Welcome to our weekly look around the NFL through the lens of the all-22 film. In this space, we will be looking at film cut-ups to figure out the “why” behind the league’s most interesting on-field developments. We’ll also supplement the film with numbers to get the full picture of what’s going on.
Here are the five cut-ups we’ll be looking at this week…
1. The Patriots coverage plan for Raiders TE Darren Waller
2. Ryan Tannehill’s play-action dominance v. Minnesota
3. Michael Gallup’s role as an isolated receiver
4. Brandon Aiyuk’s touches v. the Giants
5. Jeff Okudah’s up-and-down day against DeAndre Hopkins
I’ve included *every* relevant play from the game related to the topic I’m taking a closer look at, so you can get a full picture of what happened. Then I’ll break it down and focus in on the most important plays or trends.
Let’s get started…
The Patriots defense v. Darren Waller
Here’s a totally original thought that you’ve probably never heard before today: Bill Belichick likes to figure out what an opponent does best and then he does everything in his power to take it away.
Well, it probably didn’t require too much time to figure out what the Raiders offense does best, especially with an injury-depleted receiving corps: Get the ball to TE Darren Waller.
Belichick praised Waller during the week, calling him “a unique guy” and a “matchup problem.” But the Raiders tight end wasn’t much of a problem for the Patriots on Sunday — he caught two passes for nine yards on four targets — and taking him out of the game didn’t really require a unique gameplan.
As you can see in the cut-up above, Belichick did what he typically does against dangerous tight ends: He asked his edge rushers to give the tight end a little jam before they rushed the passer in order to disrupt his route. And, well, that’s really all they did in order to stop him.
Belichick did rotate the defenders he put on Waller throughout the game — in all, seven defensive backs took a stab at the big tight end, by my count — but he’s been doing that all season, so it wasn’t a unique feature of this week’s plan. Second-year corner Joejuan Williams, who’s been the Pats’ tight end stopper this season, got most of the snaps on Waller before with rookie safety Kyle Dugger spelled him in the second half. But Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones all got in on the fun.
We saw Belichick use a similar gameplan for Mike Gesicki in Week 1 and it wouldn’t be surprising if he does it again this week with Travis Kelce and the Chiefs next up on the schedule.
Ryan Tannehill’s play-action dropbacks v. Minnesota
As I touched on in the Monday Take Dump, Ryan Tannehill’s play-action splits this season are shocking. His average yards-per-attempt jumps 6.5 yards (!) when he carries out a play fake before throwing the ball. That’s the second-biggest gap in the league, trailing only Drew Brees, who hasn’t used a lot of play-action.
The gap was even wider on Sunday in Minnesota. On 15 play-action dropbacks, Tannehill averaged 17.2 yards-per-attempt; on his 25 non-play-action drops, that number fell to 3.5! The gap also showed up in more advanced metrics…
As you can see in the cut-up, Tannehill isn’t doing a lot of “quarterbacking” on those plays. He’s carrying out the fake, eyeing his first read and, most of the time, firing the ball in there … no matter what. He got burned on the interception after failing to look off safety Harrison Smith.
I counted only one play against Minnesota where Tannehill went beyond his first read and that play resulted in a quick check down.
Play-action helps to mitigate Tannehill’s long-standing weaknesses as a quarterback. He’s not a quick processor but you don’t have to be one on play-action passes, because the reads are mostly defined for the quarterback. He’s been known to take a sack or two throughout his career, but play-action tends to drive down a quarterback’s sack rate. That’s true for nearly every quarterback across the league.
The Titans are doing everything in their power to make things easier on Tannehill. According to Sports Info Solutions, he’s the only starter in the league who hasn’t attempted a single pass after taking a 5-to-7 step drop with no play-action. Those plays require the quarterback to scan the field a bit more than he would on a play-action pass or quicker dropback. Again, that’s never been a strength for the 32-year-old.
Tannehill is a tough quarterback who’s willing to hang in the pocket and throw the ball downfield. That makes him a perfect fit for this play-action-heavy offense Arthur Smith has constructed in Tennessee.
But it’s worth asking: Do the Titans have a Plan B when teams start to take away the play-action game? We’ll find out at some point this season.
Michael Gallup’s snaps as an isolated receiver in 2020
Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are the more recognizable names in the Cowboys receiving corps, but Michael Gallup has emerged as the team’s alpha receiver.
That’s not to say he’s the most talented of the three, but Gallup is a prototypical X-receiver who will play on the line of scrimmage while isolated to one side of the field. In fact, the third-year pro has played that role more often than any other receiver in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.
It was a particularly effective strategy against the Seahawks, who don’t give their corners a lot of safety help. Gallup feasted on the one-on-one matchups no matter who was across from him.
In the cut-up above, I’ve included all of Gallup’s targets this season when isolated to one side of the field. It’s easy to see why he’s thriving in the role. He has no problem dealing with press coverage and he runs well for a receiver of his size. Even if a corner plays off, Gallup can eat up his cushion in a hurry, as he did against Shaq Griffin on a big play in Week 3.
The Cowboys have really built the perfect receiving corps, and it will be interesting to see how the front office values the role Gallup plays when his contract expires after the 2021 season. Obviously paying the quarterback should take precedence, but Gallup shouldn’t be too far behind on the list of priorities.
Brandon Aiyuk’s touches v. New York
After missing the 49ers opener and failing to make an impact in Week 2, rookie WR Brandon Aiyuk broke out in New York, putting up 122 yards and a touchdown on nine touches in a win over the Giants.
It was clear from the outset that Shanahan made it a point to get the Arizona State product involved. His first two touches came on end-around and nearly all of his receptions came on plays that were designed to get him the ball, including a handful of play-action designs that sent the defense running one way and Aiyuk running in the other direction. Nearly all of his targets came on routes running across the field…
Next Gen Stats
I wasn’t a huge fan of Aiyuk’s before the draft, but he landed with the perfect coach. Shanahan won’t ask the rookie to get open on his own. He’ll find ways to get him the ball in space and that’s when the first-round pick is at his best as we saw against the Giants.
Jeff Okudah v. DeAndre Hopkins
Things didn’t get any easier for 2020 third-overall pick Jeffrey Okudah after a rough NFL debut against Davante Adams. On Sunday, he spent most of his day tracking DeAndre Hopkins, who leads the NFL in just about every major receiving stat.
As you can see in the cut-up above, it didn’t go so well for the rookie, which is to be expected. But there were plenty of flashes, including Okudah’s first career interception.
Physically, Okudah held his own. When he was beaten, it was typically the result of over-aggression. But when the rookie remained patient, which was a strength during his time at Ohio State, he mostly stayed close to Hopkins. The final numbers, per PFF: Okudah surrendered 53 yards on five targets when matched up with Hopkins. That’s not a disastrous result.
Okudah has been overly scrutinized through the first few weeks, but the future looks bright. Things will certainly look better for the rookie when he’s not going up against all-pro receivers.