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The 5 O’Clock Club: The importance of field position and complementary football

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published Wednesday to Saturday during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

The importance of field position

Winning field position; flipping field position; pinning the opponent deep in their own territory; red zone offense; driving a short field... these phrases all relate to an important concept in NFL football. Long, sustained offensive drives are hard to muster consistently. NFL teams tend to be so evenly balanced that it is difficult for an offense to come on the field time and time again and drive 75+ yards to score a touchdown.

Teams that can frequently force the opposing offense to begin drives inside their own 20 yard line will give an advantage to their defense. Teams that can consistently begin drives outside their own 30 or 35 yard line to enjoy a relatively short field will give an advantage to their offense.

But the field position game is primarily a defensive game. After all, it’s no good pinning the opposing offense deep on their end of the field if your defense can’t keep them there. For the past several seasons, we’ve seen how fruitless it was to try to contain the opposition with Redskin defenses that couldn’t stop a drive or force a 3 & out consistently.

Things have changed in 2018

John Keim - ESPN

http://www.espn.com/blog/washington-redskins/post/_/id/37470/redskins-have-formula-that-can-work-in-tight-nfc-east

The Redskins rank seventh in the NFL in terms of opponents’ starting field position (73.8 yards from the end zone). They ranked 30th in the NFL in this area last season (69.7).

How big a difference does that make? Of the last nine teams in this category a year ago, eight had losing records. Ten of the top 11 had winning records.

Last season, Redskins opponents started 23 drives on their side of the 50-yard line (29th in the NFL), and the average starting position of those drives was the Redskins’ 27.6-yard line -- worst in the NFL. This season, they’ve allowed three such drives.

They didn’t turn the ball over in the past two games, the first time they did that in consecutive games since Weeks 11-12 in 2016.

This isn’t a surprise for a Smith-led team. During his five seasons with Kansas City, the Chiefs had a combined 72 drives start inside their 50. Only New England was better.

Way has had 14 punts downed inside the 20 -- most by any player with only six games and tied for 10th overall. Teams must drive an average of 77.5 yards after his punts.

Special Teams impact

Strong kickoffs by Dustin Hopkins mean that teams are generally starting at the 25, or even further back on nearly every post-kickoff drive.

Incredibly selfless and accurate punting by Tress Way, combined with outstanding coverage by the punt coverage units, is another huge factor in winning the battle of field position.

A major change from 2017

This superior special teams play is a huge turnaround from a year ago. In December — just over 10 months ago — I wrote an article titled, Special Teams haven’t been very special this season. I perused the play-by-play reports of all the 2017 games up to that point and itemized the Special Teams failures. It was a long, ugly and undignified list.

This is how I ended that article:

The problem is that the special teams issues have been present all season long. Everyone expects the offense to perform despite the injuries; the same is true of the defense. Shouldn’t the special teams units be expected to perform as well?

I’ll let James Dorsett make the final argument on the Redskins Special Teams Coordinator:

Bye, bye Ben - If there is one Redskins coach that will probably be shown the door this offseason it’s special teams czar Ben Kotwica.

Washington’s special teams currently rank 23rd or worse in the following categories:

kickoff return yards (24th),

kickoff return average (25th),

punt return yards (30th),

punt return average (31st),

fumbles (t-31st),

punting average (23rd),

net punting average (31st),

punt return yards allowed (25th),

punt return average allowed (31st)

and special teams DVOA (24th).

I, myself, was calling for special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica to be sacked. James, as you can see above, expected him to be the off-season sacrifice to atone for the Redskins losing season. I saw a number of reporters in the mainstream press suggest that Kotwica might end up the scapegoat for the larger failures of the team and coaching staff.

But that’s not what happened.

Jay Gruden stood up in support of Ben Kotwica in January, February and March. He publicly expressed confidence in him and said that the issues with special teams had to do with roster construction and injuries.

Jay committed that Special Teams would get more priority in free agency, draft, and final roster decision making in 2018. In fact, Jay went so far as to say this:

[In camp] Some guys won’t get as many reps as others, but it’s up to those guys have to take advantage of those reps and special teams will play a critical part in it. [Special teams coordinator] Ben Kotwica and [assistant special teams] Bret Munsey will have a lot of say in some of these roster spots.

Jay doubled down on this time and time again through the offseason, saying repeatedly that players who could excel on special teams would have an advantage over those who couldn’t, and that it might even mean the less talented offensive or defensive player getting a roster spot over his more talented rival for the position who did not contribute as much to special teams.

The evidence suggests that Jay was true to his word, and that Ben Kotwica has done a good job reversing the terrible ST performance of 2017.

Special Teams have been more than simply adequate this season. They have been good overall, with the punt coverage team, in particular, doing an outstanding job, and we’ve seen the results reflected in the outstanding field position advantage that the Redskins have enjoyed.

