The best offenses in the league throw the ball well. But not every offense throws to each area of the field with the same volume and production. There’s no one way to go about it. So with just about three-quarters of the season in the books, we’ll take a look at which offenses have targeted which depths of the field the most and which offenses have been the best at each depth.
Before we get into the specifics, here’s an admittedly ugly chart with an overview of where teams are throwing this season.
All data in this article is provided by Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted
Short Passes (1-10 Air Yards)
Highest Frequency: New York Giants (60.8%)
No team has relied on the short, quick game more than the Giants this season. The quick game was where Daniel Jones excelled last season with the highest EPA per attempt in the league on 0/1-step drops, so offensive coordinator Jason Garrett structured the offense around that. The problem is Jones hasn’t been nearly as effective in 2020. Jones has dropped from 0.17 EPA per attempt and a 54.8% positive play rate on throws between 1-10 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2019 to 0.01 EPA per play and a 48.8% positive play rate in 2020.
Some of this comes from variance on tight-window throws. Even though Jones is throwing short often, he’s one of the league leaders in tight-window percentage per NFL Next Gen Stats. Last season, he had the third-highest rate of throws into tight windows (22.5%) and while that’s dropped to 16.9%, that’s still too high for so many short throws, where separation should be greater. Even deep into his second season, Jones is quick to throw at his first read whether the coverage is close or not. There was a high rate of completions on those plays last season but the results have not been as favorable in 2020.
Most Effective: Arizona Cardinals
Last year, the Cardinals relied a little too much on screens and short passes. Arizona had the third-highest rate of throws behind the line of scrimmage in 2019 and that has dropped to 10th in 2020. The Cardinals have taken some of those low-value throws behind the line and turned them into short passes beyond it. That’s upped efficiency greatly.
Last season, the Cardinals were 26th in percentage of passes between 1-10 air yards (43.7%) and averaged just 0.04 EPA per attempt. The rank has only moved up to 23rd but it’s a higher percentage (49.3%) and the Cardinals lead in both EPA per attempt (0.33) and positive play rate (68.3%) on those throws. The Bills are right behind them with a 68% positive play rate but no other team is over 65%.
It’s an area where DeAndre Hopkins has certainly helped, tied for the 10th most targets at that depth. He’s just 18th in total EPA on those targets but Dan Arnold and Chase Edmonds are both in the top-32.
Intermediate Passes (11-19 Air Yards)
Highest Frequency: Houston Texans (25.3%)
This is a complete 180-degree turn from how the Texans played a year ago. No team threw to the intermediate level of the field less often than the Texans in 2019 (12.2%). They were a short pass or bomb offense. Deshaun Watson was an effective intermediate passer, though, with a league-leading 0.61 EPA per attempt but few plays were designed to target that area of the field.
While it looked like the Texans might be doubling down on the all-or-nothing approach with a receiving corps of Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks, and Randall Cobb, Houston has gotten the most out of the area they avoided most last year. Now, Watson and the Texans have been the only team in 2020 to target the intermediate area on at least a quarter of their pass attempts. Even with the higher volume, Watson has again been one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks targeting that area with 0.55 EPA per attempt, which ranks seventh in the league.
Fuller was a big piece of this puzzle. His 23 intermediate targets rank 12th but he’s third in EPA. Without Fuller, Stills, and Cobb, Watson’s degree of difficultly has gotten even harder for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Most Effective: Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City is only 22nd in the rate of intermediate throws (17.5%) but that’s mostly because the Chiefs spread the ball around all depths of the field. When they do target that area, though, they’re quite good at it. The Chiefs lead the league with 0.70 EPA per play on throws between 11-19 air yards and also have the highest positive play rate at 68.5%.
This is Travis Kelce territory. Kelce is eighth among players with 25 intermediate targets and is second in EPA. Only Stefon Diggs (373) has more yards accumulated on intermediate throws than Kelce’s 343. 298 of those yards have come through the air (fourth-most) but Kelce is among the best at getting more than what’s given to him. He leads the league in yards after the catch (92) on those receptions and is tied for the league-lead with three broken tackles in that area.
Tyreek Hill is known for his work on deep shots, but he’s right behind Kelce with 22 intermediate targets. Hill is 10th in yards and 13th in EPA on those plays. This has been a big shift for Hill and the Chiefs’ offense while opposing defenses have been selling out more often to limit big plays on deep throws. Hill already has more intermediate targets and receptions (22-14) than he did during the 2019 regular season (19-13) with one fewer game played.
Deep Passes (20+ Air Yards)
Highest Frequency: Denver Broncos (16.8%)
Drew Lock has a big arm and he knows it. The problem is he doesn’t exactly know what to do with it. Denver’s offense is based around the deep YOLO ball and the lack of success is pushing the limits on how often the Broncos can really live by it. Despite leading the league in deep passing rate, the Broncos are 27th in EPA per attempt on those throws.
Among 28 quarterbacks with at least 20 deep attempts on the season, Lock ranks 22nd in on-target rate, 27th in completion percentage, 28th in EPA, and 27th in positive play rate. He’s the only quarterback of that group to not have a deep passing touchdown this season. There is logic behind a high-variance offense based around the deep pass, but in order to have variance, the upside has to show up at some point.
Most Effective: Green Bay Packers
Everything about the Packers’ offense is clicking in 2020. They’re one of three teams, along with the Texans and Chiefs, to have a top-10 EPA ranking for each depth beyond the line of scrimmage. Aaron Rodgers looks more comfortable in this offense than he has in any offense in years. Early in the season, Rodgers finally trusted the design of the offense and allowed for short passes to keep the offense moving. That opened up more deep passes in the offense.
As the season has progressed, Rodgers and the Packers have gone heavy on the deep stuff. Green Bay has the second-highest deep passing rate (15.6%) behind the Broncos and is third in EPA per attempt (0.92). That figure is behind only the Saints and Giants, who have thrown deep on 3.3% and 7.3% of their pass attempts, respectively. Those teams are only throwing deep when something is wide open.
The Packers are going deep and making it efficient. That’s an improvement from last season when Rodgers wanted to go deep (15.4%, also second) but the Packers were just middle of the road in EPA per attempt (0.26). Rodgers has been much better on these throws compared to 2019 with just one fewer completion in 2020 than he had last season.
Aaron Rodgers Deep Passes, 2019-2020
Marquez Valdes-Scantling leads the team with 16 deep targets, though he has just six receptions. Davante Adams leads the team with eight deep receptions on 14 targets. The secret deep superstar has been tight end Robert Tonyan who has five receptions on seven targets, three of which have gone for touchdowns, a mark tied with both Valdes-Scantling and Adams.