Not every NFL team can have a Russell Wilson — a quarterback that no matter what else is going on with the roster, his team will never be out of contention in a game or season. Players like Wilson and Dak Prescott appear to be fighting against their own offenses and play-callers on the path to a playoff berth and while that can be frustrating to watch, those teams could be considered lucky to have the quality of player to lift any deficiencies around them.
More problematic for playoff contenders is the opposite dilemma — a strong team that needs to win despite quarterback play. As we head into the stretch run for the playoffs, there are a few teams in that position, including one top contender.
San Francisco 49ers – Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco has made its way to the best record in the NFL thanks to a strong and efficient running game. The 49ers have been able to keep opponents from scoring with the league’s best pass defense and that has allowed San Francisco to stay with a run-heavy game plan on offense. However, even the run game hasn’t been what has propelled San Francisco’s success. After Week 10, the 49ers rank 16th in rushing DVOA on offense.
Still, that can work when the defense is holding down opposing offenses to the second-lowest yards and points per drive. But what we saw on Monday night in Week 10, is what could happen when the 49ers need to rely on Garoppolo as a straight drop back passer. Against Seattle, Garoppolo was 10-of-11 for 111 yards (10.0 yards per attempt) and a touchdown to the short middle area of the field but he was just 14-of-35 for 137 yards (3.9 YPA) elsewhere, per Next Gen Stats.
How they can work around it: Scheme
There might not be a team better suited to lift a quarterback than the Kyle Shanahan led 49ers. So far, San Francisco has been able to put Garoppolo in an ideal situation for a quarterback, where he doesn’t have to do too much in order for the offense to be successful enough. Shanahan has been able to scheme receivers open and Garoppolo has only thrown into a tight window — defined as a yard or fewer of separation — on 13.2% of his passes, the seventh-lowest rate in the league.
Garoppolo has also been fairly accurate with his passes this season. Per Sports Info Solutions, he has the fourth-highest on-target rate among 35 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. That helps when those receivers are open — especially when Emmanuel Sanders and George Kittle are on the field — but the ability to throw a catchable ball hasn’t transcended the offense. Garoppolo has completed almost exactly the number of passes he’d be expected to complete per Next Gen Stats, Expected Completion Percentage. Garoppolo has just a 0.1% difference between actual and expected.
If the 49ers can keep games in a controllable offensive environment, there can be enough there for Garoppolo and the passing offense to do just enough to win. The question will be if that is possible as San Francisco’s upcoming schedule gets much tougher than it was over the first half of the season.
Buffalo Bills – Josh Allen
Buffalo got out to a surprising start to the season thanks to heroic defensive efforts to both top opposing offenses and lift its own. But over the past few games, the defense has started to crack and it has exposed the offense as a unit that cannot carry the team when needed. Most of that falls on the arm of Josh Allen.
Allen’s consistency and accuracy remain an issue. He can go from firing a strike into a tight window on the run one play to overshooting an open receiver by eight yards from a clean pocket the next. Per SIS, he’s 32nd in on-target percentage among 35 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts this season.
Buffalo brought in Cole Beasley in an attempt to get Allen a safety net in the short and intermediate area of the field and while that’s helped, the Bills haven’t been able to connect consistently on deep passes, where Allen’s otherworldly arm strength is supposed to be an advantage. Allen is 26th in on-target percentage and 24th in completion percentage among 27 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts on passes 20 yards or more down the field.
How they can work around it: Run Allen more
Allen is a mobile quarterback and his ability to run might currently be his biggest strength. Most of Allen’s runs this season have been scrambles — as was also the case in 2018 — but he hasn’t been as successful on those runs as he was last season. In 2018, Allen averaged 52.6 rushing yards per game and a 48.3% first down rate on the ground. This season, Allen has averaged just 30.6 rushing yards per game with a 34.3% first down rate.
