Going deep

The long ball remains one of the most effective plays in football, but defenses have forced the game’s best QBs to change their approach

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Whether it’s a rocket from Josh Allen blasting across the middle of the field or a lofty lob from Aaron Rodgers that soars majestically toward the receiver, the deep pass is one of the prettiest, most impactful and potentially most crushing plays in football.

In the past two years, as NFL defenses have morphed to stop the prolific passers dominating the league, offenses have had to rethink how they approach the high-risk, high-reward long passes that can change the tide of a game.

For any team, going deep is important because it stretches the defense and generates the chunk plays at the heart of modern offense. But since 2020, defenses have increasingly used two high safety schemes to reduce open space downfield. Defenses went from playing bottom-up to top-down, which forced quarterbacks to attempt deep passes — those of 20 or more air yards — just 11.3 percent of the time in 2020, the lowest figure on record, according to analytics website TruMedia.

The deep passing rate remained relatively low (11.5) this season, but the teams that advanced to the second weekend of the postseason underscore how one of the most effective plays in football is changing and how the game’s best quarterbacks have maximized their limited chances.

Of the eight passers who reached the divisional round of the playoffs, six rely on the deep ball as a critical part of their games. The Buffalo Bills’ Allen and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes are athletic marvels who can throw darts from anywhere. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow are more surgical, using anticipation and accuracy to pinpoint a spot. The Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford is aggressive against double or triple coverage, while the Green Bay Packers’ Rodgers is much more careful.

The thread tying these six together is efficiency. By Expected Points Added (EPA), a metric that gives yards context, each ranked in the top 12 when throwing downfield.

Passing EPA (Expected Points Added)

How well a player performs relative to expectation.

Highlighted, QBs in the divisional round

60

Mahomes

50

Stafford

Burrow

Rodgers

40

Allen

Brady

30

20

10

Ryan

Tannehill

0

Jimmy Garoppolo

5%

10%

15%

20%

Percentage of attempts

of 20 or more air yards

Source: Keegan Abdoo/Next Gen Stats

Passing EPA (Expected Points Added)

How well a player performs relative to expectation.

Highlighted, QBs in the divisional round

60

Mahomes

50

Stafford

Burrow

Rodgers

40

Allen

Brady

30

20

10

Ryan Tannehill

0

Jimmy Garoppolo

5%

10%

15%

20%

Percentage of attempts

of 20 or more air yards

Source: Keegan Abdoo/Next Gen Stats

Passing EPA (Expected Points Added)

How well a player performs relative to expectation.

Highlighted, QBs in the divisional round

60

Mahomes

50

Stafford

Burrow

Rodgers

40

Allen

Brady

30

20

10

Ryan Tannehill

0

Jimmy Garoppolo

5%

10%

15%

20%

Percentage of attempts

of 20 or more air yards

Source: Keegan Abdoo/Next Gen Stats

“Smarter offenses are picking their spots more often,” said Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis. “They're not forcing as many deep passes as they might've in the past.”

The beauty is in how each quarterback achieved that level of efficiency. Mastering the deep ball is no longer as simple as getting a good matchup and heaving it long. The game has evolved to put more pressure on the passer, and while successful deep balls always have depended on several pieces clicking together, the best quarterbacks now must rely on power, finesse or smarts to beat defenses.

Allen’s power

Allen is one of the most physically gifted passers in the NFL. He, like Mahomes, is known for his arm strength and ability to extend plays with his legs. But in his first two seasons, he was terrible at the deep ball. By EPA, he ranked 37th of 37 qualified passers with a figure nearly four times worse than the second-worst quarterback’s (Cam Newton’s minus-4.89).

In 2020, after refining his mechanics and getting a downfield threat in Stefon Diggs, Allen had a nearly unprecedented breakout season in which he also vaulted to ninth in deep-passing EPA.

This season, he showed how devastating he can be on the run. On bootlegs or broken plays, Allen was lethal, using his athleticism to buy time for his refined mechanics, which unleashed the raw power of his right arm. His deep passes averaged 1.93 seconds of airtime this season, the quickest in the NFL.

In the first round, Allen completed a blowout of the New England Patriots with an illustrative throw. On first down near midfield, out of what looked like a certain run, Allen bootlegged right and threw a dot 36.2 air yards to tight end Dawson Knox. It set up the final touchdown in one of the greatest offensive performances of all time.

Allen speed

at throw

15.32 mph

Josh

Allen

Line of

scrimmage

Allen fakes a handoff to Zack Moss but keeps running with the ball.

He throws the pass

running at high speed.

Josh

Allen

1

Dawson

Knox

3

2

13.46 mph

Knox speed

at catch

18.14 mph

Knox speed

at ball release

Allen speed

at throw

15.32 mph

Josh

Allen

Line of

scrimmage

Allen fakes a handoff to Zack Moss but keeps running with the ball.

