Jared Goff’s Growth

It was a running play.

Sammy Watkins lined up just inside the numbers. He was roughly six yards to the left of Jared Goff, who was under center. Todd Gurley was behind Goff. He had just gained two yards on the Rams’ opening play of the season. The plan was to give Gurley the ball again on second down. It was an outside-zone run to the right side. Robert Woods searched out a defensive back instead of running a route at the snap. The offensive line shifted towards Woods while Jamon Brown advanced downfield to take out a linebacker. Everything on the field said it was a running play. Everything except Sammy Watkins.

Goff saw it before the snap. The outside linebacker to Watkins’ side of the field was pressed onto the line of scrimmage. The inside linebacker next to him was too far forward. Assuming Watkins could beat press coverage off the line, a safe assumption, Goff knew that he would have an easy pitch to his receiver on his slant route. Goff sold the run by turning towards Gurley before whipping back around to release the ball to Watkins. The receiver gained an easy 13 yards.

It was a running play. It was also a packaged play.

A packaged play is a running play where the quarterback has the option to throw the ball based on the alignment of the defense at the snap. On this specific play Watkins was running a slant route on the backside of the play. He wouldn’t be involved in an outside-zone run to the opposite side of the field so it’s an added wrinkle that costs the running play nothing. Packaged plays essentially allow you to audible the play without calling an audible. It’s like a read-option that occurs before the snap rather than after the snap. They are typically simple reads for the quarterback.

Sean McVay understands this. While Jeff Fisher probably doesn’t even know what a packaged play is, McVay understands their value the same way Kyle Shanahan did with Matt Ryan last season. McVay understands how to set a quarterback up for success. He sees the value in varying his play calling, working to be unpredictable rather than relying on the same three or four misdirection plays that make the offense predictable the way Jeff Fisher did. McVay features his running backs as receivers, puts his tight ends in different positions to attack different coverages and has put together a congruent receiving corps.

Last year, Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan relied on play action more than any other quarterback. Ryan threw a play action pass on 21.99 percent of his passes. The next closest quarterback was Dak Prescott at 18.11 percent, Ryan Tannehill was the only other quarterback to eclipse 17 percent. Goff has used play action on 23.38 percent of his attempts so far this season after using it on only 11.8 percent of his attempts last season.

Ryan gained 31.37 percent of his yards on play action passes, Goff has gained 27.78 percent of his yards on play action passes so far this season.

A good play action passing game is an unpredictable one. It’s one that mixes subtle and hard play fakes while moving the quarterback out of the pocket in both directions or keeping him in the pocket with different play designs. When the play fake is less predictable, the linebackers and defensive linemen are more likely to hesitate. Hesitating linebackers leads to distorted coverages. Hesitating defensive linemen lead to a slowed pass rush. Goff is benefiting from both things in McVay’s offense.

Play action alone can’t create clean pockets. Adding Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and John Sullivan at center gave the Rams something their line has been lacking for a decade: Established starting-quality veteran players. Whitworth is one of the best tackles in the NFL while Sullivan offers Goff a teammate who can help identify blitzes and set protections. Those two pieces ease the pressure on the young right side of the line both on the field with assignments and off the field with continuity/development.

Goff has spent much of this season bailing out of the back of the pocket and breaking into the right flat to throw the ball downfield. He’s afforded those opportunities because of the quality of his protection.

Take Gerald Everett’s 69-yard gain against Washington from Week 2.

Washington sends a five-man rush after the quarterback, a blitz. The Rams release all five eligible receivers into routes so the offensive line is trusted to win one-on-one matchups across the board. Goff’s processing is slow on this play. Washington is playing a form of Cover-3 with one deep safety in the middle of the field. Goff has an out route open to his left for a first down, then Sammy Watkins’ curl route comes open underneath on the same side of the field. When he works his eyes back to the right seam, he has a chance to hit that receiver if he leads him infield.

As he tends to do, Goff buffers in the pocket. His processing speed doesn’t allow him to recognize his opportunity to release the ball. Doing this against a five-man rush should result in a sack. But Goff’s line holds up so he has time to go through his progression, miss all the receivers, then drop backwards. Everything about this play to that point is bad for the quarterback.

Once he breaks into the right flat, the play has extended passed the point the defense expected it to. Gurley draws the zone defender underneath, the cornerback has followed the other receiver infield, leaving Gerald Everett wide open for a huge play.

This is the quintessential example of a good result, bad process play.

