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Notes: Can Jared Goff make throws beyond the play design?

According to one analyst’s data, he rarely did it in 2020.

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Detroit Lions Off-Season Workout Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson had Seth Galina on the PFF NFL Podcast for a “Scheme and quarterback deep dive” looking at quarterbacking in general and then some specific players. Most of the first half-hour of the podcast was a nice summary of elements of quarterback play and evolving trends in the league, but then we get to the 40-minute mark. That’s where the discussion turns to the move of Matthew Stafford from the Lions to the Rams.

While it’s sort of interesting to hear what Monson and Galina think of the notion that Stafford was only overlooked and rated lower in the past because he played in Detroit, what’s more interesting is Galina’s thoughts on why Sean McVay wanted to change from Goff to Stafford at quarterback. What the former 10-year quarterback coach thinks is that the answer is in what the two quarterbacks can do when they have to drop back into the pocket and create on their own.

I think what McVay is excited about is in these games where, you know, the defense is not at its elite self, the running game is not at its elite self, and we’re going to have to drop back —maybe we’re down 14-nothing—we’re going to have to drop back and throw the ball 50-plus times, I don’t want Goff as my quarterback doing that anymore.

After excluding things like play-action passes, RPOs, and other non-traditional pass plays, Galina looked at what the two quarterbacks were doing in 2020. By constructing heat maps showing where the Lions and Rams receivers ran their routes (play design) and where the quarterbacks actually ended up throwing their targets, the analyst gets a sense of how much the quarterbacks were able to go “off-script” so to speak. The difference in those situations, according to Galina, is when the opponent has the play design adequately defended and “where it’s not handed to the quarterback, can (Stafford) make the better decisions than what Goff can?”

The heat maps showed the Lions under Darrell Bevell were running routes that attacked a much broader share of the field while the Rams concentrated their routes in specific spots. Furthermore, the frequency of Stafford’s targets were different from the route map: the receivers more often ran to certain places than league-average, but that didn’t necessarily translate to Stafford throwing more passes there. Rather, according to Galina, Stafford’s targets were “deeper, it’s in places you wouldn’t expect based on the route distribution because he’s trying stuff. He’s trying so much different things.”

On the other hand, Galina considers the heat map for Jared Goff’s targets and “it’s crazy. You can literally overlay Goff’s targets and routes and you don’t see a difference. Like, wherever the routes are being run, that’s where he’s throwing the football. You know, for the most part.”

This is disappointing to Galina. “When you look at Goff, it’s five yards and in. It’s like, everything is short.” In the segment that follows, starting around the 55-minute mark, the discussion gets to why the Rams system that kept going for clustered formations and rubs to get open crossers stopped being as effective with Goff. In a nutshell, Galina’s theory is that defenses evolved from being heavily single-high (many copying the Seattle Cover-3/Man heavy Legion of Boom setup) to shifting back to a two-high shell and giving up numbers against the run.

In a single-high scheme, the wide zone play stresses the linebackers with a conflict of assignment: they need to defend wide against the outside run, but if it’s play-action they need to get back deep into their zone. When there is only one safety up high, they have to make a choice of whether to take the seam/post deeper route or come down to help against the underneath crosser. When you look at the Rams receiver route heat map from 2020, look at where the red zones (more routes than league average) are: crossers and short stick/snag routes within five yards and a middle post that attacks a single-high safety. That’s exactly what Galina is talking about: you stress the linebackers with the outside zone assignment conflict and then you stress the safety with the hi-lo stretch. This all falls apart when you’re not actually facing a single-high safety.

What’s the rest of the Rams receiver route heat map? It looks a lot like what you would see with smash or flood concepts with a hitch near the line of scrimmage and a deep route to the Cover-2 turkey hole. Notice that Goff hardly made the throws to that deep turkey hole away from two-high safeties. That’s the throw McVay and the Rams want Stafford for—we know he can make that throw regularly to pick apart even coverages and force the opponent to mix back to odd coverages that take it away (and re-enable the outside zone-PA stress factors above).

For Rams fans, that’s great, but for Lions fans now we have a new thing to wonder. Even if Amon-Ra St. Brown becomes Jared Goff’s new Cooper Kupp, what do Anthony Lynn and Mark Brunell do to fix the “heat map overlay” problem? It will be interesting to see how the new Lions offense evolves and what elements get more air yards into the attack than just “five yards and in.” The whole podcast is great stuff and Galina just knows so much about quarterback play and data analysis that it’s worth your time to listen to it all.

Now, on to the rest of today’s Notes:

  • It’s someone’s birthday today:

  • New Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill wants everyone to know he’s a really nice guy underneath that tough exterior:

  • From elsewhere in the NFC North, wide receiver Allen Robinson will play out the 2021 season on the franchise tag for the Chicago Bears but did not receive a long-term extension. As PFF’s Brad Spielberger points out, this implies the Bears did not offer more than $16 million per year, which is “patently absurd.” Earlier, Spielberger wrote that given what other receivers are making, there’s “no reason for Godwin or Robinson to take under $20 million per year, especially considering that the salary cap jump in the near future will push position markets to new heights.”