Nick Foles and the Art of Throwing Receivers Open

As a quarterback in the NFL, timing is extremely important when it comes to completing a pass. When a defender is in tight coverage, there is a small window of opportunity for the quarterback to be able to get the ball to his receiver. This window opens up immediately after the receiver makes his cut and creates separation from the defender, and then begins to close rather quickly as the defender recovers and gets back into position to make a play on the ball. This is where timing and anticipation come in. If the quarterback is able to begin his windup just as the receiver is beginning to make his cut and is able to put the ball in a spot that allows the receiver to catch it in stride as he is coming out of his break, the result will be a completed pass, even if the defender had great coverage on the play. If the quarterback waits too long to deliver the football, that window of opportunity may have already been shut and now the defender is able to make a play on the ball and break up the pass. For the folks watching the game at home, the play looks like a simple case of great coverage and a great play made by the defender. For the coaches and players reviewing the game film afterwards, this was a missed opportunity for positive yardage.

The act of being able to properly time and anticipate throws like this is dubbed by many analysts as “throwing your receiver open”. It is called this because at the time the quarterback begins his throw, the receiver is covered, but at the time the ball gets to the receiver, there is now separation between him and the defender because he has just completed making his cut and created a few steps of space between them. Thus, the quarterback has effectively “thrown” his receiver open. When a quarterback is able to do this, it makes the pass nearly impossible to defend.

Nick Foles showed last year that he possesses this skill, and it’s one of the many reasons why I think he’ll have another successful season this year. There is no defense for a perfectly thrown ball, and I see Foles getting even better at throwing his receivers open this year than he was last year. The following are some examples of Foles throwing his receivers open during the 2013 season. In each clip, the play is paused at the time that Foles begins his windup, and each time you’ll see that there is no separation between the receiver and the defender.

The first play comes from the week five game against the New York Giants. Foles throws a touchdown to wide receiver DeSean Jackson on a fade route to the back corner of the endzone. On this play, Foles begins his throw just as Jackson begins to make his cut. The cornerback defending Jackson has no idea that the ball is even in the air, which gives Jackson the freedom to make his move and create space, and then go up and get the ball before the defender even knows what happens.
001_jackson fade nyg

This next play is another fade route. This time it’s to wide receiver Riley Cooper during the Oakland Raider game. Foles throws this ball to the back pylon, and once again he begins his throw before Cooper is open. The result is a touchdown.
01_cooper fade oakland

This next play is a wheel route to runningback LeSean McCoy against the Washington Redskins. McCoy is covered by Ryan Kerrigan, which is a mis-match that Foles exploits for a big gain. Once again, Foles doesn’t wait until he sees that McCoy is open to begin his throw. On this play, he doesn’t necessarily “throw” McCoy open as there is no chance that Kerrigan catches him from behind, but he still does make the throw before McCoy has broken free.
02_mccoy wheel washington

This next play comes on a post route to tight end Zach Ertz against the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are in a zone defense on this play, and Foles is able to lead Ertz into the space in between the two safeties for a touchdown. The timing and accuracy of the throw are key on plays like this. Since Foles is able to begin his throw before Ertz begins his cut, by the time the ball arrives the safety is in no position to be able to make a play on the pass. All he can do is tackle Ertz into the end zone. Had Foles waited a split second longer to make this throw, the safety would have been in position to be able to get a hand on the ball and break up the pass. And that’s how a split second can be the difference between an incomplete pass and seven points.
03_ertz post corner AZ

The following play comes on a deep square-in to Riley Cooper against the Washington Redskins. Once again, note the timing. Foles begins his throw as Cooper is making his cut, and the result is a 20+ yard play as the ball gets to Cooper just as he’s coming out of his break and has created separation between himself and the cornerback.
04_cooper square in washington

This last play is another deep square-in to Riley Cooper. This time it comes against the Arizona Cardinals. Just as in the play above, Foles begins his throw as Cooper is making his cut. At the time Foles begins his wind up, there is no separation between Cooper and the cornerback, but at the time the ball gets to Cooper, there is now a little over a yard of separation between himself and the defender. The defender is able to close in after the fact and make the tackle, but not before giving up a 15 yard gain and a first down.
05_cooper square in AZ

Foles’ ability to consistently make throws like this will make it very hard for defenses to prevent the Eagles from moving the chains and getting into the end zone in 2014. A perfect throw almost always beats perfect coverage, and the Philadelphia Eagles have a quarterback who can routinely make the perfect throw.