Because of the newfound quality surrounding him in his supporting cast, Goff is now able to be productive on bad process plays. He wasn’t able to do that last year in Jeff Fisher’s defunct, talent-deficient offense. Over the first two weeks of the season, Goff didn’t really do anything spectacular. He had still taken a step forward from his rookie season because he was executing easier plays at a higher rate, but the quality of his opponents’ play had a lot more to do with his success than his own play.

In Week 1 he was accurate on 65.52 percent of his passes, to put that in perspective Goff was accurate on 65.24 percent of all his passes last season and ranked last in the NFL for accuracy. Cooper Kupp catching two inaccurate passes to create 52 yards and the Colts complete lack of coverage and pass rush made him look good. In Week 2 he was similarly inaccurate, 65.22 percent, but showed off better reactions to pressure at different times, peak plays that he hadn’t shown off as a rookie.

Getting excited about that Week 2 performance was still a challenge because of his two worst plays of the game.

It’s Third-and-11 late in the second quarter, the Rams are trailing by 10. McVay isn’t trying to punt. He sends all five receivers out into patterns again. His four receivers release vertically downfield while Gurley waits underneath for a checkdown. It should become apparent quickly to Goff that none of his receivers will be open. Washington is playing Cover-3. Goff initially looks to Watkins on the left side who has a cornerback above him, another beneath him and a linebacker inside of him. His eyes linger on Watkins too long while he steps up in the pocket.

Goff’s initial movement to step up in the pocket is a good one. He isn’t a fast mover but he does enough to avoid the initial rush. From there he is oblivious to the pursuing defender and tries to locate one of his other receivers. Goff exposes the ball for the strip sack instead of flipping it to Gurley for a modest gain. His center fell on the ball, saving Goff from giving up a turnover deep in Rams territory that would have set Washington up to end the game as a contest with a touchdown.

Washington would eventually end the game, but not until Goff made his worst play of that particular game.

Besides being horrendously inaccurate, Goff had three main issues during his rookie season. His processing speed in the pocket invited pressure. When that pressure arrived his reaction was to panic, turn around, drop his eyes and try to run away. Those two things destroyed the design of passing plays, made it impossible for him to throw with any timing and took away his platform to throw the ball. The third issue was a commitment to staring down receivers, leading linebackers to the ball for interception opportunities.

The third issue ended the Week 2 game as a contest.

When asked after the game, Mason Foster told reporters that he anticipated Goff leading him to the ball. It was something he knew the quarterback had a tendency to do. Goff did that on this play but he still could have gotten away with it had he released the ball earlier and shown off greater velocity. Goff isn’t a big-armed passer so his passes can never catch up if he’s late releasing the ball. If you pause the above gif at the moment Goff begins to release the ball, the receiver is already coming out of his break. That can’t happen. The ball should have been arriving at the receiver when he turned, not leaving Goff’s hand at that point.

Monitoring these problems will be crucial to understanding Goff’s development over the course of this season.

Development is the key word for Goff because for as much as his overall numbers are misleading right now, he has taken a step forward. He has gone from someone who didn’t look like he belonged in the NFL, probably the worst starter in a league that boasted Blake Bortles and Josh McCown, to a competent player. He’s likely still a below-average or bottom five or six quarterback, but that’s progress. As a 22-year old quarterback, progress is enough.

That progress can be best measured in Goff’s accuracy. While his accuracy percentages in the first two games of the season were poor, Goff’s performance against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 was undeniably excellent. He was accurate on 21 of 25 qualifying attempts while primarily working in the 1-5 yard range, 13 of his passes went into that range. More significantly, Goff was accurate on all three of his deep attempts in the game.

Goff’s deep accuracy has been excellent so far this season. It’s a relatively small sample compared to a full season but he is pushing the ball downfield at a high rate. 15.58 percent of his passes have travelled more than 20 yards downfield, that would have been the second-highest rate in the NFL last year.. He has almost doubled his eight percent rate from last season. Goff was accurate on eight of those 12 attempts, a 66.7 accuracy percentage. The best deep passer in the NFL last year was Sam Bradford at 65.85 percent.

It’s not just that he’s been accurate either. At least three of those eight accurate passes have been throws into tight coverage.

Again, the first thing we have to note on this play is the quality of the protection. Goff gets a completely clean pocket with Whitworth perfectly repelling the defender trying to get to his blindside. Goff uses that pocket to deliver a pass into Tyler Higbee. You could nitpick the placement and say it wasn’t completely perfect but it did hit the window. Importantly, Goff showed off a command of his velocity to push the ball past the trailing defender confidently. He cleared that defender without overshooting his tight end.

