NFC West Preview: Off-season Recap and Predictions

NFC West preview

The NFC West is one of the toughest divisions in football. The Super Bowl Champion LA Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks all made big moves this off-season. With three of the four teams believing they can win the division this year, there’s a lot to break down. Let’s see who each team lost and added, as well as predict their 2022-23 season in this NFC West preview.

NFC West Preview

4. Seattle Seahawks

Key loses – QB Russell Wilson, LB Bobby Wagner, CB DJ Reed Jr., DE Carlos Dunlap, OT Duane Brown, TE Gerald Everett, C Ethan Pocic

Key additions – LB/DE Uchenna Nwosu, QB Drew Lock, TE Noah Fant, DE Shelby Harris, CB Artie Burns, DEN 2022 first (OT Charles Cross) and second (LB Boye Mafe), DEN 2023 first and second round picks

Re-signed – QB Geno Smith (1-year), FS Quandre Diggs (3-years), DT Al Woods (2-years), TE Will Dissly (3-years), C/G Kyle Fuller (1-year)

Extensions – WR DK Metcalf (3-years, $72 million)

The Seahawks finished with a losing record of 7-10 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. That was good for last in the NFC West. So, they decided to start their rebuild. They shipped Wilson to Denver for a plethora of picks and players, and released longtime linebacker Bobby Wagner.

While fans hate to see their leaders of the past ten years go, the franchise is excited for the rebuild. However, with quarterbacks Geno Smith and Drew Lock on the roster, they know this year will be tough.

While they did bring in Charles Cross to hopefully be their left tackle for the future, the rest of the offensive line is still a question. Gabe Jackson had a good rookie season, but during his sophomore season he took a step back.

Drew Lock and Geno Smith will have help in the skill positions. With DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, both QBs have reliable and exciting targets. The backfield looks to be between Rashaad Penny and rookie Kenneth Walker III. Penny finished last season with a 92-617-6 line in the last five games. Seattle finished with the 26th most rushes per game last season, but we should expect that to increase this season.

The defense is a mess for Seattle. The linebacker corps of Jordyn Brooks, Darrell Taylor, and Cody Barton is expected to take a big step back with the loss of Bobby Wagner. The defensive line could improve the addition of Harris and Nwosu. However, I wouldn’t expect it to.

The secondary is where they will get hurt the most. They ranked second-to-last in the NFL last season in passing defense, while also being in the bottom 11 in interceptions. The trade for Jamal Adams hasn’t panned out so far, and while they do have Quandre Diggs across from him, the tandem has shown struggles in coverage.

Prediction

I have the Seahawks finishing the year tied for last in the league with a record of 3-14. With a tough NFC West, they will go 1-5 with their only win divisional coming Week 9 at the Arizona Cardinals. It’s a rebuild year for Seattle, as they look to gain a top 3 pick and hopefully get their quarterback of the future in the 2023 NFL draft.

3. Arizona Cardinals

Key loses – DE Chandler Jones, ILB Jordan Hicks, DE Jordan Phillips, WR Christian Kirk, RB Chase Edmonds

Key additions – WR Marquise Brown, OG Will Hernandez, TE Trey McBride, DE Cameron Thomas, CB Trayvon Mullen Jr.

Re-signed – TE Zach Ertz (3-years), RB James Connor (3-years)

Extensions – QB Kyler Murray (5-year, $230.5 million), LT D.J. Humphries (3-year, $66.6 million)

Last season Arizona started off hot, as they went 7-0 before losing to the Packers in week 8. The second half of the season didn’t treat them as well, as they went 4-5. They finished the season with a record of 11-6, which was good enough for the fifth seed in the NFC and second in the NFC West.

They would go on to lose their playoff game 34-11 versus the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Kyler Murray struggled in that game going 19/34 for 137 yards with two interceptions.

The offense for the Cardinals lost an important piece for the first few weeks as wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is suspended for the first six games. They did bring back running back James Connor and tight end Zach Ertz to help carry the load again. The addition of Marquise Brown should open the field up more for Murray as well.

