by Bryan Knowles
We continue our third annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game, thanks to the charting efforts from our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Earlier this week, we looked at wide receivers, and noted that we saw a significant jump in slot rate from 2017 to 2018. Today, we’ll take a look to see how quarterbacks helped push this increase.
The following table shows the data for the 34 qualified passers from 2018. Each player’s DYAR, DVOA, and number of targets are shown for both the slot and split wide. The table is sorted by descending Slot%, which is passes thrown to players who were lined up in the slot as a percentage of passes thrown to players at receiver positions (i.e. slot and wide are included, but not tight or backfield). Finally, the difference in DVOA from wide to slot is shown.
(Almost) Everyone’s Looking to the Slot
In each of the first two years we published this data, only six quarterbacks threw more wide passes than slot passes. With the increase in slot passing from 51.4 percent to 55.2 percent, however, we’re down to just two holdouts in 2018: Dak Prescott and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Prescott is particularly interesting here. He was going to the slot at close to the league average rate over the first half of the season, with 54.5 percent of his passes headed that way. The arrival of Amari Cooper — who, as we noted in the receivers article, saw nearly 70 percent of his targets split out wide — was enough to flip Prescott’s slot/wide ratio. For the record, Prescott’s DVOA on passes out wide jumped from -23.5% to 2.5% after Cooper joined; his DVOA on slot passes merely increased from -5.3% to 4.1%. While that meant that Prescott’s slot targets were still generally more effective, wide passes became a lot more palatable with Cooper replacing the three-headed monster of Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Deonte Thompson as the primary outside target for Dallas. Prescott was one of seven returning quarterbacks (out of 24) who threw wide more frequently in 2018, bucking the league-wide trend.
For the most part, however, teams were throwing to their inside receivers more than ever before. In 2017, Ben Roethlisberger (41.6 percent) and Deshaun Watson (37.1 percent) had the lowest slot rates of any quarterbacks who still qualified for 2018’s table. They saw the two biggest jumps in the league, with both of them targeting the slot more often than not last season. We covered a lot of Roethlisberger’s shift in the receivers article — the continuing rise of JuJu Smith-Schuster in the Pittsburgh offense, jumping from 44 slot targets in 2017 to 109 last season, is the major contributing factor there, and Roethlisberger’s slot rate might drop this season with Smith-Schuster likely to play more out wide.
In Watson’s case, part of that increase comes from DeAndre Hopkins getting a third of his targets in the slot rather than a fifth, and part of it comes from Will Fuller and Keke Coutee being more enticing targets than Bruce Ellington. Watson remained one of the best quarterbacks when targeting the slot last season, though he couldn’t quite retain his crown. He fell from first in wide DVOA to 15th, however, so it will be interesting to see if he looks towards the slot even more often in 2019.
Watson’s crown atop the slot DVOA rankings was usurped by Russell Wilson, who saw his Slot% drop the most of any player in the league last season, going from 59.5 percent in 2017 to 52.5 percent a year ago. It’s not a real stats analysis article until you point out how the Seahawks’ passing attack veered in the opposite direction of the league’s conventional wisdom in 2018. Wilson threw 89 fewer passes to the slot last season, a decrease of more than five and a half per game. Some of that is due to Doug Baldwin’s injury struggles in his last season, but that only counts for 34 of the missing passes, and Baldwin’s share of Wilson’s slot targets actually increased in 2018. Two years ago, Baldwin was joined by Tyler Lockett, Jimmy Graham, and Paul Richardson in being targeted at least 29 times out of the slot. Baldwin’s slot numbers dropped, Lockett’s stayed essentially the same, and the departed Graham and Richardson were replaced by … well, essentially no one. Wilson attempted 126 fewer passes last year, as Brian Schottenheimer installed the most run-heavy offense in football.
|Russell Wilson’s Slot/Wide Attempts, 2016-2018|
Wilson’s slot DVOA and DYAR have increased from year to year, even as his attempts have dropped. Logic would dictate that Lockett would play more of a role in the slot in 2019, with Baldwin gone and the larger D.K. Metcalf coming in as a rookie, so naturally Schottenheimer has vowed to move Lockett around as much as possible. Hey, it worked last season!
