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Going Deep

Ranking NFL Offenses By Analytics Usage

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: July 24, 2020, 6:03 pm ET

This is an almost impossible exercise for many reasons. Mainly because I don't have the answers of how to run an NFL offense, but also because there's so much context that goes into in-game decision making and boiling that down to just a few metrics comes nowhere close to incorporating everything. With that said, I’ve highlighted 10 metrics that will give us an idea of which head coaches have the best and worst processes according to what the consensus is in NFL analytics. To be clear, these are purely metrics a coach (mostly) has complete control over regardless if his roster is good or bad and have nothing to do with what the general manager or ownership is doing. However, they are correlated for the most part.

 

Here are the 10 metrics I’m primarily evaluating for my analytics usage rankings. Explanations of each metric and why they’re important can be found in the corresponding links:

  1. 4th Down Aggressiveness (rbsdm.com)
  2. Pass Rate on Early Downs (rbsdm.com)
  3. Pass Rate While Trailing (@HaydenWinks)
  4. Play-Action Rate (PFF.com)
  5. Downfield Pass Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  6. Middle of the Field Pass Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  7. Pre-Snap Motion Percentage (SportsInfoSolutions)
  8. Outside Run Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  9. Shotgun Run Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  10. Offensive Pace (FootballOutsiders.com)

 

I have to point out one more thing before we get to the rankings. There is a massive difference between an offense actually using analytics versus just having a scheme that's correlated with analytics. The Ravens actually use analytics, but other teams in the top-10 don't. They just happen to have a scheme that lines up with consensus viewpoints from the analytics community. The reality is, coaches and in-game decision makers on both sides of the ball don't actually use analytics anywhere near enough. Hopefully that changes. Okay, now let's have some fun:

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Tier 1: You Love To See It

 

1. Ravens (HC John Harbaugh)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 1st

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 32nd

Pass Rate While Trailing: 25th

Play-Action Rate: 1st

Downfield Pass Rate: 17th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 1st

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 3rd

Outside Run Rate: 29th

Shotgun Run Rate: 1st

Offensive Pace: 27th

Only a couple of teams can somewhat justify their 2019 rushing rates, particularly on early downs (1st or 2nd down). The Ravens can because they were one of three offenses to post a positive expected points added average on rush attempts (+0.08). That’s right, 29 other offenses lost expected points by rushing the ball. Certainly makes you think… The primary reason for Baltimore’s rushing success is Lamar Jackson’s athleticism and the offensive line talent, of course, but the offensive scheme under Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman set things up beautifully. They get opposing linebackers’ feet planted with run-options and pre-snap motion (3rd), plus routinely let Jackson work off play action (1st) and send their receivers towards the middle of the field (3rd). All concepts and designs that are backed by analytics. To top things off, Harbaugh actually listened to his analytics staff when making 4th-down decisions (1st in aggressiveness), which led to more chances for touchdowns instead of opting for field goals or playing for field position. With the coaching staff and offense returning (minus OG Marshal Yanda and TE Hayden Hurst), I’m expecting the Ravens to remain a very efficient team in 2020, even if Lamar’s 9.0% passing touchdown is bound to regress.

 

2. Chiefs (HC Andy Reid)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 7th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 1st

Pass Rate While Trailing: 25th

Play-Action Rate: 2nd

Downfield Pass Rate: 6th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 27th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 5th

Outside Run Rate: 4th

Shotgun Run Rate: 4th

Offensive Pace: 6th

The Chiefs were top-seven in eight of the 10 analytics-based metrics we are looking at in this column, and we really should ignore “Pass Rate While Trailing” because the Chiefs only trailed on 21% of their second-half offensive snaps last season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. The Chiefs rushing scheme -- outside run rate (4th), shotgun run rate (4th) -- is quietly one of the best in the league, and they use it with up-tempo (6th) and only run when it’s necessary. Probably because they have the best player in the league at quarterback, Kansas City passed the ball on 67% of their 1st and 2nd down plays last season, which was 5% better than the second-place Dolphins and 9% better than the third-place Saints. Tack on their usage of pre-snap motion (5th) and play action (2nd), and we have a true analytics offensive juggernaut. This beast isn’t cooling down for as long as Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are involved.