The offensive line is a mixed bag. DJ Humphries and Rodney Hudson are both very solid starters. They do, however, have one of the worst guard combos in the league with Will Hernandez and Justin Pugh. With their division having guys like Aaron Donald and Nick Bosa, the offensive line could struggle keeping the pocket clean for Murray. After ranking eighth in total offense last season, the Cardinals are looking for more of the same.

The Cardinals lost some key players on the defensive side of the ball with Jones and Hicks. They didn’t do a lot to fill those holes by bringing in defensive end Cameron Thomas and cornerback Trayvon Mullen Jr. For a defense that finished 11th in total defense last season, they look to take a small step back.

Their major issue on the defensive side of the ball was against the run, and that isn’t expected to change. With aging JJ Watt being the focal point, they will be looking for the rookie Cameron Thomas and defensive tackle Zach Allen to step up.

Their secondary should still be a force with Byron Murphy Jr and Budda Baker headlining. Their linebacker corps is interesting, as they have Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, who haven’t lived up to the expectations yet. The defense should be solid this season, but nothing spectacular.

Prediction

I have the Cardinals finishing 7-10 in the NFC West, going 2-4 in the division. Kliff Kingsbury could be on the hot seat after this season if the team doesn’t make the playoffs. Arizona is looking to prove the doubters wrong and make it back to the playoffs in a weak NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Key loses – OG Laken Tomlinson, DL DJ Jones, CB K’Wuan Williams, OL Tom Compton, RB Raheem Mostert, DE Arden Key, C Alex Mack             

Key additions – CB Charvarius Ward, DL Hassan Ridgeway, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, DE Kerry Hyder Jr., DL Drake Jackson, RB Tyrion Davis-Price, WR Danny Gray

Re-signed – RB Jeff Wilson Jr. (1-year), OL Jake Brendel (1-year), CB Jason Verrett (1-year)

Extended – WR Deebo Samuel (3-year, $73.5 million)

After finishing last season 10-7, good for the 6th seed in the NFC, the 49ers went on a run in the playoffs, losing in the NFC Championship game to the Los Angeles Rams. It was a successful season for the 49ers, but wasn’t good enough for them. They are looking to make some noise again this season, but with a different leader on offense. The change of their quarterback could make improve their stance in the NFC West.

The 49ers announced that Trey Lance will be their starting quarterback this upcoming season. They restructured Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract, making him the highest paid backup in the league. It will be interesting to see how the offense changes with Lance at the helm. They finished with the seventh best total offense last season behind a fantastic breakout year from Deebo Samuel.

They lost two pieces of their offensive line in Tomlinson and Mack. Those will not be easy pieces to fill, either. But, with Kyle Shanahan as their coach they should be just fine in that department.

Outside of Lance taking over, the skill positions on offense stayed almost the exact same. Elijah Mitchell comes back to lead the backfield, while Brandon Aiyuk looks to break out next to Deebo Samuel this season. The offense should still be a force with the Shanahan playbook.

Deebo took over the spotlight for this team, but the defense was still the best side of the ball. Finishing third in total defense last season, they are looking to be even better this season. Nick Bosa is leading the defensive line again this year. With defensive tackles Arik Armstead and  Javon Kinlaw, who is coming back off of an ACL sprain a season ago, they should be a great front again.

While having one of the best linebackers in the league in Fred Warner, the 49ers are looking to wreak havoc against opposing offenses for another year. Ambry Thomas had a good rookie season, but the corners are still a question for the 49ers. Charvarius Ward came over from KC and, while he is a solid corner, having Emmanuel Moseley across from him is still a major concern.

