This offseason has been anything but familiar for the NFL. It’s the middle of July and teams still haven’t gotten on the field together. A late-July opening for training camps is still in question. Because of that, familiarity and continuity will be huge factors for the 2020 season. But still, many teams did need to make changes in order to improve in 2020 and beyond and while the current circumstances might make that more difficult, there are a number of new schemes and philosophies that could stand out and make a difference in the upcoming season. Today we’ll hit on three that could have an immediate impact for the 2020 season.
Joe Brady’s Quick Game
Potentially the most exciting scheme change will come in Carolina under 30-year-old offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Brady was the passing coordinator for LSU last season and a big reason behind the breakout of Joe Burrow and the increase in offensive efficiency. Under Brady, the Tigers had the top offense in college football by SP+ a year after they ranked 30th. Brady also comes with a pro background as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints.
One of the most interesting wrinkles Brady could bring with him to Carolina is the empty set. No college football team used empty more than LSU last season. Per SIS charting, Burrow had 164 dropbacks with an empty backfield, 40 more dropbacks than the quarterback with the next most.
The empty sets leave a lot of five-man protections, which Brady favors, especially against the blitz. He talked about the stress it can put on the defense before the 2019 college season, via lsusports.net:
“Statistically it shows that when you’re in five-man protection, five-man protections give up less sacks,” he said. “A lot of people think when you get a lot of pressure you need to bring the box in and bring in max protections, seven-man protections. But I think when you actually go five-man protection, you actually get the ball out faster. You limit what defenses can do.”
You can’t allow teams to continue to send pressure,” Brady said. “You have to keep them on edge. We’re going to be able to, as an offense, apply pressure. If we can do that, if we can get the ball to the running back and keep them off base by throwing in screens, then we’re doing our job, as opposed to waiting for a defense to apply pressure to us.”
Brady will now be paired with a quarterback who excelled at getting the ball out quickly last season and was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league on empty sets. During the five-game stretch Teddy Bridgewater started for the Saints last season, he had 30 dropbacks in an empty set — a 14.4% rate. Among 38 quarterbacks with at least 20 empty attempts, Bridgewater ranked second in completion percentage (74.1%) and 13th-lowest sack rate (3.3%).
Despite ranking 33rd in attempts, Bridgewater was 11th in EPA out of empty sets, thanks to a high overall touchdown rate (group-leading 11.1%) and the conversion of three touchdowns on five attempts in the red zone.
This is also good news for a group of skill position players that can take the ball and run. D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel can be effective in the short game and Robby Anderson adds a serious intermediate to deep threat for longer developing plays.
This can also be great news for Christian McCaffrey and the damage he is able to bring as a receiver. Last season, McCaffrey had 21 targets out of empty sets (19th-most in the league). On those targets, he finished 11th in EPA and had a 66.7% positive play rate.
Brady’s offense overall could be a boost for McCaffrey in the passing game. There will be an emphasis on targeting the running back beyond the line of scrimmage, which is where running back targets are most efficient. That was absolutely the case for McCaffrey in 2019, even as he was the rare back to have positive EPA on targets behind the line of scrimmage.
Christian McCaffrey Targets, 2019
Man Coverage and Blitzing From Mike Nolan
There was a lot to like about the Dallas Cowboys hiring Mike McCarthy to be the head coach, especially with Kellen Moore retained as offensive coordinator. Struggles in 2019 and the biggest question for Dallas this season, though, fall on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Nolan, who was the head coach when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, was brought in as the defensive coordinator. Nolan brings a questionable past as a defensive coordinator. He hasn’t been a coordinator since 2014 with the Falcons when he three-year run in Atlanta ended after the defense finished 32nd in DVOA.
Nolan spent the past three seasons as the linebackers coach for the Saints, where that unit was quite good and Demario Davis turned into one of the league’s most dangerous defensive weapons.
It’s unclear exactly what Nolan will do on defense but if he carries even a little of what New Orleans has done over the past few seasons, it could set Dallas up with doing what it excelled at but didn’t do nearly enough of last season.
For starters, the Cowboys were one of the league’s best blitzing teams in 2019 but they rushed four at the fourth-highest rate in the league, per SIS. Dallas had top-10 EPA per play rates when they sent extra rushers but rarely did so (in comparison, New Orleans had the eighth-highest blitz rate).
Cowboys Defensive Rush Rates, 2019
|Rush||Frequency (Rk)||EPA/Play (Rk)|
|4||76% (4)||0.03 (15)|
|5||18% (20)||-0.07 (8)|
|6+||3% (27)||-0.60 (2)|
Dallas might have to rely more on the blitz this season without much pass rush help outside of Demarcus Lawrence. Both Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett are gone and while the interior is beefed up with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, the secondary edge rushers are Tyrone Crawford, Aldon Smith, and fifth-round rookie Bradlee Anae.
Both Jalyon Smith (34% pressure rate) and Leighton Vander Esch (30.8%) were effective blitzers when they were sent. Smith rushed on 9.7% of his pass snaps and Vander Esch did so on just 5.0% of his.
Behind the pass rush, the Cowboys should also be set to play more man coverage. In the quest to recreate Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme under Kris Richard, Dallas ran the seventh-most zone coverage and 28th-most man coverage, per SIS. They were more effective when they manned up with 0.00 EPA per play in zone and -0.12 EPA per play in man.
Dallas’s top two cornerback picks in Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson were among the best man coverage corners in the 2020 draft class according to the SIS Football Rookie Handbook. The pair tied for third with 0.5 yards allowed per man coverage snap.
Kevin Stefanski’s Open Offense
The Cleveland Browns have hit so many crossroads, you might as well call them Cody. But niche references aside, the Browns underwent yet another regime change this offseason with the hope of turning around an offense that failed to live up to its talent level last season. A lot of that falls on quarterback Baker Mayfield.
In the midst of chaos all around him, Mayfield never looked comfortable on the field. He consistently drifted away from clean pockets and made life harder on himself in an already difficult setting. Kevin Stefanski’s job is to now open up the offense and make life easier for the quarterback, as he did with Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings.
Part of that comes from scheming open better opportunities down the field, especially off play-action. Mayfield thrived on play-action at Oklahoma and during his rookie season and wasn’t terrible there in 2019, either. But there was a hard ceiling on what the offense was able to accomplish on a play fake last season. Take a look at how Mayfield and the league’s leader in EPA on play-action, Jimmy Garoppolo, compared on those throws in 2019:
Baker Mayfield vs. Jimmy Garoopolo Play-Action, 2019
The process is nearly identical, from the attempts, completions, air yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. The biggest difference is Garoppolo got another 231 yards after the catch (970 to 731), which led to 10.7 yards per attempt for Garoppolo opposed to Mayfield’s 9.2. It was also the difference between 44.3 EPA and 22.7.
Stefanski was consistently able to scheme receivers open down the field for big plays off play-action and it shouldn’t be much harder to do that with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry than it was with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
An ability to open up the passing scheme would also help Mayfield where he really struggled last season, without play-action. Among 49 quarterbacks with at least 50 non-play-action attempts, only Kyle Allen had lower EPA than Mayfield. Over the second half of the 2018 season, Mayfield was fifth in EPA on such plays and had the highest positive play rate among 40 quarterbacks with 50 attempts.
One specific area that can help both with and without play-action could come on deep crossing routes. Stefanski and Cousins mastered this route in 2019 with a league-leading 27.0 EPA on 19 attempts with an 84.2% positive play rate, per SIS. Mayfield threw 11 deep cross targets over the second half of 2018 (63.6 positive play rate) but that route just about disappeared in 2019 with just four targets.