The Direct and Indirect Benefits of DeSean Jackson

Devin McCourty allows you to do a lot. McCourty isn’t Earl Thomas but he’s probably the closest thing the NFL has to him. When Bill Belichick wants to play aggressive man coverage with only one safety deep, he knows McCourty can handle it. When Belichick wants to feature a Cover-3 heavy gameplan to matchup to his opponents in a specific way, he knows McCourty can handle it. If the defense needs someone to disguise a blitz by covering the most ground from alignment to assignment, McCourty can handle it.

When Austin Hooper caught the Falcons’ second touchdown in the Super Bowl, McCourty was nowhere to be seen. Hooper ran down the seam, beating Patrick Chung in single coverage, while McCourty followed Julio Jones infield. McCourty and Eric Rowe shared the responsibility of covering Jones. Matt Ryan knew they were going to double Jones before the ball was snapped, he knew when he motioned Taylor Gabriel from one side of the field to the other and McCourty didn’t react by dropping deeper or moving wider.

It’s rare that teams will double team a receiver. The Patriots do it more than all other teams combined. When people talk about one receiver being better because he’s always double teamed it’s a quick way to spot who hasn’t actually watched what they claim to have watched.

Still, the indirect benefits of playing with a great receiver do exist. By creating mismatches the best receivers in the league break schemes and gameplans. When Odell Beckham is alone on the narrow side of the field and his three teammates are on the other side, you can’t just leave him in single coverage and focus on the wider side of the field.

Isn’t that right, John Harbaugh?

When you have a talent like Beckham you typically have to tip your coverage towards him rather than away from him. In the above play, the Ravens drop a safety down to cover the tight end so they can move their linebackers to the wider side of the field. Had they not dropped a safety down they would have been forced to keep one linebacker on the tight end, creating space over the middle of the field for the slot receivers to run into. If the defense did everything it did above but the safety stayed in the middle of the field or on Beckham’s side, Eli Manning would have had huge space to throw to vertical routes against one-on-one coverage to that side of the field.

Beckham is a nightmare because he runs every route you need him to, he can make adjustments to deep balls downfield and he can catch short routes before taking them to the endzone from 60 yards away.

The direct benefits a quarterback has throwing to Beckham are greater than any other quarterback in the league right now. The indirect benefits a quarterback has throwing to him are right up there too, but he’s not the best in that area. No, that mantle belongs to DeSean Jackson.

It’s not a coincidence that Jackson was part of the offenses that bloated Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins’ statistical output. He dramatically alters the offenses he plays in because of his quality.

Jackson isn’t just a speed receiver. He’s not just a guy who runs 40 yards downfield in a straight line on every play. He is a more nuanced route runner than given credit for and he can make tougher receptions in tight coverage. His presence on the field didn’t limit Jay Gruden’s play calling in any way. It did limit the opponents’ play calling.

Only eight quarterbacks in the league threw a higher percent of their passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage than Kirk Cousins last year. 53.15 percent of his passes went to that range, six percent higher than the league average. The Washington offense is a quick throw one. It spreads the field with receivers so the quarterback can diagnose the play before the snap and get rid of the ball immediately after the snap. Against that kind of offense you want to squash the field. You want to be aggressive outside and take away the quick throws, force the quarterback to hold the ball when he doesn’t want to hold the ball.

A few teams did this successfully last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers most notably. They did it by only rushing three players after the quarterback and flooding the field with an eight-man zone.

The Steelers couldn’t be aggressive against the Washington offense because of Jackson. If they tried to play press across the field to stop the quick slants and YAC-specific route combinations, Jackson would have had an opportunity to create a free release and burn them downfield. If they dropped one safety into the box and kept one deep, the quarterback would know that Jackson was getting a free release and could be hit in a coverage that was easier to anticipate.