Prediction

The 49ers are looking to improve upon their 10-7 record. I have them doing that by one game. I see them going 11-6, finishing with a record of 4-2 against the NFC West. They will be hoping to get past the NFC Championship game and return to the Super Bowl to avenge their 2020 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

1. Los Angeles Rams

Key losses – OLB Von Miller, CB Darious Williams, NT Sebastian Joseph-Day, OG Austin Corbett, P Johnny Hekker, WR Robert Woods, LT Andrew Whitworth

Key Additions – WR Allen Robinson, LB Bobby Wagner

Re-signed – K Matt Gay (1-year), LT Joseph Noteboom (3-years), C Brian Allen (3-years), OL Coleman Shelton (2-years)

Extended –QB Matt Stafford (4-years, $160 million), WR Cooper Kupp (3-years, $80 million)

The winners of Super Bowl 56, the Los Angeles Rams are looking to repeat after their glorious run. They went all-in getting Matthew Stafford and it paid off. After finishing the regular season 12-5, Stafford finally got his ring in his first season out of Detroit, and he got rewarded with a major extension.

They also gave an extension to Super Bowl MVP and superstar wideout Cooper Kupp. While they lost superstar Von Miller to Buffalo, this team still has plenty of talent from their 2022 championship team.

The Rams 2021-22 offense was phenomenal. While they only finished ninth in total offense, they finished third in passing offense. The passing attack is expected to be just as good, if not better, with the substitution of Allen Robinson over Robert Woods next to Kupp — who just put up the second-best statistical season by a wide receiver in NFL history.

The run game is still a question, as Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr. look to each take a jump in 2022-23. The offensive line took a hit with Whitworth retiring and Corbett leaving. Though, they brought back Brian Allen, Joseph Noteboom, and Coleman Shelton to help protect Stafford. 2022-23 should be fun for Rams fans watching this offense as they look to finish in the top 10 again.

There is no question who the leader of this defense is: Aaron Donald. Arguably the best defensive player ever, he helped lead the Rams to the sixth-best rushing defense in the league. While they did finish 17th in total defense, they made a few changes.

They replaced a future Hall of Famer in Von Miller with another future Hall of Famer in Bobby Wagner. This gives a big boost to an interior linebacker corps that had Ernest Jones and Christian Rozeboom set to take the reins.

The secondary is still solid highlighted by All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey with Troy Hill opposite of him. The Rams should expect the defense to finish in the top 20 again, and maybe top 10.

Prediction

I have the Rams repeating as NFC West champs going 12-5 again, 5-1 in the division. The Rams are looking to go back-to-back and become the first team since the 2004-05 New England Patriots to do so. Will this team full of Hall of Famers be able to do it? We’ll have to wait and see.

2022 49ers 53-Man Roster Projection

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The San Francisco 49ers concluded their NFL Preseason Thursday night with a 17-0 loss to the Texans. The final step before they kick off Week 1 against the Chicago Bears is to trim their roster down to 53 players by August 30. With that in mind, here is my 49ers 53-man roster projection.

49ers 53-Man Roster Projection: Offense

QB (2): Trey Lance, Nate Sudfeld

In an ideal world, I believe it would be best for the 49ers to keep both backup quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Brock Purdy. However, with other more important positional needs, the 3rd-string Purdy is the odd man out. If he doesn’t get claimed off of waivers, he’ll be back on the practice squad.

RB (6): Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon, Tyrion Davis-Price, Jordan Mason, Jeff Wilson, Kyle Juszczyk

All seven 49ers running backs are worthy of making the 53 man roster. Kyle Juszczyk, Elijah Mitchell, and Tyrion Davis-Price are locks to make it, which leaves Trey Sermon, Jordan Mason, Jeff Wilson, and JaMycal Hasty the bubble.

I’ve given the edge to Sermon, Mason, and Wilson. Sermon, a 3rd round pick in 2021, hasn’t proven a whole lot yet. However, he has the upside and the 49ers gave him first team reps in the red zone at points during training camp. Mason, an undrafted free agent from Georgia Tech, has been the talk of camp, and has already shown tremendous potential. The 49ers can’t afford another team to claim him off of waivers if cut.

As for Wilson, six running backs on the roster is a lot. However, Wilson (and Jamycal Hasty for that matter) provide pass catching abilities none of the other running backs provide, which could be critical. Wilson also provides a much-needed veteran presence, which could come in handy.