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Jason Kelce 2013 Highlights

Here is a video I created highlighting Jason Kelce’s 2013 season. He really had an excellent year and it’s a shame he didn’t get voted to the pro bowl because I think he deserved to get in. There’s lots of monster blocks in this one, especially on screen passes where Kelce displays his great athleticism and footwork to be able to get downfield and line up defenders in open space.

Brandon Boykin 2013 Highlights and All-22 Game Film

Better late than never! Here is a video I created highlighting Brandon Boykin’s best plays from 2013, which include not only his play on defense but special teams as well. Pay particular attention to the skills Boykin displayed when it came to locating the ball in the air and intercepting it or at the very least knocking it down. Also check out how dominant he was as the gunner on special teams, blowing by his man on multiple occasions to either force a fair catch or down the ball inside the 10. Enjoy!

The Case for Jeremy Maclin: A Response to Bleeding Green Nation

You may have read Allen Rodgriguez’s recent post on Bleeding Green Nation about Jeremy Maclin. In his post, Rodgriguez builds up his case against Maclin being a good receiver, going through a list of points before ending with his conclusion: “In this process, I suppose I have figured out Jeremy Maclin’s one elite skill: tricking people into thinking he’s a really good receiver. Maclin’s production is deceptive. He lacks skills, and most inexcusable is his lack of effort. Now entering his 5th year, I fail to see anything that makes me excited about Maclin’s return. I’ll be happy to be wrong, but I’m unable to be optimistic.”

Before I get started with where I disagree with some of Rodgriguez’s points, I’ll begin with what I agree with him on. I agree with his point regarding misleading statistics, such as the “stat” that some people have been pointing to, showing that Maclin is one of five receivers to register 250 catches, 3500 yards, and 25 touchdowns before their 25th birthday. The other 4 receivers? Larry Fitzgerald, Hakeem Nicks, Randy Moss, and Isaac Bruce. When an accomplishment or “record” has so many qualifications, usually it’s stretching to make a point. For instance, if a receiver had registered 248 catches, 4000 yards, and 40 touchdowns on their 26th birthday, they wouldn’t make it onto this “exclusive” list, but does that really mean anything? I also agree that to date, Maclin hasn’t fully lived up to the expectations of a first round pick. He hasn’t had a breakout year yet, but make no bones about it– he has been a solid receiver.

After that, many of Rodgriguez’s points are crafted and defended using carefully selected stats (i.e. not including the data that would hurt his argument) and carefully selected comparisons (i.e. only comparing DeSean Jackson to Maclin in cases where it makes Jackson look better.) An example of this selective comparison is Rodriguez pointing out that Maclin had 0 catches in his first NFL game, meanwhile Jackson had a 47 yard catch on his second NFL play. But he ignores the fact that it took Jackson 77 games to finally have his first career multi touchdown game, meanwhile Maclin had a multi touchdown game in his 4th career game, and has had three more since then. Also, most of the statistics Rodgriguez references for Maclin are only from the 2012 season, ignoring the rest of his career. Using that logic, I could show that LeSean McCoy is a below average running back using only the 2012 numbers. You can read my previous post where I lay out the case for why Jeremy Maclin can be a very productive receiver in this offense.

So let’s delve further into the numbers Rodgriguez provides in his article.

Hands
In the section on Maclin’s hands, Rodgriguez states, “Maclin dropped 11.7% of catchable balls. League average of all WR was 9.7%.” This was true for the 2012 season, but why ignore 2009 to 2011?

  • In 2011, Maclin had a drop rate of 8.7%, which was ranked 40th out of the 95 receivers who played 25% of their offensive snaps. Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson had a drop rate of 13.43% in 2011, which ranked him 77th on the list.
  • In 2010, Maclin had a drop rate of 9.09%, placing him at number 46 out of 89. Where was DeSean Jackson? Just “slightly” behind him in 87th place, with a drop rate of 18.97%.
  • In 2009, Maclin had a drop rate of 8.33%, ranking him 54th out of 101. DeSean Jackson was ranked 45th with a drop rate of 7.35%.
  • So essentially, from 2009 to 2011, Maclin was in the middle of the pack for drop rate from the receiver position, and then had one bad year in 2012 when it came to drops. Meanwhile, Jackson had two bad years when it came to dropping the ball during that same time period (including a year where literally only two receivers were worse). Curious that Rodgriguez would choose to leave this DeSean Jackson comparison out of his piece.

    Yards After Catch (YAC)
    In this section, Rodgriguez states that “Maclin has been disgraceful after the catch. His yards after catch per reception was 4.2, compared to a league average for all WR of 4.5.” How can Maclin be “disgraceful” after the catch, if his yards per catch per reception is right around average? Wouldn’t it be more accurate and factual to simply state “Maclin has been average after the catch”?

