NFL Week 7 – Scoring is down across the NFL. Teams are averaging just 21.6 points per game in 2022, down from 23.0 points last year and an all-time high 24.8 points in 2020. And while Bryan Knowles offered lots of plausible explanations for the decline on Thursday, Walkthrough believes we have figured out what’s going on:
- Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead left the Week 5 loss to the New York Jets with a toe injury. Greg Little, Armstead’s replacement in Week 6, was so bad against the Minnesota Vikings that he became a trending Twitter topic.
- Green Bay Packers All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari has been in and out of the lineup while dealing with the lingering effects of last year’s ACL tear. Yosh Nijman has performed well in relief of Bakhtiari, but the Packers offense has been sputtering for most of the year.
- Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton, the 11th overall pick in 2020, is out for the season with an August knee injury.
- Longtime Denver Broncos starting left tackle Garett Bolles broke his leg late in the Week 5 Thursday nighter against the Indianapolis Colts. Replacement Calvin Anderson was benched against the Los Angeles Chargers after getting pushed around by Khalil Mack. Cameron Fleming moved from right tackle to left to finish the Monday night loss, with Billy Turner subbing in at right tackle.
- The Jets signed five-time Pro Bowler Duane Brown to play left tackle when Becton got injured, and Brown promptly suffered a shoulder injury himself. Brown returned to the lineup in Week 5.
- Former Philadelphia Eagles first-round pick Andre Dillard broke his forearm just before the start of the season. Dillard was a backup, but the Eagles would soon need a backup left tackle, and Dillard’s services would also have been an appealing trade commodity, for reasons which should be becoming obvious. Dillard may soon return, just in time for the trade deadline.
- Jets left tackle George Fant, slated to force Becton to move to the right side this season, was placed on IR with a lingering knee ailment after Week 3. With Becton unavailable, the Jets used guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and journeyman Connor McDermott at left tackle until Brown’s return.
- Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan is out for the season with a knee injury he suffered in Week 2. Dennis Daley has been terrible in relief.
- Eagles starting left tackle Jordan Mailata missed most of Week 4 and all of Week 5 with an ankle injury. With Dillard also unavailable, Jack Driscoll was forced into the lineup against the Arizona Cardinals. Driscoll was adequate at best in the Eagles’ lowest-scoring game of the year.
- Baltimore Ravens left tackle Patrick Mekari, starting in place of Ronnie Stanley early in the year, missed most of Week 3 and all of Week 4 with a low ankle sprain. Fourth-round pick Daniel Faalele started at left tackle in the loss to the Buffalo Bills.
- Los Angeles Rams left tackle Joseph Noteboom, who replaced retired All-Pro Andre Whitworth, tore his Achilles against the Carolina Panthers in Week 6. Alaric Jackson slid from right guard to left tackle to replace Noteboom.
- New Orleans Saints first-round pick Trevor Penning, who was being groomed to start at left tackle immediately, suffered a foot injury at the end of the preseason. James Hurst has played well in relief, and left tackle is admittedly among the least of the Saints injury concerns. Penning may return soon.
- Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Rashawn Slater, who received Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration in 2021, is out for the year with a bicep injury he suffered in Week 3. Rookie Jamaree Salyer has been excellent in relief, but rookie guard Zion Johnson has struggled since replacing Salyer at guard, and the Chargers nearly ran out of linemen on Monday night.
- Stalwart Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith missed most of the first three weeks of the season with an elbow injury. Replacements Brandon Watson and Josh Wells were adequate for an offense that is yet to get on track in 2022.
- Dallas Cowboys All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith tore a tendon in his knee during training camp and is out until at least December. First-round pick Tyler Smith, while penalty-prone, has generally gotten the job done as Tyron’s replacement.
- Baltimore Ravens All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley finally returned to the lineup in Week 5 after what feels like a decade-long absence for a severe ankle injury.