According to Football Outsiders, Washington ranked 27th in the league in terms of how many stacked boxes they faced. This means that teams were constantly keeping two safeties deep against them, freeing up the space over the middle of the field and stressing the linebackers more in coverage on underneath routes. Jackson’s presence is a big reason for that. It’s the only way to prevent him from running wide open deep downfield every week.

When the defense is forced to keep multiple safeties back it does a couple of things. It means there are fewer coverages that the quarterback has to be concerned about but it also means the defense can’t be creative with its blitzing. Against Washington you can’t show single coverage to Jackson before having a defender come from a different area of the field to drop deeper than him, he’ll beat your defender to the spot and be gone by the time you do it. You also can’t just sit one defensive back 10 yards off the ball from the beginning of the play, he’ll beat them with his route running or even still with his straight-line speed.

All-out blitzes are completely off the table.

Take this play against the Chicago Bears in Week 16. The Bears attempt to disguise their all-out blitz with a corner coming off the edge and both safeties moving forward. The blitz pickup is excellent, giving Cousins time to see Jackson enter his break in his route. Jackson stayed disciplined with his stem, pushing towards the cornerback sitting off of him before breaking back infield. This prevented the cornerback from jumping his route.

Jackson’s speed is such that he can reach back for the ball and stop immediately as he catches it without the defender ever getting near him. From there he runs downfield for a 57-yard gain.

Even when you keep two safeties back, Jackson will still get open.

This play against the Eagles is a perfect example of the direct benefit that comes from playing with Jackson. He uniquely elevates quarterbacks when they’re trying to push the ball downfield. Cousins completely misses this throw but Jackson has beaten the cornerback so badly that he has time to slow down and locate the ball. He should have been continuing down the middle of the field to track the ball there. Instead he is forced to turn towards the opposite sideline as the ball flutters over his head.

Jackson’s ball skills to locate and catch the ball, especially without going to the ground, are spectacular but he never gets that opportunity if he doesn’t beat the cornerback as badly as he does. The cornerback is too focused on trying to recover the ground he has lost to look for the ball or disrupt Jackson at the catch point.

He emphasizes his quality by staying on his feet against contact before trotting into the endzone.

Although he eclipsed 1,000 yards last season in an offense that spread the ball around to different receivers, Jackson was still significantly held back by his quarterback. Cousins was accurate on 41.67 percent of his deep throws last year, 16th in the league. He was accurate on 45.16 percent of his throws to Jackson and Jackson caught three inaccurate deep passes such as the one shown above. He was accurate on only 39.02 percent of his deep throws that didn’t target Jackson.

Washington had a very talented offense last year and Gruden’s philosophy maximized Jackson’s impact by stretching the defense in every possible way. With Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed complementing Jackson, they had four receivers who could get open deep, get open underneath, create yards after the catch and adjust to inaccurate passes at the catch point.

In Tampa Bay, it’s much less likely that Jackson’s impact will be as significant.

Jameis Winston was accurate on 30.51 percent of his deep passes last year, only five quarterbacks were worse than him. Furthermore, remember Cousins’ percentage of passes thrown to five yards? 53.15 percent, ninth in the league if you don’t remember. Winston threw 33.84 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, only Cam Newton threw fewer passes to that level of the field. Peculiarly, Winston’s percent of deep throws wasn’t that high either. He threw 11.22 percent of his passes further than 20 yards downfield, 14th in the league, instead focusing most of his passes into the 11-20 range, where he ranked first in the league with 33.06 percent of his passes going there.

The four vert offense that Dirk Koetter relies on means Winston is pushing the ball downfield all the time. He’s asked to hit intermediate routes that are harder to hit and in turn harder to create yards after the catch from. 34.89 percent of Winston’s yards came after the catch, only Matt Barkley had a lower number.

Jackson opening up the field for his teammates isn’t going to matter if his teammates aren’t capable of or set up to take advantage of that space. Opposing defenses won’t face the same quandary that they faced when Jackson was in Washington.