What’s that you say about field position advantage?

I looked to James Dorsett’s incredible Snaps & Stats articles from this week for a little quantification of Redskins field position.

Stats & Snaps - Dustin Hopkins

Hopkins kicked the ball off a total of five times in Sunday’s game. Four of his five kicks went for touchbacks, while the other one was returned for 26 yards out to the Dallas 26-yard line.

Stats & Snaps - Tress Way

Tress Way cares about pinning opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Way set a new career high by pinning the Cowboys’ inside their own 20-yard line five times. He had 4 such punts in Week 17 of 2017.

The Cowboys began their drives following a punt on the 15, 16, 17, 11, 15 and 36-yard lines, which gave them an average starting field position just past the 18. Cole Beasley, who was operating as Dallas’ punt return man with Tavon Austin out, gained just 11 yards on his 3 returns (3.67 average).

Dallas basically started every post-kickoff drive at the 25 yard line, 75 yards away from the Redskins’ goal line. As per James Dorsett, the average field position following punts was near the 18 yard line, putting them about 82 yards away from the Redskins goal line.

In short, the Cowboys were having to go between 74 and 89 yards on every drive of the game but one if they wanted to score a touchdown.

Jay Gruden’s thoughts

Here are some comments about the power of field position from this week’s press conferences:

I also notice the field position. I think Tress Way did an amazing job on Sunday pinning [the Dallas Cowboys] and making them go 85, 80 yards, 90 yards a couple times.

You know, in the third quarter we’re obviously struggling when it comes to scoring touchdowns. But, we held the ball for, I think, 12 minutes in that quarter, which is pretty good, and we got some points.

We also kept the field position in our favor. As long as your defense is playing good, that’s not a bad recipe right there.

But we do have to get better on offense punching the ball in. Time of possession has been good for us and our defense.

[For opponents] it’s hard — unless you get some chunk plays — to go 85 yards consistently on 12-, 15-play drives. I think with our run defense, the way it’s starting to pan out to be; I think it’s hard to pop runs.

Then our pass rush is getting better and better and our coverage is getting better.

We know how difficult it is when we’re backed up at our own 15 to go 85 yards consistently on 10-, 12-, 13-play drives without the luxury of a 45-yard gain or something like that.

Field position is a major stat, I believe, in the NFL.

Stats & Snaps - Offense

James Dorsett says that the Redskins offense — unlike the opposing team — is enjoying great field position these days:

[Against Dallas] Washington’s offense started their ten drives 33.4 yards away from their end zone, their second-best average of the season. They enjoyed their best average starting field position last week against the Panthers (33.7). Maybe Adrian Peterson should’ve bought scooters for Tress Way and the defense, too.

So, opposing offenses are having to start drives from the 18 yard line after punts, and the 25 yard line after kickoffs, while the Redskins offense is launching drives from the 33. This 10-yard advantage is significant, and it gives the Redskins defense an edge, and means that the offense, on average, only has 67 yards to travel for a touchdown.

Stats & Snaps - Defense

The Cowboys only ran one play on the Redskins’ side of the field in the first 48 minutes of Sunday’s contest. Dallas’ only trip to the red zone did not come until there was exactly two minutes left in the game.

D-E-F-E-N-S-E

Stifling defense by Greg Manusky’s crew, led by the Alabama Wall, Smith and Kerrigan, and backed by fiery play by Mason Foster, Zach Brown, Josh Norman, DJ Swearinger, and a group of young and developing defensive backs has been a formula that has led the Redskins to allow only 20.2 points per game overall, and just 14.25 points per game in their 4 victories.

Sudden Impact: Winning the turnover battle

Turnovers are a huge factor in field position. Instead of punting or kicking the ball across half the field or more to back your opponents up, the ‘sudden change’ of turnovers give a team a motivational lift and, usually, an advantage in field position.

The Redskins, by minimizing fumbles and interceptions lost by the offense, are keeping one of their greatest weapons in play. That weapon is named Tress Way.

Way’s 14 punts inside the 20 and his 52.9% inside-the-20 rate rank seventh and sixth in the league on the year. What’s even most amazing about all of this is that he has still not had one of his punts go for a touchback yet this season.

The only other punters who have yet to record a toucback are Colby Waldman and Donnie Jones, who have combined to punt the ball just two more times than Tress Way (29 to 27) and pinned their opponents inside the 20-yard line one fewer time than Way has (14 to 13). Bengals punter Kevin Huber is the only other player with more than ten inside-the-20 punts who has also not kicked multiple touchbacks (1 touchback).

When a Redskins drive stalls, Way is booting the ball with great skill and more than half the time the coverage team is downing it inside the 20 — and often inside the 15.

