NFL Film Breakdown: Is Derek Carr a Game Manager or Does he Have Untapped Potential?

Since Jon Gruden has come back to the Raiders for his second stint as the head coach, Derek Carr’s completion percentage has shot up 8% where he’s now completing 70% of his passes. Questions have popped up about whether he’s the right fit for Gruden’s offense or if the Raiders will soon move on from the quarterback. While Carr may have some issues, it’s also important to understand the context within which he’s playing. Often criticized for his lack of shots downfield, Carr is actually one of the most accurate deep throwers in the NFL. Since 2016, Carr is the 3rd most accurate in deep passes for targets 20+ yards downfield. Throwing the deep ball isn’t so much the issue as is the frequency with which he throws it. As his career has gone on, his intended air yards has steadily decreased year after year. But is this by design and a manifestation of the personnel and scheme or is Carr simply not a gambler and more comfortable managing the game through checkdowns?

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

USATSI

Gruden’s offense emphasizes ball control, a strong run game, high percentage throws, and getting positive yardage on every play with the occasional shot downfield. Derek Carr executes the underneath game incredibly well. He reads quickly and efficiently and can make accurate throws. It’s not the most exciting, but it is effective. The Raiders ranked 7th in the league in time of possession and when you have a defense that isn’t complete, holding onto the ball minimizes the possessions of the opponent and gives you a better chance to win.

These rhythm and short and intermediate throws are where Carr is at his best. He can drive the ball, shows good understanding of zone space, and can read decisively and efficiently. He understands how to move defenders with his eyes and where that will open up space on his next read. He is especially good at throwing short posts or post sits into zone coverage. He’s patient enough to let defenders flow away from the area he needs to throw to and has the arm strength and touch to fit the ball into tight windows. You see his eyes manipulate safeties to open up areas and he very rarely throws his receivers into trouble – throwing back hip to slow them down or making them settle into a hole.

These are the main things that Carr was asked to do in the Raiders offense this last year. That being said, he did have some issues.

If you’re going to roll with the possession passing, you’ve got to be accurate. Short passes obviously help that cause and lead to Carr’s 70.4% completion percentage in 2019. However, while the Raiders receivers definitely struggled with drops throughout the year, Carr was also inconsistent with his ball placement underneath at times which prevented yards after catch potential.

He has a big issue with pointing his toe and leaving his leg on his throwing motion which limits his hip rotation and ends up causing him to throw behind receivers. Whether it’s a slant or a quick out, these kinds of throws pop up a few times a game and when you’re throwing to running backs or trying to push an offense that needs yards after catch, that’s a big issue. Without bringing his hips all the way around and using his leg to follow through, he gets a lot of horizontal inaccuracy. From a mechanics standpoint, you want to point your toe where the receiver will be and fight to get your hips pointed in that same direction after your follow through. This allows you to generate consistent power and accuracy that stems from your lower body and leads to more consistent throws.

When faced with pressure, Carr often quickly goes straight from his deep read to a checkdown in the flats or underneath instead of progressively going through his intermediate routes down to his outlets. As we talked about earlier, he can throw the deep ball perfectly fine, he just doesn’t throw it often. Instead of going from the post to the curl here, he moves directly to the flare by the running back for a loss of yardage.

Here he misses the dig in the middle of the field once pressure starts to get near him and throws the checkdown underneath. These passes might steadily move the ball but it’s really hard to march down the field 5 yards at a time in the NFL. The Broncos here are running cover 4. As the linebacker responsible for the flat leaves with the running back, that opens a huge space for the dig over the middle. Carr is experiencing a collapsing pocket but there’s a lack of anticipation here which happens frequently when he’s under duress.

Here the Jaguars bring a ton of pressure which means you have man coverage outside. As soon as pressure appears, Carr immediately dumps the ball off to his running back for a loss of yards. If he read the linebacker running to cover the running back and climbed the pocket, he would have seen his receiver wide open on the crosser.

So, he has some faults with anticipation when under pressure but from a pure passing standpoint he has the tools. His mechanics are largely clean aside from his occasional lack of follow through. His base can get a little tight and he can get jittery and bouncy in the pocket but it largely doesn’t impact his deep ball accuracy. He shows really good touch on balls down the field and lets receivers use their already established leverage. He puts good arc on the ball so it’s easier to track, and allows for yards after the catch.

All-in-all, Derek Carr is running what Gruden is asking of him and running it well. The Raiders controlled the ball, were in a number of close games, and were competitive late into the year. Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow emerged as legitimate weapons and Josh Jacobs was an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Now throw in the addition of Henry Ruggs and some true speed on that offense and the Raiders are going to have the most talented skill positions that Carr has had to date. Carr can push the ball downfield and I fully expect to see more shots with the talent the Raiders have. It’s time to open things up in Vegas. Gruden likes to dial it up a couple times a game, and now the personnel match the look of a more explosive and exciting offense that’s ready to challenge for a playoff spot in 2020.

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The Power of Play-Action

On a day when the 49ers ran the ball 18 times for 27 yards, Kyle Shanahan’s play action passing game was just as deadly as ever. Jimmy G was 11/12 and racked up 174 yards through the air off of play action. On top of that, he had a 16 yard TD pass to Ross Dwelley and 15 yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders both called back due to penalty. The only miss of the day was on a ball he air mailed to Kendrick Bourne in the red zone after the nullified Dwelley TD.