- San Francisco 49ers All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams has been out since Week 3 with a sprained ankle. Backup Colton McKivitz suffered a knee injury just a few series into replacing Williams. Jaylon Moore has filled in semi-capably ever since. Williams could return on Sunday.
That’s a lot of left tackles, many of them Pro Bowlers, as well as their backups in several cases. It’s also worth noting that the Seattle Seahawks (Charles Cross), Carolina Panthers (Ickey Ekwonu), Indianapolis Colts (Bernhard Raimann), and Chicago Bears (Braxton Jones) are starting rookie left tackles, as are the Cowboys and Chargers. These rookies are performing well, but we’ll circle back to that point in a moment.
There’s clearly a left tackle shortage in the NFL in 2022. But is that really causing a league-wide scoring drought?
The Decline in Scoring: By the Numbers
Let’s dive into the NFL-wide offensive statistics from 2020 and 2022 to see if we can determine what has changed over the last two years.
|NFL Stat Changes, 2020 to 2022|
Gosh, that increase in sack rate sure does stick out. And yardage lost on sacks nerfs both yards per play and net yards per attempt. Furthermore, increased pass pressure is a plausible cause for a slight downtick in completion rate.
A league-wide left tackle injury crisis is a likely cause for an increase in sack rate. It would probably not impact rushing rates nearly as much because: a) backup left tackles are more likely to be “exposed” as pass-protectors than as run-blockers; b) offenses have more control over the direction and blocking assignments on their runs than they have in pass protection; and c) increased scrambling could skew rushing rates slightly. We’re a little early in the season to start isolating for things like that.
Bad quarterback play could also be a culprit, of course. In fact, it should initially be the most likely suspect, even for sack rate: as a Football Outsiders reader, you are well aware that quarterbacks have a massive impact on their own sack figures.
But the quarterbacks do not seem to be at fault here. Passing statistics tend to decline as the season goes on, because the quarterbacks themselves decline: more starters get injured, and more backups and third-stringers end up on the field. The 2020 data is chock full of Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard, Nick Foles, Mike Glennon, Brandon Allen, Colt McCoy, Joe Flacco, Jake Luton, the washed version of Cam Newton, and plenty of usual suspects such as Sam Darnold and Drew Lock. It’s hard to argue that scoring is down in 2022 because Bailey Zappe has started a few games, especially since Zappe, Cooper Rush, and others (including Flacco) have performed rather capably.
What about veteran quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan who are having poor seasons? In addition to his other problems, Wilson is without Bolles, and the Broncos offensive line is out of kilter. Ryan’s left tackle during the Colts’ slow start was the ineffective Matt Pryor, benched in favor of Raimann. Left tackle injuries or ineffectiveness have been at least a contributing factor to many team’s or quarterback’s “WTF is wrong?” storylines.
A quick note before we continue: Walkthrough also examined factors such as starting field position, field goal rates, two-point conversion rates, and punts in 2020 and 2022. We found no data which appeared significant. There’s some strangeness in the penalty data, but we’ll get to that in the end.
Low Scoring and the Left Tackle Crisis
Walkthrough’s theory is that a league-wide rash of injuries to quality left tackles is the leading cause of the 2022 decline in scoring:
- Weakened left tackle play has led directly to an increased sack rate, leading to a decline in net offensive yardage and yards per play.
- Weakened left tackle play has also increased overall pass pressure, causing a dip in completion rates.
- Some teams, such as the Chargers, only solved their left tackle issue by causing a problem at another position.
- Other teams are “solving” their problem by altering their offense: more tight ends and backs acting as pass-protectors, more dink-and-dunk tactics, etc. For anecdotal evidence, check out the number of wide receiver screens the Chargers ran on Monday night.
