Passing near the goal line has always caused trouble for NFL offenses. Concepts and formations that work in any other area of the field aren’t available as the usable space of the field gets condensed. It’s also a place where coaches start to get more risk-averse because of the value of points and the fear of losing out on them — that’s how something like the fade rises to prominence.
But as offenses have started to progress, they’ve started to shift how they call passes near the end zone in a way that both limits the likelihood of a turnover and maximizes scoring potential.
Rise of the Slant
Through nine weeks, the most common route targeted from the opponent’s 10-yard line and in is the slant, per Sports Info Solutions charting. Like most things with human memory, the bad plays stand out more. No one will forget how the Seattle Seahawks lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots on a picked slant. And even this season, Aaron Rodgers was picked on a slant during the final play of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4 that cemented a 34-27 loss. But the reality is, in that area of the field, the slant has been a highly successful play, especially this season.
To this point in the 2019 season, there have been 547 passes from the 10 and in. 52 of those have targeted a slant 53.8% of those passes have been completed and more importantly, 44.2% of those attempts have resulted in a touchdown. The Eagles-Packers interception is the lone pick on these throws in 2019, for a rate of just 1.9%.
Reliance on the slant in this area of the field makes sense given what offenses want to accomplish. The completion percentage isn’t astronomical, but if it is completed, it’s most likely a touchdown given the leverage a receiver can get by boxing out the defender during the route. And if the pass isn’t completed, it’s likely innocently batted down, the Rodgers play notwithstanding.
The volume of slants, though, has risen this season. Last season 7.7% of throws inside the 10 went to slants and that has increased to 9.5% in 2019. Teams have also been better at creating touchdowns on those throws and they’ve been better at scoring from further out. Last year 57.3% of slants inside the 10 and 61.2% of the touchdowns actually came from the 5-yard line and in. This year 50% of targeted slants inside the 10 come from the 5 and in and 56.5% of the touchdowns are of the shorter distance. Quarterbacks are also placing the ball better with a significantly lower interception rate on all throws.
|Year||% of Throws||Comp%||TD%||INT%||% att inside 5||% TDs inside 5|
No team has relied on the slant more than the New Orleans Saints, who have six attempts and four touchdowns between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Brees. While Michael Thomas would seem like the obvious option — he does lead the team with three targets, though just one of the touchdowns — New Orleans has mixed up the looks with two targets and two touchdowns to tight end Jared Cook and a one-for-one success rate to Taysom Hill.
With Thomas and Cook especially, the Saints love to work the formation with the intended receiver isolated out to one side and allow that threat to create natural separation for a route to score.
In Week 5, the Saints sent Cook out wide to the left with Thomas and Ted Ginn to the left. They caught the defender backpedaling at the snap with no leverage to charge in on the slant and stop it before reaching the end zone.
Then in Week 8, the Saints went with a heavy run look and Thomas out to the left, barely outside the numbers. The alignment kept just enough room outside that cornerback Patrick Peterson had to respect the possibility of a route in that direction. He was in no position to stop the slant and Thomas just had to make an overmatched safety miss before stepping in the end zone.
So is the fade dead?
Almost and this might be the year to officially kill it. Fades make up 5.7% of passes from the 10 or closer and the production on those throws this season has been horrific. Teams are completing just 12.9% of their fade attempts and each completion has been a touchdown. That’s such a low rate of reward, it’s still hard to justify a team wasting what is over 87% likely to be an incompletion this season.
Unlike the slant, which has given offenses a way to create space, the fade effectively erases it. The pinpoint accuracy needed for a fade to both catchable and completed in bounds is so small, there’s barely enough payoff for the throw to be worth it. Sports Info Solutions has charted just 14 of 31 fade attempts this season (45.2%) to even be catchable. That catchable rate is barely above the touchdown rate this year for slants at the same part of the field.
The biggest selling point for the fade, if you want to call it that, is the low percentage of something bad happening. The thinking is, the play will either be a touchdown or an incompletion. But that hasn’t been the case this season — there have already been two interceptions thrown on fades to the end zone, for an interception rate of 6.4%. Now those interceptions are somewhat fluky and not likely to happen often, but given the numbers, you could make the same case about touchdowns on those throws.
Trying to create more room from the slot doesn’t help, either. Teams are 0-for-8 on slot fades this season.
Two other routes this season have been targeted at least 50 times along with the slant — the flat and the out. Both come with their pros and cons. The flat route has 51 attempts and is essentially a dump off with hope. It’s a reality safe throw with a 1.9% interception rate and it’s fairly successful with a 64.7% completion rate and 41.2% touchdown rate. These throws are almost all short of the goal line and rely on a receiver — most likely a running back — to make defenders miss on the way to the end zone.
Then there’s the out, which comes with a higher risk and lower reward. When it works, it looks great, like it has for the Lions, with Matt Stafford going 3-of-5 with three touchdowns. With the right break, a receiver can get separation, but often those throws look like Kenny Golladay’s touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 8 — a throw and catch needing to be perfect.
The out route comes with just a 50% completion percentage on 50 throws with a 36% touchdown rate and 4.0% interception rate.
Another option that has been successful and has been used more often but still not to the frequency of the most targeted routes is the screen/shovel pass. SIS lumps these plays together because they follow the same idea — a pass behind the line of scrimmage set up with blocking in front.
There have been 35 such throws from the 10 and in this season. Teams are completing 94% of those passes with a 40% touchdown rate. And because of the type of throw a 0% interception rate. These plays now are designed to be the safest with a much higher win probability than the fade with virtually no risk of a turnover. Yet, there have only been four more screen/shovel passes than fades from this area of the field.
These plays can be a great way to jump-start an offense and not ask a quarterback to do too much. The Indianapolis Colts have worked this into their game plan best with Jacoby Brissett this season. Two of Brissett’s four touchdown passes in the Week 7 game against the Houston Texans came in this fashion.
The first came with T.Y. Hilton wide to the outside left with Eric Ebron in the slot. Ebron ran a legal pick with Hilton working toward Brissett for a tunnel screen. It’s a play the Philadelphia Eagles had previously perfected, mostly with Alshon Jeffery.
Later in the game, the set up a shovel pass to Zach Pascal, who motioned from right to left, then floated to the middle of the field off play-action and was able to run behind a pulling Quenton Nelson for a touchdown.
Teams are getting more creative with passing plays down near the goal line and really they’re more often going for plays that have a high reward with little risk involved. That could be the death stroke to the fade pass, which just doesn’t bring the upside other routes create. There’s a constant evolution happening in that area of the field and teams are starting to get more out of the highest leverage part of the field.