Analyzing Josh Freeman: Blitz problems, or coverage issues?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Freeman's performance remains a mystery, but Football Outsiders may have cracked some of the code.

What's wrong with Josh Freeman? We've seen article upon article upon article written on that subject. Was it pressure? Was it the complicated offense? For all the words written (wasted?) on this topic, we're not any closer to the truth of the matter, it seems.

But that doesn't mean we can't keep trying. The latest to offer an explanation is Football Outsiders, who looked at pass pressure and blitzes. They present some really interesting data, and you really need to read the full article to get a good idea of what conclusions they can draw.

Weeks 1-11 Weeks 12-17
Pressure, Blitz # Plays (Pct) 25 (7%) 28 (11%)
DVOA (Rk) -28.0% (6) -68.9% (12)
No Pressure, Blitz # Plays (Pct) 83 (24%) 59 (23%)
DVOA (Rk) 30.5% (26) -18.5% (31)
Pressure, No Blitz # Plays (Pct) 45 (13%) 41 (16%)
DVOA (Rk) -94.2% (18) -28.6% (5)
No Pressure, No Blitz # Plays (Pct) 194 (56%) 130 (50%)
DVOA (Rk) 51.4% (10) 28.6% (26)
All Plays # Plays (Pct) 350 (100%) 255 (100%)
DVOA (Rk) 21.2% (12) -7.5% (26)

Danny Tuccito notes that Freeman really was relatively good against pressure. Every quarterback performs poorly when pressured, but Freeman consistently performed well when pressured, compared to his peers. The clincher is the blitz, though: that's where he falters, compared to other NFL quarterbacks.

What stands out to me isn't the early/late-season split. We can't know whether that timing was significant. Perhaps Freeman's late-season decline really does mean more for his performance going forward than his mid-season rise. Maybe late in the season, opponents had figured out how to rattle him. Or perhaps that's just a form of selection bias, and the fact that his worst games happened toward the end of the season was just a coincidence.

What stands out to me are those blitz numbers. Obviously Josh Freeman was worse against pressure in an absolute sense than he was against no pressure. And yet, Freeman was actually pretty bad against the blitz when it didn't get pressure. At least, that's what Football Outsiders' numbers suggest. He was the sixth-best quarterback in the NFL when pressured by a blitz over the first 10 weeks, and the 12th best over the final 6 weeks. But when he wasn't pressured, he was actually really bad compared to his peers (but of course still better than when he was pressured).

Is it the offense?

The areas where he got into trouble most, compared to his peers, were:

  • When he faced pressure from a four-man rush during the first 10 weeks of the season (which reversed toward the end of the season). This just means quick pressure with lots of players in coverage.
  • When teams blitzed him but did not get any pass pressure (compared to his peers). This happened throughout the season.
  • When teams played coverage but did not get pressure over the final six weeks.

I'd like to focus on the final two issues, because I think that goes back to what we've talked about a lot this offseason: the team's complicated offense. Both of those last two issues have to do with diagnosing coverage. The Bucs' offense relies on a lot of reads made by receivers, however, and quarterback and receiver have to see tings the same way for any play to work. If either of them makes a mistake, the result will be an incompletion at best.

So, these numbers may point to one problem: Freeman (or rather, the Bucs offense as a whole) did not understand the scheme as well as most other quarterbacks understand theirs.

This sounds good, and we do have some evidence for this hypothesis. Mike Williams said as much. The Bucs run a comparatively complicated offense. And blitzes always change the coverage you're seeing after the snap compared to a pre-snap diagnosis, making reading those coverages and defenders a little more difficult than usual for both quarterback and receiver.

But the weird thing is that Freeman seemed less affected by pass pressure than most quarterbacks. Can we explain that, too? We can fit it into the theory, although that doesn't make it true, of course. Pressure forces quick decisions and often plays outside of structure. And as we could see in 2010, those may be Josh Freeman's greatest strengths. You can't go through your progressions when you have to get the ball off now-now-now. Of course, he was still worse in those situations than when he wasn't pressured, but he dealt with it relatively well compared to other quarterbacks.

What does this mean going forward?

Well, I don't know. We have no real way of knowing whether Josh Freeman and his receivers are doing better this offseason. Oh, I could give you some vague quotes from Greg Schiano or Mike Williams or anyone else about Freeman's focus, or about him grasping the offense much better than he did last year. But we all know those are largely meaningless platitudes you would hear whether or not he actually understood the offense better this year.

We can't tell from training camp whether the throws he makes are the right ones, or whether the receivers are making the right reads. And we certainly can't tell whether all of that will carry over into games.

So, once again, as ever and always, we are back to the old mandate: wait and see.

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