The NFL’s best quarterbacks on each route type in 2016
In the final piece of this three-part series examining who had the most success on different routes, I turn to the quarterbacks. In earlier articles, I broke down what it takes for a receiver to be successful on a given route, and the base coverages defenses play. Quarterbacks face a daunting challenge. They must read what both the defense and the receivers are doing and process it very quickly. The average time to attempt in the NFL is only 2.5 seconds. So a quarterback may go through multiple reads to determine which receiver has the advantage on the coverage, and if he wants to get the throw off he can’t spend more than a second per read.
Each route has its advantages and disadvantages versus coverages. A slant route might beat a Cover 1 defense because the receiver just has to break down his defender, while a comeback can be effective in attacking the Cover 2 hole. Go routes might not be successful versus a Cover 4 designed to take the deep pass away, while drag routes can be dangerous to target versus Cover 2 as the QB can lead his receiver right into a zone. Processing coverages for multiple routes is no easy task, and that is why there are so few people on the planet who can be successful NFL QBs. Here are the ones who did it best in 2016.
The slant route is a quick route run up the field where the receiver cuts across the field inside on a diagonal path. The route is designed to pick up short to medium gains while giving a receiver the opportunity to turn the ball up field and explode past the defense. The average depth of target of the slant route in the NFL was 6.36 yards, while QBs typically take a three- to five-step drop.
Best QB targeting slants (min. 10 targeted attempts): Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Davante Adams was PFF’s honorable mention for best receiver running the slant route, but he was just part of Rodgers’ success. Rodgers led all QBs with a QB rating of 142.2 on slant routes. He completed 36 of 48 passes for 9 touchdowns and 438 yards; only one of his passes was dropped. Rodgers’ touchdowns on slants were the most in the league and his yards were fifth-highest. Half of Rodgers’ slant yards were after the catch. Of his 48 slant-route pass attempts, 34 came against man coverage; Rodgers picked man coverage apart, completing 25 of 34 passes for 302 yards and 7 touchdowns. 19 of Rodgers’ 25 completions versus man coverages went for first downs or touchdowns, and he completed 12 of his 15 slant-route pass attempts on third downs versus man coverage.
Honorable mention: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan led all quarterbacks in yards on slants with 560 yards on 49 completions. He threw slants 61 times (most in the league) and had 5 touchdowns (second-most). However, his 3 interceptions were tied for most with Tom Brady and Jared Goff. 44 percent of Ryan’s yards came after the catch, and he earned a 111.7 QB rating when targeting slants. 36 of Ryan’s 49 completions went for either first downs or touchdowns; he completed 13 of 20 passes on third downs. All five of Ryan’s touchdowns came on man coverage or red-zone coverage, where the exact coverage isn’t known due to the field constraints, but often has man principles.
The double move is a deception route where the receiver tries to draw the defender up and then beat him over the top. These routes consist of the quick-out-and-up, the out-and-up, the slant-and-go, and the hitch-and-go. These are slower-developing routes that require the offensive line to give the QB enough time to throw the ball down the field. QBs typically throw these routes on a five- or seven-step drop back with an aDOT of 23.48 yards. Quarterbacks often have a good pump fake to help sell the route to help a receiver get open.
Best QB targeting the double move (min. 8 targeted attempts): Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Luck was far and away the most successful quarterback targeting the double move. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 236 yards, 5 touchdowns and a QB rating of 142.8. Luck led the league in completions, touchdowns, and QB rating on double moves. He targeted six different receivers with double moves, most often using his tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle, who accounted for 3 of his 5 touchdown passes. Luck had his most success on this route when attacking zone coverages. He was 6-8 versus zone coverage, for 152 yards and three touchdowns.
Honorable mention: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Stafford had the third-highest aDOT among all qualifying quarterbacks on double moves. He completed 8 of 17 passes (third-most) for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns, earning a 132.6 QB rating (third-best). He beat zone coverage on double moves most often, with five of his completions and both of his touchdowns coming versus zone. On his touchdowns, his receivers beat Kendall Fuller and Damarious Randall on their deep zone responsibilities in a Cover 3 defense.
