Life Without Davante: The Explosives

Dusty digs into how the Packers generated explosive passing plays, both with Davante and without him

There has been one big question that has permeated the Packers offseason: what is the offense going to look like in 2022 without Davante Adams? It’s a question that scholars have been attempting to answer, with an idiot or two thrown into the mix.

And, even though I have written an article on this already (as part of the pack of idiots mentioned above), I wanted to dig into it again. After all, it’s the most important question of the offseason, so I figured it’s something I can’t spend too much time on. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether it ends up being a wise decision on my part.

My previous look revolved around picking out concepts that the Packers had in their playbook and projecting them forward in terms of why I believed those would be successful without Adams. It was an interesting thought experiment, but it involved a lot of projection. It also involved looking at plays where Adams was on the field but not the end-target. Even though I talked about each play from a schematic perspective and why those specific plays were ideal, it’s still impossible to fully remove his presence.

In that article, I said “we can’t simply look at the games where [Adams] didn’t play, because that makes for an incredibly small sample size.” The statement of “small sample size” is still true, but I’ve reconsidered my stance. The Packers were without Adams for 7 games in the LaFleur era: less than half of a season. And, while that is a small sample size, it doesn’t mean that it can’t tell us anything.

First off, let’s answer this question: why explosives? We’ll attack short game/general offense in another post, but, in short, it’s because explosives are important. I know, I know, “explosives are always important.” And that’s true, but in a world with where defenses are rolling out more two-high safety looks in an attempt to force offenses back into a more ball-control, dink-and-dunk offense, explosives are likely going to be harder to come by. But, more often than not, explosive plays are still what controls the outcome of the game. You can have a nice, efficient offense, but without finding explosive plays it’s going to be harder to put up points. The margin for error is smaller. If you’re grinding out 10-15 play drives every time you want to score, it doesn’t take much to throw that off. You have to be perfect, but it's hard to be perfect on a consistent basis. Something as simple as a false start penalty has the ability to derail an entire drive.

It’s good to be efficient, but you need explosive plays to be able to win at a consistent level. Defenses are trying to make that harder, making those plays even more important. How do you generate them? Ah buddy, now we’re back on track.

Before we really dig in, I wanted to look at a few numbers. Everybody’s favorite words, I know.

In looking at regular season games, here is how the Packers fared in generating explosive plays through the air both with Adams and without Adams (where “explosives” is defined as any pass play that gains at least 16 yards):

Again, it’s a small sample size - we’re looking at 42 games with Adams and only 7 games without him - but that’s a pretty nice bump. Without Adams as a starter, the Packers are averaging 1.3 more explosive plays per game, and those plays gain an average of 1.2 more yards. 

If we remove the 2021 Cardinals game from consideration (the Packers were without Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard in that game, which severely hampered their explosiveness), the differences are even greater. Take away that game and the Packers are averaging 2.0 more explosive plays per game and those plays gain an average of 1.4 more yards. Of course, removing a game from an already small sample size is playing some dirty pool, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

So let’s get to it. How were the Packers able to generate explosives with Adams, and how did that change without him?

Iso, Scheme or Scramble?

This is the approach that made the most sense to me to get a good, high-level view of this. In short, the question is how did the Packers generate explosive passes? I broke them up into three categories:

  1. Iso - Predetermined read to an isolated receiver, typically on the backside of the play. This is the result of the QB liking the one-on-one match-up pre-snap and making that his first read. The overall concept is ignored in favor of taking the one-on-one match-up.
  2. Scheme - The QB reads out the concept and finds the open receiver in the progression. These will typically come in-rhythm of the play (3, 5 or 7 step drop).
  3. Scramble - The play has broken down. The receiver isn’t open when expected or pressure starts breaking through the line. Or both. The QB is forced to break the pocket and the big play is the result of the defense breaking down and the receivers just getting open.

For this portion, I looked at all explosive passes that went to Davante Adams in 2021 and all explosive passes in games without Davante Adams from 2019-2021. 

Iso

Davante Adams in 2021: 7 explosives, 21.7 YPA, 0.44 per game (20.6% of Adams’ explosives)

The overall concepts are different, but all 7 explosives in this category follow the same pattern: Davante Adams is isolated on the backside of the formation and is tasked with winning one-on-one. On all but one of these plays, Adams wins on an outside release and Rodgers hits him down the field. 

