NFC South: empty backfield

Saints' victory by the numbers

September, 25, 2011
We’ve talked a lot so far about New Orleans’ three-headed backfield of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Those guys are important some of the time, but definitely not all of the time.

Take what happened Sunday in the Saints’ 40-33 victory against the Houston Texans. On the game-winning, 93-yard touchdown drive, the Saints went with an empty backfield most of the way. In those situations, Drew Brees was four of seven for 67 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Sproles was usually on the field, lining up as a receiver, but the Saints used a lot of empty-backfield sets all day.

Throughout the rest of the game, Brees was nine of 13 for 112 yards and two touchdowns out of the empty formation.

Brees also was particularly effective when the Texans had five or more defensive backs on the field. Houston came into the game without allowing a touchdown in those situations and opposing offenses were averaging 4.7 yards per attempt. But that trend stopped Sunday.

When Houston had five or more defensive backs on the field, Brees completed 21 of 29 passes. Brees averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and threw for three touchdowns, including two in the final 10 minutes. His NFL passer rating in those situations was 136.3.

More on how the game is changing

April, 12, 2011
In this post Monday, we looked at how the National Football League has been turning more to the passing game the past three years.

We previously talked about how teams are throwing the ball more often, using the shotgun formation more frequently and turning to empty backfields more than ever. But there’s more to be factored in with all that.

The changes are making wide receivers and defensive backs more important, while teams are getting away from two-running back sets.

In 2010, teams used three or more wide receivers on 48.2 percent of offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In 2009, the percentage was 46.1 and it was 45.7 in 2008. The flip side of that is the use of two or more running backs on the field has declined in that same time frame. Last season, teams used two backs on 30.4 percent of plays. In 2009, the figure was 33.8 percent and 34 percent in 2008.

The offensive trends have made the nickel back almost like a starter on defense. In 2010, teams used formations of five or more defensive backs on 48.5 percent of all defensive snaps. In 2009, that figure was 44.9 percent and it was 43.4 in 2008.

Defenses also have tried to adjust by blitzing defensive backs more often. In 2010, defensive backs blitzed on 15.9 percent of all drop backs. That’s up from 13.3 percent in 2009 and 11.5 percent in 2008.
I’ve written several times in recent weeks that the Carolina Panthers are giving strong consideration to using the first pick in the upcoming draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

One of the reasons I’m saying that is because I believe the departure of former coach John Fox and his offensive philosophy (control the ball with the running game, rely on the occasional pass and win with strong defense) have cause the organization to re-evaluate things. One of the reasons, Newton is getting this kind of consideration is because the Panthers believe that the league has changed and is now, more than ever, driven by quarterbacks.

What’s that mean? Well, it’s not too hard to visualize. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have been having lots of success and so have their teams. Rules have changed and so have trends in play-calling, scheme and personnel in the past three years.

Want proof? Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some pretty strong evidence. Starting with the 2008 season (gee, that’s the last year Fox and the Panthers had a winning record) there has been a noticeable league-wide shift from the running game.

Last season, the pass/run ratio (based on play design) was 59 percent to 41 percent. In 2009, it was 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2008, it was 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent. Play design for passes includes plays that resulted in a pass attempt, a sack or a scramble.

The percentage shift might not seem like that big a deal, but let’s explore it a little further. The shift has been very pronounced when you look only at the pass/run ratio of playoff teams over the past three seasons. In 2010, the playoff teams passed on 58.9 of their regular-season plays while running on 41.1 percent of their plays. In 2009, the margin was 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent. In 2008, it was 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent.

A lot of critics are down on Newton and Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who also is in the mix to be Carolina’s choice, because both of them lined up in the shotgun formation frequently in college. Well, guess what? That might not be such a bad thing.

Lining up under center is still far more common in the NFL, but the shotgun formation has been used a lot more the past three seasons. In 2010, 38.3 percent of league-wide snaps came out of the shotgun formation, while 61.7 percent came from under center. In 2009, 37 percent of snaps came out of the shotgun formation and the figure was 32.3 percent in 2008.

Another trend has been for offenses to line up in empty-backfield sets and spread out defenses with five receivers. In 2010, the league average was 6.4 snaps per game with just a quarterback in the backfield. In 2009, that average was 4.8. In 2008, it was 4.7.

Bottom line: If the Panthers want to compete in the modern NFL, they’re going to have to scrap the offense Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson ran and new coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Rob Chudzinski need to use a more creative offensive scheme. It would help if they have a quarterback that allows them to be creative.