Fields in Focus Part II: Play Action

| February 15th, 2022

Today is the second of seven articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ rookie season, looking at how his performance fared in play action vs. standard dropbacks and also how he performed throwing quick passes as opposed to slow-developing plays. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

Play Action

Let’s start by looking at how Justin Fields did on play-action dropbacks compared to standard passing plays. Before I present the full data, I want to briefly explain two PFF stats that will be used:

  • Big Time Throw: these are best described as a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window. In other words, these are really good, difficult passes that should result in highly valuable big plays. A higher % here is better.
  • Turnover Worthy Play: These include fumbles in the pocket, interceptions thrown, and interceptable passes that were not caught. A lower % here is better.

Both of these stats will admittedly have some subjectivity inherent, but they provide a useful glimpse into how frequently a QB makes a really good play vs. a really bad one.

The table below shows how Fields performed in a wide variety of statistics in play action (blue) vs. other dropbacks (orange), and also includes Fields’ rank out of 39 total NFL QBs who had at least 20% of the pass attempts of the NFL leader. Information on the spread of all NFL QBs is also provided for each stat. Cells highlighted in green indicate Fields was among the top 10 QBs in this category, while those in red indicate Fields was in the bottom 10 QBs.

A few thoughts:

  • Fields’ accuracy and completion percentage were very poor in both samples, but that is to be expected given his accuracy issues, which we looked at in part one of this series. Relatively speaking, he was a little better in play action than out of play action here.
  • We also see consistency in Fields pushing the ball down the field regardless of the play time. His average pass was the 3rd deepest in regular passes and the deepest on play action. This is also expected given what we’ve already looked at. Fields likes to go deep.

  • In general, play action passes lead to deeper throws (median target depth of 9.0 yards vs. 8.1), and deeper passes are where Fields shined as a rookie, so it makes sense that he would do better here.
  • Fields really shined in play action when you look at big time throw rate compared to turnover worthy plays. He was one of the best QBs in the NFL in both marks, which is what you want to see. While turnover worthy plays in general see an uptick on play action passes, Fields’ fell dramatically, indicating how much more comfortable he was in these settings.
  • Fields took a high rate of sacks on both play action and standard dropbacks, but almost 2x the rate of sacks on play action. This is really the only negative.
  • In general, play action leads to more big plays (deeper throws, higher yards/attempt, higher big time throw rate for NFL as a whole), but also more bad ones (sacks, turnovers, incompletions). Thus, it makes sense why Fields shined in play action. He’s good at the big play stuff, but bad at the short, consistent stuff that comes more in non-play action settings.

Considering Fields was better at completing passes, gaining yards, making big time throws, and avoiding turnover-worthy plays in play action, you might expect that an offense featuring Fields would heavily feature play action. But this happened on only 24% of Fields’ dropbacks, which was the 28th highest rate out of the 39 QBs (median mark was 26%). There is no way to describe this as anything other than coaching malpractice. Fields was used in play action at virtually the same rate as Andy Dalton, or Nick Foles in 2020 and Mitchell Trubisky in 2019. Matt Nagy refused to change his offense to suit his personnel, and here we see an example of it very clearly hurting Fields in his rookie season. There is no reason that 10-20% more of Fields’ dropbacks couldn’t have utilized play action, putting him in line with the most frequent play action rates in the NFL and better setting him up for success.

Already as a rookie, Justin Fields was one of the best play action passers in the NFL. This is a clear strength that new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has to build on. Chicago’s offense should be extremely play-action heavy. Getsy comes to Chicago from Green Bay, where he was the QB coach and passing game coordinator from 2019-21. It’s impossible to say for sure how involved he was in designing the offense, but Aaron Rodgers didn’t use play action much more than Fields last year (26%, 19th of 39 QBs. Rodgers ranged from 26% to 29% from 2019-21). Of course, it’s possible Getsy will design this offense differently since Fields is a different QB than Rodgers. We don’t really know, but we can only hope Getsy will take note of Fields’ play action abilities and respond appropriately.

New GM Ryan Poles said his goal was to “find what (Fields) does well and do that a lot.” If the Bears actually mean that, they will use a whole lot of play action in 2022.

Time To Throw

Let’s look now at a different way to parse a QB’s pass attempts, based on how long it took him to throw the ball. PFF splits into less than 2.5 seconds and more than 2.5 seconds.

The table below shows the same stats as the play action one above except for sacks, which are not included in the sample. Once again, Fields’ data is shown ranked out of the 39 QB sample, information is provided about the spread of the 39 QBs, and cells for Fields’ stats in green or red represent Fields ranking in the top ten or bottom ten, respectively.

A few thoughts:

  • There’s going to be some overlap with the play action stats above here. The average play action pass took 3.08 seconds to throw for qualified NFL QBs this year (3.53 seconds for Fields), while the average non-play action pass took 2.64 seconds for all QBs (2.92 seconds for Fields). Thus, it stands to reason that the majority of play action passes will feature in the >2.5 second sample, but this includes the rest of passes too
  • Let’s start with the average target depth, where the median passer is more than twice as far down the field on the slow developing plays. This makes sense: the quick game is all about short passes, as there’s not time to get guys downfield.
  • Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see that Fields struggled more in the quick game, where he ranks worse than the slow-developing plays compared to his peers in every category except average target depth. Fields likes to push the ball down the field, and he’s better at that than the short stuff.
  • Again, we see that Fields excelled in big time throws and was pretty good at limiting turnovers in the category that favors deeper passes. This accentuated his strengths, while the quick game – where he really struggled with turnovers – played into his weaknesses.
  • The quick game is supposed to limit turnover risk – the median NFL QB was about 2.5x less likely to have a turnover worthy play when the ball was out in under 2.5 seconds – but Fields did not see that effect. His turnover-worthy play rate barely changed. This highlights how much he struggled with decision making on fast plays, while the slower ones let him see it and rip it, which he was more comfortable with.
  • One area that doesn’t show up here is sacks, because this only counts plays that end with a passing attempt. Pretty much all sacks will fall in the greater than 2.5 second category though. According to Next Gen Stats, only 14 of the 1244 sacks in the NFL this year came in less than 2.5 seconds.
  • So that boom or bust potential is here for slow-developing plays too, just like for play action passes. Longer times to pass result in deeper passes and more big-time throws, but also more sacks and turnovers. Fields was relatively better in these high variance areas as a rookie but needs to greatly improve in the quick game to improve the offense’s consistency.
  • Overall, only 41% of Fields’ passes came in less than 2.5 seconds. This was the 8th lowest mark of the 39 QB sample and was appreciably lower than the NFL median of 48%.

Lessons Learned

Here are the main takeaways from this article:

  • Chicago’s new offense needs to utilize play action heavily, because Justin Fields was a borderline elite play action QB as a rookie.
  • For as positive as that is, Fields really needs to improve in non-play action situations, because he was awful in those.
  • Likewise, Fields needs to get much better at the quick passing game (which goes hand in hand with the short passing game highlighted in the last article), where he was one of the worst passers in the NFL.
  • In particular, Fields needs to get better at limiting turnovers in the quick game, which is supposed to be fairly risk averse. He was pretty good at avoiding turnovers on play action and slow-developing plays, where more turnovers are expected, but pretty bad at avoiding turnovers on the “safe” quick plays.

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