In backyard football terms, go deep. The go route is designed to get behind the defense for the big play. The ability to take the top off the defense is a key component to any successful offensive attack. The go route is designed both for big yards before the catch and to give the receiver the ability to take it the distance after the catch. For this to work, the line must allow time for receivers to work their way down field. QBs will typical have a five- to seven-step drop back, and the aDOT of these routes is 28.53 yards.
Best QB on go routes (min. 10 targeted attempts): Tom Brady, New England Patriots
It is no coincidence that Chris Hogan was the most successful receiver on go routes when you look at how effective Tom Brady was throwing the route. Brady was PFF’s highest-graded QB on go routes, completing 20 of 48 passes for 660 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a QB rating of 119.8. Brady was second in QB rating, third in touchdowns, third in completions, and second in yards on the go route. Brady was eighth in completion percentage at 41 percent, but was fifth in adjusted completion percentage at 48 percent due to his receivers dropping three passes. He had great success on the go route versus the Cover 3, as 7 of his 13 passes resulted in either first downs or touchdowns, and one of his incompletions was on a miscommunication.
Honorable mention: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan completed 13 of his 29 passes on go routes for 480 yards, 4 touchdowns and a league-high 131.1 passer rating. With an aDOT of 28.3 yards, he was right on par with the rest of the league. His season-long depth of target was on a 53-yard completion to Julio Jones, and 51 of the yards gained on the play were in the air. 6 of his 13 completions went for 40 or more yards and all of his touchdowns came on first or second down. Ryan had his most success versus zone coverages on the go route, completing 9 of 20 passes for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 16.45 yards per attempt.
In routes and out routes
In routes and out routes are essentially the same thing, but in opposite directions. The route involves the receiver going up the field, then making a hard-horizontal cut in or out — hence the name. The aDOT of these routes is 9.73 yards.
Best QB targeting in routes and out routes (min. 18 attempts): Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan’s success comes as no surprise here. Julio Jones was far and away the most successful receiver on both in routes and out routes. However, his teammate Mohamed Sanu earned the second-highest QB rating when he was targeted on these routes, behind Jones. This speaks to just how well Ryan reads and throws these routes. Ryan led to the league with his 126.5 QB rating, completing 88 (third-most) of 113 passes for 1,222 yards (second-most) and 5 touchdowns (third). Ryan had a ridiculous completion percentage of 77.8 percent on in and out routes, second to only Tom Brady, while earning PFF’s highest production grade on these routes. In the Super Bowl, Ryan completed 7-8 of passes for 127 yards on these routes, and Falcons fans probably wish he threw them a few more times.
Honorable mention: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
This was very close between Rodgers and Brady, but Rodgers gets the nod. Rodgers led the league in completions, yards and touchdowns. He completed 105-147 passes for 1,227 yards and 9 touchdowns. Even though he threw 3 interceptions, he finished up with a 108.3 QB rating (sixth-best). Rodgers had 6 passes dropped and an adjusted completion percentage of 75.5 percent. Like Rodgers here, Jordy Nelson finished as the honorable mention for his position on in routes and out routes, but Rodgers success’ went beyond just his top target. He completed these routes to 11 different receivers on the season, throwing for 896 yards on passes excluding Nelson. Rodgers was nearly equally effective versus man and zone coverage, with 662 yards versus zone and 565 yards versus man and red-zone coverage.
Post and corner routes
The post and corner routes are essentially the same thing, just run in different directions. The corner route is when a receiver runs deep and then cuts diagonally to the sideline. The post route is the same thing except the receiver cuts toward the middle of the field. These routes are designed to get deep down the field; in 2016, they had an aDOT of 22.38 yards.
