Fields in Focus (3/8): Play Action and Time to Throw

| May 5th, 2023

Today is the third of eight articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ 2022 season.

All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted, and Fields’ stats are only from Week 5 on, as was explained in part one of this series.

Play Action

Let’s start by looking at how Justin Fields did on play-action drop backs 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, 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 (orange) vs. other dropbacks (blue), and also includes Fields’ rank out of 33 total NFL QBs who had at least 240 pass attempts. Information on the spread of all NFL QBs is also provided for each stat. Cells highlighted in green indicate Fields was among the top 25% of QBs in this category, while those in red indicate Fields was in the bottom 25% of QBs.

A few thoughts:

  • In his rookie season, Fields was a great passer on play action throws, but the Bears didn’t take advantage of that very often. It’s nice to see that this coaching staff called much more play action, as his % of drop backs in play action increased from 24% to 32%.
  • Unfortunately, Fields’ effectiveness in play action didn’t hold up. His yards per attempt mark and big time throw rate both dropped significantly from year one to year two, and his turnover worthy play percentage went up. That meant that, overall, Fields was more of an average passer in play action situations than the great one he was as a rookie.
  • Relative to his peers, there wasn’t much difference in Fields’ performance in play action vs. other drop backs. He generally pushed the ball downfield, scrambled a lot, took too many sacks, and had too many turnover worthy plays in both samples.
    • The high turnover worthy play rate is likely due to fumbles, as Fields wasn’t too bad with interceptions but led the NFL with 16 fumbles.
    • With that said, play action in general is a more efficient approach to passing, as evidenced by the higher completion percentage (66% vs. 64%), yards/target (8.2 vs. 6.8), lower sack rate (6% vs. 7%), and lower turnover worthy play rate (2.9% vs. 3.5%) for the average passer in play action vs. other drop backs. While his ranks compared to his peers may not have been any better due to this difference, Fields overall was a more efficient passer in play action, so there’s still room to increase how frequently the Bears utilize that.

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 this into less than 2.5 seconds and more than 2.5 seconds.

There’s going to be some overlap with the play action data here, as the time to throw is generally longer on play action than other plays (average 3.0 vs. 2.7 seconds, as shown in the table above). So, we might expect to see some of the similar trends as above, but this is still a different enough way of parsing the sample that some results might be unique.

The table below shows the same stats as the play action one above except for scrambles, which are not included in the sample. Once again, Fields’ data is shown ranked out of the 33 QB sample, information is provided about the spread of the 33 QBs, and cells for Fields’ stats in green or red represent Fields ranking in the top 25% or bottom 25%, respectively.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out is that Fields doesn’t like utilizing the quick game. Only 30% of his drop backs resulted in a sack or pass in under 2.5 seconds, which was the lowest mark in the NFL by over 4%. In general, this matches with his play style; Fields likes to hold the ball and look for plays to develop down the field, which is why his average target depth is usually very high.
    • Still, 30% is much lower than the 41% of quick passes in his rookie season, showing that the offense was once again more catered to what he likes to do.
  • Looking at the data, it’s easy to see why Fields doesn’t like throwing quick passes: he’s not very good at it. Despite throwing the shortest quick passes of any QB in the NFL, Fields’ accuracy and completion percentage were below average, a combination that resulted in him having the worst yards/target mark of any NFL QB on these passes.
  • On the flip side, slower-developing plays allow Fields to push the ball down the field more, playing to his strengths as a quarterback. His accuracy here was very good considering how deep his passes were, and this led to a high yards/target and big time throw rate.
    • Those highs on slow developing plays also come with some real lows, however. Fields’ sack rate and turnover worthy play rate are both very high, as holding the ball longer gives the defense more time to get to you.
  • Fields is always going to have some of that boom/bust to his game on the slower-developing plays, but overall, there’s plenty of good to work with there. He really needs to improve in the quick game though, because those quick hitters are vital for picking up smaller chunks of yards more consistently to keep moving the chains while minimizing the risk of sacks and turnovers.

Lessons Learned

In case you got lost in all the data and commentary above, here are today’s main takeaways:

  • The Bears did a good job of designing their offense around Fields’ strengths, utilizing play action and slower-developing plays far more frequently in 2022 than the former regime did in his rookie season.
  • Fields was generally around average compared to his peers in both play action and non-play action settings, but average for play action is better than average for other passes, so the Bears should still look to increase how frequently they utilize Fields in play action.
  • Fields is pretty good as a passer on slow-developing plays, which bring lots of big gains and fun highlights alongside a much higher rate of sacks and turnovers. This is the boom-or-bust nature of Fields that led to many highlights in 2022 while also having plenty of lowlights. He needs to get drastically better in the quick passing game, where he was arguably the worst passer in the NFL, to help raise the floor.

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