Higbee drops the ball but there’s nothing the quarterback can do about that. It was still an impressive throw.

That was a good throw. The next throw is a great one.

Watkins does a phenomenal job on this play. Tracking this ball through the air and controlling your body to catch it the way he did is extremely difficult. Even though it’s a difficult play for the receiver, it’s still a great throw. Goff puts a lot of air on the ball but he pushes it deep to nullify the cornerback who Watkins has beaten through his route and he pushes it wide towards the sideline to nullify the safety. Goff made sure that this ball would be caught by Watkins and nobody else while putting it in a spot where his receiver had the best chance of catching it cleanly.

Furthermore, Goff didn’t have a completely clean pocket this time. The pressure was closing in around him. He had to get rid of it and he had to do so with bodies engulfing him.

It wasn’t a Tyrod Taylor type of deep ball or a Ryan Tannehill type of deep ball. It didn’t sustain huge velocity to travel on a lower trajectory, but the placement and timing of the throw made it an accurate one. Goff didn’t show this kind of quality last year. He was a 26.67 percent deep passer last year, only Blake Bortles was worse than him. The league average was 44 percent. Goff has been 40 percent more accurate on his deep passes this season, obviously it’s a tiny sample but at this point we should still consider it growth.

Goff’s accuracy was abhorrent as a rookie. When you have so many other problems with your process in the pocket it’s very hard to be accurate. He was a bottom three passer to every level passed the line of scrimmage last year. He was dead last in the 6-10 and 11-15 yard ranges. He was the only quarterback in the league who missed more than half of his throws that travelled further than five yards downfield. It was so bad that it was hard to imagine it ever getting better. But, so far at least, it has gotten better.

Because of that performance against the 49ers, Goff is three percent more accurate in the 1-5 yard range, 16 percent more accurate in the 6-10 range, nine percent more accurate in the 11-15 yard range and 40 percent more accurate on deep throws. He is only worse so far on throws behind the line of scrimmage (where he ranked sixth in the NFL last year) and in the 16-20 yard range (where he has only thrown four passes).

He is now accurate on 61 percent of his passes that travel further than five yards downfield, far more than half of his throws.

The sustainability of Goff’s efficiency is unclear. He is gaining more than 50 percent of his yards after the catch, only seven quarterbacks did that last season. Todd Gurley’s success out of the backfield has been a source of easy offense while Robert Woods has been missed on a couple of open throws that should have been made. He has only lost one reception to receiver error, that Higbee play, and has gained three receptions on inaccurate throws that resulted in 75 yards gained. He only has one interceptable pass at least, which is promising.

What gives you pause about Goff’s performances so far is the opponents he has faced. The Washington defense dismantled the Raiders on Sunday Night Football in Week 3 but that wasn’t close to how they played in Week 2. The soft schedule and Goff’s need to take at least another step forward in his development to become even an average passer as an individual allows for skepticism.

The Cowboys secondary has been disastrous over the past two weeks so Goff should be productive this week. It’s after that game when the real tests begin. The Seahawks at home, the Jaguars in Jacksonville, the Giants in New York, the Texans at home and the Vikings in Minnesota is a combination of the best defenses in the NFL. Should Goff perform adequately over that stretch, the Rams will really have reason to get excited about their young quarterback.

How the Rams Can Set Up Their Rookie Quarterback For Success

37.8 percent of Nick Foles’ yards in 2015 came on throws where the ball didn’t travel further than two yards downfield. 25.5 percent of his attempts came on those plays. Nobody else had more than 33.5 percent of their yards come on those plays while only seven quarterbacks had a higher percentage of their attempts qualify.

Case Keenum is naturally more aggressive, but even he finished the year with 23.2 percent of his throws qualifying under those conditions.

That was the construct of the St. Louis Rams offense last year. They were overly reliant on screens and quick throws underneath because of their inability to run a functional downfield passing game. Not only did they lack the quarterback talent to push the ball downfield but they were also playing with a leaky offensive line and receivers who couldn’t separate or consistently win at the catch point. An over-reliance on Tavon Austin’s YAC naturally developed.

Neither Keenum are Foles are going to start for the Los Angeles Rams in 2016. They will be replaced by Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, most likely Wentz, after the Rams traded up with the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the draft. Their new starter should be put into the same position that Foles and Keenum were. The Rams have given away all of their draft picks and didn’t invest in skill position or offensive line talent during free agency, so their personnel will remain the same.

