What’s the Problem with the Passing Game?

I’ve spent a lot of time this week watching and re-watching pass play after pass play from the Rams game, and in that time I’ve heard a lot of folks voice their opinions on the subject.  Mostly, those opinions are brief, single-solution affairs:  Wilson is too short, or too inexperienced, or not Flynn; Okung/Giacomini/etc. is causing the rest of the o-line to fail in pass protection; Bevell wouldn’t know a good play call if it bit him on the ass; etc.

It’s easy to heap blame on one guy and call it a day, but football is rarely that simple.  It takes eleven guys working together to pull off a play, and when things go wrong throughout a game there’s rarely just one guy at fault.  Here’s what I learned from the 32 pass plays (pass attempts, scrambles, and sacks) I examined on film this time around:

1) The o-line’s pass blocking needs work, but isn’t a total wash.

By my count, the o-line did its job effectively on 18 of those plays and broke down in whole or in part on the other 14.  The right side had the most trouble, with six plays in which linemen were beaten or let a rusher come in free through the B and C gaps.  The middle of the line let rushers through the A gaps four times, and the left side failed twice.

Several of those problem plays were caused by either having no extra blockers or ineffective extra blockers in-line or in the backfield when the defense overloaded one side with rushers.  Lynch is a great runner, but his blocking leaves something to be desired – why Robinson was kept on the sideline in those situations is beyond me.

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2) Wilson can buy time with his legs, but he needs more time in the pocket.

A good o-line can keep a quarterback clean and upright in the pocket for at least 2.5 seconds, and anything beyond that is gravy (according to Football Outsiders, the median time for a sack in the NFL is 2.8 seconds after the snap).  Against the Rams, Wilson either threw the ball or was forced to bail out of the pocket before the 2.5 second mark 20 times. 

Sometimes the rookie just had to run for his life and pick up whatever yardage he could, but he always made an effort to keep his eyes downfield and throw the ball to a receiver.  On average, Wilson’s scrambles bought him an extra 1.2 seconds to throw, but when you throw on the run like that you’ve effectively limited yourself to the short-to-intermediate routes on the side of the field you’ve run towards, which meant having to give up on multiple opportunities for deep touchdown passes.

3) Enough receivers are getting open to get the job done.

After watching the game on Sunday I was left with the impression that Wilson’s receivers were not doing him any favors, but that appears not to be the case.  I’m not of the opinion that every receiver with a little space around him is open, so looking for just that on tape can be misleading.  For example, if a receiver is bracketed by a trailing corner with a safety a few steps away over the top, the defense is just baiting the QB to make the throw so they can try for an interception – if you don’t believe me, look at the closing speed of St. Louis’ defensive back on the intercepted throw to Baldwin.  For the most part, Wilson avoided throwing to those targets.

But even judging the tape conservatively, and not counting the two quick screens or a play in which Wilson was taken down in the backfield 1.2 seconds after the snap by an A gap blitzer,  I counted an average of two open receivers on every play.  There were no receivers open on just two plays, and both of those had only three receivers out running routes.

4) Wilson’s visibility is not as bad as you might think.

Wilson had decent enough passing lanes to work with in 19 of his passing plays.  In the other 13, his lanes were partially blocked 8 times (mainly in the middle of the line) and more or less completely blocked 5 times.

Also, all the talk about his height being a problem is complete horseshit.  On multiple occasions I saw him clearly looking at and tracking receivers downfield over the tops of o-linemen and defenders, and on those occasions he had to move to get a clear line of sight the lanes were so clogged that it’d take a 6’7” QB on stilts to see over the tangled, upright mass of blockers and rushers. 

Yes, Wilson’s movements in the pocket sometimes disrupted the play’s timing and caused him to miss out on open receivers, but more often than not he was forced to move by defenders rushing toward him, not lack of visibility.  Besides, Wilson has a higher release point on his throws than many taller QBs I’ve seen, and it’s the height at which a ball is released that determines how easy it is to bat down, not the height of the guy making the throw.

5) The play-action passing game has some real potential.

Play Type Completed Pass Incomplete, Scramble,
Sack, or Interception
Rollout/Sprint 1 1
Straight Pocket
9 10
Play Action 5 4
Quick Screen 2 0

I know five out of nine doesn’t sound like good news, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  Remember that great opening drive that ended in a TD run by Lynch?  Three of Wilson’s four throws in that drive were off play action.  Even when the play action didn’t result in a completion, the threat of Lynch still froze the linebackers in place long enough for a receiver to get free in the middle of the field and do some damage. 

The main drawback of play action is that the extra time needed to fake the run means the QB needs slightly more time in the pocket than usual to set up and get his pass away, and right now the o-line is not quite giving it to him.  If they can shore up their blocking, Wilson could pick teams apart all game long with these plays.

The quick screen game also showed a little promise, even if both plays (a traditional screen to Tate and a bubble screen to Rice) only resulted in gains of 7 and 5 yards.  As for vanilla pocket passes (both under center and shotgun), those ten failed plays include both of Wilson’s sacks and all three of his interceptions.  Granted, two of those interceptions were more the receiver’s fault than his, but nevertheless those sorts of plays don’t seem to be this team’s strong suit.