Patriots Screens, Lions Sneaks, Chargers AI

Patriots Screens, Lions Sneaks, Chargers AI

NFL Week 15 – In this edition of Walkthrough…

  • AI software writes Justin Herbert poetry, and it makes as much sense as anything else that has been written about Herbert this year;
  • Detroit Lions special teamer C.J. Moore does something no one has done in many years.

But first…

Screening the New England Patriots

The New England Patriots ran lots and lots of screen passes on Monday night. Announcer Troy Aikman even speculated that the Patriots use more screens than any other team in the NFL.

Aikman was close. Here are the most prolific screen passing teams in the NFL through 13 games, per Sports Info Solutions:

Most Screen Passes 2022
Team Att Cmp Yards Avg.
GB 81 70 440 5.43
NE 75 60 452 6.03
ARI 72 64 398 5.53
JAX 71 60 404 5.69
TB 67 61 361 5.39

The Packers use more screens than the Patriots, but they also attempt more passes in general. Screens represent 18.2% of Packers pass attempts (not dropbacks) but 18.6% of Patriots pass attempts. The Patriots throw the most screen passes in the NFL as a percentage of their passing game.

Screens represent 13.9% of Cardinals pass attempts; the Cardinals play from far behind more often than the Packers or Patriots, and screens (as opposed to swing passes or dumpoffs) tend to disappear from the game plan when the defense is playing conservatively.

The Saints and Seahawks have run just 27 screens each, the lowest figure in the NFL. The Saints average 6.3 yards per attempt, the Seahawks 3.7. Considering how weak the Saints passing game is and the presence of potential YAC guys such as Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, it’s surprising that they don’t use screens more often.

The Titans average an NFL-high 9.6 yards per screen thanks to some Derrick Henry rumbles. The Lions, with their athletic offensive line and creative scheme, are second with 7.0.

The Cowboys average just 3.1 yards per screen. Tony Pollard is 4-of-6 for 58 yards, Ceedee Lamb 7-of-9 for 33 yards. Ezekiel Elliott 2-of-3 for -7 yards.

“Screen” is sometimes used colloquially for “pass behind the line of scrimmage.” The Patriots are 13th in the NFL in pass attempts with zero or negative air yards. Here are the top five, with clock-killing spikes removed:

Most Passes to Receivers at or
Behind Line of Scrimmage, 2022
Team Att Cmp Yards Avg.
LAC 163 122 576 3.53
GB 150 119 613 4.09
TB 144 103 551 3.83
ARI 134 95 560 4.18
KC 132 94 683 5.17

Joe Lombardi’s reluctance to throw downfield is often used as evidence that he is holding Justin Herbert back, and there’s some merit to that. Still, it’s worth noting that Lombardi is compensating for a patchwork offensive line, and that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes are on the same list as Herbert. The fact that the Chargers throw at or behind the line of scrimmage two or three more times per game than the other teams looks significant: scaling the micro-passing game back from 12.5 passes per game to about 10 might make a huge difference.

The Chiefs’ success on passes behind the line of scrimmage is a testament to Andy Reid and his staff and the overall health of their offense, plus Patrick Mahomes of course. The Chiefs have good-not-great short YAC options at the skill positions, but Reid/Eric Bienemy scheme up opportunities, Mahomes sells the deep threat and scramble threat, and the Chiefs block well on the perimeter and downfield.

Would you believe that the San Francisco 49ers are 20th in the NFL with 102 passes to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage? They’re 24th in overall attempts, which is certainly a major factor. The 49ers’ “spread” of air yard distances doesn’t look all that noteworthy. They’re not the most prolific or dependent short passing team in the NFL. They’re just among the best at it.

As for the Patriots: their screen game works as well or better than anything else they try to do offensively. It gives their linemen, tight ends, and hard-blocking Kendrick Bourne a chance to make things happen for Rhamondre Stevenson, the other backs, and each other. It also stresses silly defenses like the Cardinals into making tackles on the perimeter.

A healthy screen game should help propel the Patriots past the silly-tackling Raiders on Sunday. After that, the schedule gets tougher, and the Patriots will probably need some things that Mac Jones and Matt Patricia aren’t capable of delivering.