That doesn’t mean Jackson can’t help Winston, it just means that Winston will be more reliant on the direct benefits rather than the indirect benefits that come with having Jackson in your offense. If that is to happen he will need to refine his accuracy and stop missing wildly on deep throws so Jackson at least has a chance to adjust to the ball in the air.

Kirk Cousins and Empty Drives

Kirk Cousins played well within his skill set on Thanksgiving. He stockpiled yardage to the tune of 449 on 53 attempts and finished the game with three touchdowns. Yet, Cousins also sabotaged his team on a couple of occasions and hurt their chances of winning the game.

Moving the ball wasn’t a problem for Washington all game. Scoring was a major problem in the first half though.

On the first drive of the game, Washington got into field goal range before a holding penalty put them behind the down-and-distance. They were still in field goal range on Second-and-23. Despite still being in field goal range, the coaching staff immediately went ultra conservative. A draw run gained six before a wide receiver screen gained one yard.

Washington has one of the very best, if not the best supporting casts in the NFL. There is no reason for them to go so conservative as soon as they fall behind the down-and-distance. You can interpret their approach to that drive as a reflection on a quarterback who hasn’t proven that he can consistently play behind the down-and-distance.

On the second drive, Washington got deeper into the redzone and Cousins was more directly at fault for their inability to reach the endzone.

Conceptually, the Washington offense wants Cousins to get rid of the ball quickly. However, every quarterback has to have an understanding of when to hold the ball and when to get rid of it. He has to feel the pass rush around him and understand the situation and coverage. On this play in the redzone, Cousins looks for his first read and it’s either not open or the quarterback misses it. Once his first read isn’t there he immediately throws the ball away.

There wasn’t any real need for Cousins to rush into throwing the ball away. He could have stepped back and reset in the pocket or stepped back and broke out of the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open.

It’s not like you even need to be a great athlete or play in a different style of offense to make that play. Here’s 39-year old Tom Brady doing exactly what Cousins should have done. Even if it doesn’t result in a touchdown, you have to make a greater effort to create an opportunity for your teammates in the redzone.

On third down, Cousins does what he should have done on second down and escapes the pocket to extend the play. This was a tougher play too because the defender shedded his blocker. Alas, once he escaped outside he badly overthrows Jordan Reed in the endzone. Overthrowing Reed is like overthrowing Mike Evans. It simply shouldn’t happen. Reed isn’t as tall as Evans but as evidenced in the second half, he’s got a huge catch radius.

Washington settled for a field goal and didn’t even get a 50-50 opportunity for one of their receivers to score a touchdown.

At this point in the game, Cousins had already accumulated 114 yards but had also played a significant role—both directly and indirectly—in the offense settling for two field goal attempts instead of touchdowns.

It’s important to reiterate at this point that Cousins overall performed well within his skill set. He made an impressive throw to DeSean Jackson to move the offense into the redzone for a third time in the first half just before the end of the second quarter. With three opportunities from the 10-yard line, Cousins was asked tot hrow the ball three times.

On the first of those three attempts Cousins determines that he is going to throw the slant at the top of the screen before the ball is snapped. He had three receiving options on the other side of the field and a safety sitting on the side of the field where he decided to throw the ball. His receiver was never open here. Cosuins would have had to throw a perfect pass to give him any chance and if he did throw that pass his receiver would still have had to survive the hit he had been led into.

Cousins’ throw is easily defended as it is behind the receiver and lacking in velocity. More importantly, look at what the defense did.

The Cowboys wanted Cousins to throw this ball immediately. Like other teams have this year, they played his tendency to catch-and-release the ball immediately by rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage. Cousins needs to hold this ball and give his receivers time because nobody is open in their initial routes.

On second down Cousins holds the ball a little bit longer but again throws the ball earlier than he needs to. This time he completes the pass and gains yardage but throws short of the endzone into double coverage. Again, he did what the Cowboys wanted him to do. The defense rushed three and kept multiple defenders over the middle of the field anticipating that he would rush the ball out and throw into a crowd instead of extending the play within the pocket.

