The NFL has clearly become a passing league. There have been 106 300-yard passing games this season, eclipsing the old record of 104, set in 2009. With two weeks to go, and the league averaging seven 300-yard games a week, that number could eclipse 120. As impressive as that may seem, however, imagine how many 300-yard games there would be without all the dropped passes we've seen.
When teams throw as much as they're throwing these days, dropped passes are going to come. But receivers seem to be letting the ball bounce off their hands at an extraordinarily high rate. Heading into Week 15, there were approximately 700 dropped passes in the league, an average of 47 per week. We all saw Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks drop a touchdown pass in New York's 23-10 loss to the Redskins on Sunday. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws with pinpoint accuracy, so he must have been frustrated to see players like tight end Jermichael Finley and the usually sure-handed Donald Driver drop passes in the team's first loss of the season last week. During the Jets' 45-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, New York receiver Santonio Holmes had a drop that resulted in something even worse than an incomplete pass; he let a ball go off his hands and fall into the clutches of a defender for an interception.
How can the Cleveland Browns effectively evaluate young quarterback Colt McCoy when his receivers lead the league in dropped passes? What if his guys caught just 20 of the 40 or so passes they dropped? Maybe the struggles of the Eagles' so-called "dream team" have as much to do with dropped passes as they do with the defense. What constitutes a dropped pass will always be up for debate, but the truth is the Eagles receivers have probably dropped over 30 passes this season.
Chase for passing, sack records heats up
On the final day of the 2008 season, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees fell 15 yards short of Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards. When Marino set the record, he averaged 35 pass attempts and 23 completions per game. In 2008, Brees averaged 39.6 pass attempts and 25.8 completions. This year, Brees is averaging 41.6 attempts and an impressive 29.7 completions, making it very likely that the record will fall. New England quarterback Tom Brady is not far off that pace, but the Giants' Eli Manning and Rodgers have fallen back and are probably running out of time. Manning and Rodgers would need to average more than 360 yards per game over the final two weeks, which really makes this a two-man race between Brees and Brady, who both end the season with a pair of home games.
On the other side of the ball, Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22½ sacks is also being threatened, though it is not in quite as much danger as Marino's mark. Eagles defensive end Jason Babin has made the most significant assault on the record, collecting eight sacks over the past three weeks for an NFL-best 18. Minnesota Vikings end Jared Allen had a golden opportunity at home last week with Brees attempting 40 passes, but Allen couldn't get to him once and sits at 17½. DeMarcus Ware only has two sacks in his last four games and is a distant third with 16.
Babin faces Dallas' Tony Romo and Washington's Rex Grossman to finish the season. Jared Allen will chase down Grossman and whoever the Bears are starting at quarterback, while DeMarcus Ware somehow has to get to the Eagles' Michael Vick and the Giants' Eli Manning. In order to break the record, one of these players will have to get over the 20-sack mark this weekend.
Rice, Ravens need to raise their road game
The Baltimore Ravens are conventionally viewed as a well-rounded team that plays solid defense and executes on offense. I agree, but something seems to change when the Ravens leave M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The run game, led by the stellar Ray Rice, seems to disappear. This has been an issue for two years now, and the team will have to address it quickly, especially if it ends up as a No. 5 seed in the AFC and has to play on the road throughout the postseason.
Over the past two seasons, the Ravens are 14-1 at home, where Rice has 311 carries for 1,315 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. In 15 road games, the team is 8-7 and Rice has 240 carries for 991 yards and three touchdowns. Rice's production drops significantly when the team travels. He averages 22 fewer yards and nine fewer touchdowns per game on the road than at home, though it's worth noting that he also gets five fewer carries per game.
In the past two years, Rice has rushed for more than 100 yards once on the road and six times at home. He is an All-Pro running back, so why is his role being reduced on the road, where his team would seem to need him the most? If the Ravens want to get to the Super Bowl, they must stay balanced on offense, which means they must get more production from the run game. They must give Rice the ball.
Defenses know the score
Ask any defensive player or coach in the NFL and they will tell you that scoring a touchdown is one of their great ambitions. Like a pitcher hitting a home run in baseball, a defender scoring a touchdown is getting a rare chance to bask in the glory usually reserved for offensive players. When they return interceptions, fumble recoveries, blocked punts, or blocked field goals, the defensive guys get a chance to do their dance in the end zone.
From 2008 to 2010, NFL defenses averaged 4.8 touchdowns per week. This year, defenses are right in line with that average, scoring 4.8 times per game. Week 15, however, saw a bit of an explosion in this area, with eight defensive touchdowns, including four off fumble recoveries, which have already accounted for 26 touchdowns this year. With 32 games left in the regular season, we could see as many as 30 fumbles returned for touchdowns. That's a big number, considering there were only 19 all of last season. Blocked punts for scores are also on the rise; we've had five in 2011, while there were just four each in 2009 and 2010.
Giving up passing yards is not so bad
Most people would agree that the Packers, Patriots and Saints have the three most prolific offenses in the NFL. However, those teams also field three of the worst passing defense, in terms of total yards allowed. Green Bay and New England could wind up yielding more passing yards than Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, respectively, generate on offense. To date, the Patriots' offense has just 204 more yards than its defense has given up, while the Packers are only 172 yards ahead of their defense. The Saints will probably give up over 4,000 passing yards, one of the five worst units in the league. But their offense could be well over 1,000 yards ahead of the defense.
The truth is, though, it really doesn't matter how many passing yards these teams' defenses give up, because their offenses are scoring touchdowns at a much faster rate than their defenses are allowing them. Green Bay throws one touchdown pass for every 12 attempts, while the Packers defense gives up a passing touchdown once in every 24 attempts. The Patriots throw a TD once for every 15 attempts, and the defense surrenders a passing TD once every 26 throws. Drew Brees throws a touchdown once every 16 pass attempts, and the Saints defense holds opponents to just one score every 25 attempts.
Ultimately, these teams don't have to worry about the passing yards they're giving up, because their offenses are passing and scoring machines. Touchdowns are clearly more damaging than yardage, and these teams' defenses have figured out a way to clamp down on those.