RSP contributors Dwain McFarland and Mark Schofield team up to examine Oakland quarterback Derek Carr and discover the film and data match the strengths and weaknesses of Carr’s game and offer a possible solution.
It has been said before that the present is a tremendous time to be a football fan. With the wealth of knowledge and information available, fans of the sport can find almost anything they want to in an instant. From salary cap information to extensive scheme analysis, through data study and more, fans can find a host of material in moments, anywhere in the world.
The growth of data analysis has created numerous new ways to think about the game, and bridging the divide between data analysis and film study might be the new frontier in football coverage. This piece provides one such path.
Recently, Dwain McFarland approached me with some data and a hypothesis: Derek Carr might struggle with processing speed.
Many play-action designs task the quarterback with turning his back to the defense to carry out a play fake. Dwain posits that task of turning away from the defense stresses the time the QB has to read the coverage. As a result, it could be a cause for a dip in production.
The data in support of that is Carr’s play-action passing numbers.
Studies have shown that play-action passing is almost like a cheat code for the game of football. It gives quarterbacks a big advantage and many teams are much more successful throwing off play-action than they are using a straight dropback design.
Using data back to 2012 from Pro Football Focus, we can compare the league averages versus Carr’s career:
Carr averages 1.7 yards less per attempt than the NFL average over his career. Some of this can be due to offensive design, including the average depth of target (ADOT). However, even after normalizing for this, the average NFL quarterback averages 17 percent more yards per attempt on play-action while Carr has only enjoyed a 2 percent increase.
Carr also hasn’t reaped the additional rewards on touchdown passes per attempt. His numbers dip 2 percent versus the 19 percent increase the rest of the league has enjoyed.
Each off-season, Football Outsiders conducts their play-action passing study. They measure the Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of each team on play-action plays versus straight passing plays.
They recently published their study of the 2018 season, and on average teams saw an increase of +11.3% DVOA on play-action passing plays over non-play-action passing plays. The Oakland Raiders were one of 13 teams to see a drop in DVOA from non-play-action plays to play-action plays.
In fact, on straight dropback passes Oakland posted a DVOA 16.1, but that dropped to just 0.4 on play-action plays. Numbers that mirror in large part the numbers Dwain presented to me on Carr.
Additionally, Dwain noted Carr’s struggles under pressure, pointing to an extreme increase in interceptions per attempt (INTPA). Most quarterbacks see an increase in INTPA when under pressure, the league average is a 67 percent increase over the past seven years.
Carr’s is a 318% increase.
When Carr is not under pressure, his INTPA is elite, and his touchdowns per attempt are in line with the league average:
So with data and a hypothesis, we had a question to test if the film backs up the numbers. Our tiny football version of the scientific method.
The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. Armed with a charted list of 110 plays graded as “play-action” for Carr, I studied them and came away with some thoughts and rough conclusions.
Let’s start with a good play, a touchdown from Week 2 of the 2018 season. The Raiders face a 2nd and 9 and Carr (No.4), perhaps spotting something in the secondary, is active in the pre-snap phase, maybe even calling an audible.
It is very possible that he saw the Denver Broncos in a single-high coverage because the Raiders run a four verticals design. Carr knows full-well that four verticals against single-high coverage give him a chance to bracket two vertical routes on either side of the free safety.
Here, with the Raiders aligned in a 3×1 formation, he can use his eyes to influence the free safety towards the tight end, who is running the “bender” from right to left, before coming to Seth Roberts (No.10) on his seam route. So even though Carr has to turn his back to the defense, he hits Roberts for the touchdown.
Unpacking this play a bit more, think about the information Carr had pre-snap. He knows that this design will stress the free safety, and he knows that if he can influence the FS for a step he’ll have one of the two inside vertical routes to throw to. Armed with this knowledge, Carr makes a great read and throw.
Now look at this very similar play against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8:
Again, the Raiders use some pre-snap motion and Carr sees the defense adjust from what looked to be a two-high safety look, to a single-high safety. Carr then makes an adjustment, the Raiders run four verticals, and Carr hits Roberts for a touchdown.
Armed with the information to make his primary read on a good option, Carr can execute.
Here is one more example of what Carr does well, a deep out route against a Cover 3 look. This is essentially a one-man read, with Amari Cooper (No.89) running a deep out route. Denver shows Carr a Cover 3 look pre-snap, and as the play unfolds the defense never deviates from that call.
Carr knows that the cornerback will have to respect a vertical route, as he has no safety help over the top, so the out route against a Cover 3 corner is always a good proposition. So Carr knows he can go to his primary read.