He throws the pass

running at high speed.

Josh

Allen

1

Dawson

Knox

3

2

13.46 mph

Knox speed

at catch

18.14 mph

Knox speed

at ball release

Allen speed at throw

15.32 mph

Josh

Allen

Line of

scrimmage

Allen fakes a handoff to Zack Moss but keeps running with the ball.

He throws the pass

running at high speed.

Dawson

Knox

Josh

Allen

3

2

1

13.46 mph

Knox speed

at catch

18.14 mph

Knox speed

at ball release

Allen speed at throw

15.32 mph

Josh

Allen

Line of

scrimmage

Allen fakes a handoff to Zack Moss but keeps running with the ball.

He throws the pass

running at high speed.

Josh

Allen

Dawson

Knox

2

3

1

13.46 mph

Knox speed

at catch

18.14 mph

Knox speed

at ball release

Allen has put Buffalo on the verge of something special. His aggressiveness can sometimes get the Bills in trouble, but he said he’s now smarter about when to gamble. Allen loves to be on the run, looking long — he led the league with 11.6 air yards per attempt on the run this season — but it wasn’t necessarily intentional.

“It’s more of a byproduct of escaping and letting our receivers to make some ad-lib plays down the field where, as corners and [defensive backs], you may not expect to cover a guy for that long,” he said. “Breaking contain and getting outside the pocket, It makes it easier for receivers to look back and see open space and run to it.”

Rodgers’s touch

While Rodgers also has one of the strongest arms in the league, it’s his change-up, not his fastball, that might best explain his greatness. Rodgers’s ability to find the right velocity at the right time maximizes the yards his receivers are able to gain after the catch. One example came from the Packers’ Week 3 game at the San Francisco 49ers.

On the first third down of the game, the 49ers played press man coverage. Wide receiver Allen Lazard beat the cornerback off the line, and Rodgers floated the ball toward him, 20 yards in the air. The timing was impressive — Lazard was running 15.46 mph when Rodgers released the ball and hit 18.92 mph when he caught it — but not unusual.

Allen

Lazard

Aaron

Rodgers

3

2

3

1

Aaron

Rodgers

Peak height

21.3 feet

1

15.46 mph

Lazard speed

at ball release

Line of scrimmage

Allen

Lazard

3

2

42-yard gain

with 22 YAC

13 expected YAC

Because of Rodgers’s accurate throw, Lazard has a high expected Yards After Catch (YAC) and exceeds it.

18.92 mph

Lazard speed

at catch

Allen

Lazard

K'Waun

Williams

Lazard catches the ball ahead of Williams at high speed and has the space to run 22 more yards.

Allen

Lazard

Aaron

Rodgers

3

2

3

1

Aaron

Rodgers

Peak height

21.3 feet

1

15.46 mph

Lazard speed

at ball release

Line of scrimmage

Allen

Lazard

2

42-yard gain

with 22 YAC

13 expected YAC

Because of Rodgers’s accurate throw, Lazard has a high expected Yards After Catch (YAC) and exceeds it.

18.92 mph

Lazard speed

at catch

Allen

Lazard

K'Waun

Williams

Lazard catches the ball ahead of Williams at high speed and has the space to run 22 more yards.

Aaron

Rodgers

3

Allen

Lazard

2

Peak height

21.3 feet

1

42-yard gain

with 22 YAC

13 expected YAC

Because of Rodgers’s accurate throw, Lazard has a high expected Yards After Catch (YAC) and exceeds it.

18.92 mph

Lazard speed

at catch

15.46 mph

Lazard speed

at ball release

Line of scrimmage

Allen

Lazard

K'Waun

Williams

Lazard catches the ball ahead of Williams at high speed and has the space to run 22 more yards.

Aaron

Rodgers

3

Allen

Lazard

2

Peak height

21.3 feet

1

42-yard gain

with 22 YAC

13 expected YAC

Because of Rodgers’s accurate throw, Lazard has a high expected Yards After Catch (YAC) and exceeds it.

18.92 mph

Lazard speed

at catch

15.46 mph

Lazard speed

at ball release

Line of scrimmage

Allen

Lazard

K'Waun

Williams

Lazard catches the ball ahead of Williams at high speed and has the space to run 22 more yards.

Rodgers seems to put more touch on his downfield throws outside the numbers than any other quarterback. Rodgers threw 66 passes between 10 and 30 air yards outside the numbers this year, and of any qualified passer, they averaged the highest peak height (21.8 feet) and the second-longest airtime (1.73 seconds).

Because Rodgers hit Lazard in stride, Next Gen Stats expected the wideout would gain 13 yards after the catch, a high total. But Lazard (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) never had to slow down. He kept his momentum and dragged smaller cornerback K’Waun Williams (5-9, 185 pounds) along for nine extra yards, earning 22 total yards after the reception.

