This week at PFF we’re launching a new series of articles that are going to shed some light on the variety and efficiency of route running around the league. We’re going to peel away the surface of the NFL’s passing, receiving, and coverage statistics and take a closer look at how each offense and defense goes about building up and breaking down their passing games. Who threw the most touchdowns on post routes last season? Who is the most efficient receiver at securing catches on hitches? Who is the most efficient defender at shutting down wide screens?
We’re starting our week with one of the short routes that is a banker for most offenses and one of the first routes installed at the birth of a passing game: the slant. It’s a crucial route for offenses and, in turn, an important lifeline for defenses to choke off. Statistically, offenses won the battle on slants last year, but who was the best around the league individually on each side of the ball?
The slant route is one of the most versatile routes in any football playbook. Any type of receiver can excel on a slant route depending upon the coverage and it can be used both as a possession route to collect conversions and as a game-breaker getting speedy receivers quickly into space. Against good coverage, the key aspect of a successful slant route for a receiver is body positioning and strength–ensuring a defender cannot come through him to the ball or disrupt him to the point that the catch cannot be secured.
Position for Possession
No receiver exemplifies the skills necessary for a consistent and dangerous target on a slant more than Calvin Johnson, who–with his combination of size, strength, and wingspan along with his speed and power after the catch–is almost indefensible. Johnson’s size and strength means that if a slant pass is on the money (either into his numbers or on his front shoulder, leading him past a defender in man coverage or between two defenders in zone coverage) the defender has almost no play on the ball. When combined with his wingspan (which increases his catch radius and allows him to rescue off-target passes), you have the perfect slant receiver.
Calvin Johnson 25 30 83.3% 297 2 0
Michael Jenkins 10 12 83.3% 86 1 0
Dez Bryant 16 21 76.2% 208 1 1
Damian Williams 9 12 75.0% 153 1 0
Mike Wallace 11 15 73.3% 152 0 0
It should, therefore, be no surprise to learn that only one receiver, Stevie Johnson, was targeted more times on slants last season than Megatron. However, the connection between Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo was nowhere near as productive or efficient as that between Johnson and Stafford in Detroit.
The slant was the most efficient on Johnson’s route tree last season and he is joined in the Top 5 here by a group of big-bodied receivers, proving the importance of body size and control when it comes to snagging passes on slants. Michael Jenkins, in particular, proves what body size allows you to do in making the slant a possession route, but in averaging only 2.8 yards after each slant catch (compared to 6.6 by Dez Bryant), he also proves his own limitations as a receiver.
Slotting fifth among efficient slant receivers, Mike Wallace illustrated some of the development in his route tree during the 2011 season. His vertical threat forces defenders to sit off of him at the line of scrimmage which really opens up the slant for a smaller, speedier receiver. Wallace averaged 8.5 yards after the catch on his slants last season, proving the threat that smaller receivers pose when they catch a slant and get quickly into space against opposing defenses.
Though coverage defenders are often in a no-win situation against receivers on slants–with all of the advantages that a big-bodied receiver possesses on a well-executed and well-timed slant route–there are some corners who excel at shutting the route down. One man stood above the crowd this season in terms of shutting down slants: Chris Gamble of the Carolina Panthers.
Gamble was targeted on only eight slant routes in 2011 and only allowed one completion for six yards (on a 2nd-and-10 against the Green Bay Packers) and he shut that down immediately, allowing no yards after the catch. Using his speed and awareness to stop the route, he didn’t need to live up to his name and risk trouble by jump slants to scare teams off. Gamble led the league in both completion percentage allowed on slants (12.5%) and also on yards-per-attempt allowed, a miserly 0.8 yards.
Chris Gamble 1 8 6 0.8 0 0
Alterraun Verner 5 12 41 3.4 1 0
Charles Woodson 4 9 33 3.7 0 1
Cary Williams 4 8 31 3.9 0 0
Richard Sherman 7 13 51 3.9 0 1
Seahawks rookie Richard Sherman figures prominently here in fifth and saw the most targets among the most efficient coverage defenders against slants. While his completion percentage allowed was north of 50% (though still well below the league-wide completion percentage of 62.4%), what he gave way on each slant was where he excelled, quickly shutting plays down. He only allowed 2.6 yards after the catch and only three of his seven completions allowed resulted in first down conversions. His conversion percentage allowed (first down or touchdown conceded) of 23.1% was third-highest, behind Patrick Robinson and Asante Samuel (both at 20.0%) among defenders targeted at least 10 times on slants during the 2011 regular season.
Premium on Pass Position
While a slant route is largely down to the work that a receiver and coverage defender do against each other, the work of the quarterback in terms of timing and locating the pass correctly is the finishing touch that can make a slant nearly indefensible. No quarterback exhibited this more last season than league MVP Aaron Rodgers.
One of the staples of the Green Bay offense is the quick slant run to the back side of the play as the rest of the offense executes a run fake. The signal between Rodgers and his receivers to run the play is almost subliminal and puts the defender in an impossible situation. Rodgers’ speed in getting rid of the ball and his perfect pass location as the defense’s attention is drawn to the run fake goes together to make the perfect pass. Only three quarterbacks, the aforementioned Fitzpatrick (71) and Stafford (66) along with Ben Roethlisberger (56), attempted more slants than Rodgers last season, but none (with more than 20 attempts) were more efficient.
Aaron Rodgers 39 50 531 10.6 6 1
Tony Romo 33 44 453 10.3 3 2
Philip Rivers 13 19 182 9.6 1 1
Christian Ponder 15 19 167 8.8 1 0
Kevin Kolb 16 26 226 8.7 1 0
Whether by completion percentage or yards per attempt, Rodgers topped league last season as a passer and the slant was not just reserved to the role of a drive-starter or third-down converter in the Green Bay offense. No team used the slant to more devastating effect as a scoring play last season than the Packers.
Rodgers topped the league in total touchdown passes on screens but the use of the slant in the red-zone was a key part of Green Bay’s offense as well. In goal-to-go situations last season, Rodgers targeted a slant pass five times, completing four of them for touchdowns. When you have such a devastating weapon as the slant in your goal-line offense, with a group of receivers weighing at or above 200lbs, who needs a powerful goal-line running game?
Next up in the 2011 Route Efficiency series: In’s and Crossing Routes
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