Best QB targeting post and corner routes (min. 15 targeted attempts): Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton was a combined 13-14 for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns on these routes targeting the receiving duo of A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell. However, Dalton also had success throwing to his other receivers. He finished the season completing 29 of 42 passes for 642 yards and 7 touchdowns, earning a league-leading QB rating of 151.3. His completion percentage of 69 also led the league, and only one other QB completed more than 60 percent of post and corner routes. Dalton had his most success versus zone defenses completing 16 of 23 passes for 385 yards and 3 touchdowns. One of the keys to his success may have been his average time to throw of 2.36 seconds, likely due to his aDOT of 18.88 yards (third-shortest out of 32 qualifiers).
Honorable mention: Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Cousins was the only other quarterback to throw for a higher than 60-percent completion percentage rate on post and corner routes. Cousins completed 32 of 48 passes and was second in the league with a 140.6 QB rating, throwing for 881 yards and 9 touchdowns (both league-best marks). Cousins had the seventh-highest aDOT in the league at 24.08 and averaged 2.69 seconds per attempt. He was dominant versus zone coverages as he completed 20 of his 34 attempts for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. On his throws of 40 yards or longer down the field versus zone coverage, Cousins completed 4 of 7 passes for 3 touchdowns and 253 yards.
Hitches and comebacks
These routes are run up the field and then the receiver cuts back toward the quarterback. Comebacks are typically deeper routes, with an aDOT of 11.67 yards, while the hitch is a short route with an aDOT of 7.4 yards. Comebacks are not only more likely to be deeper down the field, but the receiver will work his way back to the QB more. The hitch, meanwhile, is more of a quick turn back to the QB. While each route has its differences, the goal is similar: the receiver wants to work the defender up the field and turn back to the ball.
Best QB targeting hitches and comebacks (min. 20 targeted attempts): Tom Brady, New England Patriots
PFF’s highest-graded quarterback makes the list yet again, and for good reason. Brady completed 52 of 66 passes for 609 yards, 3 touchdowns and a league-leading QB rating of 120.3. His 78.8-percent completion percentage was the sixth-highest in the league. He had an average time per attempt of 2.55 seconds and an aDOT of 8 yards, both right around league average. Brady was on fire throwing to these routes in the playoffs, as he completed 19 of 23 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. In the Super Bowl, Brady attacked the Falcons in man coverage with these routes. He completed all 5 of his passes for 63 yards, four going for first downs.
Honorable mention: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson led the league in yards on comebacks and hitches, throwing for 958 yards with 89 completions on his 113 attempts. He had a 78.7-percent completion percentage, seventh-highest in the league, and had an aDOT of 8.08 yards. Wilson went to these routes most often versus the Cover 3 zone, as 42 of his 113 attempts were against this coverage. Wilson took advantage of the holes underneath in the Cover 3, completing 33 of 42 passes for 340 yards; 14 went for first downs. He had a perfect completion percentage on third and fourth downs versus the Cover 3, going 9-9 for 105 yards, with 6 first downs.
The crossing route is separated from the dig route due to its lack of a vertical stem. The depth will vary from short drag routes to deep crossers, and it includes variations such as a receiver throttling down to settle between zones. The aDOT of these routes is 7.99 yards, while the QB dropback depth can vary widely, in part due to the variance in depth of this route.
Best QB targeting crossing routes (min. 14 targeted attempts): Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston dominated defenses when targeting crossing routes. He completed 36 of 50 passes for 529 yards, with 6 touchdowns and a 145.8 QB Rating. Winston’s impressive 72-percent completion percentage came while having the fourth-highest aDOT in the league of 10.92 yards. On passes over 25 yards, he completed all 4 to different receivers for 137 yards; 2 went for touchdowns.
Honorable mention: Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns
Kessler led the NFL in QB rating on crossing routes with a 148.2 rating. He completed 13 of 14 passes for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns. Kessler’s strength is his accuracy; his 92.8-percent completion percentage led the NFL, but his aDOT of 7.4 yards was 26th out of 38 qualifying QBs. Of his 14 attempts, only 4 traveled over 10 yards, with a long of 23 yards. However, he completed all 4 of his deeper targets, and both of his touchdowns came on throws of 23 and 11 yards. His only incompletion on the season came when targeting Terrelle Pyror in man-to-man coverage versus Josh Norman.