The one play he doesn’t win that way is the fifth clip. He’s working against press coverage against the Browns. Adams gets jammed and releases on a slant to the inside, where Rodgers hits him and picks up 17 yards.

This is where I would talk about the explosives generated by a player simply winning a one-on-one in games without Davante Adams, but there wasn’t a single play. I was almost feeling generous enough to give one to Marquez Valdes-Scantling against the Lions, but I knew I was only lying to myself. 

This is either a grim portent of things to come or a note of optimism entering the 2022 season, depending on which way you’re leaning. 

The pessimist says that this is something the Packers are going to miss. It’s not that they don’t have anyone who could win these one-on-ones, but they certainly don’t have anyone who has shown an ability to do it consistently. When the Packers line up in a Quads (4x1) set, you can’t really count on that isolated receiver to win the match-up on a regular basis. These kinds of plays can be gimmes: knowing you’ve got an automatic win on the outside before the ball is even snapped is huge.

The optimist says that this points to an over-reliance on Davante Adams and that an offense with no Davante Adams on the field will force more creativity from LaFleur and also allow the offense to operate more the way it’s intended to.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. I believe that the Packers will need someone to step up and show they have the ability to win one-on-one match-ups as the iso receiver, if only to keep defenses honest on the back-end. If you stick Allen Lazard as the iso receiver and he doesn’t show an ability to win, the defense can feel more confident in distributing more resources to the overload side. That being said, there are certainly times when the Packers offense could be better if the concept was prioritized over the backside iso route. More on this in a bit.

You can get by with leaning totally on scheme for a few games here-and-there, but over the course of a full season defenses will change the way they play. So the Packers will need someone who has the ability to win these match-ups, with at least occasional consistency. Even though they didn’t have anyone get an explosive on an iso play in their 7 games without Davante doesn’t mean they can count on that approach working for a full season schedule. 

This is the question going into the 2022 season, and I’m fascinated with how it’s going to turn out.

Scheme

Davante Adams in 2021: 25 explosives, 27.6 YPA, 1.56 per game (73.5% of Adams’ explosives)

The interesting thing to look at in terms of scheme is the differences between the schemes used to create explosives with Davante and without him. The top two concepts to Adams shouldn’t really be a surprise: they are Drift and Smash Fade.

Drift (5 explosives, 20.8 YPA)

Drift is strictly a play action concept. It’s a two-man passing concept, with the receiver to one side running a vertical route and the receiver to the other side running a dig route. It’s set up to look like PA Boot, but the QB will instead do a quick turn and look for the dig. The idea is to draw the linebackers up to the line to stop a wide zone run, then quickly turn and hit the dig, which is working in the space vacated by their run support.

While you don’t necessarily need Davante Adams running the dig route, his skill set makes him the ideal candidate. In order to find maximum success, the receiver needs to be able to win at the line and have a hard cut on the dig to create separation at the top of the route. Adams excels at those two things. Without Adams they only had 1 explosive play that went for 18 yards.

Lazard has shown that he can be successful as the dig route on this concept, but there’s no one on the roster who can be as lethal as Adams is.

Smash Fade (3 explosives, 30.3 YPA)

This is where the Packers are going to miss Adams the most in the scheme department. Adams’ ability to gain immediate separation at the line and maintain that separation down the field can make this concept almost feel like cheating sometimes. 

The first and third clips show Adams doing some nasty work at the top of the stem to create the necessary separation down the field. The first clip in particular is a tremendous route from Adams. He gives a little split-release look 5+ yards down the field. The slight nod to the post gets the defender jumping, which leaves the fade wide open. Borderline illegal behavior.

Non-Davante Games: 36 explosives, 29.9 YPA, 5.14 per game (85.7% of passing explosives)

All Go RB Seam (6 explosives, 25.3 YPA)

This concept produced the most explosives in non-Davante games and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s one of my favorite concepts over the last few years, specifically because of all the ways it can stress a defense. 