WR (5): Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Danny Gray, Ray-Ray McCloud

These five receivers are all locks to make the roster. The big question is do the 49ers need another one? Malik Turner is the frontrunner if there were to be a 6th spot, as he could provide some much-needed special teams help. However, I believe the 49ers have more important needs elsewhere and have a solid special teams corps already.

TE (3): George Kittle, Charlie Woerner, Ross Dwelley

Like wide reciever, the question is if the 49ers want an extra player for the position. For tight ends, Tyler Kroft is the only one who has a chance to be the 4th guy. However, the 49ers are covered in the pass game, blocking game, and on special teams with the three players listed above. Kroft will probably be a practice squad addition.

OL (9): Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Mike McGlinchey, Colton McKivitz, Daniel Brunskill, Jaylon Moore, Jason Poe

Other than Trent Williams, the offensive line has many question marks. Aaron Banks and Mike McGlinchey have struggled at times throughout their careers, and Jake Brendel, Daniel Brunskill, and Spencer Burford don’t have much experience at their positions.

That’s why I believe the 49ers will keep a somewhat high nine offensive lineman. Jaylon Moore, Colton McKivitz, and Jason Poe have all shown throughout camp that they can be key depth pieces if something goes wrong during the regular season. That being said, all three of those players are inexperienced. In my opinion, it’s best to keep all three just to have a security blanket.

Also, I highly doubt he’ll make the roster, but keep an eye on Nick Zakelj. The 6th round pick out of Fordham has struggled immensely throughout camp, but has started to show signs of improvement. He’ll be on the practice squad, if he’s not claimed during roster cuts, and could make an impact down the line.

49ers 53-Man Roster Projection: Defense

DL (10): Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, Charles Omenihu, Kemoko Turay, Samson Ebukam, Kevin Givens, Jordan Willis, Drake Jackson, Hassan Ridgeway

The only debate I see is if the 49ers want to keep an extra defensive tackle, Hassan Ridgeway, or opt for another EDGE in Kerry Hyder. Hyder proved once again in 2020 that he excels in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s system. As much as I’d like to put Hyder on this roster, the 49ers would be thin at DT if they kept him. Ridgeway gets the edge, joining Armstead, Kinlaw, and Givens in the DT room.

LB (5): Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair, Dre Greenlaw, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Oren Burks

The only guy on the bubble is undrafted free agent Marcelino McCrary-Ball, but the five players listed above are significantly better. However, expect McCrary-Ball to make the practice squad.

CB (6): Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Samuel Womack, Tariq Castro-Fields, Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas

The only battle at cornerback is for the final two spots. I’ve given those to Tariq Castro-Fields and Ambry Thomas over the veteran Dontae Johnson. The 49ers don’t have as much of a need for Johnson with Womack and Lenoir playing nickelback, and thus, the 49ers should opt to go with upside over experience.

S (4): Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga, George Odum, Tashaun Gipson

Away from the starters, George Odum, while mediocre on defense, will make the roster due to his special teams contributions. The only battle right now at safety is between Tarvarius Moore and Tashaun Gipson.

Moore has been with the 49ers since 2018 and is solid on defense and special teams, but lost a lot of his explosiveness after his Achilles injury in 2021. Gipson, on the other hand, provides much needed coverage ability, but hasn’t proven much with the 49ers yet.

I’m giving the upper edge to Gipson. 49ers’ GM John Lynch said that Jimmie Ward will likely be placed on injured reserve. Gipson fills Ward’s role a bit better, and should get the nod to start Week 1. The 49ers can’t afford to risk another team claiming him. If not claimed off of waivers, Moore should be back on the 49ers Week 1 to replace Ward.

49ers 53-Man Roster Projection: Special Teams and Bubble

ST (3): Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowsky, Taybor Pepper

The 49ers have one kicker, one punter, and one long snapper currently on their roster, and they don’t plan to make any changes. Not much needs to be said here.