Artificial Intelligence and Justin Herbert

Walkthrough has been fiddling with ChatGPT lately. It’s an open-source AI doohickey capable of an amazing imitation of human thought and writing. If you ask ChatGPT a question like “What is DVOA?” you get an answer that neatly summarizes our methodology:

DVOA is a statistic used in American football to measure a team’s performance on a play-by-play basis, adjusted for situation and opponent. It stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. It is used as a measure of a team’s efficiency, with the goal of determining the team’s true strength and predicting future performance.

If you ask a more specific question, like “compare DVOA to quarterback efficiency rating,” you get a more detailed answer. That answer might contain a mistake or two, but so might Walkthrough’s answer. Our source in the high-school English teaching field thinks ChatGPT is already spitting out compare-and-contrast essays about topics such as The Scarlet Letter at about a C to C- level for 11th-graders. Walkthrough has gotten ChatGPT to produce capsules about players good enough for publication at some of the Internet’s less-choosy aggregation-heavy outlets.

Sure, an AI can explain DVOA. But can an AI write a sonnet in iambic pentameter about Justin Herbert? Judge for yourself:

In Southern California’s sunny skies,
A quarterback with golden arm now thrives,
His feats on field earn fans’ ecstatic cries,
And make the Chargers’ future look alive.

Justin Herbert, Oregon’s finest son,
Now leads L.A.’s team with poise and grace,
His touchdowns fly, his passes are a swan,
And in his footsteps, victory finds its place.

His rookie year was one for the record books,
And though he still has much to learn and grow,
His talent and potential give us looks
Of greatness yet to come, and winds that blow.

So let us cheer and praise this shining star,
Whose bright and shining future is not far.

It sounds like Data’s Star Trek poetry! Not great by any means, but pretty darn good for 30 seconds of work.

But can an AI write a sonnet, in iambic pentameter, comparing Herbert to Tua Tagovailoa?

Justin Herbert, the young quarterback from Oregon,
Is known for his strong arm and quick feet.
His passes fly true, and his runs are a sight to see,
As he takes the field and shows his elite skill.

Tua Tagovailoa, the star from Alabama,
Is a quarterback with poise beyond his years.
He throws with precision, and his passes are a treat,
As he leads his team to victory with ease.

Both men are rising stars in the world of football,
And each has a bright future ahead.
But while Herbert’s arm may be a bit stronger,
Tagovailoa’s mind is quicker, it’s said.

So while they may both shine in their own way,
It’s clear that they are both cut from the same cloth,
And their talents will take them far in the NFL,
As they strive to reach the pinnacle of their sport.

Eat your heart out, Emmanuel Acho.

ChatGPT has not been reprogrammed since 2021 and has no direct Internet access, so it’s not really up to date on current events. With all the attention ChatGPT is getting these days, the designers are likely to update it. Once the AI has absorbed all of the up-to-the-minute discourse on Herbert and Tua, just imagine how much smarter (?) (??) (?????) it will be!

Fakin’ It With C.J. Moore

Congratulations to Detroit Lions defensive back and special-teamer C.J. Moore: your 42-yard fake punt run against the Vikings made you the most effective fake-punt rusher of the last seven years!

Or perhaps the second best.

Moore is the only player to produce three career first downs on fake punts since 2015, per the Sports Info Solutions database. Moore picked up 13 yards on a fake punt earlier this year and 21 yards on a fake in 2021. But 83 total yards is only good for second place among active fake-punt rushers in career yardage.

Here is the list of every player who has more than one carry on a fake punt in his career since 2015:

Most Rushing Yards on Fake Punts, 2015-2022
Player Team Years Fake
Yards Avg. First
Travis Homer SEA 2019-22 2 102 51.0 2
C.J. Moore DET 2021-22 3 83 27.7 3
Anthony Levine BAL 2015-19 3 65 21.7 2
Chris Jones DAL 2016-17 2 54 27.0 2
Marquette King OAK 2016-17 2 24 12.0 1
Sean Chandler CAR 2021-22 2 16 8.0 2
Corey Grant JAX 2015-16 2 11 5.5 1
Clayton Fejedelem MIA/CIN 2018-21 3 7 2.3 2
Michael Dickson SEA 2018-22 2 1 0.5 1
Jamie Gillan CLE/NYG 2020-22 2 -5 -2.5 0

Travis Homer’s 73-yard punt return in 2021 gives him the yardage edge over Moore. A 73-yard punt return requires a fake punt from a team’s own 27-yard line. Few coaches would dare such a tactic. Dan Campbell might try it twice in the same game. Watch your six, Travis: Moore is gaining on you.