Turnover differential

Meanwhile, the Redskins defense is forcing turnovers. The defense has 11 takeaways in 6 games, and the Redskins rank 4th in the NFL in turnover differential, at +6 through six games.

By taking the ball away from the opposition 11 times while the offense has given it away only 5 time, the Redskins are taking away, on average, one scoring opportunity per game from their opponents, giving that opportunity to the Redskins offense, and usually giving the offense a short field to boot.

This is complementary football.

This is winning football.

But it’s also the kind of statistical football that doesn’t get much attention.

We all want to know yardage for every running back, receiver and tight end. We carefully keep track of 100-yard games, TDs scored, and quarterback stats like TD:INT ratio, passer rating and QBR, but who logs the numbers for field position and turnover differential in their memory for handy reference? We pay attention to sack totals, but don’t carefully keep track of the number of 3 & outs by the defense. We may be aware of average punting distance by our team’s punter, but few people keep close tabs on the number of times he pins the opposition inside the 15 or 20 yard line.

The Field position battle is generally not a top-of-the-mind part of the game for most fans, but it’s an one of the more important battles to win.

For the fist time in a long time, the Redskins are winning it, and that fact is reflected on the scoreboard.

Time of possession

Here’s what Greg Manusky said this week about Time of Possession:

I think that’s huge in the National Football League — time of possession for an offense. It wears down other defenses too.

I’ve been in the other [situation], where I was on that defense... where the offense wasn’t out there as much. For our offense to lead in time of possession, and to have their defense out there a decent amount of time — that’s better for us of course. It’s good that we are keeping the ball, keeping possession of it, and driving it down the field.”

The lesson here is that the Redskins’ ability to run the ball, control the clock, and keep their offense on the field will physically wear down the opposing defense and dishearten them.

Adrian Peterson

Right now, Adrian Peterson is providing a powerful weapon in the Time of Possession war. Here’s what Jay Gruden had to say about AD this week:

I think Adrian [Peterson] has been doing a pretty good job of getting some yards on first down, and I think we’ve had some opportunities to throw the ball, but when we are in a lead, and we’ve had success running the ball, it’s nice to stick to it sometimes.

The intent here is to be a physical football team.

We have a big offensive line, our tight ends are blocking a lot better now, our receivers — with the absence of Chris [Thompson], Paul [Richardson Jr.] and Jamison [Crowder] — we have a pretty big set of receivers that are good at blocking safeties and corners and all that, so it really provides our running game a spark. So sometimes the running game is a little better option.”

Jay’s being a bit modest. The Redskins — or more specifically, Adrian Peterson — has rammed the ball down the throat of the opponents in the 4 victories, where AD has averaged 103 rushing yards per game, and hasn’t rushed for less than 96 yards in any single win this season.

Peterson’s ability to run effectively and move the chains consistently is helping the Redskins put opponents under duress.

Shutting down the opposing runners

I wrote this last week:

A team like the Redskins, that can rely on the running game to control the clock, can, in effect, ‘shorten’ the game for the opponents by giving them fewer opportunities to possess the ball — meaning, fewer drives that provide the opportunity to score.

Winning football usually means establishing the run. But it is equally critical to stop the opposing team from rushing the ball.

So far in 2018, the Redskins have been extremely successful at stopping opposing running games despite facing some very talented runners. Washington is ranked 3rd in the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 87.3 rushing yards per game.

No single back has rushed for more than 61 yards against the Redskins this season, and after being gashed repeatedly in 2017, the Redskins have not given up a single run of 20+ yards in 2018. We'll see if they can keep it up against the ‘boom or bust’ rookie running back of the Giants, Saquon Barkley, but so far this season, they’ve done well against a pretty good list of talented ball carriers.

The benefits are many. By shutting down the running game, the Redskins force the opposing offense to become one-dimensional, and take away the other team’s ability to control time of possession.

It basically leaves just one way for the other offense to score; specifically, this kind of football puts the responsibility for winning the game on the opposing quarterback’s throwing shoulder. Not many quarterbacks are up to the challenge. Drew Brees was, but Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Dak Prescott have all fallen short.

Redskins football in 2018

Redskins football in 2018 is defensive football.

It is ball control football.

It is time of possession football.

It is low giveaway, high takeaway football.

It is field position football.

It is field goal football.

And, at 4-2, right now, it is winning football.

Poll

How do you feel about the Redskins playing defensive, field position football while the offense averages only around 21 points per game?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    I hate it. It’s boring offense, but I have to suffer multiple heart attacks each week as I watch the other team outscore the Redskins in the second half.
    (2 votes)
  • 45%
    I don’t mind the defensive strength, but without offensive output, winning is unsustainable — especially if the ‘Skins get to the playoffs.
    (102 votes)
  • 53%
    I love it! Just win, baby!
    (122 votes)
226 votes total Vote Now