For all the talk of Dak Prescott and the pass protection he gets in the pocket, you at the very least have to give Prescott credit for being patient enough and poised enough to make use of that time instead of rushing his decisions in the way that Cousins does.

Third down comes and Cousins faces some pressure. As is typically the case when he is pressured, everything falls apart. He throws a pass that is equidistant between his two receivers to that side of the field. He either severely underthrew the fade that was wide open or made a bad decision trying to lead Jamison Crowder outside when Crowder was being bracketed by two defenders.

Missing the fade is the major problem here. The ball should have been out before the defender was close enough to touch him. Pierre Garcon had cooked the defensive back from the start.

On two drives with five redzone dropbacks, the most talented set of pass catchers in the NFL didn’t receive a single opportunity at making a play on the ball in the endzone. It’s not like Cousins’ protection fell apart on each play to the point that he couldn’t reasonably be expected to make a play. It’s that he couldn’t make plays outside of his limited skill set and the defense baited him into doing what they wanted him to do.

The other drive that Washington had in the first half resulted in a missed field goal. Washington was forced to attempt that long field goal because Cousins forced the ball into double coverage well short of the first down line when he had receivers open downfield. Again, Dallas played his tendencies and stopped the offense from scoring by doing so.

He opened the third quarter with another problematic drive as Orlando Scandrick should have intercepted an underthrown deep pass before a checkdown to a covered receiver from a clean poket on Third-and-15 forced a punt.

That was the point when Cousins had two strong drives. He was aggressive with his best weapons, giving Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson opportunities to make big plays. Washington scored two touchdowns and were suddenly back in the game during the fourth quarter. Cousins deserves credit for those drives. He helped his team get back into it with good throws and smart decisions.

We reached 06:29 in the fourth quarter with Washington needing two scores to win the game. Now was the time for Cousins to stay aggressive and give his big-play receivers opportunities. You needed to score on this drive but it was just as important to score quickly.

Exactly like in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cousins checked down when the defense desperately wanted him to check down. He threw for 74 yards and a touchdown, but the drive took 15 plays. Cousins kept checking down underneath instead of trying to create bigger plays further downfield. The drive opened with three five yard gains and a six yard gain. those plays alone cost them 01:29 of game clock. An 11-yard throw to Jordan Reed on the following play was the most aggressive Cousins was on the whole drive.

Dallas loved that. They played soft and cheered every single time Cousins helped them milk the clock by completing passes short and often over the middle. Each throw was bad decision after bad decision, but it helped to bloat his statistical output so…yay?

Washington didn’t score until after the two-minute warning, essentially ending the game as a contest. Taking that long to score meant that Dallas only needed one first down to end the game and Washington’s best chance was to recover an onside kick.

Cousins’ overall numbers were again positive if you just look at them in a vacuum. But realistically, he didn’t do enough to help them win the game.

Dictating The Play – An Explanation With C.J. Prosise and Jay Gruden

C.J. Prosise announced himself on Sunday Night Football. Without him, the Seattle Seahawks likely wouldn’t have beaten the New England Patriots. Prosise didn’t just account for 153 yards on 24 touches. The rookie running back had value that surpassed his production as he altered the identity of the Seahawks offense.

Whenever an offense and defense meet, one is more likely to be the aggressor. One is more likely to be proactive while the other is reactive. One is more likely to dictate how the outcome of each play will be determined.

It’s easier to explain this with an example.

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Take this Third-and-6 play from the first quarter. Prosise lines up in the backfield next to Wilson. The Seahawks have three receivers to the wide (left) side of the field and Jimmy Graham isolated outside the numbers on the narrow (right) side of the field. Everyone on offense is in a position that you would rationally expect them to be in. This means the defense doesn’t need to adjust its play call.

At this point of the play, it’s more important to look at what the defense is doing than what the offense is doing.

