Rich Hribar

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Scoring, Drives and Plays

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Grounding the Saints


New Orleans finished second in the league in PPR points generated for their skill players in 2017, the 12th time in as many seasons that Drew Brees has been with the Saints that they've finished either first or second in the league in that category. Let that sink in for a moment. Despite maintaining their dominance in team output, they did so in a unique fashion versus how they’ve previously generated points; leading the league in fantasy points generated solely from rushing production at 21.6 per game.


The 2017 Saints rushed on 44.3 percent of plays, 10th in the league and their second-highest rate over the 12 years that Brees has been their quarterback. That shift in offensive approach caused New Orleans to suffer a major play-volume loss, losing 105 offensive snaps from their 2016 total and the equivalent of 1.6 games worth of offensive output based the previous 11-year average for this offense.


Being able to run at the rate they did in 2017 is a recipe that New Orleans no doubt wants to replicate with Brees at age 39, but the Saints leading on 52.6 percent of their snaps again will be tough. Of the 26 teams to lead for half of their offensive plays in the last decade, the average loss the following season for rate of snaps led was a drop of -11.3%. That’s a big deal because the Saints also weren’t as run heavy as you’d believe. New Orleans ranked 10th in rushing rate, but they ranked 21st in rushing rate when games were within one score.


Brees was still as good as ever, leading the league in completion rate (72.0), completions per game (24.1) and yards per attempt (8.1) among qualified passers. He just ran into a season in which the Saints had a ton of leads and was bitten by touchdown variance. Brees' 23 passing scores were his fewest since 2003.


2017 TD Splits


SEA 34 4 89.47% 10.53%
MIA 24 4 85.71% 14.29%
PHI 38 9 80.85% 19.15%
CIN 25 6 80.65% 19.35%
HOU 28 8 77.78% 22.22%
ARI 21 6 77.78% 22.22%
NYG 20 6 76.92% 23.08%
TB 26 8 76.47% 23.53%
DET 29 10 74.36% 25.64%
LAC 28 10 73.68% 26.32%
WAS 27 10 72.97% 27.03%
PIT 29 12 70.73% 29.27%
DEN 19 8 70.37% 29.63%
KC 26 12 68.42% 31.58%
NE 32 16 66.67% 33.33%
GB 25 13 65.79% 34.21%
OAK 23 13 63.89% 36.11%
ATL 21 12 63.64% 36.36%
MIN 25 15 62.50% 37.50%
LAR 28 17 62.22% 37.78%
CAR 22 15 59.46% 40.54%
NYJ 19 13 59.38% 40.63%
BAL 20 14 58.82% 41.18%
CLE 15 11 57.69% 42.31%
BUF 16 12 57.14% 42.86%
DAL 22 18 55.00% 45.00%
IND 13 11 54.17% 45.83%
JAX 21 18 53.85% 46.15%
NO 23 23 50.00% 50.00%
CHI 13 13 50.00% 50.00%
SF 15 15 50.00% 50.00%
TEN 14 18 43.75% 56.25%


The 2017 Saints had a dead-even split in rushing and passing touchdowns at 23 each. Over the past decade, 64.8 percent of their offensive touchdowns scored have been via passing. In 2017, that number was at 66.1 percent. There have 28 other teams over that span to have a 50/50 split or less in passing touchdowns, and those teams saw an average increase of +5.6 passing scores the following season. 


That bodes well for increased touchdown potential for not only Brees, but also for hopeful breakouts of Jimmy Garoppolo and Mitchell Trubisky while expecting a recoil for Marcus Mariota. The Tennessee rushing touchdown split was not only the highest in the league last year, it was the 9th-highest rate over the past decade. The eight teams with a more lopsided rushing-TD split than the Titans over that span came back and had an average passing touchdown rate of 60.1 percent the following season. Mariota threw a touchdown on just 2.9 percent of his pass attempts in 2017 after posting touchdown rates of 5.1 percent and 5.8 percent in his first two seasons. While drafters are fighting over who will be the guy to own in this backfield between Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, the plays to make within this offense are on the cheaper passing components of Mariota, Corey Davis, Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews before even accounting for the incoming scheme change that benefits this passing game over the previous "exotic smashmouth" experiment.


Finding More Rushing Scores

No team relied on the pass to reach the end zone last season like Seattle did. In fact, Seattle’s 89.5-percent passing touchdown rate was the highest rate in a decade.  Of the 25 teams prior to 2017 to score at least 80 percent of their scores through the air over that span, just four threw more passing touchdowns the following season, while the average loss of passing scores from the other 21 teams was -7.6. Inversely, 22-of-25 teams rushed for more touchdowns the following season with an average increase from teams at +5.2 rushing scores.


Seattle ranked fifth in the league in offensive plays run inside of the opponent’s five-yard line but managed just two rushing touchdowns in that area, both from Russell Wilson. Departed Jimmy Graham caught seven touchdowns from four yards and in. And just two quarterbacks have had back-to-back years as the overall fantasy QB1 over the past 20 years. It’s not hard to find natural touchdown regression for Wilson, but Wilson has finished as a top-10 scorer at his position in all six of his seasons in the league, so don’t run too far from him.