 

Tier 2: Quite Nerdy

 

3. Patriots (HC Bill Belichick)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 22nd

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 13th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 21st

Play-Action Rate: 15th

Downfield Pass Rate: 28th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 19th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 2nd

Outside Run Rate: 13th

Shotgun Run Rate: 29th

Offensive Pace: 1st

Nobody is better than Belichick at exploiting market inefficiencies in free agency (Cam Newton), during the draft (trading back), and within the rulebook (pick plays). Belichick is also the GOAT at changing his offensive and defensive game plans to take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses and team’s strengths. A lot of these things are analytics-based but aren’t being accounted for in the 10 metrics I’m using in this column. A few of these metrics do stick out, though. Even with a depleted receiving depth chart last season, Belichick opted for league-high offensive pace and a ton of pre-snap motion (2nd), two things that help mask underwhelming offensive talent. If there’s one thing Belichick can be critiqued on, it was his fourth-down decision making (22nd). With that said, I bet if his offense was better and defense wasn’t so dominant, he’d be more aggressive.

 

4. Rams (HC Sean McVay)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 26th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 4th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 1st

Play-Action Rate: 3rd

Downfield Pass Rate: 19th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 20th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 13th

Outside Run Rate: 15th

Shotgun Run Rate: 32nd

Offensive Pace: 2nd

McVay and the Rams are a candidate to climb into Tier 1 next season if they become way more aggressive with their fourth-down decision making (26th). It’s the primary blimp on McVay’s in-game analytical profile, and it’s the one that’s easiest to fix overnight. Outside of that, McVay runs one of the few under-center offenses that I like, largely because they are up-tempo (2nd) and utilize play action (3rd) and pre-snap motion (13th). McVay also adjusts his pass rate to reflect his team’s in-game winning percentage, jumping up all the way to an 84% pass rate (1st) when the Rams have a 25% or lower chance of winning. If his offensive line wasn’t so bad and if Jared Goff wasn’t so affected by pressure, we’d likely see McVay utilize more deep passes (19th), too. I’m still in on McVay as one of the top offensive minds in the game. With that said, I believe the Rams have some work to do with their salary cap and drafting strategies.

 

5. Saints (HC Sean Payton)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 6th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 3rd

Pass Rate While Trailing: 2nd

Play-Action Rate: 28th

Downfield Pass Rate: 32nd

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 26th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 19th

Outside Run Rate: 22nd

Shotgun Run Rate: 28th

Offensive Pace: 22nd

In a perfect world, the Saints would pass the ball downfield more often (32nd), but I think Payton has strong reasons for his low-target passing offense, primarily Drew Brees’ declining arm strength, Michael Thomas’ insane catch rate on underneath passes, and the offense’s lack of field stretching receivers. The only real criticisms are the Saints’ 28th-ranked offense in play-action rate and the fact that they sub out Brees for Taysom Hill way more than they should. Otherwise, Payton continues to call a fantastic offense in New Orleans, one that’s aggressive on 4th downs (6th) and is super pass-heavy (3rd on early downs, 2nd when trailing) when it’s needed. Payton paired with arguably the best offensive line in the NFL is enough to bet on Brees maintaining relatively high efficiency even as he heads into his age-41 season.

 

6. Eagles (HC Doug Pederson)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 2nd

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 10th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 31st

Play-Action Rate: 7th

Downfield Pass Rate: 23rd

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 21st

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 26th

Outside Run Rate: 3rd

Shotgun Run Rate: 8th

Offensive Pace: 17th

Pederson does a lot of things right. He’s aggressive on fourth downs (2nd), uses play action at a high rate (7th), and lets his running backs find space by rushing to the outside (3rd) and from shotgun (8th). Still, there’s some room for improvement. Of course, the Eagles’ receiver injuries affected this last season, but Philly shouldn’t have been 31st in pass rate while trailing in 2019, nor should they be using pre-snap motion at the 26th-highest rate. With more speed at receiver, Pederson could increase the Eagles’ rankings in both metrics, which would vault them into Tier 1 next offseason.

 

7. Panthers (*New Coach*)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 4th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 11th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 16th

Play-Action Rate: 9th

Downfield Pass Rate: 15th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 32nd

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 6th

Outside Run Rate: 17th

Shotgun Run Rate: 10th

Offensive Pace: 5th

Carolina’s rankings surprised me the most out of any team. They finished top-12 in fourth down aggressiveness (4th), pass rate on early downs (11th), play action rate (9th), pre-snap motion percentage (6th), and offensive pace (5th), but it was all for nothing because of truly awful quarterback play last season. With an entire new coaching staff and quarterback brought in, it’s impossible to rank the Panthers in this column, but I’m confident in coach Matt Rhule and OC Joe Brady sticking with a highly-analytical offensive scheme. Baylor and LSU utilized five-man protections, passed the ball a ton, and played fast, all things they likely bring to Carolina in 2020. They’ll need all of these things to work to make up for what could be the worst defense in the NFL.