Bubble: QB Brock Purdy, RB Jeff Wilson, RB Jamycal Hasty, WR Malik Turner, TE Tyler Kroft, OL Nick Zakelj, (another OL?), DE Kerry Hyder, LB Marcelino McCrary-Ball, CB Dontae Johnson, S Tarvarius Moore

I talked about all these players in their respective position group, but thought I’d put them out here at the end. All 10 — or 11 — of these players have a shot at cracking the 53 man roster.  If they don’t, most will probably revert to the practice squad. If one player at their position goes down, they’re next up.

49ers Preseason Preview: Five Things To Watch vs. the Packers

Photo Credit: Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers kick off their preseason Friday against the Green Bay Packers. After 12 days of training camp, the players are still fighting for roster spots, more play time, and want to show the league what they’re made of. With that in mind, here are five players/position groups to keep an eye on Friday night.

1. Trey Lance

All eyes will be on Lance for this first preseason game. Kyle Shanahan said that some starters will play Friday, including Lance. The former third overall pick had an up-and-down camp, showing flashes of greatness throughout. This will be the first test in the Trey Lance era. Was benching Lance the correct move last season? How much has Lance improved since his week 17 start in 2021? While we might not see much of Lance during the game, fans should be focused on the few series he does play.

2. Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, and Jordan Mason

Running backs Trey Sermon, Elijah Mitchell, and Ty Davis-Price are locks to make the roster this season. These three running backs – Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, and Jordan Mason – still has something to prove. Historically, the 49ers have kept four running backs come cut day, meaning that at least one of these players won’t be a 49er come August 30.

I expect all three of these players to get snaps on Friday. Hasty and Wilson have much-needed veteran presence in this young core. While those two appear to be the favorites to make the roster, don’t count out Jordan Mason. The undrafted free agent out of Georgia Tech has shined throughout training camp, and has made a strong case to be RB4. This will be Mason’s biggest test yet, and everyone can see what he’s truly made of tonight.

3. Kick Returners

Special teams was a massive problem last season for the 49ers. New special teams coordinator Brian Schneider has a lot of work to do to improve from the 49ers’ abysmal 2021 squad.

Kick returner was a key issue last season, and the 49ers signed multiple guys this offseason to fight for that role. Players who have returned kicks in training camp include: Ray-Ray McCloud, Brandon Aiyuk, Danny Gray, Malik Turner, Marcus Johnson, and KeeSean Johnson. Both Johnsons returned kicks on Wednesday. Those players may not all get reps, but the ones who do will have to make the most of it. Ray-Ray McCloud is listed at the top of the depth chart, but I’d expect others to compete for his spot.

4. The Center Battle

Daniel Brunskill and Jake Brendel have been fighting all camp long to be the starting center. Throughout camp, Brunskill would be on the first team one day, then Brendel would take those reps the next day (FWIW, Brunskill took the first team reps on Wednesday). Kyle Shanahan stated that he wants to see how both play in game, so expect to see both players get plenty of snaps.

Center is the most crucial position on the offensive line in Shanahan’s offense. With Pro Bowler Alex Mack recently retiring, starting center will be Shanahan’s biggest decision to make come week 1.

5. Nickelback

This viewing guide is a bit offense-heavy, so let’s throw some defense in! The 49ers lost K’Waun Williams this past offseason. They utilized Williams a lot, and they’ll needs to fill his role at nickelback. Veteran Darqueze Dennard took reps towards the beginning of camp, but Samuel Womack got the nod for that role on Wednesday and took advantage of it.

Additionally, towards the beginning of camp, Dontae Johnson took snaps at nickelback. I’d expect all three players to play in the 49ers’ first preseason game. The battle at the position should continue throughout the preseason, but Friday’s game should give people a good sense of how the battle is going thus far.

49ers Training Camp Recap: Day 12

49ers quarterback Trey Lance on the last day of training camp
Photo Credit: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers held their 12th and final training camp practice yesterday. I had the privilege of attending practice. Here’s what stood out on the field to me.