In that same bucket with Seattle are Philadelphia, Miami and Cincinnati. We’ve already discussed how the Eagles could naturally score fewer offensive touchdowns, and here’s an additional marker for how their passing scores could decrease. The 2017 Eagles were second in the league in offensive TDs, but just 24th in rushing scores. Jay Ajayi has found the end zone on the ground just three times over his past 26 games including the postseason and didn’t even garner a single touch inside the five-yard line a year ago on either the Eagles or Dolphins. Ajayi shouldn’t be expected to be a zero in that department in 2018, especially with the departure of LeGarrette Blount.


Miami tied Seattle for the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league a year ago (4), which was the lowest number of rushing touchdowns the Dolphins have had in a season in their entire 52 years as a franchise. The 2017 Dolphins ran just five rushing plays inside of the opponent’s five-yard line, fewest in the league and tied for fourth fewest in a season over the past 20 years.


Bengals Run Game and Play Volume Rebounding

The last of those four teams is the Bengals. Cincinnati managed six rushing scores a year ago after rushing for double-digit touchdowns in each of the previous six seasons with an average of 14.8 scores on the ground over that span. It was their fewest number of rushing touchdowns as a team since 2008.


The Bengals also were victimized by their offensive incompetence overall as they ran the fewest offensive plays in the league (57.9 per game), their third-lowest per-game average in their 50-year history and their fewest in a season since 1969. The Bengals ran -1.5 games worth of offensive snaps than what they averaged over their 14 previous seasons under Marvin Lewis. Given corrections to their offensive line and clearer backfield layout, it’s easy to find rationale for more volume and scoring opportunities for the Cincinnati backfield in 2018.


Motoring in the Midway

Ranking just ahead of the Bengals in play volume was the Bears at a lowly 58.3 offensive plays per game, which was just a shade worse than their 30th ranking in that department in 2016 (60.4 plays), their second consecutive season led by Dowell Loggains. Loggains and the archaic John Fox have since departed in favor of Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich. Nagy took over play-calling duties in Kansas City last Week 13. Prior to Nagy calling plays, the Chiefs ranked 28th in offensive plays per game (60.5). From that point on, they ranked 17th in plays per game (63.8) and fifth over the final month of the season (68.3 plays). Helfrich comes from the Chip Kelly umbrella of tempo and misdirection. During Helfrich’s eight years at Oregon, they ranked top eight in the country in scoring seven times, top five in total yards six times, and top 10 in rushing yards six times.


Motor-Less City in Detroit

The Lions certainly want to run the ball more and have nowhere to go but up in rushing effectiveness. Detroit ranked 32nd, 30th, 31st and 28th in rushing yardage per game over the past four years and 30th or lower in rushing rate in each of the past three seasons.


Their offensive line was ravaged in 2017, as Matthew Stafford was sacked on a career-high 7.7 percent of drop backs while the Lions generated just 0.79 yards before contact for their running backs, which ranked 31st in the league. LT Taylor Decker missed eight games with a shoulder injury while free agent signees T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner dealt with a plethora of ailments as they missed three games each while being questionable on the team’s injury report for a combined six other games.


This season, Detroit has their best offensive line on paper in some time as they get all three of those players back healthy as well as drafting Frank Ragnow in the first round to start at left guard, while sliding last season’s left guard Graham Glasgow -- their highest graded run blocker in 2017 per Pro Football Focus -- over to center. The team signed LeGarrette Blount in free agency and used the 43rd overall pick on Kerryon Johnson. The Lions also cut ties with Eric Ebron in favor of a group that consists of Michael Roberts, Luke Willson, Sean McGrath and Levine Toilolo. Ebron blocked on just 26.9 percent of his snaps last season, the lowest rate for all 99 tight ends with over 100 plays. Roberts blocked on the 5th-highest rate (81.5 percent), McGrath ranked seventh (80.2 percent), Toilolo 21st (73.6 percent) and Willson 44th (62.3 percent) out of those same 99 tight ends.


The signal to run the ball is strong, but the issue is that if they are able to finally generate a run game, what impact will this have on overall volume and Detroit's passing attack? The Lions retained OC Jim Bob Cooter, who has helmed one of the slowest offenses in the league despite being one of the pass-heaviest.


2015* 64.1 19 28.7 24 62.2% 12
2016 61.3 29 28.5 27 64.4% 3
2017 61.3 28 28.2 24 63.0% 2

*Weeks 8-17 when Cooter took over as OC/ Pace Stats from Football Outsiders


Despite having a pass-first offense, Detroit has been a bottom-dwelling team in offensive pace and play volume. The Lions threw the ball at the second-highest rate of any team a year ago, but Matthew Stafford still threw 29 fewer times (565 total), his lowest total since his second year in the league in 2010 when Stafford played just three games. Thanks to a career-high 7.9 yards per pass attempt and 5.1 percent touchdown rate (fourth highest of his nine-year career), Stafford was able to fight off the volume loss of a year ago. Stafford has now thrown for over 4,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons. Stafford is the player this offense is going to run through and has the makings of a stable commodity, but the Detroit passing game stands to take a hit if Cooter continues to move at a snail’s pace to go along any increased rushing productivity. 

Rich Hribar is a husband, father, sports meteorologist and a slave to statistics. A lifelong sports fan and fantasy gamer. You can find him on Twitter @LordReebs.
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