 

8. Cowboys (OC Kellen Moore)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 10th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 18th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 6th

Play-Action Rate: 14th

Downfield Pass Rate: 10th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 12th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 14th

Outside Run Rate: 18th

Shotgun Run Rate: 17th

Offensive Pace: 2nd

Moving from coach Jason Garrett to coach Mike McCarthy probably makes the Cowboys Offense even more analytically based, although OC Kellen Moore is the true driver of this high ranking. It’s an offense that doesn’t do anything bad -- their worst ranking is their outside run rate (18th), which is one of the least meaningful stats I’m evaluating in this column -- but the Cowboys Offense doesn’t do anything great either, outside of playing at the second-fastest pace. With the upgrade at head coach, tight end, and third receiver, Dallas has no excuse to not rank higher in 4th-down aggressiveness (10th) and pass rate on early downs (18th) next season. At the bare minimum, they should be utilizing play action far more (14th) if they think Ezekiel Elliott sets up the passing offense. It doesn’t by the way

 

9. Dolphins (HC Brian Flores)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 9th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 2nd

Pass Rate While Trailing: 6th

Play-Action Rate: 29th

Downfield Pass Rate: 13th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 4th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 25th

Outside Run Rate: 24th

Shotgun Run Rate: 16th

Offensive Pace: 13th

If I was factoring in front-office decision making and coach Brian Flores’ leadership, the Dolphins Offense would be ranked even higher than it already is. Despite bottom-five offensive talent, Miami was aggressive in all phases last year, including on fourth downs (9th) and passing on early downs (2nd), and opted for a high rate of passes over the middle of the field (4th). There’s obviously plenty of room for growth all around, but the upgrades along the offensive line will help Flores figure things out quicker. In year two of the new regime, the Dolphins should at least utilize more play action (29th) and pre-snap motion (25th).

 

10. Bills (HC Sean McDermott)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 5th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 8th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 19th

Play-Action Rate: 18th

Downfield Pass Rate: 3rd

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 14th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 31st

Outside Run Rate: 31st

Shotgun Run Rate: 20th

Offensive Pace: 10th

I’m definitely not sold on Josh Allen as a long-term answer, but I do think he has everything he needs to succeed. The front-office added analytics’ top-ranked deep receiver this offseason, and coach McDermott is super aggressive across the board. He goes for it on fourth downs (5th), passes the ball on early downs (8th) even though Allen is a questionable passer, and takes his chances with valuable deep shots (3rd). Still, there’s room for growth. With the Bills’ strong three-receiver set, Buffalo should utilize more pre-snap motion (31st), and they could give their running backs even more space to run by increasing their outside rushing (31st) and shotgun rushing (20th) rates.

 

11. Cardinals (HC Kliff Kingsbury)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 12th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 5th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 13th

Play-Action Rate: 12th

Downfield Pass Rate: 20th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 29th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 28th

Outside Run Rate: 1st

Shotgun Run Rate: 2nd

Offensive Pace: 2nd

Kingsbury is known for his air raid passing offense and use of four-receiver sets, but his rushing offense was by far the most impressive thing in year one. The Cardinals finished 3rd in rushing expected points added on rushes (+0.03) largely because of Kyler Murray’s dual-threat abilities, but also because the scheme allowed the running backs to find space -- Arizona was 2nd in both outside run rate and shotgun run rate. The passing offense needs to make jumps, however. Throwing the ball towards the middle of the field (29th) more often would be a good start. Kingsbury could also improve with his fourth-down decision making (14th), especially with the talent looking much better. With an offseason to learn what worked and didn’t work at the NFL level, I’m expecting Arizona to be one of the top-10 analytically-sound offenses in 2020.

 

Tier 3: Room For Improvement

 

12. Buccaneers (HC Bruce Arians)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 18th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 7th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 4th

Play-Action Rate: 30th

Downfield Pass Rate: 1st

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 15th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 11st

Outside Run Rate: 30th

Shotgun Run Rate: 30th

Offensive Pace: 14th

It will be interesting to see how this offensive scheme changes with Tom Brady replacing Jameis Winston, but if it’s anything like last year’s offense, sign me all the way up. Arians’ passing offense is as aggressive as it gets, finishing first in downfield pass rate with top-seven rankings in both pass rate on early downs (7th) and while trailing (4th). The rest of the offense needs some work, however. Arians wasn’t aggressive enough on fourth downs (18th), didn’t incorporate play action enough (30th), and essentially punted on giving his running backs chances to find space. The Bucs’ 30th-ranked offense in both outside run rate and shotgun run rate were enough for me to keep them out of Tier 2 even though the aerial passing attack is something you love to see.