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Prosise’s positioning in the backfield allows the defense to keep two linebackers in the box. These two linebackers afford the defense more versatility and take away any clarity that Wilson might have had. Before Wilson knows where he’s going to go with the ball, he has to figure out what those linebackers are doing.

Dont’a Hightower(#54) and Shea McLellin(#58) could be doing anything. Wilson can’t know at this point.

Will both rush the quarterback to create a five-man pass rush? Will both drop into coverage? If they do drop, how will that impact the rest of the coverage? What happens if one comes and the other drops? If so, which one comes and which one drops?

These are all things Wilson has to consider while Prosise is next to him in the backfield.

Before you watch the above gif, go back and look at the original image. Note where Graham is on the field and note the safety to that side of the field. The Patriots didn’t want to give Graham a one-on-one in space so the Seahawks took advantage of that by isolating him on one side of the field. Graham keeps the safety away from the box and the other receivers, limiting the versatility of the defense.

Now, watch the above gif. Look at how the defense reacts to Prosise motioning out wide.

McLellin leaves the box and follows Prosise. Hightower shifts over to McLellin’s spot and Wilson identifies Hightower so the offensive line sets its protection with the expectation that he will rush the passer. McLellin followed Prosise. Everyone else stayed in positions they were already in. This suggests to Wilson that they are playing man coverage.

Any team in the league can motion their running back from the backfield into the position of a wide receiver. The Seahawks could have done this with Christine Michael or Alex Collins. Not every team can motion a running back out wide and still have five legitimate receiving options on the field. When Prosise moves outside he’s not going to just turn and face his quarterback at the snap or run straight downfield like limited backs are forced to do.

With Graham pulling coverage on one side of the field, Prosise is given a one-on-one matchup in space against a strong-side linebacker. A linebacker whose primary value comes in tight spaces and whose fatal flaw is exposed when he’s dropped into space.

Prosise runs a precise, fast route. The linebacker stumbles as he is left behind. Wilson’s easy read is paired with an easy throw for a first down. An obvious passing down became an easy passing down for the offense because the offense dictated the matchup it would attack.

The quarterback didn’t have to perform against pressure, he didn’t have to make a difficult pre-snap or post-snap read. He didn’t have to fit the ball into a tight window or throw a receiver open with anticipation, touch or timing. He just had to not mess it up.

You need a lot of talent to consistently dictate plays in the NFL. Right now the best example we have is the Denver Broncos defense.

Nobody can block Von Miller. You either adapt your play calling or play designs to account for Miller or you let him wreck your play calling and play designs. Miller hurries the quarterback up, shortens the field and makes it easier for each of his teammates to do his job. It’s why he got paid quarterback money in a league that overpays quarterbacks. Miller with that secondary and Demarcus Ware on the other side of him is simply terrifying.

One team did recently turn the Broncos defense into a reactive entity: The Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders neutralized Miller by attacking the Broncos’ greatest weakness. They ran power plays up the middle over and over and over again. The Broncos couldn’t stop them. Miller had one sack and Derek Carr threw for fewer than 200 yards on 31 attempts, but the Raiders running backs combined for 215 yards. Miller spent most of the game on the outside, reacting to running plays that he could do nothing about.

Maybe the original and definitely the most common way of dictating games is with play action. There are a number of offenses in the leage that excel at keeping their opponents off balance with unbalanced formations or different types of play fakes and route combinations. Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs immediately come to mind. The Chiefs don’t have great individual talent though so Reid’s offenses still don’t put up huge numbers.

An offense that does have great individual talent resides in Washington.

Jay Gruden’s offense boasts arguably the most talented group of pass catchers in the NFL. The one thing they are missing is a running back. With Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and the re-emerging Vernon Davis (not to mention the immenent arrival of Josh Doctson and the recent impressive play of Maurice Harris), Washington has a group of receiving options that mixes supreme talent with congruent complements. That weaponry shares the field with an offensive line that performs collectively like one of the best pass-blocking units in the league.

