and, at times, generate scoring chances and passing yards that weren’t there before.
2. College offenses: I’d refer back to the June 25 and July 23 editions of The MMQB, with Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Chicago’s Matt Nagy, to fully explain this one. In short, NFL coaches are far more open-minded than they used to be to implementing college-rooted concepts, which is most obvious in places like Philadelphia, New England, Kansas City and, yes, Chicago. That’s created a schematic cat-and-mouse game, with defenses scrambling, and coverage busts like the ones we saw on the part of the Bucs against Nagy’s Bears last week becoming more and more common. NFL football is no longer played in a phone booth.
3. Analytics: Most teams these days are looking intently at data in how they run their operation. And, as one NFC assistant coach said, “a lot of teams are buying into the analytics [on] how it is important to throw the ball more on early downs. [There are better] overall success rates on passing plays on first down, compared to running on first down.” Want proof? Through three weeks, Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was throwing more on first down than any other down (with former Oklahoma State OC Todd Monken calling the plays), completing 31 of 44 throws on those plays for 627 yards five touchdowns, a pick and a 141.3 rating. We used a first-down play from Goff to kick the column off, and he’s been pretty good on those too—going 46 of 56 for 668 yards, six touchdowns, no picks and a 152.1 rating. Teams are also more aggressive on fourth down, which is a factor in extending drives.
4. Offseason emphasis: This relates to rules changes, but of a different nature. Teams can’t hit in the spring, and summer contact and practice time have been cut way down under the 2011 CBA. That leaves coaches and players hard-pressed to get real run-game work done, and over time it’s caused reallocation of some of that time to even more work on the passing game. “Sh--, all we get are non-padded practices,” said one AFC offensive coordinator. “So you are almost forced to throw the ball more because that’s what you’re getting good at.”
5. QB talent: We’ve had 11 first-round quarterbacks in the last three draft cycles, and three look like home runs (Goff, Mahomes, Carson Wentz), while all five of the 2018 rookies have flashed big-time potential. Of the 11, nine are now their teams’ starters, and many have been paired with creative coaches (most notably Goff, Mahomes and Wentz) who are tailoring the offenses to their skill sets. That means opposing defensive coaches not only have to build a book on these guys, but they also have to learn to defend new concepts put in to unlock their talent. Again, it’s a cat-and-mouse game.
6. Talent elsewhere: I thought this comment, from an NFC offensive coordinator, was interesting: “Leaguewide, there’s more speed on the field. Teams are throwing it more often, and creating more space for these speed guys to run.” Part of that comes from the college concepts meant to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. Part of it comes from the rules that have opened areas that were previously no-fly zones. Part of it is that smaller players can’t be knocked into oblivion anymore. And so the NFL has never been a friendlier place for the Tyreek Hills and Jakeem Grants of the world.
So then the question becomes simple: Will it continue?
The weather will get colder. Defenses will learn to better defend the young quarterbacks and newfangled schemes. And that cat-and-mouse will play on. Which is to say there’s plenty of unknown ahead.
But that’s the fun part. The series of offensive haymakers we’ve gotten to this point have been a blast to watch. And it sure will be interesting to keep an eye out for the counterpunch, whenever that comes.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five NFL players in the spotlight in Week 5:
Saints QB Drew Brees: When you’re about to become the NFL’s all-time passing leader, you make the watch list. And I’ve had the privilege of watching Brees sling it for 20 years. His first year starting at Purdue was my freshman year at Ohio State. Little known fact: Brees, Tom Brady and I were all in the Big Ten together for two years. I’m the only one with eligibility left.
Seahawks S Tedric Thompson: Seattle’s been able to stabilize its season the last two weeks—even through Earl Thomas’ injury and resulting salute—but this week is a real test, with the unbeaten Rams coming to town. And with L.A.’s high-flying attack a focus, there should be plenty of attention on Thompson, a talented second-year player whom coaches and staffers were raving about before Thomas ended his holdout in September.
Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery: Philly’s No. 1 wideout got his 2018 season off to a big start in Nashville (eight catches, 105 yards, one TD), and figures to be a factor in this week’s NFC title game rematch. Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes did a nice job in covering Jeffery in January, but the Philly coaches were able to find ways to get Jeffery matched up on other corners, which led to his two touchdown catches in the title game. And the Vikings have depth issues in the secondary …
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley: Ridley has been scorching hot the last three weeks, bringing coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense to life and making defenses pay for committing coverage to Julio Jones, with 15 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Here’s the thing: All three of those games were at home. Now he’ll try to get it done outside and on grass in a hostile environment, against a proud Pittsburgh team that needs this one.
Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz: For one reason or another, Schwartz has been able to dial up consistently on Broncos All-Pro Von Miller—and he did it again on Monday night for the most part, with Miller kept mostly at bay (outside of the play in which he forced Mahomes to throw left-handed). And now, for the second straight week, his name will be on the marquee. He figures to see plenty of Jaguars’ tone-setter Calais Campbell.
And two college players to keep an NFL eye on this Saturday:
Oklahoma WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (vs. Texas, FOX, Noon ET): Brown was a playmaker for Baker Mayfield last year and has become a focal point for new QB Kyler Murray in Lincoln Riley’s offense this year—with 24 catches for 544 yards and five touchdowns in just four games. And while he’s not very big (5’10”, 168 pounds), he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands. “Slight build, but he’s electric—fast, sudden, has the ability to make you miss in the open field and hit the home run,” said one NFC college scouting director, who’s looking forward to seeing him face off with Texas corner Kris Boyd. “It’ll be a good matchup for scouts on both accounts,” he said. “The bigger player [Boyd] vs. the smaller, quicker player—who wins?”
Notre Dame DT Jerry Tillery (at Virginia Tech, ABC, 8 p.m.): I had one veteran executive compare Tillery to ex-Patriot All-Pro Richard Seymour, and the senior’s 6’7”, 305-pound frame helps in that comparison. Tillery was a menace against Stanford last week, registering four sacks to push his season total to seven. But talent has never been the issue for a guy who can play pretty much anywhere along the defensive line. His motor has been. “People are split on Tillery because the effort is so inconsistent,” said one AFC scouting exec. “Some guys think he’s a powerful pass rusher, others think he’s lazy and a limited athlete. It depends on when you see the kid and what you value. Guys like him have you debate whether to grade off his ceiling or what you actually see on tape. If you asked 10 scouts their grade on him, you might get 10 different offers.” In a crowded class of defensive linemen, Tillery has his work cut out for him. And he could really help himself this week by following up the Stanford effort with another big game.
From Dwayne God Gittens (@ruggamontana): Do you think the Falcons can get it together, [despite] the fact they're 1-3 and the defense is struggling, due to the fact three key pieces of the defense are on IR? What needs to be done to be in the playoff picture?
They need to score, a lot, Dwayne—and we saw that last week when they played the Bengals, and Oklahoma/Texas Tech broke out. Losing Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones is more than just losing three really good players. It’s losing the spine of that defensive unit, guys who play the Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner roles in Dan Quinn’s Seattle-style defense.
That’s not saying linebacker Duke Riley and safety Damontae Kazee can’t improve. Both those guys have flashed enough potential to create some excitement in the building (the other safety, Keith Tandy, is more of a fill-in). It’s that getting to the level of the other guys will be tough. So the hope here would be that this season plays out like 2016, where the offense gets red hot, and buys the D time to come together.
From Sal Giglio (@Sgeezy1982): Bell to the Eagles?
He’s talking Le’Veon Bell, of course, and my understanding is that the answer is no. Forget that it’d be tough logistically—the Eagles have less than $5 million in cap space, and Bell would cost about $855K per week to carry on the roster (meaning Philly would have to mortgage other players’ contracts to make it work). The Eagles are getting healthier at running back (Corey Clement, Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles are on the mend), and they don’t see it as a place to sink major resources to begin with.