    To give you the full picture:

  • In 2012 Maclin ranked 48th in YAC per reception out of the 105 receivers who played at least 25% of their team’s snaps. Again, this is average, but certainly not disgraceful.
  • In 2011, Maclin ranked 52nd out of 115 receivers with a YAC per reception of 4.4. (Note: Pro Football Focus has 115 receivers listed for YAC but only 95 listed for drop rate.) Interestingly, in 2011, DeSean Jackson had a YAC per reception of 4.3, good for 58th place. So, if we’re just going by one year and making comparisons between Maclin and Jackson, it’s interesting that Rodgriguez left this comparison out.
  • In 2010, Maclin ranked 59th out of 110 receivers with a YAC per reception of 3.9, slightly below average.
  • And in 2009, Maclin ranked 44th out of 107 receivers with a YAC per reception of 4.5.
  • Overall, when looking at his career in totality, Maclin has been middle of the pack in terms of YAC per reception.

    Rodgriguez then posts a few gifs showing some of Maclin’s negative plays. Here are some gifs of Maclin making good plays to keep this thing balanced.

    Here’s Maclin making a nice sideline catch at the end of the Denver Broncos game in 2009 to set up the game winning field goal.
    Maclin catch vs Denver 01
    Maclin catch vs Denver 02

    Here’s Maclin showing some great concentration and field awareness bringing in this long bomb against Washington in 2010.
    mac long bomb

    Here’s Maclin showing some great effort against the Giants in the Miracle at the Meadowlands Part II. On this pass to Celek, Maclin hustles downfield to stay with his man and then de-cleats him to ensure that Celek has a clear path to the endzone.
    Maclin block

    And from later in that game, here’s “self tacklin’ Maclin” (according to Rodgriguez, via Jimmy Kempski) scoring the game tying touchdown late in the 4th quarter, putting a move on the defensive back before picking up a couple of “disgraceful” yards after the catch.
    Maclin tying TD

    On this play from 2011 against Atlanta, Maclin catches a short crossing route over the middle, and then turns up field splitting two linebackers and diving forward to pick up a key first down on 3rd and 8.
    self tacklin maclin

    And finally, here’s Maclin with another clutch grab. This time it’s the game winner with 0 seconds left on the clock against Tampa Bay in 2012.
    maclin game winning td

    I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Maclin has proven that he is a stud receiver. He hasn’t. What he has proven thus far in his NFL career is that he has been a solid starter who averages 65 catches, 863 yards, and 6-7 touchdowns per year. Plenty of Superbowl winning teams had either their #1 or #2 receiver finish the season with similar (or even worse) production (see Golden Tate- 2013, Torrey Smith- 2012, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson and James Jones- 2010, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem- 2009, etc.)

    I’ll leave you with this. Here are a few things many of us thought we “knew” upon entering the 2013 season. We “knew” that DeSean Jackson was a one trick pony who would never get more than 65 catches in a season. We “knew” that Riley Cooper was a #4 receiver at best, and a bad #4 at that. But we all saw how playing in Chip Kelly’s offense with Nick Foles at quarterback changed things. So before we write off Jeremy Maclin as destined to never be more than average, and before we try to selectively look at certain stats of certain years to portray him as a below average receiver, can we at least give him the same fair shot that the receivers in this offense got last year? If Riley Cooper could go from being a non-factor to being an important contributor on one of the best offenses in the NFL, it’s certainly probably that Jeremy Maclin can go from being a solid receiver to a very good one.

    Can Jeremy Maclin replace DeSean Jackson? The Answer is Yes

    DeSean Jackson may have had some issues with teammates and coaches in the locker room, but there is no doubt that he was a very productive player on the field for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. But I have to think that the Eagles made the move of releasing Jackson with the belief that Jeremy Maclin will be able to step in and fill the void. And when we take a closer look at the numbers, maybe that’s not such a far fetched idea after all.

    Jackson had a career year this year, with career highs in catches, yards, catch % (percentage of targeted passes that were caught), and equalled his career high in touchdowns. But how much of that is due to Chip Kelly’s system and having Nick Foles throw him the ball? Obviously, Jackson has a lot of talent and is a very good player. So I’m not saying that he’s just some also-ran receiver that can be replaced by anybody. But what I am saying is that you can’t look at his numbers from this year and compare it to what Maclin has done the past 3 years, because we didn’t get a chance to see what Maclin can do in this system, and there’s a good possibility that Maclin sees the same type of explosion in production that Jackson saw.

