NFC South: play-action passing

Falcons still thrive on play-action

December, 5, 2012
Michael Turner’s numbers and playing time have dipped this season, but opposing defenses still are keeping close tabs on the Atlanta running back.

Defenses still are biting on play-action fakes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 71.1 percent (59-of-83) of his play-action passes. That percentage ranks second in the league, behind only San Francisco’s Alex Smith (80.8 percent), who has been benched.

The rest of the NFC South quarterbacks haven’t been nearly as successful as Ryan off play-action.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who has the division’s leading rusher in Doug Martin, is No. 21 with a 61.2 percent (60-of-98) completion rate. But Freeman does have nine touchdown passes off play-action, which is only one less than the league leaders.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is tied with Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning for the league lead in touchdowns off play-action. But Brees also has thrown five interceptions off play-action, which puts him only one behind league leader Mark Sanchez. Brees is No. 22 in play-action completion percentage at 60.6 (63-of-104).

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 23 at 60.3 percent (70-of-116), but Newton’s 1,214 yards on play-action passes rank No. 3 in the league.

Mark Ingram's role becoming clear

November, 23, 2012
In his second NFL season, running back Mark Ingram’s role with the New Orleans Saints is starting to become more defined.

Ingram has had a season-high 67 rushing yards in each of the last two games. That’s silenced some critics who were skeptical about Ingram after a rookie season that was far from spectacular. If critics still remain, they might want to consider some other numbers that go beyond Ingram’s rushing totals.

Although Ingram isn’t as much of a receiving threat as Darren Sproles, or even Pierre Thomas, he’s making a very positive impact on the passing game. Ingram has played in a rotation with Sproles, Thomas and Chris Ivory.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have only dropped back to pass 39.4 percent of the time when Ingram has been on the field. Compare that to 72.8 percent when the other running backs have been on the field.

But the Saints have been far more effective in the play-action passing game when Ingram has been in the game than they have when Thomas, Sproles and Ivory have been in the game.

With Ingram on the field, Drew Brees has completed 69.7 percent of his play-action passes and averaged 11.2 yards per attempt. The numbers aren’t even close with the other three running backs.

With Thomas in the game, Brees has completed 58.3 percent of his play-action passes and averaged 7.8 yards per attempt. With Sproles on the field, Brees has completed 57.1 percent and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt. When Ivory has been on the field, Brees has completed 50 percent of his play-action passes and averaged 4.3 yards per attempt.

Saints struggle with play action

September, 26, 2012
There are many dramatic differences between this season’s New Orleans Saints and the team of last season.

I just found one category that’s stunning as I looked through our weekly packet from ESPN Stats & Information.

New Orleans’ play-action passing game has been nothing short of miserable. Drew Brees has complete 9 of 23 play-action passes (that’s a league-low 39.1 percent) for 83 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Brees also ranks last in the league with a 4.6 Total QBR when throwing play-action passes.

Now, let’s go back to last year. Brees complete 132 of 185 (71.4 percent) of his play-action passes for 1,583 yards. Each of those numbers led the NFL. Brees was also second with 14 touchdown passes and was intercepted only four times, while compiling an 81.8 Total QBR on play-action passes.

What’s the difference? I think it’s pretty obvious. The Saints haven’t been running the ball a lot, partly because they’ve often been playing from behind. Defenses aren’t taking their running game -- or at least the threat of their running game -- very seriously.

The other three NFC South quarterbacks have fared much better when it comes to play-action passing.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan leads the NFL with an 85.7 completion percentage (24-of-28). He’s thrown for 259 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and his 95.4 Total QBR in those situations ranks third in the league.

Carolina’s Cam Newton has completed 23 of 31 (74.2 percent) of his play-action passes for 330 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 73.4 Total QBR.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has completed 60 percent (15-of-25) of his play-action passes for 165 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 69.3 Total QBR.

Play action key for Saints, 49ers

January, 12, 2012
One thing we can expect to see a lot of in Saturday’s playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers is play-action passing.

The Saints and 49ers were very good in that area during the regular season. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL by completing 71.4 percent of his passes off play-action and also threw for a league-high 1,583 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Off play-action, Brees threw for 14 touchdowns and four interceptions while compiling a 113.4 NFL passer rating.

San Francisco’s Alex Smith wasn’t nearly as dynamic on play-action, but he was very efficient. Smith completed 64.9 percent of his play-action passes to rank No. 12 in the NFL. Smith threw for 846 yards off play-action.