Neither Wentz or Goff are on the level of Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston from last season, so being placed in a simplistic offense should actually favor them.

Even though the quarterback position typically takes away attention from those around them, that won’t be the case in Los Angeles. Todd Gurley is the focal point of the Rams offense. He will be the foundation of their success while the quarterback and the passing game are only asked to fill complementary roles.

The Rams won’t need to alter their offense much for either Wentz or Goff. Everything will be clearly defined with route combinations that attack specific areas of the field so that the quarterback doesn’t have to move his eyes or attack dangerous areas of the coverage.

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Nick Foles Layout

Above are Foles and Keenum’s pass charts. What immediately stands out is the lack of intermediate throws for Keenum and the lack of intermediate throws over the middle of the field for Foles. Intermediate throws over the middle of the field are more dangerous than any other because there are regularly linebackers and safeties tightening throwing windows or reading the eyes of the quarterback.

You not only need to be accurate and smart throwing the ball into coverage over the middle of the field, but you also have to be able to throw with controlled velocity, timing and touch.

On clearly defined deep shots off of play action, that kind of nuance is less of a concern. Screen throws are similarly simplistic in that there is no read to make and the throw is typically to a wide open receiver or running back at or behind the line of scrimmage. Not every play is as simple as this touchdown throw against the Green Bay Packers but the degree of difficulty for the quarterback is generally low.

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This was one of the Ram’s best plays of the 2015 season. It comes on Third-and-3, midway through the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers. Before even considering what happens once the ball is snapped, you have to consider what happened leading up to this point.

Up until this point of the game, the Rams had run the ball 35 times and thrown it 24 times. After half time, the Rams had run the ball 21 times to just five pass attempts. Those 21 attempts had gained 71 yards, including the seven from Tre Mason on the two plays that set up this manageable third down. This came after Todd Gurley had run in a 71-yard touchdown and Tavon Austin ran in a two-yard touchdown during the second quarter.

It’s not just that this down-and-distance allows for the Rams to run the ball, it’s that the Rams had been pounding the idea of running the ball into the minds of the 49ers defenders all game.

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Foles began the play in pistol, standing behind the center but not underneath him so he was catching the snap. This allows him to still sell play action without having to turn and move towards his running back. When Foles turns to face Benny Cunningham, he turns away from where Tavon Austin is on the field. Austin was lined up to the left, off the line of scrimmage tight to a teammate but not outside the numbers.

The alignment is hugely important. Furthermore, we should not that the 49ers were anticipating a running play by having seven defenders in the box. Seven defenders in the box doesn’t sound like a commitment to the run but it is when the offense has three receivers on the field. The alignments of both offense and defense are crucial for the space that the Rams are trying to attack.

When Foles turns towards Cunningham, the edge defender on the opposite side of the field and the linebacker closest to him both make aggressive moves away from Austin and towards the running back. Even though the ball has just been snapped, both are already out of the play.

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The first receiver who lined up tight to Austin acts as a shield. He’s not running a route. He’s just holding his position and doing everything he can to stay between the defensive back and Austin. Meanwhile, the Rams have two offensive linemen releasing cleanly into space before Foles has even released the ball. They can comfortably get out in front to act as lead blockers because the linebackers have so badly bought the run fake and because Austin didn’t line up wide of the numbers.

On the other side of the field, the receiver releases to the sideline so the cornerback’s eyes are taken away from the play as he is in man coverage. Foles now has a simple throw to execute to Austin.

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Because of the threat of the run, the game situation and the play design, Austin has a huge amount of space when he catches the ball. He can fall forward for a first down and relatively easily run 66 yards for a touchdown with his speed. Not every screen is going to gain 66 yards obviously, but this is the type of play the Rams relied on to move the chains and create explosive plays last year. It’s a play design that asks next-to-nothing from the quarterback.

He doesn’t have to make a post-snap read, he doesn’t have to throw under pressure, his window to throw is as wide as could be and there is no need to lead the receiver or throw with anticipation.

As prospects, Wentz is the better fit for what the Rams do because he is more comfortable moving in space and has a bigger arm to push the ball downfield. Goff is more likely to be effective on short and intermediate routes on the next level. Taking shots downfield in the Rams offense is a must because they can’t consistently find intermediate routes to gain first downs. They need big plays to complement the run-heavy approach.

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Last year, the Rams showed off a lot of creativity to give their quarterback clearly-defined reads on downfield shots. They ran four verts often but those weren’t the plays that stood out for the quarterback position. In the above image, we can see a play from an early game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Todd Gurley is in the backfield and Foles is under center. This image comes from just before the snap.