The same touch also has helped Rodgers minimize the risk of going long. In the past four seasons, he has attempted 333 deep passes, more than any other quarterback, and he has been intercepted on those throws 1.2 percent of the time — 2.5 times lower than the second-lowest rate (Drew Brees’s 3 percent).

“I don’t really have to worry about too much,” Packers wide receiver Davante Adams told reporters recently. “I run into a few hits every now and then, but having a guy that can see the field and operate in such an elite, confident level — it’s not fair.”

Brady’s brain

At 44, Brady might not have the legs of Allen or the arm of Rodgers. But in Week 17, in the final minute of the Buccaneers’ game against the New York Jets, he showed again how effortlessly he could break defenses with his brain.

His team trailed 24-20 with only 39 seconds remaining. Brady had started the drive from the Tampa Bay 7-yard line with no timeouts, and despite the Jets playing two high safeties to avoid being beaten deep, he had gotten the Buccaneers to the New York 43.

ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out that on first down, the Jets were in a zone coverage called “Palms,” cover-two or cover-four depending on the look. This meant Jets cornerback Bryce Hall was playing the deep right quarter of the field while linebacker Quincy Williams was in an intermediate outside zone.

1st play

0:39 left

Brate

Hall

Grayson

Jr.

Williams

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Brady

2nd play

0:21 left

Grayson Jr.

Hall

Williams

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Brady

1st play

0:39 left

Brate

Hall

Grayson

Jr.

Williams

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Brady

2nd play

0:21 left

Grayson Jr.

Hall

Williams

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Brady

1st play

0:39 left

2nd play

0:21 left

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Hall

Grayson

Jr.

Williams

Hall

Williams

Brate

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Brady

Brady

1st play

0:39 left

2nd play

0:21 left

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Hall

Grayson Jr.

Williams

Hall

Williams

Brate

Brate

Grayson Jr.

Grayson Jr.

Brate

Brady

Brady

On the first play, Bucs tight end Cameron Brate ran an in-breaking route to pull the linebacker away from wide receiver Cyril Grayson Jr., who ran a “stop route” in front of the corner. Brady connected with Grayson, but the wideout couldn’t get out of bounds to stop the clock.

WR Cyril

Grayson Jr.

Hall

Grayson Jr.

2

Tom

Brady

1

Williams

Brate

Cameron Brate

Cyril

Grayson Jr.

2

Hall

Grayson Jr.

Tom

Brady

1

Williams

Brate

Camera Brate

2

Hall

Cyril Grayson Jr.

Grayson Jr.

Bryce

Hall

Tom

Brady

Cameron

Brate

1

Williams

Quincy

Williams

Brate

2

Hall

Cyril Grayson Jr.

Grayson Jr.

Bryce Hall

Tom

Brady

Cameron

Brate

1

Williams

Quincy Williams

Brate

This was where Brady calmly used his head to open up the deep pass. The Jets showed Palms coverage again. Brady had seen Hall, the second-year corner, flatten his feet as Brady threw the stop route to Grayson, so this time the quarterback had his tight end run an out route and pump-faked. Hall bit, and Grayson was left open, running a go route, in single coverage by safety Elijah Riley.

Brate

2

Grayson Jr.

1

Hall

Brady

Grayson Jr.

Williams

Brate

Brate

2

Grayson Jr.

1

Hall

Brady

Grayson Jr.

Williams

Brate

Cyril

Grayson Jr.

2

Bryce

Hall

Hall

Tom

Brady

Brate

Grayson Jr.

1

Cameron

Brate

Quincy

Williams

Williams

Cyril

Grayson Jr.

2

Bryce

Hall

Hall

Tom

Brady

Brate

Grayson Jr.

1

Cameron

Brate

Quincy

Williams

Williams

“That’s very veteran, an ‘I’ve seen this a thousand times’ type of thing,” said Orlovsky, a former quarterback who played 12 years in the league. “Instead of just knowing what’s coming, [he said], ‘I’m going to make you do what I want.’ ”

As he had done so many times in his decorated career, Brady threw a rope 28 yards that reached Grayson seconds before Riley. The wideout stumbled into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown and yet another clip on Brady’s lengthy highlight reel.

Passing games and offensive strategies have evolved since Brady entered the league, but the deep pass can still change momentum like no other play. Though the deep passing rate remained low this season, analysts agreed the importance of throwing long won’t decrease, not as long as quarterbacks are utilizing the right tools to beat evolving defenses.

“Deep passing will always be important,” Orlovsky said. “One hundred percent.”

Illustrations with images from Jeffrey T. Barnes (Associated Press), Rick Osentoski (Associated Press) and Adam Hunger (Associated Press). Images in the graphics from NFL Game Pass.

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