The Washington coaching staff has clearly defined strengths and they run an offense that plays to those strengths. At least, they did over the second half of last season.

When Kirk Cousins’ production blew up midway through last year, the offense’s emphasis on play action plays played a big role. Over the first nine weeks of last season, Cousins completed 32 of 46 play-action passes for 403 yards, one touchdown and one interception. From that point onwards, he completed 39 of 54 passes for 744 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.

He went from averaging 8.8 yards per play-action pass attempt to averaging 13.8 yards per play-action pass attempt.

Play action, especially hard play action, is the original form of dictating because the goal of play action is to distort the defense. You are intentionally doing something to draw defenders out of position or make them lose their assignments. The defense’s play call is distorted, forcing each defender to spend time recovering the ground he gave up while the quarterback and his receiving options are fully focused on connecting with each other. Not to mention, play action naturally slows down pass rushers.

That is presuming you are an effective play action team. Washington are a very effective play action team. This was highlighted on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings when 110 of Cousins’ 262 yards came off of play action.

Six of Cousins’ nine play action plays were designed to get the quarterback out of the pocket. This typically means that it was a hard play fake where the quarterback lines up under center and extends the ball back to his running back before running to the opposite flat. In the above gif, you can see the first example of Washington executing a play fake from Sunday’s game.

Tight end Vernon Davis gains 15 yards and a first down on this play.

Davis’ role is a fascinating one and it speaks to great play design from Gruden and his staff. He is initially responsible for run blocking, or rather selling a run block, on the backside defensive end. That is a crucial role because the backside defensive end is the one player in position to meet the quarterback after he executes the play fake. Davis sells the run block well before leaking out onto the second level late. Because the linebackers and defensive backs were reacting to the play fake and Davis was engaged witha  defensive end, nobody ever even considers covering him.

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The backside defensive end actually does a decent job on this play to react and take away the quarterback’s option to scramble. It’s more of a consolation than anything though because the quarterback doesn’t ever need to scramble. More important is the fact that the quarterback has plenty of time and space to operate in. All of the pass rush was washed across the field with the play fake, leaving him to function at a luxurious pace.

All three receivers are on the same side of the field when the quarterback breaks the pocket. This is a half-field read. The Vikings force the quarterback into the most difficult read by taking away his first two options downfield, but, mentally, it’s far from a difficult play.

Distorted coverage gives the quarterback a wide open receiver, no pass rush to deal with and a short throw that can/will result in a big gain.

You can see almost exactly the same thing happen for Cousins’ second touchdown throw when he underthrew a tight end throwback after play action but it ultimately never mattered because the defense was reactive and the offense was proactive. The tight end throwback is maybe the toughest play in football to defend because anyone can run it and create such separation. We’ve seen Kyle Shanahan use it with Brian Hoyer and Matt Ryan, Jeff Fisher use it with Case Keenum, Dirk Koetter use it with Jameis Winston. No matter the type of quarterback you have, that play almost always puts the defense in a perilous position.

Washington use two very specific play fakes that work extremely well. The above play is typical of what they do when Cousins breaks the pocket. When he stays in the pocket, they look to attack the middle of the field.

These are back-to-back plays from the fourth quarter when Washington needed a drive to take the lead. They are (essentially) the exact same plays. The linebackers are drawn forward by the play fake. The defensive backs are pushed back by vertical routes. That means the natural space between the two levels of the defense is stretched so that the quarterback has a wide window to hit a sharp, in-breaking route.

Cousins is a very inaccurate passer but that isn’t shown in his numbers for a couple of reasons. One, his receivers are exceptional at adjusting to inaccurate passes. Two, the majority of his passes are thrown short so the difficulty level is consistently lower for him compared to his peers. Three, they dictate to defenses so that receivers can be schemed open for easier throws.