The yellow lines on the image are the receivers’ routes. Tavon Austin is alone at the bottom of the screen. He is going to run a deep crossing route where he must draw the attention of the cornerback covering him but also the deep safety. The tight end just inside of him, Jared Cook, is running a shallower crossing route to entertain the attention of the underneath coverage.

Both of those routes will go completely against the grain of the play action as Foles will turn over his left shoulder and extend the ball towards Gurley.

Foles’ movement can be seen on the blue line. He works back to Gurley at an angle before making a sharp cut towards the far sideline. Gurley and his blockers move laterally, aggressively pushing the defensive front towards the left sideline, away from Foles. Foles has no pressure close to him as he turns to read the coverage downfield, however his two receiving options are severely outnumbers. That’s okay because this is a designed throwback towards the other side of the field.

Lance Kendricks had lined up as a tight end to the right side of the formation initially. He moved with his fellow blockers initially before bending into a route down the left seam. He was running to wide open space as the two crossing routes and pulled all of the defenders to the other side of the field.

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James Harrison does an excellent job of recognizing Kendricks releasing into his route after initially biting on the play fake. The play fake had drawn him far enough out of position that the linebacker had no chance of catching Kendricks though. Foles throws a good pass, not a perfect one but an accurate one. He had a huge amount of space to lead the tight end into which would have made his catch easier even though Kendricks should have caught the ball regardless.

This is the kind of play that doesn’t require a great understanding of coverages or a quick process. Such an aggressive play design distorts the structure of the coverage and gives Foles a simple either/or situation.

Distorting coverages is the easiest way to simplify an offense for a quarterback. If you can manipulate the defensive backs with play action or route combinations while keeping receiving options in the same line of vision the quarterback doesn’t need to possess an impressive mental process to be effective. These are the types of plays Wentz was asked to make at NDSU.

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In Gurley and Austin, the Rams have two players who defenses will always be wary of. Play fakes to either player aren’t your standard play fakes, they come with a greater treat because of Gurley’s overall ability and Austin’s usage. On this play, the Rams combined play fakes to Gurley and Austin while using route combinations downfield that allowed Foles to focus on one area of the field.

The play fakes come with a six-man protection, seven if you include Gurley’s chip block. Those numbers in pass protection combined with pulling the defensive front from left to right make it almost impossible for the Vikings to get timely pressure on Foles in the pocket. When Foles looks downfield, his intermediate crossing route is in line with his deep post route. He can view both receivers without moving his eyes from one side of the field to the other.

On this occasion he takes the deep shot and finds Kenny Britt with an accurate pass. Britt pulled the ball in for a 55-yard gain.

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The Rams sacrifice three of their eligible receivers so that they aren’t running routes past the line of scrimmage. One is in pass protection and the other two were used to manipulate pass protection. They are comfortable doing this because they are attacking one specific defender in the secondary. Foles is reading deep safety Harrison Smith. The intermediate crossing route runs beneath him while the post route runs behind him.

When Foles recognizes that Smith is running forward, something he is slow to process, he knows that Britt has to be his choice. Once again, he is in a situation where the read is clearly defined and it’s an either/or situation because the defense’s play design has been distorted by the offense’s play design.

Foles still had to make a precise throw because he was late releasing the ball and Britt isn’t a fast deep threat. This is the kind of throw the Rams will hope Wentz is capable of making with his big arm.

The Rams aren’t a quarterback away from competing in the NFC. Their roster isn’t as stacked as it once was, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the offensive line is still a work in progress and the receivers all come with limitations. Despite that, they do have the pieces to manage the expectations for their quarterback in 2016. You can afford to have a limited passing game when you’re expecting to win games by running the ball and playing good defense.

How many games the Rams can win remains an uncertainty. With a rookie starter, Jeff Fisher’s usual seven or eight would be an impressive achievement.

Jared Goff, Best Available Quarterback

Back in 2011, a film called The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture. It wasn’t your typical victor. The Artist was a black-and-white, silent film set in the 1920s. Not the type of film that draws in a wide demographic but one that is always likely to draw critical acclaim if created correctly.

Even considering the quality of the film, The Artist was only able to win because it wasn’t a great year for film makers.

No matter the quality of films made in a given year, the Oscars is always going to be held. There will always be a winner for each award so there will always be one film that becomes tied to Forrest Gump, the Gladiator and The Departed as a Best Picture winner, even if there isn’t actually one that deserves that mantle.

That is what happens in the draft. Continue reading