Yesterday we began our look at breaking down passing stats based on the routes targeted with a look at the slant route. Today we press on with our look back at last year’s passing numbers, moving on to the “in” and crossing routes. This is another possession route with big-bodied receivers and some tight ends ruling the roost over their smaller, speedier counterparts.
Like yesterday’s focus, in and crossing routes are high percentage options for the offense with both in excess of a 60% league-wide completion percentage. The depth of in routes vary from quick ins to deep ins, but there is a greater degree of separation in terms of the depth of target and yardage gains that different receivers tally. Meanwhile, the crossing route is the first we’re focusing on that really allows for creativity after the catch with targeted receivers often finding themselves in space. Now lets see which players are the most consistent on routes targeting the heart of a defense.
Much like a slant route, an in route requires a lot of body strength and intelligent body positioning from a receiver. A sharper cut makes life more difficult for a defender and if a receiver can position himself in front, then it is very difficult for that defender to legally get to the football. Some players do run more rounded cuts, but an explosive 90-degree break on an in (or a double break on a dig route) is harder certainly for a defender to keep up with.
There is also an aspect of mental toughness needed for these routes in addition to the requisite physical toughness and strength. In routes and crossing routes, depending upon the depth, take a receiver into opposing linebackers and safeties at a good rate of speed. A receiver needs to trust that his quarterback won’t lead him into a big hit with a “hospital pass”.
Hail to the Chief
By any measure, the top receiver last season on in routes was Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs who collected all nine targeted passes on in routes for 179 yards. While Bowe may be guilty of inconsistent hands at times (27 drops across the last three seasons), it’s not due to him being being intimidated about going across the middle. Had he gained one more yard on an in route last season he would have averaged exactly 20 yards per reception, nearly a full five yards per target clear of the man in second place Antonio Brown.
Bowe’s accomplishments on in routes are all the more impressive when you consider that the only member of the Chiefs’ quarterback platoon from last season to complete more than 56% of his passes on in routes last season was the most maligned member of that group, Tyler Palko (5-of-6 for 93 yards). Early season starter Matt Cassel went 5-of-9 with an interception while Kyle Orton had one of the lowest completion percentages in the entire league. His 45.5% was better only than John Skelton (43.5%) and the ever-disappointing Blaine Gabbert (37.5%). Bowe very much carried the load for the Kansas City passing game last season; the Chiefs need far more from their quarterbacks and returning receivers in 2012.
Dwayne Bowe 9 9 100.0% 179 0 0
Jason Avant 8 8 100.0% 114 0 0
Rob Gronkowski 12 13 92.3% 177 2 0
Jabar Gaffney 10 11 90.9% 156 1 0
Antonio Brown 12 15 80.0% 228 0 0
Making catches on in routes becomes particularly difficult when the field compresses in the red zone. No team got more tough play from their tight ends on this route in that area of the field than the Patriots’ did from their duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In all areas, the pairing were a combined 20-for-23 for 290 yards and all four of their touchdowns came on red-zone passes.
Yesterday, we highlighted how Aaron Rodgers makes up for the lack of a dominant ground game in goal-to-go situations for the Packers with excellent use of the slant. For the Patriots, part of replacing the ground game is being able to out-muscle opposing defenders and make physical catches in tight areas on in routes. The only other receivers to get more than one red-zone touchdown on in routes last season were Calvin Johnson (who else?) and Jermichael Finley.
Caution: Tight Ends Crossing
If the in route was the reserve of receivers, save for the pair of athletic freaks up in New England, than crossing routes were definitively the domain of tight ends last season. Whether dragging short for dump-off passes or crossing behind linebackers and in front of safeties, this was a key route as a safety valve for quarterbacks seeking out their tight ends.
The six most targeted receivers on crossing routes were all tight ends; Steve Breaston and Wes Welker were the top wide receivers with 21 targets each. Kellen Winslow led the way with 27 targets but his efficiency on crossing routes, as with the entirety of his performance last season, was somewhat lacking for the quantity of targets that he received.
Antonio Brown was one of the breakout players of the 2011 season and having shown up as an efficient receiver on in routes, in spite of his size, he again figures well here on crossing routes. He was one of the few receivers to break the tight end monopoly for the most efficient receivers on when running this pattern.
Antonio Brown 11 12 183 15.3 0 0
Scott Chandler 9 10 132 13.2 0 0
Joel Dreessen 12 14 178 12.7 2 0
Rob Gronkowski 5 10 125 12.5 1 0
DeSean Jackson 8 11 135 12.3 1 0
While he may only have caught half of the crossing patterns that Tom Brady targeted him on, including dropping two of those five incompletions, Rob Gronkowski certainly made the most of the passes that he did catch. Gronkowski led the league with an average of 16.0 yards after each catch, which was ahead of even the likes of DeSean Jackson and Percy Harvin.
The performance of Scott Chandler in Buffalo raises questions of what the Bills are missing in their offense. Few teams use a tight end less than the Bills and with no second option readily emerging at receiver to complement Stevie Johnson, Buffalo would do well to try and thrust Chandler into a more prominent role in the passing game.
While the Bills under-utilize their tight ends, other teams do not, and as a result the crossing route is a more prominent feature of their passing game. Josh Freeman led the league in targets on crossing routes, but his difficulties in efficiency weren’t solely linked to Kellen Winslow. The Bucs’ signal caller completed only 40 of his 66 crossing route attempts and threw four interceptions on those passes to lead the league. New head coach Greg Schiano brings a more run-oriented view to offensive play calling, but one of his first jobs could be to find Freeman a more reliable safety valve throw in 2012.
Others such as Tony Romo and Matt Ryan, made far more effective use of the crossing route last season. Romo in particular, was able to get the most of a crop of receivers more than willing to cross the middle of the field for him. Romo led the league in completion percentage on crossing patterns–completing 78.0% of those passes–and threw seven touchdowns against no interceptions on his 41 targets.
Tony Romo 32 41 341 78.0% 7 0
Sam Bradford 17 22 164 77.3% 0 0
T.J. Yates 17 22 210 77.3% 2 1
Matt Schaub 20 26 286 76.9% 2 1
Matt Ryan 30 39 383 76.9% 5 1
For Romo, if this level of performance is to continue on crossing routes next season, he has two areas of concern. The first is that his receivers showed a distinct lack of creativity after the catch. Romo’s receivers averaged a meager 3.8 yards after catching each of his crossing patterns last season. This was exactly half of the 7.6 yards per catch that Brady’s receivers tacked on to each crossing pattern. A bigger concern though, for the team as much as Romo, is filling the void left by Laurent Robinson. Of Romo’s seven touchdown passes on crossing routes, Robinson accounted for five.
While Robinson may have only been in Dallas for one season, the difficulty of replacing the effect he had on the Cowboys’ passing game should not be understated. Blaine Gabbert, for one, will be hoping Robinson brings his Dallas form and health to Jacksonville. Gabbert completed less than 50% (10-of-23, 1 INT) of his crossing patterns last season. He, along with Jay Cutler (12-of-28), were the only quarterbacks to manage that. Any sort of stability–such as a simple crossing route safety valve–would be a key first step in Gabbert’s advancement after a disastrous rookie season.
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