While most teams around the NFL have fully embraced the pass (still looking at you, Seattle), the approach to those passes can range greatly from team to team. There are still a number of teams that embrace the idea of the pass, but far too often use it as an extension of the running game.
Not to continue to pick on the Seahawks, but take their first offensive play of the game from this past week against the New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks came out in 11 personnel but went empty with running back Chris Carson line up wide. The pass was a poorly blocked screen to Carson that went for a loss. It was accepting the idea of an early-down pass without giving up any inefficiency of an early-down run — a Pete Carroll dream play.
Teams that were quick to use pass-heavy game plans gained the advantage over those that stuck to establishing the run. Now, there are a number of teams going a step further for a bigger advantage — those that want to go deep often.
In the foreword of Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview book, we noted the difference between the rate at which teams went deep and how valuable those plays really were. In 2018, over 70% of passes traveled 10 yards or fewer past the line of scrimmage, but over 200% of the Expected Points Added generated through the air came on passes that traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
This discrepancy holds again this season. Through three weeks 69.9% of league-wide passes have traveled within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and those passes have accounted for minus-83.5% of the league’s passing EPA, per Sports Info Solutions. Meanwhile, just under 18% of passes have traveled over 15 yards past the line of scrimmage and those attempts have made up for 133% of the league-wide passing EPA.
The success rate on these plays also isn’t drastically different. Per SIS, the positive play rate (percentage of plays that produce positive EPA) on throws within 10 yards this season is 49.8%, while the positive play rate on 15-plus yard attempts is 44.8%. Now EPA might not be the all-encompassing success rate metric to explain all, but it does give a good idea of what is happening on the field. A short pass that is likely to be completed but brings low or negative EPA might not be doing as much for an offense as the “keep the ball moving” idea behind it would suggest.
While many teams are waiting (potentially for the wrong times) to take a deep shot, a few teams have embraced the idea of going deep more often and it shouldn’t be surprising that a few of the league’s best offenses would fall in that category. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs lead the league in percentage of passes thrown over 15 yards in the air at 29.3% and 26.7%, respectively. Baltimore hasn’t been a great deep passing team — they rank 13th in EPA per attempt on those throws with a positive play rate of just 35.5% — but the payoff on the plays that do hit, along with the volume has still made them one of the most valuable deep passing teams in the league.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs built their offense around the deep pass, mixing speedy receivers with a quarterback who can take advantage and a play-caller willing to take the shots. Kansas City is second in EPA per attempt on those deep passes and its 58.1% positive play rate is higher than all but five teams on their 10-yard and under throws.
Baltimore and Kansas City are also the teams that use deep shots on early downs at the highest rate of pass attempts. 30.8% of the Ravens’ pass attempts on first and second down have traveled at least 15 yards in the air and the Chiefs are second at 28.1%.
Then there is a team like the Houston Texans, who like the Ravens and Chiefs, have committed to the strengths of the quarterback. With Deshaun Watson, Houston is fifth in deep passing rate overall (24.7%) and fourth (26.9%) on early downs.
Dallas has also done an excellent job with this under Kellen Moore. The Cowboys are eighth in deep play rate overall (22.3%) and sixth on early downs (23%). This has been a clear shift in philosophy for this team. Dak Prescott has already reached 29.2% of his 2018 deep passing attempts through three weeks of the 2019 season.
Those early down figures help show which teams are using those plays as part of a plan and which are using them out of necessity. We can go back to the Seahawks for this, a team with the ninth-highest rate of deep pass attempts overall, but just the 17th-highest on first and second downs.
This is also fascinating to look at the other way, especially in the sense of how teams have tried to ease in backup quarterbacks. A number of young quarterbacks are unexpectedly playing and most of those offenses have been built around short passes.
For the New Orleans Saints, Teddy Bridgewater’s average pass traveled just 3.3 yards past the line of scrimmage and his average completion was at 1.3 yards, per Next Gen Stats. That worked in a control-the-game scenario against the Seahawks, but the Saints will face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night and don’t currently have the defense to slow down what the Cowboys can bring through the air.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have kept many of Garnder Minshew’s passes short, even while their best plays have been deep. The Jaguars are 28th in deep pass rate on first and second down and 22nd overall. There’s a bit of a disconnect there because Jacksonville leads the league in EPA per attempt on deep passes this season and among 30 quarterbacks with at least 10 deep passes this season, only Jacoby Brissett as a higher on-target percentage (catchable balls) than Minshew.
Deep passing isn’t going to be the answer for everyone — bless the Miami Dolphins, who have the fourth-highest deep passing rate but are just terrible at it — and no team is ever going to solely rely on plays down the field. But we’re starting to see smarter teams target that area of the field at a higher rate and the increased volume has lowered the overall risk in those passes.
It often pays to be aggressive in the NFL. That idea used to mean more passing, but now some of the league’s smartest teams have taken that a step further.