Smith also threw for five touchdowns with just one interception while compiling a 107.0 NFL passer rating.
As we look ahead to Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, we should probably start thinking about play-action passing.

It will be strength against strength because the Saints and Falcons both excel in this area.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees leads the league in completion percentage (70.4) on play-action passing and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is No. 3 at 69.7 percent.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees has attempted more play-action passes than any quarterback in the league. Brees has completed 112 of 159 attempts for 1,293 yards (No. 2 in the league) for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. Brees has been sacked four times off play action and his NFL passer rating is 112.0.

Ryan has completed 69 of 99 play-action passes for 858 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Ryan has been sacked just once on a play-action attempt and his NFL passer rating in those situations is 118.2.

Oh, we should also keep in mind that when the Saints defeated the Falcons in overtime in Week 10, Brees completed 17 of 19 play-action passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns.

So Carolina and Tampa Bay fans don’t feel slighted, let’s fill you in on how Cam Newton and Josh Freeman have fared in play-action passing.

Newton ranks No. 12 at 64 percent (73 of 114). Newton’s thrown for 983 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, but he’s been sacked eight times. His passer rating is 89.2.

Freeman is No. 18 at 60.3 percent (47 of 78). He’s thrown for 632 yards, but the rest of the numbers aren’t pretty. Freeman has thrown three touchdowns off play action, but has been intercepted six times and sacked four times. His passer rating is 66.8 percent and only Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert (48.3) comes in lower in that category.

Falcons, Saints thrive on play action

December, 1, 2011
I’ve always said running back Michael Turner is the key to Atlanta’s offense.

I think the Atlanta Falcons still were trying to figure out exactly what they wanted to be offensively early in the season. They were trying to work in rookie receiver Julio Jones and they might have forced some things that weren’t there.

But the Falcons found more balance – and not coincidentally – more success in their offense of late. The passing game is working better, especially downfield. But Turner is a major part of the reason for that because defenses have to devote so much attention to his running.

That’s backed up by some numbers from ESPN Stats & Information.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is No. 2 in the NFL with a 72.2 percent completion rate on play-action fakes. Ryan has completed 57 of 79 attempts for 681 yards with seven touchdowns, one interception and he’s only been sacked once.

The only quarterback with a higher completion percentage (75.6) is Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he’s only thrown for 286 yards and no touchdowns off play-action.

The New Orleans Saints also are very good with play action. They should be because they’ve used it far more than any team in the NFL. Drew Brees has attempted 122 passes off play action and completed 86 of them (70.5 percent) for 970 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

Carolina’s Cam Newton ranks No. 19 in play-action completion percentage (60.9). He’s completed 53 of 87 attempts for 706 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman is the only NFC South quarterback whose completion percentage off play action is worse than his overall completion percentage. He’s No. 25 in the league at 57.7 percent. Freeman has completed 41 of 71 attempts for 548 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions.

Saints' victory by the numbers

November, 14, 2011
ATLANTA – Let’s take a look at some statistical highlights from the Saints’ 26-23 overtime victory against the Falcons on Sunday.
  • Drew Brees now leads the NFL with 3,326 passing yards. That’s the most through 10 games by any player in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Brees had the previous record (3,251) in 2008.
  • Brees broke a tie with Brett Favre by throwing a touchdown pass in his 37th consecutive regular-season game. Brees now has sole possession of second place in NFL history. The record is 47 by Johnny Unitas.
  • Brees had the 51st 300-yard passing game of his career. That puts him in a tie with Dan Fouts for fifth in NFL history. Peyton Manning and Dan Marino are tied for the record at 63.
  • Tight end Jimmy Graham caught his sixth touchdown pass. The only New Orleans tight end to record more touchdown passes in a single season was Henry Childs, with nine in 1977.
  • Marques Colston came up big on third downs Sunday. He caught four of four third-down passes for 59 yards. All four of those passes went for first downs. Entering the game, Colston was tied for 49th in the league with just six third-down conversions. Brees was 3-of-9 for 7 yards with no first downs when targeting other receivers on third down.
  • Brees was particularly effective on play-action passes against the Falcons. He completed 17 of 19 play-action passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. That’s the most play-action completions Brees has had in a game since the 2008 season and his yardage total tied his high in that time frame. Brees averaged 11.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes and 4.6 yards without play action. On play-action throws of more than 10 yards, Brees completed 9 of 10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

Play action key for Saints, Buccaneers

November, 4, 2011
One of the key things to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game between Tampa Bay and New Orleans will be play-action passing for both teams.