- Many of the rookies and replacements who are “playing well” are being protected schematically. Cross is an excellent prospect, but the Seahawks run tons of three-tight end packages and compressed formations, making life easier on Cross and rookie right tackle Abe Lucas. Ekwonu is playing well for a dreadful Panthers offense that mostly just flings the ball to the flats. The Saints rely heavily on Taysom Hill stuff, the 49ers on Kyle Shanahan stuff, the Chargers are now a screen factory, and so on.
- Left tackle injuries have been a major cause of the “What’s Wrong With?” conversations about the Buccaneers, Packers, Broncos, Chargers, and Rams offenses, with Whitworth’s retirement lumped in with the “injuries” for argument’s sake. The left tackle shortage has also contributed significantly to slow starts and slumps for the Dolphins, Ravens, and Jets offenses.
Finally, Walkthrough conjectures that offensive production will soon increase slightly, or at least not decline as much due to quarterback injuries and bad weather as it has in past seasons. Stanley, Bakhtiari, Donovan Smith, and Mailata are back, Williams and Armstead should return soon, Penning and Tyron Smith could also return in the second half of the year, and some of the rookie starters are likely to improve. A lot of left tackles missed two or three games out of five or six early in 2022; as they return, sack rates should decline somewhat, teams will be able to run their preferred schemes, and offensive numbers should climb back to 2020/2021 levels.
If nothing else, the 2022 scoring drought serves as an important reminder to monitor offensive line injuries before placing wagers or setting fantasy lineups. Even when a famous All-Pro left tackle misses a few games, he tends to get “Welp’d” out of the national conversation so we can rip his quarterback or coach. For example, Tua Tagovailoa’s expected return on Monday night won’t matter much if there’s a traffic cone instead of Armstead again at left tackle. If 10 teams are without their starting left tackle on any given Sunday, and two or three are starting a third-stringer or journeyman guard, it’s foolish to think that the absences wouldn’t impact the standings and stat sheets.
A Note About Penalties
As you might recall, one of the COVID-adjacent storylines of the 2020 season was that referees called fewer penalties in an effort to keep games more lively for homebound fans. Discretionary penalties, most notably offensive holding, declined significantly in 2020: teams lost an average of 24 to 28 yards to holding penalties in the late 2010s, but just 17.4 yards to holding in 2020.
Looser holding restrictions have an obvious impact on scoring and yardage rates. Are teams scoring fewer points in 2022 because penalty rates are back to normal?
In 2021, teams lost 23.15 yards per game to offensive holding: rates were up from 2020 but not back to late 2010s levels. But so far in 2020, holding rates are WAY down: just 12.1 yards per game!
By conventional reasoning, scoring should therefore be UP in 2022: less holding flags mean fewer big plays nullified and more offensive linemen getting away with huggy blocks.
This year’s overall penalty rates, however, are bananapants. Here’s how 2022 compares with 2020 for the most frequently flagged infractions:
|NFL Penalty Changes, 2020 to 2022|
|Roughing the Passer||6.27||2.98||-52.5%|
Offenses are not getting penalized as much for holding, but they are benefitting from far less yardage due to pass interference, defensive holding, or (shockingly) roughing the passer. The net change of nearly 14 fewer net yards for the offense per game appears to carry through the lesser-called fouls.
The decline in overall holding numbers works against Walkthrough’s left tackle theory: all of those rookies and backups should be clutching and grabbing for dear life (and getting zero benefit of the doubt from the refs). But the decline does not disprove the theory. Dolphins backup tackle Greg Little was not flagged at all against the Vikings, but that does not change the fact that he obviously hurt them offensively. Dennis Daley of the Titans was flagged for just one declined holding penalty so far in 2022; watch one Titans series and it becomes obvious that their offensive line play is not OK.
For now, Walkthrough chalks up the penalty data to early-season volatility, but it bears monitoring. Offenses have gotten fewer 15-yard chunks of goodness, often on plays which appeared to be sacks or incomplete passes, than they received two years ago. If that keeps up, it will continue to impact scoring rates, fantasy stats, over/unders, and perhaps the playoff race itself.