To repeat, when Carr is armed with information pre-snap that allows him to get to his primary read and pull the trigger, he fares well as a passer. Now let’s add some stress the Carr’s decision-making process.
This is a play very similar to the previous example. Carr gets a Cover 3 look and has the deep out route against a corner with no safety help. Only this time, the coverage is a bit stickier, yet Carr never comes off the deep out to throw the check-down. He stares down the out and forces it, despite the running back being wide open in the flat, and the pass falls incomplete.
Let’s examine what happens when he tries to come off the primary read. On this red zone attempt against the Los Angeles Chargers, Carr initially wants to throw a corner route to the backside of this play. But when he sees this covered, he tries to force a throw on the post under duress, and he throws it right to the middle linebacker:
This is a bad mistake on first and goal from the one. This is also an example of what Dwain found when Carr was pressured. Here he has a defender in his face, and as you can see, the results are not pretty.
Then there’s this play that Matt Waldman highlighted last year on Twitter that still merits discussion on his account to this day. The Raiders run a play-action Yankee concept. Carr gets pressured off the right edge and does a good job of evading the rush by stepping up in the pocket.
However, he then stares down the primary read, which is Cooper on the deep post, and forces a throw into triple coverage. Making matters worse is that Cooper has given up on the route (perhaps because he’s triple covered) and the pass is easily intercepted.
These plays reinforce the pressure numbers that Dwain found as well.
Here’s a Week 13 play where Carr is armed with information pre-snap that allows him to go to a primary read and he performs well. The Raiders use a bit of pre-snap motion, and Carr can see how the secondary rotates in response.
While the cornerback does not trail the motion man across the formation, he slides inside over the next receiver while the safety rotates down to pick up the man coming in motion. This also indicates that the Kansas City Chiefs are going to run a man coverage variation. As the play unfolds, Carr knows that the cornerback will stick on the vertical route, which frees up the sideline for Jared Cook (No.87) on his crossing route.
Carr, again with knowledge, can make the right read, decision and throw. Not so with this near-interception against the Colts.
Then there is this near-interception against the Colts: Oakland runs a Mills concept here, with Jordy Nelson (No.87) running a dig route and Cooper running a post over the top. Carr does a good job of climbing the pocket and evading pressure, but again he is staring down the dig route from Nelson and never looks elsewhere.
The Colts are dropping into a Tampa 2 coverage and middle linebacker Zaire Alexander (No.44) does a good job of getting depth and squeezing the dig. Carr throws this right to Alexander, who drops the interception. Meanwhile, the check-down is open in the flat for a potential first down.
Carr’s decision-making and processing speed on these designs need to be better. But how can the Raiders manufacture that?
As we have seen, the answer is in giving him more information in the pre-snap phase. If you look at the successful plays, Carr knew through a combination of alignment and motion what he would be getting from the defense, so he was able to make a good decision and throw. Here is another example:
Carr knows by alignment where to go with the football before the ball is snapped. The Raiders run an “all-in” or “all-slant” concept to the trips here. The inside receiver and Roberts are uncapped–that is the “bubble” to exploit.
With the safety over Roberts aligned 12 yards off the ball, Carr takes the shotgun snap, carries out the mesh with his running back (this play is more of a run/pass option design than a true play-action fake) and throws the quick slant to Roberts. The run action keeps the linebackers away form the slant, and with the safety so deep, this is an easy read and throw.
Let’s end on this play against the Cincinnati Bengals. Everyone is open on this play, but again, we see pre-snap motion and a single-high coverage before the snap:
Carr knows a ton of information going into the snap, and he can execute effectively as a result. Once more he potentially adjusts the play, and it leads to a good result:
Yet again we see how the information Carr has pre-snap creates a chance for success.
So if you’re Jon Gruden here is what you need to do: First, congratulations on the big contract, but second, you need to make sure plays have ways of giving Carr as much information as possible pre-snap.
Watch Tom Brady sometime, and pay particular attention to how Josh McDaniels gives Brady information before the play. Whether by alignment, motion or both, the Patriots will do things to give Brady as much information as possible before the snap.
They might flex out a fullback to the boundary, and if Brady sees a linebacker out there, he knows the defense is in man coverage. If he sees a cornerback out there, he can anticipate zone. All the moving and shifting the Patriots do is to give Brady more information.
Helping your QB is a good thing. Helping Carr, particularly on play-action designs, would go a long way towards improving those play-action passing numbers.
You can follow Mark and Dwain on Twitter: @markschofield and @dwainmcfarland.
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