The Saints use play-action passes a lot and they use them well. The Bucs haven’t used that tactic nearly as much and they have struggled when they have tried.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees has attempted more play-action passes (79) than any quarterback in the league. He’s completed 52 of them (65.8 percent) for 547 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions while being sacked three times, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has attempted just 49 play-action passes and completed 24 of them (49 percent) for 347 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. Freeman has not been sacked on a play-action attempt.

The Bucs are in a state of transition with their backfield. Top rusher LeGarrette Blount is coming back after missing the last two games with a knee injury. His backup and third-down back, Earnest Graham, will miss the rest of the season.

Even when Blount was healthy, the Bucs weren’t setting themselves up for success with play-action passing. They were using Blount almost exclusively on running downs and replacing him with Graham on passing downs. That made the offense predictable and defenses weren’t reacting to play-action fakes.

With Graham out, Blount said he expects to be more of an every-down back. If he is, that should help the Bucs. Defenses have to account for Blount as a runner. If the Bucs fake some handoffs to Blount, the defense should react and that could create more openings for Freeman and his receivers.

Lowlights on Falcons' loss

October, 10, 2011
Falcons fans, you might want to cover your eyes because we’re about to run through some of the statistical lowlights from Sunday night’s 25-14 loss to Green Bay. These are courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.

  • The loss snapped Atlanta’s 23-game winning streak in contests the Falcons led at halftime. That had been the longest such active streak in the NFL. The Steelers (15 straight) now take the active lead and the Saints (10) are second. The Falcons are 29-2 when leading at the half since coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008. The last time Atlanta lost after leading at the half was against Denver in Week 11 of the 2008 season.
  • Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers entered the game as the league’s leader in play-action completions, yards and touchdowns. He had some success with play-action passing against the Falcons, but it depended on which running back was on the field. When James Starks was in the backfield, Rodgers was only 1-of-5 for 11 yards. When Ryan Grant was on the field, Rodgers was 4-of-6 for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Remember all that talk about how the Falcons would throw the ball downfield more this season? Well, much like the first four games, it didn’t come to fruition against the Packers. On passes of 11 yards or more, Matt Ryan completed 3 of 12 for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. On throws of 10 yards or less, Ryan was 15 of 20 for 117 yards with one touchdown.
  • Ryan fell to 21-3 in his career in regular-season home games.

Play-action is helping Cam Newton

October, 7, 2011
Although there has been a lot of talk about how Carolina’s running game has been missing for the most part, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been a bigger help to rookie quarterback Cam Newton than you may realize.

The mere presence of Williams and Stewart has made life easier for Newton. He’s had good success with play-action passes, after faking handoffs to Williams and Stewart.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton is 23 of 38 (60.5 percent) for 341 yards on play-action passes. His yardage total is second only to Drew Brees in the NFC South and Newton’s 9.9-yard average on play-action passes is the best among division quarterbacks.

Brees is 31 of 46 (67.4 percent) for 355 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has been the division’s most accurate passer off play-action, completing 24 of 32 (75 percent), but his yardage total (309) is less than that of Brees and Newton. Ryan has thrown for two touchdowns and one interception out of play-action. But the most significant statistic is that Ryan hasn’t been sacked on a play-action pass. Considering how Ryan’s taken a beating otherwise, the Falcons might to want to use more play-action.

Tampa Bay has used play-action passing less than any team in the division. Josh Freeman has completed 12 of 25 attempts (48 percent) for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
When the New Orleans Saints play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, play-action passing is going to be a big factor.

That’s largely because of the fact that Baltimore uses play-action passing more than any team in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens have used play fakes on 30.8 percent of their total dropbacks and they’ve had a lot of success with it.

Off play-action, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has completed 65.6 percent of his passes and averages 8.2 yards per attempt. He’s thrown for a league-best 10 touchdowns off play-action while being intercepted only once and has a 113.1 passer rating.

But that’s not necessarily bad news for the Saints. In fact, the New Orleans' defense has handled play-action pretty well. The Saints have seen play-action on only 15.3 percent of dropbacks by opponents.