That leaves the question open of where Bell would go, and the trade market for his services isn’t exactly hot. I’ve heard Green Bay bandied about, but I’m not sure the Packerss would part with much to get him. Tampa Bay is another potential landing spot generating some buzz, and that might make sense with Dirk Koetter fighting for his job. Both those teams, by the way, are less than $10 million under the cap.
From Olmedo Miranda B. (@odm21): How much will [Mark] Ingram eat away at [Alvin] Kamara’s touches?
My understanding is that the Saints went a little further than they planned to with Kamara’s workload during Ingram’s four-game suspension and are indeed looking to pull back. As one scout once told me, Kamara is better used as “sniper rifle than a machine gun.” Kamara had a whopping 55 touches the last two weeks against the Falcons and Giants, after the coaches managed his workload in Weeks 1 and 2.
Last year in the playoffs, Kamara had 11 touches to Ingram’s 10 against Carolina, and 14 touches to Ingram’s 11 in Minnesota. That’s probably a fair ratio to expect going forward, with Kamara getting the ball a little more, and in different ways, than Ingram.
From Andrew Tatau (@TatauAndrew): What impact have you seen Norv Turner having on the Panthers offense to date?
You see it first in Cam Newton. What Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner tried to do from the jump was to give Newton ownership of the offense, and get him in position to understand not just the what, but the why behind every play. That, the thinking went, would help him find completions. And sure enough, his completion percentage (67.4%) is sitting six points above his previous career high (2013).
A more efficient quarterback has meant a more efficient offense, and second-year back Christian McCaffrey has been an enormous beneficiary. He’s been the engine for the run game (46 carries, 271 yards) and an outlet for Newton to get easy yards in the passing game (22 catches, 157 yards). And there’s still plenty of room for the 2-1 Panthers to grow.
From Daniel Andrews (@danrulesusuc): Why [are the] Chiefs only minus-3 this week?
Well, the Jaguars did make it two rounds further than the Chiefs did in last year’s playoffs, have gotten improvement at quarterback and scored a double-digit win over the Patriots in Week 2. And that fearsome defense that returned all that talent? No letdown there, either. They’re first in total defense, and didn’t allow a touchdown in the Jaguars’ lone loss.
The Chiefs have been impressive, to be sure. Patrick Mahomes, especially. But we’ve seen teams with big-time offenses impress early in the season in the past, and generally the more balanced teams are there in the end. That’s not taking a shot at Kansas City, either. I think their defense will improve. I think Mahomes is a star. I also happen to think that being a 3-point home favorite to the Jags is no insult.
From Jeremy Jones (@jerj24): Titans a legit contender in the AFC?
It depends on what you mean by contender. If you’re asking if they’ll be playing on the first weekend of February in Atlanta, then no, I don’t think so. But I do see them as a playoff-level team, with a chance to be more than just that in 2019. It starts with Jon Robinson’s hire of Mike Vrabel, which I believe has a real chance to be a home run. Get Marcus Mariota right physically, and those two set a good foundation.
Then, there’s the rising young talent on the roster. The now-healthy Jack Conklin is a foundational piece at right tackle, edge rusher Harold Landry looks like a star, receiver Corey Davis is making progress, and linebacker Rashaan Evans is settling into the lineup. Which tells you what you need to know—the Titans’ 3-1 start isn’t a mirage.
From John Appleton (@jaa0109): What draft pick seems to have outperformed his expectation so far?
We’ll wrap it here. As for “his expectation,” I think most of these kids have high hopes. As for our expectation? I’ll give you a name to watch—Browns fifth-round linebacker Genard Avery, who’s already played half the team’s defensive snaps and figures to get more work as the year goes. While we’re there, between Avery, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward, John Dorsey’s first draft class in Cleveland looks alright. And the 33rd pick, Austin Corbett, hasn’t even gotten his shot yet.
See you all next week!
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