We conclude our round up of last year’s passing stats by looking at one of the safest routes on the tree. Only wide screens were intercepted less per attempt last season than out routes when including both out routes from a stem and speed routes that break immediately into the flat. When combined with the third-highest completion percentage (after screens and hitches) you get the picture of a surprisingly safe route.
When it goes wrong on an out route it tends to be catastrophic, interceptions on out routes at best allow a long return but many lead to interceptions returned for touchdowns. However as the most thrown routes in the league, more than 400 more attempts than the next most targeted route, it is statistically a very safe route for quarterbacks to throw.
This route group encompasses deep outs and these are the throws that, in spite of their safety, can call for the greatest display of arm strength from a quarterback. There are many safe throws to be made to out routes, but when that big completion needs to made tot he sideline in the crunch, you need that perfect combination of arm strength and pass placement to prevent defenders from making that big play breaking on the ball. So, who were the most consistent on out routes and which defenders gave the quarterbacks the biggest headaches when finding receiver breaking to the outside?
For a receiver, an out route is all about gaining separation as with an in, however, a different awareness is required since a defender breaking on the pass will come from completely out of their view. Whereas a defender breaking on an in will often cut in front of the receiver, defenders will break on an out route from behind and under the receiver. This makes the quarterback’s throw location pivotal in the success of a target to an out route.
Any throw left inside and on the back hip of the receiver–if the coverage is there–is in severe danger of being broken up or, worse yet, intercepted with only the quarterback often having a shot to tackle the intercepting defender. Here the importance of arm strength and anticipation of the target point are crucial for the quarterback, he needs to be able to visualize where the receiver and coverage defender will be and have the arm strength to put the ball on the front shoulder or in front of the receiver at that point.
With the volume of targets sent to out routes (2,555 targets in the 2011 regular season) it is this route that quarterbacks are often judged on as having the functional arm strength and accuracy to complete. There are other situations where the ability to fit a pass in is key, but one sloppy throw–either by arm strength or accuracy–on an out route can be catastrophic to a team’s chances of winning or losing a game.
Out to Keep His Job
Heading a pack of quarterbacks with strikingly familiar names as the most efficient quarterbacks on out routes is Kevin Kolb, a man scrapping for his starting job this summer in training camp with the Arizona Cardinals. By most measurable statistics last season Kolb had the edge on his competition (John Skelton) and yet the most important stat, the win column, went in the younger quarterback’s favor–in spite of some truly horrific quarterback play at times.
In terms of throwing to outs, Kolb not only has a comfortable edge over Skelton, but also over the entire league. Kolb sits second in the league in terms of completion percentage to out routes (behind only Aaron Rodgers) and also ranks alongside the likes of Tom Brady, Tony Romo, and Matt Schaub as one of the few quarterbacks not to surrender an interception to an out.
His yards per attempt figure is boosted by virtue of giving his receivers the ball in position to make yardage after the catch; Kolb’s receivers earned 7.0 yards after the catch on average on out routes, a number nearly double the league average. However, even considering that, the distance he is out front on yards per attempt is a testament to his passing and connection with his receivers. Kolb’s competition for the Cardinals’ starting job is also not far away from the Top 5 in terms of yards per attempt, though he did throw four interceptions on outs. As a per-attempt rate, Skelton was intercepted more than twice as frequently on out routes than any other quarterback.
The three quarterbacks with the most targets to out routes all went to the playoffs, but had wildly varying degrees of success throwing outs during the regular season. While Brady and Drew Brees had completion percentages north of 72% (this in spite of Brees suffering a league-leading 12 drops on out routes) and 13 combined touchdowns, the Lions’ Matthew Stafford suffered a rather different season.
Despite his outstanding arm strength, Stafford’s consistency in terms of accuracy and pass placement was lacking and his efficiency suffered accordingly. Stafford completed 66.3% of his outs (below the league average) and gained only 5.3 yards per attempt, seventh-worst in the league. Worse still than this inefficiency was a league-leading five interceptions on out routes. Stafford has the arm to “make all the throws”, but in the big leagues what you do repeatedly is more important than what you can do occasionally.
The revelation for last season’s Super Bowl champions was Victor Cruz and his efficiency on out routes was just another reason for his breakout. All of his 20 out route targets came from the slot and his 74-yard touchdown catch that sparked the Giants’ decisive victory over the Cowboys in Week 17 is proof of his danger on such patterns. The defense on the play was somewhat of a cavalcade of calamity, but Cruz’s ability to turn one block into a huge play is one of the great parts of his danger. Cruz’s sharp cut gets him away from Terence Newman for the third down conversion, but his ability to breakaway deep is what helps him top the league on yards per out-route target. Cruz was one of 22 receivers to drop multiple outs–it’s scary for other NFC East teams to think that he still has room to grow as a receiver.
Rob Gronkowski’s presence is the breadcrumb of evidence highlighting the out as one of the most popular routes tight ends are targeted on. Among the 15 most targeted players on out routes last season, 12 of them were tight ends (only Wes Welker, Nate Burleson, and Greg Little broke the monopoly). The most efficient among those tight ends–and league-wide, in fact, in terms of completion percentage–was Vernon Davis.
Of his 31 targets, Davis caught 29, dropping none, for a completion percentage of 93.5%, comfortably clear of Marques Colston (87.0%) in second place. Davis’ yardage stats, however, highlight the conservative nature of the 49ers’ passing game last season. Davis picked up only 6.9 yards per completion, well below the league average, and only eight of his 29 catches converted for either a first down or a touchdown. The 49ers have made a clear statement of intent this offseason to upgrade their passing game, but can Alex Smith be as efficient while taking more risks to find his newly upgraded receiving corps?
While the out route offers some of the more adventurous coverage defenders to jump routes and make big plays (three out routes targeted at Charles Woodson were intercepted) they are also used in combination with other routes and in certain alignments to expose inferior coverage defenders. A clear-out in the flat can really test a linebacker or safety that has come over to cover a slot receiver, allowing plenty of space for the receiver to take advantage of his mismatch.
The two worst defenders in the league were a safety and a linebacker as Charles Godfrey and Desmond Bishop struggled equally to cover out-breaking receivers in space. Godfrey allowed more yards after each completion (7.7) than any other defender in the league with eight of the 11 completions he allowed converting either a first down or touchdown for the opposition.
At the other end of the spectrum is another impressive breakout player from last season: Seahawks’ rookie cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman allowed only six completions on 11 targets with only one of those six completions converting a first down for the opposing offense with no touchdowns allowed. In combination with intercepting one pass, Sharman also allowed fewer that 2 yards after the catch on each completion as he systematically shut down out routes, allowing the completion and not permitting the receiver to turn upfield for extra yardage.
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