It’s a three-man flood concept, often paired with jet motion. The jet motion can work as the flat control to pull a defender up and open room behind him or become a checkdown option late in the play. The #3 receiver on the concept side can either attack the middle of the field or run a deep crosser, allowing him to exploit different coverages. And, while teams are starting to throw an umbrella over this concept, there’s still the ability to hit the running back up the seam or the receiver up the sideline. 

This is a concept where the influx of speed can really help to supercharge. This concept is all about stressing the defense and finding the cracks. Those cracks become a little bigger when you’re able to throw more speed into the mix. 

When Adams was in the line-up, he typically aligned as the iso receiver away from the concept and would run a slant. Rodgers would check that match-up at the line. If he liked the match-up, he’d throw to Adams. It was a steady gainer, but it also got them in trouble a few times when defenses started cutting the route with a linebacker or by dropping a lineman. 

The Bucs baited them with this in the 2020 NFC Championship Game. Pre-snap, this looked like a nice one-on-one match-up with Adams on the right. After the snap, the linebacker to that side drops underneath the slant. Rodgers sees the linebacker before he lets it go, but it puts him behind schedule in terms of going back and reading the concept. By the time he works back over that way, it's too late and he ends up getting sacked. 

Without anyone picking up the mantle of Consistent Winner in the Iso Role, Rodgers will likely be looking at the concept as the first option more than he has over the past few years. Between that and the influx of speed, I expect big things from this concept in 2022.

Four Verts (5 explosives, 23.2 YPA)

If you know anything about the Air Raid system - or have ever played a lick of Madden - you know Four Verts. It’s a simple concept that can also be quite complicated for a defense to cover. The basic idea is…well…I’ll let Charles De Mar explain it.

I mean, there’s more to it, but that’s basically it. Push downfield and adjust routes based on coverage. You can run Four Verts 10 times in a row and see 10 different ways to run it. It’s another concept that works well with speed on the field to stress the defense. It’s also one that can get you in a bit of trouble if the receivers and quarterback aren’t on the same page. Hal Mumme simply calls this play "6", because that's how many points he expects to score every time he runs it.

Against the 49ers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game, the Packers are running Four Verts out of trips, with Geronimo Allison as the #2 receiver out of the slot. Given the way the defense rotates post-snap, Rodgers expects Allison to break off his route and run a curl in the soft spot of the defense. Instead, Allison keeps running and the safety is able to step in for an easy interception.

With the new bodies at receiver, it’s possible this concept could be a little slow out of the gate, but they’ve shown an ability to hit big plays with it in their arsenal. Much like All Go RB Seam, I’m excited to see what an influx of speed can do to make this concept even better., but I also wouldn’t be shocked to see a frustrated Rodgers pointing out what a receiver should have done after an incomplete pass. 

Scramble

This is an area where the less you have to rely on it, the better. While the extended play bombs can be fun to watch, it’s not something you can count on. It’s a chaos play,. When the play breaks down it’s always better to get an explosive play than a sack (obviously), but it’s not sustainable or repeatable. 

Now that I got my wet blanket speech out of the way, let’s look at it.

Davante Adams in 2021: 2 explosives, 19.5 YPA, 0.13 per game (5.9% of Adams’ explosives)

Only two of these for Adams in 2021. Honestly, fewer than I anticipated. I struggled a bit with the first play. Some days I feel like you can squint and call it a second-window throw in-concept, but that’s not really true and I know it. Rodgers reads it out and Adams continues running across the linebackers with their feet in the sand and finds a nice, empty spot of grass.

The second one is pure scramble drill on 4th down, complete with Rodgers falling to the grass after letting it go.

Non-Davante Games: 6 explosives, 23.2 YPA, 0.86 per game (14.3% of passing explosives)

In these 6 plays, there are some extremely memorable ones. The big throw to Tonyan up the sideline against the Cowboys (which was the result of a Drift concept that didn’t work, in part because Geronimo Allison couldn’t create the separation he needed to on the dig route). The two absolutely insane throws to Marcedes Lewis. These are highlight throws. Beautiful moments, but moments you absolutely can’t count on. It’s not like they built their entire explosive package out of these or anything, but nearly 1 explosive per game (with Davante in the line-up) came off of these. Maybe that's sustainable, but it's certainly not something you can bank on.

