2011 Route Efficiency: Go Routes
2011 Route Efficiency: Go Routes
The go route, the fly route, the 9 route, the streak. It has many names and variations but it means one thing to a receiver: if I can get behind you on this route I am simply better than you. No other route in the tree is a more direct shot at the heart of a defender. If a receiver can get behind a corner and stack him, everything is simply down to the quarterback putting the ball in the right spot and the defender literally has no play on the ball. This route, above all others, allows a receiver to use his physical and athletic superiority to turn the game on a single play.
The go route is not the most efficient option in the NFL route tree–it has the lowest completion percentage of any route that we are looking in our 2011 Route Efficiency series–but even an incompletion on a go can do more to open up an opposing defense than a completion on most other routes. Offenses are constantly striving to take the top off a defense, and the go route keeps defenders honest. If a defense takes their eyes off the go, then at a moment’s notice they can find themselves giving away seven points very cheaply. Creating plays from it is pivotal for offenses; and, obviously, shutting opposing offenses down is pivotal for defenses. Don’t let the 40 times fool you, don’t let ‘arm strength’ fool you. These guys were the best players down the field last season.
A successful go route is a combination of speed, strength and an awareness of how to position yourself to maintain an advantage or fight back against one. You could have the fastest receiver in the league, but if he can’t get off press coverage quickly then that speed goes to waste. Among quarterbacks, a common sight among go routes in the NFL is an underthrown pass, which forces a receiver who is open deep to fight back through a defender to the ball. This has arisen from the misconception that a deep ball is all about the arm strength of the passer. In reality, the anticipation of the quarterback and the ability to get the ball out quickly are as, if not more, important than their raw arm strength.
No Need for a Cannon
As if to enforce the fact that brutal arm strength is not the be all and end all of deep passing, the top passers to go routes last year aren’t the passers immediately thought of as being ‘big arm’ quarterbacks. Whereas Joe Flacco (27.0% completions, 8.3 yards per attempt) and Josh Freeman (9.4 yards per attempt) gained just subpar returns each time they dropped back for a deep ball, the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees achieved massive returns.
Great stats from deep passing goes beyond simply the ability to throw that route. The most efficient quarterbacks were, for the most part, those who have the entire passing game set up and then use the go route to exploit the defense having to take more chances on high percentage routes. In that situation, yes, having an arm that is good enough helps, but the crucial factor in a consistently successful go route is the timing of the pass. Rodgers leads the way, again, with 15.3 yards per attempt, all this in spite of the fact that his receivers conspired to drop eight passes on go routes. That’s as many drops as T.J. Yates suffered in total during the regular season.
Rodgers was also the only quarterback to top 50% in terms of completion percentage on go routes. His final mark of 51.7% was an astonishing number. To put that number in perspective, Jay Cutler (48.4%) and Blaine Gabbert (40.0%) had lower completion percentages than that on slant patterns last season.
At the other end of the efficiency spectrum was the rookie pairing of the aforementioned Gabbert and Christian Ponder. In terms of completions percentage Ponder (20.0%) was marginally worse than Gabbert (21.2%), with the latter (6.9) slightly worse in terms of yards per attempt than the former(7.0). However, if Vikings fans are looking for some consolation on Ponder’s go routes it should come from the fact that his yards per completion number was the best mark in the league. His five completions (on 25 attempts) went for 175 yards at an average of 35.0 yards for completion, edging Tarvaris Jackson (34.9) and Tim Tebow (34.3) for the league lead.
In terms of raw yardage gained nobody topped Eli Manning. The Super Bowl champion collected 1,020 passing yards on his 89 go route targets last season, the only man to pass for more than 1,000 passing yards to a single route in 2011. His yards per attempt may not have been exceptional–gaining 11.5 yards per attempt on 89 passes–and he threw five interceptions (topped only by Andy Dalton) but the go route was a crucial ‘get out of jail card’ for Manning and the Giants passing game.
Having seen that Rodgers topped the league in terms of yards per attempt on go routes, it should be no surprise at all to see that the Packers have two of the top five receivers in terms of yards per attempt – Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings. The Packers’ one-two punch were two of only three receivers (along with Malcom Floyd) to catch more than 60% of their targets on go routes. In fact, nobody else in the entire league had a completion percentage above 55% on their go route targets outside of this trio, so for the Packers to get this sort of production from two players–and Jermichael Finley also caught 50% of his targets–proves just how special the Packers’ passing attack was last season. Their dominance both short and long is a marker to the entire league.
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The league leader in this category, Wes Welker, posted his score using the golfing mentality of ‘getting a good score in early’. His 99-yard reception in Week 1 against Miami inflated his average by more than six yards, though even if you were to rule it out as an ‘outlier’ his 12 other targets still averaged 18.1 yards per attempt, good for fourth in the league.
Welker’s 99-yard completion is a prime example of how a successful go route can change a game, even if the overall efficiency on that route is lacking. Eric Decker caught only 1 of his 14 targets on go routes last season, but that one completion was good for 56 yards and a touchdown. Mike Wallace caught only four of his 19 targets but collected more than half of the field (53.3 yards per catch) each time he managed to snag a pass on a go route. The efficiency may not have been there, but you cannot deny that the ability to make that big play is a crucial part of that Pittsburgh offense.
Although receivers can be excused from a lack of efficiency on deep routes because of the effect that the one big gain can have in a game, defenders covering go routes are judged completely differently. Being in good position most of the time is useless if you have that one lapse that gives up a pivotal play to the opposition. When covering deep routes you have to be on your game all the time, and that is exactly what Asante Samuel was in primary coverage of deep routes for the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
Samuel may be known more for his ability to jump short routes and scare teams off testing his tackling skills, but he is still an extremely capable defender on deep routes. Among corners targeted at least six times in primary coverage of go routes last season, Samuel was the only man not to yield a single completion. Each of the six pass attempts he saw fell incomplete, with no drops padding his stat line.
The next best after Samuel was his new teammate in Atlanta, Brent Grimes, who allowed only one completion on nine attempts. The Falcons new corner pairing also featured prominently when covering post routes, so if the Falcons can force teams to chase games this season they won’t have to fear their corners giving up cheap passes deep down the field on last year’s evidence.
Giving up touchdowns is the ultimate sin on go routes for a defender and the cardinal offender last season was Brandon Flowers, who surrendered four scores on go routes. He was closely followed by Kyle Arrington and Cedric Griffin, who surrendered three each.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jason Allen, who proved to be anything but a liability during his playing time opposite Johnathan Joseph in Houston. Playing with such a quality corner results in a high number of targets, but Allen acquitted himself particularly well, especially on go routes. Allen was targeted 16 times last season on go routes, and surrendered only 72 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) while he collected three interceptions, bettered only by Corey Webster. Houston chose not to keep him around and the Bengals would be well served to give Allen a long look at trying to earn playing time from the likes of Nate Clements (11.8 yards per attempt) and Terence Newman (13.3 yards per attempt) whose form covering go routes last season was indicative of their entire season in coverage.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.