On Sunday, Cousins had an accuracy percentage of 75 percent (9 of 12) on qualifying throws that traveled five or fewer yards downfield. He had an accuracy percentage of 43 percent (9 of 21) on throws that traveled six or more yards downfield. Creating big plays off of play action and with YAC (he had 81 yards of YAC) allowed Cousins to be effective while rarely doing anything that would be calssified as difficult.

For the Vikings, this was another game where they were reactive all over the field. The Vikings were dominant over the first month of the season as their pressure upfront and athleticism behind it made it very difficult for offenses to approach games the way they wanted to. Since then, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have gone missing while Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have slowed down. Whether injuries are playing a role or not is unclear.

Dictating the play can be done in different ways and the style of an offense or defense can be just as important as its quality.

Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Brock Osweiler and the Gaps in Evaluating Efficiency

Only one quarterback since 1960 has thrown 45 or more passes in a game for 300 or fewer yards with a completion percentage of 75 or greater. Derek Carr fit that criteria with his performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 and Pro Football Reference confirmed that made him unique.

Unique performances for quarterbacks in the NFL aren’t unusual nowadays. As Robert Mays wrote for The Ringer recently, the NFL continues to move further away from run-oriented offenses. That is because coaches now see the value in relying more on a short-throw based, efficient passing game that takes advantage of modern rules that limit defensive backs.

Every quarterback appears more efficient now than he would have 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

That doesn’t mean that every quarterback is more efficient now than those who played 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Continue reading

What is Simple YAC and Why it Matters

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about what an Interceptable Pass is and what a Non-QB Interception is. Today I’m going to look at a different section of the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue; Simple YAC.

Simple YAC is astoundingly…simple. Simple YAC tracks every single play where the ball doesn’t travel further than two yards past the line of scrimmage. It is designed to account for plays where the quarterback didn’t have to throw into coverage and where the onus is on the receiver to create the yardage gained.

Not every play that qualifies for Simple YAC is a simple play for the quarterback, but an overwhelming majority are. Most are checkdowns or screens, the rare exception is when the quarterback has to adjust against quick pressure or read through a full progression to find the right outlet in the flat or underneath.

For the sake of continuity between different quarterbacks, all of these plays count as the same.

Most of these plays are useless for evaluating the quarterback. They are plays that every single passer in the league should expect to make every single time they are asked to. Yet these plays can still have a huge impact on a quarterback’s production. For example, 37.8 percent of Nick Foles’ yardage came on Simple YAC plays, 33.5 percent of Matthew Stafford’s did. Compare that to Brian Hoyer who had just 13.9 percent of his yards come on those plays or Cam Newton who had 15.5 percent of his.

Those numbers don’t even consider the touchdown disparity between different quarterbacks across the league. For the purposes of exploring Simple YAC plays, we’re going to showcase some of Kirk Cousins’ examples. Cousins is a polarizing player who is relevant at this time because Washington didn’t extend him before free agency, instead extending negotiations by placing the franchise tag on him.

Cousins didn’t lead the league in Simple YAC nor did he lead the league in Simple YAC touchdowns. The percentage of his yards that were gained from Simple YAC was even below average. So what makes Cousins worthwhile? Cousins led the league in 31+ yard plays that qualified as Simple YAC. Those plays came over the second half of the year, the second half of the year that is used to justify his standing as the Washington starter moving forward.

It all began against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.

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Cousins threw the ball 25 times and completed 20 passes in this game. He had 324 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. On the surface, it’s a phenomenal individual performance. Digging a little deeper you find that the Saints defense was simply atrocious that day. Of Cousins’ 324 yards, 202 came as Simple YAC. Of his 20 completions, 12 were Simple YAC. Of his four touchdowns, two were Simple YAC.

These are astronomical numbers for one game.

In the above gif, Jordan Reed caps the very first drive of the game by catching a pass in the flat to run in a 16-yard touchdown. The Saints blow the coverage as they react to the play fake, Cousins is rolled out of the pocket and Reed is his first read. He has a simple throw to make and didn’t have to adjust against pressure or diagnose a coverage downfield. This play results in a touchdown and offers a substantial boost in yardage, but it’s nowhere close to being the longest or even second-longest play of this type from this game.