The Players

Before we get to our Lessons section, I wanted to look at the top players who generated explosive plays without Davante within the flow of the concept. Here are the top 4:

Aaron Jones: 7 explosives, 31.3 YPA

Robert Tonyan: 6 Explosives, 22.7 YPA

Marquez Valdes-Scantling: 5 explosives, 42.8 YPA

Allen Lazard: 4 explosives, 45.3 YPA

We still don’t know the timetable to return for Tonyan, but 3 of those guys are still in the building. Aaron Jones had 5 of those explosives in 2019, so he hasn’t been quite as productive in this aspect of the game over the last 2 years, but he can still contribute (especially if they work in some more two-back sets and hunt for match-ups for him to exploit). 

In 2020, the top receivers were Robert Tonyan (5 explosives) and Allen Lazard (2 explosives) which feels right.

Lessons

What have we learned? Maybe not much we didn’t already know, but at least we’ve got some context behind it. Adams generated 34 explosive pass plays in the 2021 regular season. That’s 2.1 explosive passing plays per game the Packers will be missing and looking to get back somehow.

Without Adams, they leaned heavily into the concepts to open up their explosive passing game. And, while they were effective with that for stretches, I’m still dubious as to whether that can work for a full season. To keep defenses from overloading the concept side, they’ll need a backside receiver capable of winning the one-on-one match-ups he is tasked with, and generating enough explosiveness to keep the defense honest. Adams generated about 1 explosive off that backside iso position every 2 games, so ideally they’d find a way to replicate that.

To be clear, it doesn’t have to be a true iso route. You can still flood a side of the field with 3 receivers and play a game on the backside to attempt to free up that receiver. You can release a RB out of the backfield as a flat release, run a backside concept out of a stack look, and so on. The issue you’ll run into is that you’re sacrificing protection to help open that up, but that’s a conversation for another day.

I’m excited about the influx of speed into the offense and how that can bolster their explosive passing game. In the LaFleur era, their speed game has basically consisted of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with Tyler Ervin running jet sweeps for a bit. With a wide receiver depth chart featuring Sammy Watkins (4.43 40, albeit in 2014), Christian Watson (4.36 40) and Romeo Doubs (4.52 40), the Packers now have the ability to stretch the field horizontally and vertically with speed in a way they haven’t really been able to do in the LaFleur era.

The other thing I’m looking forward to is the return of some more varied sets. Without Davante on the field, 24% of the Packers explosives came from two RB sets. That’s a personnel grouping that the Packers didn’t run out very often in 2021. I’m anticipating AJ Dillon stepping into the de facto RB1 role, while Jones becomes more of a mismatch guy. I see LaFleur working harder to get Jones matched up on linebackers in passing sets, and the best way to do that is with a two-RB set. Get Jones and Dillon out there together, use some motion to determine what the coverage is doing, then try to get Jones - or perhaps the TE - in an advantageous match-up. 

Speaking of the use of motion, the Packers found their explosives without Davante by using a lot of motion. Without Davante in the line-up, the Packers used motion on 66.7% of their explosives. With Davante? Only 29.4% of explosives to Davante in 2021 used motion. When Peyton Manning was in his prime, the Colts ran a lot of 2x2 sets with no motion. The reason was that Manning liked to see a static view of the defense, then pick what match-up he liked better before the ball was snapped. He didn't want movement to complicate that. So it makes a little sense why there might be less motion with Davante: even with the in-scheme explosives, they were using concepts designed to hit Davante on. If you like the match-up before the snap, why use motion and potentially get the defense to check to a different look? I expect an uptick in motion in 2022 to really probe the defense pre-snap and actively search for advantages.

My conclusion to this extremely long piece: the Packers are going to miss Davante Adams. No question about it. You don’t lose a guy like that and just keep rolling like everything is normal. But Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers have shown an ability to keep those explosive plays rolling without Adams in the line-up; in fact, the numbers in that regard are better without Adams than with him. I don’t know if that carries over to a full season, but I’m excited to see what they do. It’s going to be creative, and it should be a ton of fun. Can’t wait to cover it all year.