Last year, we noted that Jared Goff’s 75.5 percent Slot% was the highest we had recorded in the two years we had this data, and that it would be interesting to see if the Rams remained as slot-heavy in the second year of Sean McVay’s offense after swapping Sammy Watkins for Brandin Cooks. After all, as we noted in the wideout article, Cooks was primarily a wideout in New England and a slot receiver in New Orleans, so he could have gone either way for the Rams. Well, with all four of Los Angeles’ featured receivers finishing with over 70 percent of their targets out of the slot, it should come as no surprise that Goff re-broke the record for highest Slot%, topping 80 percent in 2018. We discussed the strategic reasons for this in the wideouts article, so instead we’ll just leave you with a stat here: Jared Goff attempted 545 passes last season, removing intentional grounding and other non-targeted plays. He threw 307 of them were out of 11 personnel to player lined up in the slot — that’s 56.3 percent. McVay has a system.
Right behind Goff were the two Eagles quarterbacks, which is where things get interesting. Three of the ten quarterbacks with the highest Slot% had a negative DVOA on their slot targets. One of them was Blake Bortles, who was even worse when throwing out wide. The other two were Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, who both finished in the bottom six in slot DYAR while still having a Slot% of over 70 percent; the fourth- and fifth- highest figures of the last three seasons. Foles had just 37 targets out wide, fewer than non-qualifiers such as Jeff Driskel, Brock Osweiler, Lamar Jackson, C.J. Beathard, and Cody Kessler. And yet, only Bortles had a worse DVOA out of the slot than Foles, making Foles at least technically an upgrade in Jacksonville. What gives?
Wentz, at least, was better targeting the slot than wide in his first two seasons, so 2018 was a significant change in fortune. Unlike some of the other situations we’ve mentioned, this discrepancy can’t be explained by a major personnel change or injury among the slot receivers, either — Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor were Philadelphia’s top two slot targets in both 2017 and 2018; both saw their slot performance drop last season. Philadelphia really had too many options in the slot, adding Golden Tate midway through the season alongside Ertz, Agholor, and Jordan Matthews. They just lacked a real vertical presence to open the slot receivers up, as Wentz’s and Foles’ average depth of target on passes to wideouts dropped from 13.9 to 10.9 yards downfield. That meant that Wentz’s and Foles’ best option often became a shorter pass to a slot receiver in traffic, which led to lower success rates and DVOA. A healthy Wentz, along with the return of DeSean Jackson to provide a deep threat, should hopefully see Philadelphia’s slot DVOA bounce back in 2019.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Wentz and Foles we have Kirk Cousins, the one quarterback in the bottom 10 in Slot% who had a positive DVOA throwing to the slot and a negative DVOA going out wide. Unlike the Philly duo, this is a pretty standard split for Cousins; his slot DVOA has been at least 10 points higher than his wide DVOA in each of the past three seasons. In Washington, however, Cousins hovered around a 60 percent Slot%, decently above the league average. In Minnesota, that number dropped to 54.3 percent, closer to Case Keenum’s 2017 than his own. A gut reaction might to blame the coordinator for not properly playing to Keenum’s strengths, but Cousins’ Slot% actually dropped from 55.7 percent to 43.4 percent when John DeFelippo was replaced by Kevin Stefanski as the Vikings’ primary playcaller. Replacing the coordinator was not an instant cure-all. Cousins wasn’t able to turn what may have been his most developed season as a professional quarterback into results on the field, perhaps partly due to an offense that does not always seem to be playing into his strengths as a passer. That being said, Stefon Diggs falling from an 18.2% DVOA when split out wide in 2017 down to -19.6% last season isn’t acceptable; Cousins has to do a better job hooking up with one of the top 20 receivers in the league.