The Trey Lance (and his backups) Report

Let’s start with Trey Lance. All eyes have been focused on the 3rd overall pick from 2021. Today, Lance struggled in the beginning half of 11-on-11s, going 3/10. After a quick break, he bounced back, throwing 5/9 to go 8/19 for the day. Lance had some concerning accuracy issues today, however, he was willing to take risks downfield. Lance showed flashes of what he can do deep downfield with the ball. His best throw was a dime on the left sideline to Brandon Aiyuk for a large gain.

In the run game, the 49ers ran lots of read options, play actions, and designed runs for Lance, which he capitalized on. It’s clear that the 49ers see Lance as a dual-threat quarterback.

As for the other two quarterbacks, Nate Sudfeld went 14/17, and Brock Purdy went 6/7, with his only incompletion being an ugly drop by wide receiver Austin Mack. Both stood out to me, but particularly Purdy. The 2022 Mr. Irrelevant looked comfortable in the pocket, read the field well, and got the third-team offense going. Overall, the two backup quarterbacks shined today.

Running Backs Stand Out

In the run game, all four running backs had great 11-on-11 sessions. Trey Sermon got the bulk of the red zone work. The second-year running back struggled in the backfield to start the day off, but got it going afterwards. Sermon scored a red zone touchdown, and looked a lot more comfortable on toss plays.

Outside of the red zone, JaMycal Hasty had a long touchdown run to cap off a stellar day. Rookies Ty Davis-Price and Jordan Mason also had multiple big yardage gains. The running backs had the best practice today (Elijah Mitchell did not practice today).

Defensive Standouts

On the defensive side of the ball, three players had phenomenal days. Kemoko Turay recorded five sacks and a PBU during 11-on-11s, according to Jordan Elliot. The former Colt has made a statement throughout camp, and today was probably his best day from what I heard.

In the secondary, cornerback Samuel Womack and safety Talanoa Hufanga were all over the place. Hufanga was all over the place during 11-on-11s, and on one play, he came out of nowhere to break up a Trey Lance dart. Hufanga has taken first team reps throughout camp, and has solidified his spot as a starting safety. Like Hufanga, Fred Warner was all over the field on 11-on-11s, too.

One thing I love about Hufanga is that he’s always the first player out on the field. This was a trend last year, and he’s done it again this year. Today, Womack joined him as first player out. The rookie DB took first team reps at nickelback and locked up Deebo Samuel twice on 1-vs-1s. All in all, Womack and Hufanga made their presence known on a day where the secondary was short-handed (Charvarius Ward and Emmanual Moseley did not practice).

Not So Many Negatives

As for the negatives yesterday, there weren’t many. However, Mike McGlinchey had a rough day against Nick Bosa. To be fair, it’s Nick Bosa, one of the best defensive lineman in football. However, McGlinchey will need to improve on his pass protection, something he’s always struggled to do in the NFL.

What’s Next?

With training camp wrapped up, the 49ers host the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium on Friday. Kyle Shanahan said that Trey Lance will go out for at least a series, as well as other starters. It will be the first test for the 49ers to show what they can do this season. Now that training camp is over, it’s officially time for the players to prove themselves to the league.

Does running the ball set up the pass?

Running the ball to set up the pass is an age old adage where your father and grandfather told you how to play football, but does running the ball really set up the pass?

Running the ball to set up the pass is an age-old adage where your father and grandfather told you how to play football, but does running the ball really set up the pass?

Traditionally, when an offense executes a successful run for a significant chunk of yardage, an opposing defense will attempt to compensate by bringing additional defenders into the “run box.” The more bodies in the way of the run, the more likely it is for the run to be held short. 

However, if more defenders are in the box, that means there are fewer players to defend passes away from the box, so the passing game has greater opportunity to get the ball further down the field. 

The NFL evolves every decade moving onward towards something unique but building on basic concepts. We’ve witnessed the fall of the I-form power football in the ‘70’s, to rise of the West Coast offense in the ‘80’s, Run ‘N Shoot and K-Gun in the ‘90’s, Spread and Shotgun offenses in the early 2000’s to the RPO revolution in the 2020’s.