    So let’s get into the numbers so I can show you what I’m talking about.

    Leading up to the 2013 season, here were DeSean Jackson’s numbers:
    71 games, 274 catches, 524 targets, 4785 yards, and 23 touchdowns.
    On a per game basis, this comes out to: 3.9 catches, 7.4 targets, 67.4 yards, 0.3 touchdowns.
    Extrapolated to a 16 game season, this comes out to: 62 catches, 118 targets, 1078 yards, and 5 touchdowns.
    Note that leading into the 2013 season, DeSean had only caught 52.3% of the passes thrown his way, and that his career high in a single season came in 2011 when he caught 55.8% of the passes thrown his way.
    Now, here are Maclin’s career numbers:
    59 games, 258 catches, 426 targets, 3453 yards, 26 touchdowns.
    On a per game basis this comes out to: 4.4 catches, 7.2 targets, 58.5 yards, .44 touchdowns.
    Extrapolated to 16 games that comes out to: 70 catches, 115 targets, 936 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Note that Maclin’s catch % for his career is 60.5%. So leading into the 2013 season, Maclin actually averaged more catches and touchdowns per year while catching a higher % of passes thrown his way, while Jackson averaged more yards.

    Now here were Jackson’s numbers for 2013: 82 catches, 126 targets, 1332 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Compared with his career averages, that’s a 32% increase in catches, a 24% increase in yards, and an 80% increase in touchdowns. And in 2013 he caught 65% of the passes thrown his way, that’s nearly 13 percentage points above his career average entering this season, and 10 percentage points above his previous highest single season mark.

    Earlier in this post I mentioned Nick Foles. The reason I did that is because without Nick Foles, DeSean Jackson was on pace to have another year where he caught less than 60% of his targeted passes. Here is the breakdown of complete stats for DeSean Jackson from each quarterback this past year:
    Michael Vick: 25 catches out of 44 targets (57%), 463 yards (18.5 yards per catch and 10.5 yards per target), and 2 touchdowns (1 touchdown per 12.5 catches 22 targets).
    Matt Barkley: 7 catches out of 12 targets (58%), 61 yards (8.7 yards per catch and 5.1 yards per target), 0 touchdowns.
    Nick Foles: 50 catches out of 70 targets (71.4%), 808 yards (16.2 yards per catch and 11.5 yards per target), and 7 touchdowns (1 touchdown per 7.1 catches and 10 targets).

    So it’s clear that with Nick Foles throwing him the ball, Jackson became a much more efficient receiver, hauling in 71% of the passes thrown his way, which was the highest mark of ANY wide receiver in the NFL this past year.

    If Jeremy Maclin sees just HALF the increase in production that DeSean Jackson saw last year, his numbers for 2014 will look like this: 81 catches, 1048 yards, and 10 touchdowns. If he ends up seeing the same increase in production, his numbers will look like this: 92 catches, 1160 yards, 13 touchdowns.

    So is it really that far outside of the realm of possibility that Maclin puts up numbers somewhere in the range of the 2 sets of values I just posted? Considering what playing in this system did for DeSean Jackson, I don’t think so.

    “But Larry, Jeremy Maclin put up those numbers in Reid’s system while playing next to DeSean Jackson, he won’t have that luxury this year” That’s something I’ve heard from many people when I tell them that I think Maclin will have a career year just like Jackson had last year, and it is certainly a valid point. Now, it’s a small sample size but remember that at the end of 2012, DeSean Jackson was out with an injury for the final 5 games of the season. So we saw then the same scenario we are going to see this year, with Foles as the quarterback and Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper as his starting receivers.
    Here were Maclin’s numbers over those 5 games;
    28 catches, 353 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Over a 16 game season that would come out to 90 catches, 1130 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Now like I said, it’s a small sample size so I’m not saying that he would have produced those exact numbers in 2012 had he been the primary receiver and Jackson not have played. I’m just using that extrapolation to show that those numbers over a period of 5 games is solid production.

    So there you have it. That is my case for saying that Jeremy Maclin will step up this year and have a career year in this system and will replace the void left by the departure of DeSean Jackson.

    Nick Foles Highlights 2013-14: Making Plays Under Pressure

    Much has been made of Nick Foles’ record setting 2013-14 season. But one common criticism mistakenly thrown his way is his supposed inability to make plays when his initial read isn’t there, and/or when he has to use his legs. This video sets out to destroy that criticism, and is a compilation of plays made by Foles under pressure. These plays include making throws just as he’s about to get hit, making throws to beat the blitz, making throws on the run, and using his legs to escape the pocket and pick up yards on the ground. Hope you enjoy!