NFL seeing more coverage busts? Plus, a fourth-down revolution and my favorite Week 3 projections

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful … or the most misunderstood.

This column will follow the format of: one trend to monitor, one news story viewed through the lens of analytics and a couple of my favorite — or least favorite — projections.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there’s a stat/trend you’d like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Trend to watch: Coverage busts AREN’T here to stay

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Taking a very broad average of how much space a receiver has when he’s targeted — precisely, when the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand — I can see that between 2 and 2.7 yards of separation is the most common range over the past five seasons (2016 through 2020). Of course, there are varying factors — adjustments by route, whether the defense is playing man or zone, etc. — but that’s the broad average. At the moment, this season’s average is above that range. BUT, in my sample of the past 10 seasons, wideouts start off with higher-than-average separation rates, then their numbers normalize between Weeks 3 and 5. This makes sense, as defenses typically adjust once offenses put a few games on film. Let’s see if this trend holds this season.

As of right now, Cardinals WR Rondale Moore paces the league in this metric (minimum eight targets), with a whopping average of 6.7 yards of separation when targeted. Not bad for a rookie. Of course, these are small samples sizes, and Moore’s number is primarily driven by last week’s 77-yard touchdown, which stemmed from the defense completely losing the receiver while Kyler Murray extended the play. The real inspiration for this note is actually a guy who owns a 4.1-yard average but has already racked up +86 yards after the catch over expected: Rams WR Cooper Kupp, who averaged 4.4 yards of separation on 11 targets last week alone. And Moore isn’t the only rookie excelling in this manner, as Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle boasts a 4.7-yard average.

Now, as I touched on above, all of these numbers are bound to come down. This is not a knock on the receivers. In fact, it’s really a compliment to all of them and their offensive architects/schemes. But if history is any indicator — and I believe is — we’ll see receiver cushions decreasing from here on out.

Hot topic: A fourth-down revolution? It’s go time!

In the first two weeks of the 2021 campaign, teams went for it on fourth down at a higher rate than we’ve ever seen before in a season’s opening stretch. Over the first 32 games of this season, we saw 88 fourth-down attempts, with 39 successfully converted (44.3 percent). That’s six more attempts than last season’s first-fortnight figure of 82 (44 were converted, 53.7 percent). The next-closest season was 2009, with 68 attempts in the first two weeks (38 were converted, 55.9 percent). For additional context, 2019 featured just 63 attempts (33 were converted, 52.4 percent). Clearly, we’ve experienced a notable uptick in teams keeping the offense on the field on fourth down since the beginning of the 2020 season.

Now, if you exclude fourth downs of necessity (as in, the final drives of games by trailing teams), teams are averaging about 0.4 yards per attempt more on fourth down in 2020-21 than they did in 2019. That difference might seem negligible at first blush, but remember that this is an average of all 32 teams. Among the top eight conversion teams, non-necessary fourth-down tries yield close to 2.5 yards per play, compared to 2.1 for the top eight conversion teams of 2019. You’d logically think that more teams going for it would push the average down, but those numbers show that the clubs that are good at this see an increase. So it’s fair to say fourth-down attempts have become more of an advantage.

The caveat there, of course, is distance to go. When comparing 2015-19 to 2020-21, the distance to a first down on these attempts has increased about a yard on average. And among teams boasting top-eight conversion rates since the beginning of 2020, we’re seeing more instances of attempts at previously abnormal times (like in the first quarter, for example). Unsurprisingly, those top-eight teams are demonstrably in control of the clock for a greater amount of time.

So, NFL clubs are going for it more on fourth down, in longer-yardage situations and at previously surprising stages of the game. And yes, they’re largely reaping the benefits. Why is this working?

The reality is that strategies only work if the logic and actions operate in lockstep. So I went to three teams that rank in the top five in fourth-down attempts/conversions and asked them: Why are you so good at this? Want to know the answer? They took more time on this aspect of the game during installation/practice, making it more of a regular part of the routine. According to all of the coaches I talked to, this created more confidence among players, decreasing panic in the moment. I have to say, I love the simplicity and psychology of that rationale.

Does this mean more teams are employing strategies most commonly associated with analytics? Maybe. I feel more comfortable saying that the teams which adopt an integrated approach, utilizing the data their analytics teams provide, have seen a payoff in keeping drives alive via successful, pre-planned fourth-down strategies.

PROJECTION SECTION

NOTE: The figures cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 3 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 24.

One Week 3 projection I like: Falcons TE Kyle Pitts earning more than 51.5 receiving yards against the Giants.

In Week 1, the hyped rookie averaged just 1.6 yards of separation on his eight targets in a blowout loss to the Eagles. In Week 2, that number went up to 4.6 on six targets in another one-sided defeat to the Buccaneers. This week against the Giants, the rookie’s development and the opposing defense’s areas of vulnerability collide, creating solid upside for Pitts. My projection: five catches for 59 yards and Pitts’ first NFL touchdown.

One Week 3 projection I love: Chargers TE Jared Cook earning more than 38.5 receiving yards against the Chiefs.

Against the Chiefs in Week 1, Browns TE David Njoku racked up 76 receiving yards. In Week 2 vs. Kansas City, Ravens TE Mark Andrews had 57. Cook has seen 13 targets in two games, tied for sixth-most among tight ends. Volume and opportunity intersect to the tune of a 4/49/1 line from Cook on Sunday’s enticing AFC West bout.

One Week 3 projection I don’t like: Rams WR Cooper Kupp earning more than 84.5 receiving yards against the Buccaneers.

The types of models I create — and repeatedly refer to — are the kinds of tools sportsbooks use to create lines. So it’s fitting that my model spit out six receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown from Kupp on Sunday, because it’s pretty close to the number offered here. But that also makes me have to dig deeper for better insights into my simulated results. (Remember, these are median numbers.) Turns out, because of the busted-coverage trend I explored earlier in this column, as well as the injuries to the Bucs’ secondary, Kupp has high upside … and also significant downside. I re-ran the simulations (10,000 each for five different risk settings: low to high), and in three of the five, Kupp earned 82 or fewer receiving yards.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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