Albums listened to: The Vague Ideas - New York Letters; The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang; Julien Baker - B-Sides EP; Japandroids - Celebration Rock; Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee; Angie McMahon - Salt; Sigur Ros - Takk; Angel Olsen - Big Time

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Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or email at [email protected].

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Comments (16)

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oceanstrength's picture

July 24, 2022 at 04:15 pm

Whew, that was a long one! You ARE one of the scholars.
I'm the idiot, but this is my prediction anyway.
Romeo Doubs will lead all Packer receivers' this season with 67 catches
Watkins will have 58 in 10 games .
Lazard will have 52
Cobb will have 49 in 9 games.
Jones will have 36 in 7 games
Dillian will have 35
Watson will have 24.
Amari R. will have 28.
20 other passes will be spread around among rookies and subs.
AR will have a great year but not the MVP. That will come with the Super Bowl win over Josh Allen. Rodgers will think long and hard about going out on top, but like so many other super stars, he will not be able to leave the game, and will suffer the same fate most of the greats met who just couldn't quit at the top.

Three or four TE's will total 40

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Leatherhead's picture

July 24, 2022 at 05:17 pm

The Packers had 5 TDs of over 30 yards last year. Two of those TDs were by Rasul Douglas. This is not an explosive offense; it’s an offense that protects the ball and stays on the field and drives it.

I don’t think you can have lots of explosive plays and lead the league in Time of Possession.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 24, 2022 at 08:18 pm

You're half right. The Packers were 21st overall in explosive plays last year. They were 30th in explosive run plays, trailing only Miami and Houston. That is really really bad considering they have Jones and Dillon in the backfield and a big reason why they were tied for 29th in average per rush. One reason I'm not sad to see Patrick on another team.

They were 10th in explosive pass plays and tied for 3rd with a bunch of other teams in explosive pass percentage.

Explosive plays win games in today's NFL, especially in the passing game. It's no surprise the Rams were 2nd in explosive pass plays (49ers 1st) and the Bengals were 5th. 8 of the top 10 teams in explosive pass plays made the playoffs with the exceptions being the Seahawks and Vikings.

TOP means nothing of you're not scoring points and the Packers were much better at scoring in 2020. Today's defenses want to minimize explosive plays, make teams have to drink and dunk down the field and hopefully make a mistake. Penalties and TFLs/sacks kill drives, the more plays it takes you to score the better chance of bad play putting you into a bad down and distances setting. If your offense is racking up explosive plays in spite of this chances are you have a good team.

I loved 70's and 80's era NFL but it's a different game today.

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murf7777's picture

July 25, 2022 at 02:23 pm

LL….I think the difference was all the injuries to the OL last year. I see this O getting back to 2020 this year if the OL isn’t injured all over again.

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T7Steve's picture

July 25, 2022 at 08:57 am

In 20 they scored more TDs when they were in the red "gold" zone. That's because their line was healthy till the end of the year (till the playoffs). I think if they can win in the trenches it won't matter what they run. More yards per carry will lead to more yards per pass and vice versa. All up to the O-line.

Great article. That dissertation should earn a PHD!

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Leatherhead's picture

July 25, 2022 at 10:48 am

Good morning, LL. I think we're going to have to disagree on this for a couple of reasons.

1. You think "explosive plays win games in today's NFL". Explosive plays are always useful, but I think that what wins is protecting the ball and executing . IMO, quite a few explosive plays in the passing game include a missed tackle. With the current rules, it's very difficult to prevent a completion, but you have to tackle the guy after he catches it.

Oh, we beat the Rams, and the Bengals.

2. I completely agree that defenses want to minimize explosive plays because if you make the offense take small bites they often kill their own drive with a penalty, dropped pass, etc. But this is nothing new or different. I remember hearing high school football coaches yelling at a hard-headed and overly aggressive safety to "stay back and protect against the long play". and that was over 50 years ago.

3. I think TOP is more important than you do. The #1 thing you can do to help your defense is keep it on the sidelines, and savvy coaches are understanding this. Andy Reid and Bill Bellicheck both have teams that are leaders in keeping the offense on the field, Yes, ultimately you do want to score points, but just having your offense on the field is beneficial in its own way.