Against play-action, the New Orleans defense has limited opposing passers to a 54.5 percent completion percentage and a 61.7 passer rating. The Saints have only allowed 5.2 yards per attempt on play-action and have given up only one touchdown pass and come up with two interceptions in those situations.

How Panthers misjudged their offense

December, 8, 2010
All season long, we (that means you, me and virtually every person on the planet) have been ripping apart Carolina’s quarterback play. Understandable because Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen and even future Hall of Famer Brian St. Pierre have been down-right awful.

I’m not going to defend them, mainly because that’s not humanly possible. But I was just flipping through some stuff from ESPN Stats & Information that I think at least adds a little perspective to what’s happened in Carolina.

Remember the last couple years when DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were running wild and making up cute nicknames for themselves? Well, I’m sure coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney remembered that as they went into this season.

It’s pretty safe to assume that Fox and Hurney though Williams, Stewart and an offensive line that used to be very good would help ease the transition for the young quarterbacks. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way at all. Williams and Stewart both were banged up and Williams is now on injured reserve and out for the rest of the season. The offensive line suddenly fell apart and even though substitute running back Mike Goodson stepped in and had a few nice games, the Carolina running game no longer scares anyone.

We’ve got the numbers to prove it. I’m looking at a list that has the numbers for every quarterback in the league who has thrown at least 20 passes out of play action. There are 38 names on the list.

If you go by passer rating (or just about any other category), Clausen is No. 37 and Moore is No. 38. Clausen’s passer rating off play action is 45.6. Moore’s is 35.7. Numbers for St. Pierre and Tony Pike, who also played a little, aren’t available because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements.

But let’s just pull out the calculator and total up how many touchdown passes Clausen and Moore have thrown out of play action. The answer is one (it was thrown by Moore). For perspective, Tom Brady leads the league with 11 touchdown passes off play action.

Combined, Clausen and Moore have completed 33 of 72 play-action passes for 354 yards and five interceptions.

Anybody want to take a guess which quarterback leads the league in passing yards off play action? It’s Denver’s Kyle Orton with 1,268. Now, the Broncos aren’t lighting it up either, but that’s due to reasons that go way beyond Orton.

Let’s be real honest here. Orton isn’t all that much more talented than Moore or Clausen. But these numbers show that, when you give a quarterback a little help, he at least can make things happen.

Play-action not a factor in NFC South

October, 20, 2010
In the NFC South, where Carolina and Atlanta are perceived as run-first teams and New Orleans does so many different things with its running backs, conventional wisdom would be that play-action passing would have a big impact.

It hasn’t turned out that way. In fact, if there’s one offensive category where the entire NFC South hasn’t fared well, it’s play-action passing. Not a single NFC South quarterback ranks in the top half of the league in passer rating off play-action, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has the best passer rating (94.3) in the division, but that ranks him No. 18 in the league. Ryan has completed 17 of 29 play-action passes with one touchdown. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman is next at No. 20 with an 87.1 rating. Off play-action, Freeman has completed 15 of 22 passes without a touchdown.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees has used play-action more than any NFC South quarterback, but has not thrived in that situation. Brees ranks No. 27 with a 75.0 rating. He has completed 34 of 53 play-action passes. That includes two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Even with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, Carolina quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen have been dismal when using play-action. They are a combined 13 for 39 out of play-action. Clausen is No. 30 with a 63.2 rating and Moore is No. 35 with a 26.3 rating.

Play action not working in NFC South

October, 6, 2010
When it comes to play-action passing, the NFC South has not been very good this season.

I think most of the blame should fall on running games that haven’t been very consistent. But the fact is, no NFC South quarterback has flourished when throwing off play action, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Atlanta probably has had the most consistency in the running game of any team in the NFC South, so it’s not really a surprise that Matt Ryan has the division’s best passer rating on play-action throws. But Ryan’s rating in those situations is 87.5, which ranks 16th in the league.

Ryan has completed 13 of 20 passes for 150 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions on play action. New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who generally ranks near the top in every statistical category known to man, does not shine in this one.

Brees ranks No. 25 in the league with a 70.6 rating off play action and has yet to throw a touchdown off play action. The same goes for Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who is No. 27 in the league with a 65.2 rating off play action. Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen is one spot behind Freeman with a 60.7 rating. Former Carolina starter Matt Moore had a dismal 26.3 rating off play action.

Little known fact of the day: No NFC South quarterback has thrown a touchdown off play action this season.