Play-action is one of my favorite things to do film breakdowns on because it often leaves gaping holes in the defense and allows for explosive plays. Kyle Shanahan did an exceptional job with his offensive scheme and setting up easy throws and reads throughout the day for Garoppolo, proving that the idea that you need to be able to run the ball consistently and effectively to set up play action just isn’t true. More and more teams are beginning to buy in to this line of thinking with the play action rate in the NFL in 2018 reaching 24% (Spratt, 2019). Even further, Football Outsiders found that “from 2011 to 2017, 196 of 224 team-seasons had higher yards per play on play-action dropbacks than on non-play-action dropbacks. This includes teams like the 2017 Lions (9.4 yards per play-action play, No. 30 in rushing DVOA) and 2015 Jaguars (1.7 more yards per play on play-action dropbacks despite being No. 28 in rushing DVOA and only running 31 percent of the time)” (Baldwin, 2018).

Case and point is the first play from scrimmage that the 49ers ran on Sunday. Without setting up the run, they ran play-action. A staple of the Shanahan offense is using his fullback Kyle Juszczyk or George Kittle to crunch across the formation and kick out the end in a split zone concept that allows for cutbacks in the run game and taking advantage of overflowing defenses. With the 49ers run game’s reputation and established tendencies, this leaves the window open for play action off of it pictured below.

49ers first play from scrimmage vs. Cardinals on November 11th, 2019

As the play develops both the defensive end and corner feed up into the run game and allows Garoppolo to have his pick of Dwelley or Juszczyk. Ideally Garoppolo is able to see #33 crash on a hard run read and hit Dwelley behind him and in front of the deep middle safety. With Deebo Samuel running straight at the free safety, it creates a high low read against #33 on the playside. Deebo should be able to occupy the free safety and prevent him from getting over to the corner route by Dwelley. This play action flood concept aims to put the flat and deep third defender in conflict. If #33 stays deep under the corner by Dwelley, you can hit the 10 yard dig that’s coming from the backside or dump it down to Juszczyk in the flats. If he comes up, you can drop one over his head and in front of the FS occupied by the skinny post ran by Samuel. You’d like for Jimmy to keep his eyes up, see the crashing corner and throw with anticipation to lead Dwelley to the sideline for a chunk play to open the game but with pressure in his face, he takes the open Juszczyk in the flats for positive yards.

Shanahan does an amazing job of giving Garoppolo easy reads and setting him up for success by scheming guys open and allowing for easy completions. One of my favorite plays and a great call that catches the Cardinals in man coverage is a jet sweep play action screen. Shanahan puts in a pre-snap shift to help Garoppolo determine that the Cardinals are in man coverage. Likely, he has a play that he can kill to if the defense bumps over and shows zone coverage. As you can see below, with the rollout, the safety and middle zone defenders mirror over with the QB on the rollout, the playside corner #33 has to run with the dig by Deebo Samuel, and the crunch flat route by the RB pulls the LB in man coverage, leaving one guy defending the jet sweep player – Richie James Jr. The set-up of the play looks similar to a lot of Shanahan play action with boots, rollouts, and players coming across the formation into the QBs field of view. So how can you make them pay for only having one guy defending the sweep on that side of the field? Leak linemen out on a screen that way and set up four big guys to block one small guy. The execution is awesome and gives the defense one more thing to think about on pre-snap motion and during play action.

54 yard gain for the 49ers vs. the Cardinals on a Jet PA Rollout Screen

The beauty of play-action is that it can create simple reads and make them even easier. In the second half, the 49ers ran one of the most basic passing plays and one that is executed even at the high school level. Flood. A flood concept has three players running routes at three different levels all on the same side of the field so that the defender’s zones are overloaded and they can’t cover every route. Typically there is a flat route at 1-2 yards, a deep out at 10-12 yards, and a fade which clears out any deep zone player. While the first play of the game used a flood concept, they got there in a unique way with Dwelley leaking after faking a block and heading to the corner. This time with the pre-snap shifts, nobody follows which indicates zone. The corner is 8 yards off and the linebackers are over-shifted to protect against a two tight end set. The two tight ends stay in for pass pro and the Cardinals are left with three guys defending no releasing receivers and two guys defending three on the playside. The corner has to run with the fade and the LB responsible for the flats, #58, feeds into the play action and can’t get back under the deep out in time, allowing for an easy throw and catch and 13 yard gain.

13 yard gain for the 49ers on a simple play-action flood concept

Despite the lack of running game all day, play action still held linebackers, caused misdirection, and opened up easy passing lanes for Garoppolo and the 49ers. Play action passes accounted for 41% of Garoppolo’s passing yards and allowed the 49ers to get the Cardinals on their heels and climb their way back into a game in which they were down 16-0 early in the second quarter. Play-action passing is a hugely efficient play made even more deadly by Kyle Shanahan’s run game scheme and the ability for the 49ers to capitalize on undisciplined coverage. Look for them to continue to lean on it to create big plays and keep defenses honest throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe here and let us know what you think. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen. If you feel like donating to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here.

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References

Baldwin, B. (2018, December 13). Further Research on Play-Action Passing. Retrieved from Football Outsiders: https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2018/further-research-play-action-passing

Spratt, S. (2019, July 24). Play-Action Offense 2018. Retrieved from Football Outsiders: https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2019/play-action-offense-2018

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