Fields in Focus (5/8): Performance Under Pressure

| May 9th, 2023

Today is the fifth 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.

Under Pressure

We’ve already seen that Fields was under pressure very frequently, so how did he hold up when that happened?

The table below shows how Fields performed in a wide variety of statistics when kept clean (blue) vs. pressured (orange), 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 further explanation of big time throws and turnover worthy plays was given in the play action article; generally, more big-time throws is good, and more turnover-worthy plays is bad.

A few thoughts:

  • Fields actually performed quite well under pressure compared to his peers, as his yards/attempt and big time throw rate were both among the best in the NFL.
    • This was a real area of growth from his rookie season, when Fields struggled tremendously under pressure. That could point to Fields starting to adjust to the speed of NFL defenses.
    • This matches what we saw in the time to throw article. Fields is at his best when he can hold the ball and look to push it downfield. Pressured throws will of course be slower developing plays that go farther downfield. The average throw time without pressure is 2.4 seconds, while that jumps to 3.5 seconds on pressured passes, and the average target depth increases from 7.6 to 10.7 yards.
    • However, the downside of that is the high turnover worthy play rate and the huge number of sacks (which aren’t shown here because you can’t be sacked if you aren’t pressured), just like with the quick vs. slow breakdown.
  • On the flip side, Fields needs to perform better when kept clean. His yards/attempt mark was actually worse in a clean pocket compared to when he was pressured, which is very bizarre considering the NFL average is an improvement of almost two yards/attempt.
    • This is a huge change from his rookie year, when he was among the best passers in the NFL in a clean pocket. I find that a bit confusing, as performance from a clean pocket is fairly stable from one season to the next.
    • This likely has significant overlap with the difficulties in the quick-hitting game that we saw earlier in this series. Most of those plays are going to be in the clean category, and Fields was really bad there.
    • I also wonder how much Chicago’s abysmal WR group factored into this. Fields’ clean throws came at an average of over 2.7 seconds, the longest in the NFL and an increase of from the 2.6 seconds he saw as a rookie, but his average target depth on these passes dropped by over 2 yards from his rookie season. Could it be that nobody was quickly getting open down the field, forcing Fields to hold the ball a tick longer and still dump it off?

Against the Blitz

Finally, I want to look specifically at how Fields performed when teams sent extra rushers at him on a blitz.

Much like the table above in the performance under pressure section, the table below shows how he fared in a variety of stats when blitzed (orange) and not blitzed (blue), and also gives context for how he ranked relative to the 33 qualifying NFL QBs. 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%.

A few thoughts:

  • Teams blitzed Fields at a higher rate than the average NFL QB last year, but the blitzing didn’t work very well. Fields’ completion percentage and yards/attempt mark were both higher when he was blitzed, and his sack and turnover worthy play rates didn’t increase all that much.
    • Teams could get to Fields just fine without blitzing, leading to many of the same benefits of the blitz (more negative plays) without opening themselves up to the big plays that you leave yourself vulnerable to when blitzed.
    • One benefit of blitzing is that it made Fields a bit less likely to run. That’s a big win when you consider that running was his biggest weapon last year.
  • Fields didn’t do very well throwing when he was not blitzed, as his completion percentage and yards/attempt marks were both below average and his sack and turnover worthy play rates remained sky high.
    • This is probably because of how frequently he was pressured when not blitzed. 50% of blitzes against Fields resulted in a pressure, while 44% of snaps without a blitz resulted in a pressure. Those are pretty similar rates, but when teams don’t blitz, they have more players in coverage, which makes it harder to pass.
    • For a little more context, NFL pressure rates as a whole were 45% when blitzing and 33% when not blitzing, about double the blitz/not-blitz difference from what Fields experienced.

Lessons Learned

In case you got lost in all the numbers and words above, here’s a quick recap of the main takeaways from today’s article:

  • Fields improved considerably when pressured in year two compared to his rookie season.
  • Fields’ performance in a clean pocket, on the other hand, took a nosedive from his rookie year, which might point at downgrades in his surrounding cast forcing him to check down more often.
  • In general, Fields was pretty good at the boom-or-bust areas that allow for big plays down the field but also suffered plenty of sacks and turnovers (blitzed and/or pressured), and pretty bad at the areas that require you to play it safer and make consistent plays underneath (no pressure and not blitzed). This is consistent with what we’ve seen elsewhere in this series when looking at his performance through other lenses.

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