4. I do agree the game is somewhat different from the 80s, and I think one of the big differences is that people have realized how destructive turnovers are to your chances of winning, and so offenses have concentrated on reducing their turnovers. Remember 2005? Favre turned it over 36 times that season. There's not a QB in the league who could survive that now.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 25, 2022 at 11:30 pm

"Oh, we beat the Rams, and the Bengals."

I'd rather they lost to them and made the SB.

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veteranviewer's picture

July 25, 2022 at 12:10 am

Thanks Dusty.

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PeteK's picture

July 25, 2022 at 10:03 am

As stated numerous of times, this team's success more than ever will depend on the availability of Jenkins and Bak.

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Leatherhead's picture

July 25, 2022 at 10:20 am

in which case, PeteK, we might be boned. You have to wonder how much you can count of Bakhtiari at the point, because we need a LT for over 1100 snaps, plus practices. And Jenkins might not be available for a while, and he might not be as good when he does. If he does, he'll help for sure.

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T7Steve's picture

July 25, 2022 at 10:35 am

Nijman did a fair job with some help last year. Think he'll get by with less this year and tide us over?

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Leatherhead's picture

July 25, 2022 at 12:17 pm

I think Nijman is our de facto starting LT unless Bakhtiari beats him out, and I think Bakhtiari has to be available to do that.

I could easily see an offensive line that has Nijman/Runyon/Myers/Rhyan/Newman.

Our first exhibition is in 18 days.

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T7Steve's picture

July 25, 2022 at 01:32 pm

I think Newman will create allot of penalties out on the right end.

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HarryHodag's picture

July 25, 2022 at 02:31 pm

Something to ponder: Rodgers often changed the play at the line of scrimmage, favoring a pass. As was noted in the 49'ers playoff loss defenses rotated toward Adams, much of the time taking away to longer pass. It was no secret where Rodgers was going. It's a tribute to the skill of the QB and receiver that they connected as much as they did.

This season likely will see fewer long passes. I suspect Rodgers will be more inclined to take what the defense gives him in the passing game, relying on the backs to carry more of the load.

But here's a lesson about NFL football: explosive plays are as likely to blow up an offense as gain yards and score points. You have to have the potential for an explosive play, but your offense shouldn't be predicated on that concept. You can also have explosive plays running the ball if you have blockers willing to commit to perfect execution.

I remember well some of the 'bombs away' passers of the distant past: John Brodie, Roman Gabriel, to a certain extent John Unitas. The one common denominator was while they put up big passing numbers, none of them won a title. Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw were bombs away throwers but they also had superb defensive play. Joe Montana and Steve Young could throw the deep ball, but seldom did. Tom Brady can throw the deep ball, but his razor-sharp precision at medium range is much more effective.

The Packers will likely win with a different set of protocols for this year.

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GatorJason's picture

July 25, 2022 at 04:38 pm

deleted

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Leatherhead's picture

July 25, 2022 at 05:48 pm

This was a long read and worth it. Very good. Probably the best Dusty article I've read here in almost 3 years. There's a lot to think about here. I share many of the author's beliefs, but being an old school guy, I still that that NOT turning it over, or getting sacked, or getting penalized, is more important than the big plays.

You get about 10 possessions in a game, average field position about the 30, sometimes less or more. Our average drive has over 6 plays, so for every three and out we're running a 9 play drive as well. We score a FG or TD on a good percentage of our drives...in fact, our average drive is worth 2.52 points, which is sixth in the league. Of the 14 playoff teams, 13 of them are from the top 14 in this ranking. Chiefs, Rams, etc. All the playoff teams except Las Vegas rank in the top 14.

So we're good at that, holding onto the ball and burning clock and scoring points. We don't turn it over, we don't have a bunch of penalties, we don't take sacks, and we don't throw very many incomplete passes. In short, most of our plays may be shorter, but it keeps them on the field. I know that I kind of grind my teeth every time I see us take a downfield shot when we could use a first down. Similarly, when we're protecting a lead late in a game, a simple first down is just as helpful as a big strike downfield. Move the clock. You know those games you lose because they get close enough to kick a last second field goal? Well, if you'd burned another minute off the clock, that wouldn't have happened, would it?

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