Your first question after scanning that list may be “Who is Clayton Fejedelem?” He’s actually who you think he is: a seventh-round pick as a defensive back by the Bengals who has stuck for years as a special-teamer. But for the grace of heaven, Fejedelem could be a household name like C.J. Moore.

Ah, poor Jamie Gillan.

Poor, poor Jamie Gillan. It’s not surprising to see several punters among the prolific fake punt rushers, whether they are really up to the task or not.

It’s a little more surprising to not see Taysom Hill, who has just one fake punt run for 4 yards in his career. Hill is 1-of-3 for 10 yards as a fake punt passer for his career, so we’re back to the Taysom paradox where the Saints insist on using him in all the weirdest ways.

Passes by personal protectors are rare. Here’s one by crafty southpaw Kevin Byard:

And here’s one by college-quarterback-turned-tight-end Logan Thomas that looks suspicious from the get-go: check out how close to the line of scrimmage he’s aligned. The Jets don’t spot it because they are the Jets.

For the most part, punters are tasked with passing on fake punts, and Johnny Hekker remains the undisputed champion: 14-of-23 passing for his decade-long career, 186 yards, 13 first downs, and a touchdown.

Hekker has just one pass attempt since 2019. Lions punter Jack Fox is in line to inherit his crown. Fox is 3-of-4 passing for 44 yards and three first downs in the last two seasons.

Campbell, with the help of special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, loves the fake punt. It remains to be seen how much the Lions will love it as the team improves and stakes increase. Campbell appears to be the sort who will remain aggressive when it comes to high risk-reward tactics.

No Walkthrough discussion of fake punts would be complete without mentioning John Teltschik, the Eagles punter during the Buddy Ryan era. Teltschik ran seven times for 91 yards and went 1-of-3 passing, with a “sack,” in just four seasons. Teltschik was given a green light by Buddy to take off if he thought he saw the return team napping. Buddy was willing to do anything to generate offense except put together a conventional offense. Teltschik produced some fun highlights but also a few plays like Michael Dickson’s maybe-sorta-whoopsie non-fake fake from October:

Dickson is a better punter than Teltschik was. But when it comes to fakes, he ain’t C.J. Moore.

An Artificial Walkthrough Obituary

While putting the ChatGPT AI through its paces, we thought it might be fun to ask it to write an obituary for a brilliant, handsome, minor celebrity in the world of NFL media. Here’s what it came up with:

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Mike Tanier, a beloved writer and commentator on the world of American football. Mike passed away on December 14, 2022, at the age of 48, after a brave battle with cancer.

Mike was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and grew up a passionate fan of the Eagles. He attended Temple University, where he studied journalism and began his career as a sportswriter. He quickly made a name for himself with his incisive analysis and sharp wit, and became a regular contributor to many prominent publications, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Bleacher Report.

In addition to his writing, Mike was a frequent guest on radio and television shows, where he entertained and educated audiences with his expert knowledge of the game. He was known for his unvarnished opinions and his ability to break down complex topics in a way that was accessible to fans of all levels of knowledge.

Mike is survived by his wife, two children, and a large extended family. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him, and his contributions to the world of sports journalism will not be forgotten.

The AI made a bunch of mistakes longtime readers can probably spot, and it’s odd that it mentions neither Football Outsiders (I have been here in various capacities since 2005) nor the New York Times (bylines going back to about 2008). But … HOLY CRAP THE COMPUTER JUST RANDOMLY DECIDED TO KILL ME WITH CANCER. That is not cool! Heart disease, maybe. Hit-and-run victim in a Wawa parking lot? Inevitably. But c’mon Hal: you can’t throw around guesses like that!

Tune in next week when I apologize to our mighty Artificial Intelligence Overlords for dragging it into the whole Herbert-Tua thing. After a very thorough physical, of course.

#Patriots #Screens #Lions #Sneaks #Chargers

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