Ultimately, this has come as a result of the NFL’s purposeful rule changes and schematic breakthroughs that have led to its desired impact: more touchdowns. In turn this led to running the ball much less.

EPA on running the ball to set up the pass

A study done by Sean Clements, who is now a data analyst for the Baltimore Ravens, found that establishing the run early in NFL games does not open the passing game later in games.

Through a boxplot Clements made, it’s found that there is little correlation between running the ball early and at a high volume increases the yardage obtained on passing plays.

The next emphasis is through EPA, expected points added. Basically, it measures the expected points of a play. 

In a graph made by Ben Baldwin, the number of expected points decreases as the number of rushing attempts increases. Contrary to the belief running the ball will help to set up the pass and score.

If that were the case, then we would expect to see higher EPA as the number of rushing attempts increases.

How the modern era has discontinued running the ball to set up the pass

From 2015-2020 passing on first down has averaged a 7.6 YPA, yards per attempt, while running the ball gained 4.3 YPA.

Per sharp football stats, 30.4% of pass attempts on first down have ended up moving the chains. However, only 12.8% of running plays have picked up another first down. In 2020, NFL teams ran the ball on 50.3% of their first-down plays in 2020 and passed the ball on only 49.7%.

In 2021, NFL offenses averaged 7.4 YPA passing on first down compared to 4.2 YPA rushing.

Even the most run-heavy teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans had higher YPA’s on first down compared to running the ball. San Francisco had an 8.9 YPA passing and 4.4 YPA rushing. Tennessee had 7.2 YPA passing and 4.2 YPA rushing.

Yet, 20 of 32 NFL teams, run the ball on first down gaining minimal yards compared to easily moving the chains to score. So what gives?

How two-high coverages has stopped running the ball to set up the pass

As a result of the modern NFL, many offenses are trigger-happy and defenses have had to respond with swift actions.

Defenses have adapted as time has passed. This time to coverages that include a large base of two-high safety shells.  Two-high coverage means both the strong safety and free safety defend the deep end of the field, with each responsible for a section that runs to each boundary.

Thus leaving the middle of the field open, the main purpose of two-high is to prevent explosive plays in the deep third of the field and not allow big plays.

Some NFL offenses and high-profile quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes have struggled against two-high coverage early on because they struggled to take what the defense gives them.

In 2018, the highest amount of two-high looks faced by any quarterback in the league was 42%. Eight weeks into the 2021 NFL season, only five teams faced two-high safeties less than 40%.

The key to beating two-high coverage? Running the ball. Two-high is not the perfect scheme to use a majority of the time as yards can be gained in the intermediate passing game and the running game.

Due to the nature of defensive backs lined up well outside the box, offenses often have a light defensive body count in the box to go against. This opens up numerous lanes for running backs.

How passing the ball has set up the run

Running the ball does keep the defense honest and it can be noted on second and third down. YPA on rush attempts increases to 4.4 on second down and 4.5 on third down.

The success rate of it gaining five or more yards is 50% on second down and jumps to 53% on third down. 

Passing on second down yields a 6.9 YPA with a 47% success rate, on third down passing results in 7.2 YPA with a 37% success rate.

First down has become the most successful passing down to move the chains and get drives started for offenses with a 54% success rate.

The most successful offenses in the NFL have potent passing attacks and have the most success by passing the ball on first down and converting it five-plus yards or past the sticks.

1st down situational Pass:Run Ratios

Buffalo, San Francisco, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and the Los Angeles Rams all have 8 or more yards per attempt passing coupled with being over a 54% success rate.

Respectively, each team’s YPA on running the ball increases on 2nd and 3rd downs.

Second and Third down Pass:Run ratios

As the NFL continues its passing revolution, gone are the days of running the ball to set up the pass. With the league running two-high shells almost 50% of the time, the NFL offense has adjusted to throwing the ball more on early downs to gain more yards. Thus, able to run the ball effectively when needed to be.

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