BGA Weekly: Returning to the Screen

Over the offseason, I’ll be doing some analytical work on the Jets’ 2011 season and re-visiting some of the work I carried out last year, to see if any trends identified are changing or continuing. Thanks to PFF for providing me with access to exclusive data to help me with my research.

On this week’s BGA Weekly, we revisit the success of the screen pass in the 2011 season. My research into this last year led me to the following conclusions:

– The Jets run screen passes a lot less than most teams
– They also run them a lot less than they used to before Mark Sanchez arrived
– Sanchez’ inaccuracy had an effect on the completion percentage, but also the yards per catch

I was convinced that if Sanchez could improve on that part of his game, it would have a significant impact on his overall numbers. So, did the Jets run more screens in 2011 and did they see any improvement in the success they had with these? I’ll also be looking at who caught his screen passes most effectively and how the Jets defense fared against screen passes. More after the jump.

Revisiting the 2010 numbers

Note: A screen pass is defined as any pass caught behind the line of scrimmage. Although there may be exceptional occasions where such a pass was caught beyond the line of scrimmage, I consider these to be rare so they are omitted from the data.

In 2010, I looked at a number of NFL teams and all of them threw screen passes on at least 10% of their pass attempts, apart from New England (9%) and the Jets (8%). On those passes by the Jets, they completed 81% and averaged 4.0 yards per catch. That did not compare favorably with other teams such as Miami (87% / 6.4ypc), Indianapolis (95% / 6.4ypc) or New England (80% / 8.2ypc). It also did not compare well with the numbers for Brett Favre in the year before Sanchez arrived (91% / 5.7ypc) – with the Jets throwing screen passes 18% of the time.

My research indicated that Sanchez’s inaccuracy was more of a factor than the personnel or the playcalling. Therefore, if he could work on that and get better at the timing and placement on his screen passes, surely this would make a big difference. Clearly he did that, so let’s see what effect it had.

2011 screen pass numbers

The first thing to note is that they did use the screen pass more in 2011. The final number was 9.6% of the time. However, it should be noted that with two weeks to go in the season, they were at 10.2%. However, the screen pass was rendered pretty ineffective over the last few weeks due to the obvious lack of a downfield passing threat, for whatever reason, and they therefore went away from it. This was perhaps an outcome from the game against the Eagles in Week 14 where they ran several screens against a team that usually struggles to defend them and did not see a lot of success, partly because the defense was ready for them, but also because of poorly executed blocks that, if executed correctly, would clearly have led to the plays being very successful. 10% is still well below the rate at which most teams throw screen passes and the rate at which the Jets used to throw them before Sanchez arrived, but the increase was obviously a by-product of the success they started to have.

The completion percentage increased from 81% to 85% which is another step in the right direction after he completed just 72% of his screen passes in 2009. Remember, Brady only completed 80% in 2010 (and, in fact, only 80% in 2011 too, as the Patriots again threw screen passes just less than 10% of the time). Once again, Sanchez’s percentage dipped right at the end of the season, because he was actually at a very creditable 88% before he threw those two awful interceptions on screen passes in the last game of the season. Would the improved accuracy here extend to to the timing and placement of these passes and therefore have a positive effect on the yards per catch achieved though?

In short, absolutely. On screen passes thrown by Sanchez, the Jets averaged 9.3ypc which stacks up very favorably with the numbers from Manning and Brady in 2010. (Brady’s screen passes went for 9.0ypc in 2011). Clearly Sanchez’s performance in this area was much better and that was reflected in the numbers.

You may recall that I attributed many of the mistakes to Sanchez last year and noted that PFF graded him negatively ten times on short passes to running backs (Manning/Brady had just five between them). In 2011, this dropped to five.

One key point we must always address is that of outliers. Sanchez did, of course, hit LaDainian Tomlinson with a screen pass in week three that went for a 70-yard gain which obviously had a dramatic effect on his numbers. However, even if we totally exclude this, Sanchez’s screen passes still went for 7.7ypc which is still a huge improvement and very good on a league wide basis.

Clearly, Sanchez’s improvement in this area contributed to his numbers this year, including a slight increase in completion percentage, a major improvement in red zone efficiency and, although he only had one touchdown on a screen pass, his numbers for touchdown passes (and runs) may have been indirectly boosted by the threat of the screen pass. Although his overall numbers again dipped right at the end of the year and didn’t end up much better than the year before, he was more consistent on a week-to-week basis. However, if he hadn’t made those improvements to his short passing game, his overall numbers could have ended up worse than last year. It’s impossible to know whether too much time was spent on this (and perhaps his work in the red zone) and this led to the regression in certain other areas (especially reading the field), but the lockout-shortened season excuse won’t fly this time round, so he’ll have to allocate his time to the best of his ability.

Receiving numbers

Nearly all of the Jets’ screen pass yardage came on throws to running backs this year. In fact, other than screen passes to Tomlinson, Joe McKnight and Shonn Greene, Sanchez was just 6-for-10 for 13 yards. Those three backs put up the following numbers:

Tomlinson 19 catches, 216 yards (11.4ypc)
McKnight eight catches, 77 yards (9.6ypc)
Greene 13 catches, 102 yards (7.8ypc)

Should we be worried that Tomlinson’s departure robs the Jets of one of their best weapons in the screen game? Perhaps not. If you exclude that 70-yard outlier we mentioned earlier, his other 18 catches only went for 8.1ypc, which McKnight and Greene seem capable of replicating. If you’re not a fan of excluding outliers, then if you instead take Tomlinson’s two year average on screen passes, that’s only 6.8ypc, so again I’d be hopeful this production can be replaced.

In terms of wide receiver screens, Sanchez had most success in the past throwing these to Jerricho Cotchery. Now that he’s gone, they didn’t have much success on WR screens last year, but – from his college highlight reel – it looks like Stephen Hill could produce on such plays.

Defending the screen

I heard a lot of complaints throughout the year that the Jets could not defend the screen pass, but were these justified? Jets opponents actually completed the exact same number of screen passes as the Jets did (on two fewer attempts), so it allows for an easy comparison. The Jets gained 408 yards, their opponents gained 270. So, clearly the Jets did a good job of limiting such yardage – to well below 20 yards per game. They gave up 46 yards in the first game of the year and then made the adjustment, never allowing more than 37 after that.

Overall, Jets opponents averaged 6.1ypc on screen passes, which is no better than average based on the numbers we’ve seen throughout the research for this article and last year’s.


Sanchez continues to trend upwards in terms of his short passing. Hopefully that will continue in 2012, but he needs to ensure he improves in other areas too. With the team-wide focus on “one step faster” the screen game (on both sides of the ball) could be an area where the Jets see a major benefit this season. They just need to ensure the offense is more diverse so that it doesn’t become too easy for the defense to prepare for like it appeared to at the end of last season.


osi is being kind to sapp.