Splitsville: A call to (play) action

Michael Salfino
Yahoo SportsNovember 14, 2013

I’ve always wondered which defenses are more effective against the pass, which, let’s face it, is really the top (only?) priority in today’s game. Does the 3-4 beat the 4-3 or vice versa?


To be clear, teams are rushing four players in either defense with the right outside linebacker basically serving as an end on passing downs. So the differences tend to be overstated. Bill Belichick, for example, doesn’t think the front matters that much. The more you rush the linebacker in a 3-4, the more you really are a 4-3.


This year, the 4-3 teams are winning more -they’re 85-72. But they are allowing an 86.2 passer rating and 6.4 yards per pass play (sacks are counted as pass plays). They’ve given up 253 touchdowns and picked off 165 passes.


The 3-4 teams have allowed an 82.3 passer rating and 6.03 yards per pass play (that’s a significant difference) with 209 TD passes versus 122 picks.


For this week, Cam Newton has done very poorly against the 3-4, with Carolina averaging just 4.6 yards per pass play versus it (only Jacksonville is worse, 4.56). But I can’t really classify the Patriots’ defense either way.


There’s a lot of talk about how a good running game helps a passing game, especially in play action passing. This is usually untrue. But let’s look at it this year.


Here are the greatest differences on play action passing this year (meaning the difference in passer rating on play action is the most points better than on all other passes) and where the team ranks in yards per rushing attempt: Philip Rivers (53.2 point differential in play action vs. all other passes, San Diego is 23rd in yards per rush), Ryan Tannehill (41.2, 15th), Cam Newton (37.7, 19th), Colin Kaepernick (36.9, 8th), Peyton Manning (33.4, 26th), Terrelle Pryor (28.2, N/A because Pryor is moving the YPR needle too much on rushes that have zero to do with play action), Tom Brady (25.8, 11th), Tony Romo (25.5, 21st), Russell Wilson (24.6, the mini-Pryor but even with him, Seattle is sixth in YPR).


And here are the worst play-action passers with their team’s rank in YPR, too: Jake Locker (minus-32.6, 18th), Jay Cutler (-20.3, 7th), Geno Smith (-19.8, 14th), Chad Henne (-19.6, 31st), Eli Manning (-11.2, 30th), E.J. Manuel (-9.8, 12th), Robert Griffin (-9, 2nd), Matthew Stafford (-5.7, 17th), Drew Brees (-5.1, 22nd), Aaron Rodgers (-2, 4th).


Do you honestly see any correlation whatsoever between how well you throw and how effective your play-action game is? It’s the fake that sells it. Defenses operate on instinct. And if they are stuffing you, for example, don’t you think they are eager to do that again? In fact, I would wager that there is an inverse correlation between play-action success on first and second down in a game and team rushing average in the same game (in other words, the worse you are running the MORE effective the play action is).


Rivers is 32 for 42 for 477 yards and five TDs on play action. That’s a 152.5 rating, nearly perfect. But that 12.6 percent rate of play-action plays (including two sacks) is third lowest. I can’t say the Chargers are being inefficient here because, of course, the infrequency could be positively influencing the efficiency. Average play-action rate is about 20 percent. Wilson’s rate of 35.3 percent is the tops in the league. Tony Romo’s 10.3 the lowest.


Another factor in QB performance is the amount of time you’re under pressure. But the great quarterbacks can thrive even when harassed. So let’s look at the leaders and trailers in percentage of pass plays pressured and what their accuracy is on these passes backing out throwaways and drops.


Wilson is pressured on 46.6% of pass plays with an accuracy rate of 61.4% and nine touchdowns (the most when pressured, ahead of Cam Newton’s seven). Then Pryor (46.6% pass plays pressured, 59.7% accuracy), Smith (42.9%, 51.7%), Carson Palmer (42.2%, 58.3%), Mike Glennon (41.8%, 58.6%), Eli Manning (41.4%, 57.4%), Luck (41.3%, 58.4%) and Matt Ryan (40.6%, 68.3%).


Least pressured: Peyton Manning (22.5%, 71.4% accuracy), Andy Dalton (27.5%, 59.7%), Matthew Stafford (29.3%, 62%) and Brees (29.4%, 68.9). No one else is under 30%.


Kaepernick is just 46.2% accuracy even backing out throw aways and drops, the only passer under 50%.


One problem with being pressured may be holding on to the ball too long. The benchmark is getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. The only QBs who throw more than 60% of their passes that way are Stafford (65.5%), Tannehill (65.2%), Chad Henne (63.2%) Andy Dalton (62.6%) and Peyton Manning (61%).


Three passers throwing less than 40% of their passes this quickly: Brandon Weeden (35%), Pryor (36%), Smith (36.2%). I think this is a really bad negative indicator for Smith, who is primarily a pocket passer.


We wrote earlier this year about how YPA correlates very well with touchdown rate. So let’s see who has underachieved and overachieved in TD passes relative to YPA. Nick Foles leads the league at 9.2. Believe in him. Then it’s Peyton Manning (8.8), Rodgers (8.8), Michael Vick (8.6), Brees (8.4), Rivers (8.3), Wilson (8.3) and Case Keenum (8.1). I’d be buying Keenum now. No one else is at 8.0 or more. And everyone except Vick has the kind of TD rate we’d expect.


Overachievers relative to YPA (guys I’d be selling or at least am worried about) are Tony Romo (21 TDs, 7.2 YPA) and Matt Ryan (16 TDs, 7.1 YPA). Luck has passed Ryan as an every week starter but Luck’s YPA of 7.1 does not give me confidence that he’ll be a top 12 quarterback the balance of the season. I'd be adding Keenum now if you can at all afford a roster spot, even strictly as a defensive move.


We’re going to hit the matchups again next week. It’s not worth doing it every week because they don’t change enough. See last week’s Splitsville for them and we’ll recalculate again after Week 11.


NOTES: With two TDs Monday night, Tom Brady will move into third place in most Monday Night TD passes (he has 41, behind Steve Young, 42, Brett Favre, 69, and Dan Marino, 74). I don’t think he gets them. The Panthers’ front four will make him too uncomfortable, especially up the middle. Those who are betting that Brady and the Patriots found their form against the Steelers will be severely disappointed. ... Adrian Peterson can become the third man with seven or more seasons of 10-plus rushing TDs. LaDainian Tomlinson is the record holder with nine. ... If you like scoring in garbage time, this is not the season for you. An NFL record 100 games out of 147 through Week 10 (68%) have been within seven points in the fourth quarter. ... Teams have 39 interception return TDs, tied for the most through Week 10 in history (2012). ... Teams have scored 23 more TDs and 20 more passing TDs than at any point ever through Week 10. ... The 3.14 passing TDs per game this year is on pace to be the third most in NFL history, trailing only 1963 (3.21) and the all-time TD passing year ever, 1948 (3.27). You can win a bar bet with that 1948 stat.


Thanks to the NFL, Pro-Football-Reference.com and ProFootballFocus.com for help with the stats this week.