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Half of Cousins’ six 31+ yard Simple YAC plays on the season came from this game. Two of the three came on screen plays to Matt Jones where the Saints showed no awareness or intensity in trying to stop the running back. On both occasions Cousins had to do nothing but execute simple assignments. In the first play Jones catches the ball at the 44-yard line and finishes the play at the 11.

This 30-yard chunk was valuable and almost twice as long as Reed’s touchdown, but again, it was nowhere close to the next big Simple YAC play.

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Jones’ second long screen play comes early in the second quarter and the Saints just defend it horribly. Washington uses play action to slow down the pass rush while Cousins takes a deep drop so he is in space. He has time to wait for Jones to uncover so that Cousins doesn’t need to throw a fast ball or lead his receiver to a spot. His pass is actually limp so Jones reaches for it. When Jones catches the ball he is wide open and exactly on his own 20-yard line.

He runs 80 yards to the Saints endzone, essentially untouched.

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Before the end of the half, Cousins added another 30+ yard play on a screen to Jamison Crowder. Not only did it gain 30+ yards, it converted a Second-and-21 after a sack and moved the offense into scoring position with less than a minute left. Once again, this was extremely easy for everyone on the offensive side of the ball. Cousins and Crowder reap the statistical rewards even though it was a relatively simple play for each.

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Jay Gruden has always been capable of creating easy yardage for his quarterbacks. He doesn’t accentuate the tougher aspects of being a quarterback, instead catering to his passer with misdirection, play action and easier by relying on scheme. Matt Jones was a huge benefactor on screen plays in 2015. On this play against the New York Giants in Week 12, Jones gains 45 yards on a screen play where he is once again given an unopposed route downfield after catching the ball cleanly in space.

Again, this is a simple play for Cousins. One you would expect every quarterback who makes it as far as the NFL to execute. The protagonist for success on this play was the misdirection created by the receiver running across the formation before the snap and Jones’ athleticism to take advantage of the space that misdirection created.

Cousins would have had to do something spectacular to not gain 40+ yards on this play.

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Screen plays were a huge part of the Washington offense over the second half of last season. They played a big role in bloating Cousins’ production against bad defenses and warping the perception of his ability as a quarterback. It wasn’t just huge plays either, Cousins had seven 21+ yard Simple YAC plays and four Simple YAC touchdowns over the second half of the year.

Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, Cousins threw two Simple YAC touchdowns in the redzone.

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Redzone touchdowns are supposed to be tougher to throw because of how the field tightens. That can often be the case but it’s not always. Smarter teams can scheme receivers open in the redzone despite the limited space. On this play, you can see the same concept that was previously highlighted for Jordan Reed’s touchdown against the Saints. Ryan Grant motions behind the line of scrimmage so he is tougher to track for the defenders at the snap.

This schemes Grant open and gives Cousins a simple throw after play action.

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Washington also makes use of natural pick plays and route combinations that consistently complement each other to create easier reads for their quarterback. On this play, Crowder catches the ball two yards downfield after running behind a natural pick from the slot. Cousins’ pass is wild, but Crowder, as he often did last year, showed off a natural ability to make difficult adjustments look easy.

The pick play allows Crowder to do this in wide open space. If the separation hadn’t been created, he would have been exposed to a hit or pass disruption by the covering defender.

Finding the plays where the quarterback is only tasked with doing replacement-level assignments and measuring the production that comes from them is important for evaluating any NFL quarterback. Quarterbacks don’t control the receiver’s ability to create YAC or the defense’s pursuit. He can help to set up the receiver for success in the initial stages with his ball placement, but that is a minor input overall.

Surpassed that, the quarterback also doesn’t control the scheme he is put in. There are players who are set up for success by their coaching staffs and then there are players who are set up to fail. Simple YAC is often a good reflection on that, though the overall context still needs to be examined through tape.