 

13. Browns (*New Coach*)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 3rd

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 14th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 25th

Play-Action Rate: 10th

Downfield Pass Rate: 9th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 23rd

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 27th

Outside Run Rate: 32nd

Shotgun Run Rate: 13th

Offensive Pace: 27th

Similarly to the Dolphins, I’d rank the Browns much, much higher if I was incorporating the front office. But even by just focusing on what the team did in 2019 and with what new coach Kevin Stefanski will be bringing to Cleveland in 2020, I was inclined to put the Browns a tick above average. I’m almost always not a fan of building a run-first offense with an unathletic quarterback, but Stefanski’s usage of play action (6th) did partially make up for his low pass rate on early downs (27th) last year in Minnesota. The Vikings’ leadership was obsessed with establishing the run, too, so it’s possible Stefanksi doesn’t pound it up the middle as often as he did in Minnesota. How the Browns set up their offense in 2020 is a storyline I’ll certainly be paying attention to. For now, I’m projecting a lot of play-action bombs to Odell Beckham. Not a bad offensive identity if Odell is healthy and Baker plays better. 

 

14. 49ers (HC Kyle Shanahan)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 24th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 23rd

Pass Rate While Trailing: 16th

Play-Action Rate: 4th

Downfield Pass Rate: 31st

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 6th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 1st

Outside Run Rate: 14th

Shotgun Run Rate: 27th

Offensive Pace: 20th

Shanahan’s offense is a tough one to rank because it’s far more run-heavy than the numbers would like (23rd in pass rate on early downs), but he’s so creative with his blocking and pre-snap motion usage (1st) that it’s led to rock-solid results. The 49ers were 5th in expected points added per rush (-0.05), although they were still more efficient on their dropbacks (+0.16). A couple of reasons for that is Shanahan’s fourth-highest usage of play action passes and high rate of passes thrown over the middle of the field (6th). I also like how Shanahan increases his pass rate when the 49ers are losing (16th), a strategy that’s not being implemented soon enough into games in my opinion.

 

15. Colts (HC Frank Reich)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 13th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 30th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 25th

Play-Action Rate: 8th

Downfield Pass Rate: 11th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 31st

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 17th

Outside Run Rate: 2nd

Shotgun Run Rate: 11th

Offensive Pace: 24th

I’d typically be very harsh on an offense that finished 30th in pass rate on early downs, but Reich can somewhat justify it. First off, he had poor quarterback play and didn’t have a fully healthy T.Y. Hilton for much of the season, and secondly, the Colts were second in expected points added per rush attempt (+0.02). They were one of three teams to have a positive EPA on carries last season, largely because of their studly offensive line and Reich’s heavy outside run rate (2nd). With Philip Rivers upgrading Jacoby Brissett, we should see the Colts sling the ball more in 2020 -- particularly using lots of play action (8th) -- while maintaining top-five efficiency on the ground. More passes down the middle of the field (31st) would be the other primary thing to figure out this offseason, but overall, this organization seems to have a good thing going. A lot of that has to do with the coaching staff.

 

16. Titans (HC Mike Vrabel)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 21st

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 29th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 31st

Play-Action Rate: 5th

Downfield Pass Rate: 18th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 11th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 4th

Outside Run Rate: 11th

Shotgun Run Rate: 25th

Offensive Pace: 19th

Vrabel is a better coach than this ranking because his players love him and his game plans seem effective overall, but there’s still room for improvement on the analytics front. Even with Derrick Henry looking like the league’s best pure runner right now, the Titans were too run-heavy on early downs (29th) and while trailing (31st) last season because, well, Ryan Tannehill was actually very good! Regression is inevitable, but if Tannehill continues to play like a top-15 passer in 2020, there’d be no reason to be bottom-three in pass attempts. I worry that’s exactly what will happen. With that said, Tennessee at least uses play action (5th) and pre-snap motion (4th) at near league-high levels, and when they are running the ball, it’s pretty effective (5th in expected points added per rush). I can only ding Vrabel so much for his pass/rush splits. 

 

17. Packers (HC Matt LaFleur)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 15th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 6th

Pass Rate While Trailing: 11th

Play-Action Rate: 13th

Downfield Pass Rate: 5th

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 28th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 9th

Outside Run Rate: 5th

Shotgun Run Rate: 18th

Offensive Pace: 18th

LaFleur’s first season as head coach went well. The Packers lucked into a 13-3 record, and he showed all the necessary signs of a competent head coach. Green Bay passed the ball often on early downs (6th) and while trailing (11th), plus attacked the deep part of the field (5th) whenever Aaron Rodgers decided to not throw the ball away. LaFleur finished middle of the pack in the rest of the categories, ignoring the Packers’ 28th-place finish in middle of the field pass rate. It was an encouraging first season, but I’m a tad nervous this offense becomes unnecessarily more run-heavy moving forward. Their draft class at least hinted that would be the case.