When the NFL returned to the field, few knew what the product would look like. Teams had no minicamps, limited training camp practices, and no preseason games. There was some belief the play could look sloppy with limited to no live tackling in practices leading to poorly played defense.
But once the players hit the field, the football looked mostly like football. Few differences came from the ways some expected. In fact, some of what was expected to be sloppier play ended up improved from Week 1 of the 2019 season.
Some quality of play metrics comparing Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season to Week 1 of 2019
–> Missed tackles per play down 3%
–> Dropped pass rate down 4%
–> False starts down 15%
–> Unsportsmanlike/Unnecessary roughness down 43%
— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) September 16, 2020
In past opening weeks, we’ve seen coaches unleash schemes and plays they have been drawing up and sitting on all season. It’s when we get Andy Reid running Kareem Hunt up the seam after a jet motion fake like he did in 2017 against the New England Patriots or using Sammy Watkins on a Leak play as he did last season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There was little of that in the opening week this season. Instead, there was a lot of quick passing. That started with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Thursday night. Mahomes threw quicker and shorter than he had in any other start of his NFL career. He wasn’t alone. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the average Week 1 pass traveled just 7.67 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s about a half-yard below the 2019 Week 1 average of 8.12, which lined up around the full 2019 season average of 8.14 yards.
The average time to throw wasn’t much different than Week 1 of 2019 (2.64 to 2.68 seconds) but last season’s Week 1 was also significantly quicker than the 2019 season average of 2.78 seconds. Still, there were a few quarterbacks who relied heavily on quick passing. Nine quarterbacks in Week 1 got the ball out in under 2.5 seconds, compared to nine in 2019 and 14 came in under 2.6 seconds, compared to 11 in 2019.
It’s not a huge shift, but it was just enough to keep some offenses away from making mistakes. It could also be seen as a way to protect offensive lines, as some line play was a little shaky around the league and arguably the place on the field that needs the most time to gel together.
Overall, though, the rate of short passes wasn’t much different than Week 1 of 2019. Both the rate at which teams threw at or behind the line of scrimmage and between 1-10 yards beyond it remained almost the same as 2019 (and 2019’s Week 1 rates were not far off from full 2019 averages). The real drop in Week 1 this year came on the rate of deep passes.
Week 1 Passing Rates By Depth, per Sports Info Solutions
There was a jump in intermediate passing, which is good to see. As we covered before the season, those throws can come with the same EPA as deep passes with the success rate of shorter ones, so it appears some teams opted for the stability of those throws over the high variance of the deep pass. Three teams — the Chiefs, Giants, and Jaguars — attempted just one deep pass. The Tennessee Titans attempted none.
That was mostly a good strategy for most teams because deep passing effectiveness might have been the biggest casualty of the season’s opening week. Not only was the rate down, few teams were able to find success on the deep ball.
Per SIS charting, quarterbacks had a 48.5% on-target rate and a completion percentage of 39.6% on passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Week 1 quarterbacks were basically 2019 Andy Dalton (47.7%/37.0%), who finished 22nd in on-target rate among quarterbacks last season.
The production was also a steep drop from the opening week of 2019:
Deep passing in Week 1, 2019 & 2020
One other notable takeaway from this table is the touchdown rate. Even when deep passes connected in Week 1, they didn’t come with the wide-open path to the end zone. Touchdowns like Darius Slayton’s or D.K. Metcalf‘s were rarities in the season’s opening week.
Carson Wentz was one of the worst deep passers in Week 1. While some teams were focused on the short pass to counter any offensive line troubles, Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles did the opposite. Wentz led all quarterbacks with 10 deep passes but was on target for just three of those passes (all three of which were completed). Last year, Wentz only completed 37.7% of his deep attempts with an injured receiving corps, but at least his on-target rate was an impressive 57.6%, which ranked ninth among 34 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts.
Three of Wentz’s Week 1 deep throws came under pressure, per SIS, and none were completed or on-target. As an extension of all of this, Wentz took eight sacks, the most for any quarterback in Week 1.
DeSean Jackson led all qualified receivers (min. five targets) in Week 1 with a 29.1-yard average depth of target, per Next Gen Stats. He wasn’t just a limited option in the passing game, either; he saw seven targets. Jalen Reagor saw four targets with an aDOT of 34. That included his lone catch in the game, a 55-yarder in the first quarter.
Like the rest of the Philadelphia offense, Wentz’s deep passes started out fine. Hit Reagor in the first quarter and had a 34-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert midway through the second quarter. He finished the first half 2-of-4 for 89 yards and the touchdown on deep passes. But in the second half when the Washington rush started coming and the Eagles tried to force the ball down the field, Wentz was 1-of-6 for 27 yards with the completion also serving as his lone on-target pass.
Last season, the San Francisco 49ers schemed up open deep throws in a way that Jimmy Garoppolo could rarely miss. The Niners already had the lowest deep passing rate in the league last season at 6.5% but Garoppolo led the league with a 63.3% completion rate on those throws (the next highest with at least 20 attempts was 48.9%). In Week 1, Garoppolo went 0-for-3 deep with just one on-target pass.
The meeting between the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals might have been the best example of the deep ball issue. Both Joe Burrow and Tyrod Taylor are new — one rookie and one new veteran starter. Taylor went 1-for-5 with two on-target throws and Burrow went 0-for-5 with just one on-target attempt. Burrow had a stretch he just missed John Ross for an open touchdown and then two plays later wildly missed an even more open A.J. Green.
Of course, not every quarterback had a bad day. Aaron Rodgers had the second-highest total of deep passing attempts on the week and went 5-of-8 for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
Hitting a deep pass is already a low probability play compared to throws anywhere else on the field. For one factor to be off could lower that probability close to zero. We saw that in the season’s opening week and it appears many teams entered the week knowing that was a possibility, so we saw fewer shots than we have in previous seasons. It wouldn’t be a surprise if teams continue to take that into account over the next few weeks. The deep pass isn’t dead, but it might be the thing that takes the longest to get back to normal.