Just 13 of Allen’s 67 rushing attempts this season have been designed quarterback runs but on those, he has a 46.2% first down rate, opposed to just a 31.3% rate on scrambles. Designed quarterback runs are the most efficient running plays and taking more advantage of Allen’s ability to gain yards on the ground will help the offense move the ball more consistently and that could open up throwing lanes later in games.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Mason Rudolph
The Steelers’ recent turnaround has been mostly about the defense with both the secondary and pass rush improving each week. The offense, now helmed by Rudolph, remains a question mark even as Pittsburgh currently sits as the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
Rudolph only tops Sam Darnold and Mitchell Trubisky in yards per attempt and just Josh Rosen has a shorter average completion this season.
The Steelers have been all over the place with how they’ve approached the passing game with Rudolph at quarterback. He’s gone from barely throwing the ball past the line of scrimmage some games (a 3.2 aDOT in Week 4) to letting it rip in others (a 12.8 aDOT in Week 8).
Neither strategy has been particularly effective. Rudolph has struggled with accuracy and placement to each area of the field this season, though he has run into luck with long touchdowns. Seven of his 11 touchdown passes have been 20 yards or more and three have come from at least 40 yards out. This makes some sense given Rudolph’s history slinging the ball in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State.
How they can work around it: Air it out
The Steelers aren’t going to be able to do a lot to hide Rudolph on a down-to-down basis, but what they can potentially do is hope for the highest upside on big play attempts. If the Steelers are going to be a low success rate passing offense — their 26th in the percentage of passing plays that produce positive Expected Points Added, per SIS — they might at well try to capitalize on getting as much out of the plays that will be a success.
Over the past three weeks, Rudolph in 12th among quarterbacks in on-target percentage on passes that travel at least 20 yards down the field and all three of Pittsburgh’s top receiving options have the ability to win deep.
JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the team in air yards over this span (301) and has an aDOT of 15.1, per airyards.com. Rudolph and James Washington have been able to find some chemistry from their college days and leads the team in receiving yards over the past three weeks with 180.
Getting Diontae Johnson more involved could also help. From Weeks 8-10, Johnson ranks eighth in receiving EPA, though he’s third on the team with a 14% target share over that span, behind Smith-Schuster (18%) and Washington (16%). All of those rates should increase with lower rates to the tight ends and running backs.
Los Angeles Rams – Jared Goff
We talked about Goff and the Rams’ struggles on offense earlier in the season and it hasn’t gotten much better. The team hasn’t been able to get a lead, which has reduced the ability to run play-action and that has forced Goff to be a drop back passer more often than anyone would like — save for opposing defenses.
Goff has actually improved on play-action through the course of the season — the Rams are averaging 8.1 yards per attempt — but they still just run it 25% of the time. Last year they ran it a league-leading 36% of the time and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt.
The biggest issue for the Rams has been a sudden implosion of the offensive line. It’s a unit that currently ranks 25th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate after it was first in that metric last season.
How they can work around it: Trust the system
There has been a lot of talk about how McVay hasn’t been able to adapt his offense since the middle of last season when the Detroit Lions started laying the foundation of how to stop it. But the Rams have been able to change some parts of the offense, it’s just personnel hasn’t been able to execute. More injuries along the offensive line haven’t helped the case.
Part of this could also be that there’s been too much adjusting. Last season, 37% of Goff’s attempts came under center and he was much better there — 9.9 yards per attempt compared to 7.4 in shotgun. This year, just 30% of Goff’s pass attempts have come under center and he’s also been more productive there, though less so than 2018 — 8.2 yards per attempt compared to 7.4 in shotgun.
The Rams have trailed more often this season and the play of the offensive line has been a big reason for the shift to more shotgun, but Goff has only been sacked on 1.8% of his under center snaps this season, per SIS, which is well below his rate last year (4.1%).
Enough parts of the McVay offense still work, though not to the extent and success of 2018. While some changes have been necessary, getting back to the basics could be a key to helping Goff and the offense for the remainder of 2019.