Dec 29, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (16) throws the ball against the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Vikings won 14-13. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Breakdown Shows Matt Cassel Was Brutal On 3rd Down Last Year

It’s always fun diving into these Pro Football Focus breakdowns and seeing what the stats/grades tell us that we didn’t already know or sort of knew but hadn’t thought enough about. Here’s something to chew on from PFF’s big down-by-down numbers-crunch on quarterbacks: Matt Cassel’s performance on third down last year.

Was. Not. Good.

The word I’m actually looking for is “brutal.” Matt Cassel was brutal on third down.

PFF gives Cassel an overall grade of -7.6 on third down, second-worst in the entire league ahead of only Terrelle Pryor (ouch!). By comparison, Philip Rivers scored a +14.4 to lead the league, followed by Russell Wilson at +13.1 and Peyton Manning at +13.0.

Even Christian Ponder managed to score -0.7, not great but still way better than Cassel. Josh Freeman graded out at -0.5.

Okay, so what does this mean? Let’s go a little deeper into the numbers and try to understand why Cassel may have been so bad on third down. Was it Cassel’s fault or was there some other factor that made life difficult for him in those situations?

As a matter of fact, if you look at the PFF stats, one thing jumps out at you immediately: Cassel’s time to pressure. PFF reckons that, on average, Cassel had just 2.21 seconds before the pressure was in his face on third down. That is a low number when you compare it to some of the other QBs at the back end of the grading chart. Joe Flacco, for example, had 2.54 seconds per dropback before getting pressure. He graded out third-worst on third down (elite?).

That bad time-to-pressure number indicates poor pass protection in third down situations, and also could be an indicator of somewhat less-than-inspired play calling. If teams are just pinning their ears back and rushing the hell out of you on third down, which a lot of teams did to the Vikings last year, it usually means they’re confident that they’re not going to be surprised.

A screen in that kind of situation might be a good idea occasionally, just to keep them on their toes, but for some reason Bill Musgrave didn’t believe in screens.

Not to completely exonerate Cassel here. Obviously, his lack of mobility also played a part in his ineffectiveness on third down. It didn’t help that Cassel was without Kyle Rudolph, a great third down target at least theoretically, a lot of the time he was in there.

The point being, you can’t just blame Cassel. Some of it was pass protection, some of it was injuries depleting personnel around him, some of it was just him being a statue back there. Cassel’s great equalizing attribute as a QB is his ability to get the ball out quickly, and PFF’s breakdown shows that he did have a low average time-to-pass (2.50 seconds) as you would expect, but that didn’t always help him.

Cassel’s score was also undoubtedly driven down by bat-downs at the line. With his slinging arm angle, that is always going to be an issue.

But how do we account for Christian Ponder’s relatively less-brutal grade on third down? Mobility is part of it. Ponder scrambled 14 times in 92 dropbacks vs. Cassel’s 4 in 80 dropbacks. That didn’t always help Ponder avoid getting sacked – he took a sack 14 times to Cassel’s 6, because sometimes it’s more important to JUST GET THE BALL OUT – but it did sometimes help create positive plays in situations where the pass protection broke down.

It’s important to remember that PFF’s grade isn’t just about the passing but the running too. A running QB can save himself in third down situations, whether he scrambles to pass as Russell Wilson will do, or scrambles to get yardage himself. Cassel doesn’t scramble at all, he either gets the ball out or takes the sack. If he does manage to get the ball out, the stats show he’s an effective passer. Even on third down, Cassel posted a 79.2 QB rating, which isn’t great but also isn’t flat out terrible. By comparison, Ponder’s passer rating on third down was 62.9, which is not good.

So, Ponder helped himself at times by being mobile, but Cassel still was clearly the better passer on third down. It’s interesting to note that, in terms of pure accuracy, Cassel did not outperform Ponder on third down. Cassel’s 62.9% accuracy (different than completion percentage because it takes drops into account) was actually lower than Ponder’s 66.7%.

Here’s where Cassel outperformed Ponder by a wide margin: receiver YAC. Ponder’s third down passes resulted in an average of 4.7 YAC, which is not good. Cassel’s third down passes resulted in an average 8.6 YAC, which is very good. How does this happen? Identifying advantageous matchups. Hitting more passes down the field. Generally better ball placement. In other words, better command of the little nuances of playing the position. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have YAC monster Cordarrelle Patterson adding to his big numbers.

Clearly, Cassel has more big play ability than Ponder. The numbers bear that out. And in third down situations, big play ability is huge. Especially if they’re going to blitz you and leave receivers in one-on-one situations.

So, what did we really learn by going into these numbers? I’m not sure we learned anything new. I think the breakdown just underscores two important facts: One, Matt Cassel is overall an okay-but-not-great quarterback who is sometimes erratic accuracy-wise and is generally hampered by his lack of mobility, but compensates for some of his inadequacies by being able to hit occasional big plays. Two, the Vikings struggled to slow down other teams’ pass rush in third down situations, either because of play calling, poor line play or both.

How does that second thing change this year under Norv Turner? Norv likes using screen passes, so look for more variety in the passing game to, you know, keep the defense off-balance (what a novel concept). Hopefully, a healthier Matt Kalil can help slow down some of the edge rush (Kalil did get owned quite a bit last year). It will also help having a healthy Kyle Rudolph as a third down option.

And of course there’s the other factor: a different quarterback. Matt Cassel can be effective, but he has his limitations. That’s the real lesson of the PFF breakdown. Teddy Bridgewater, if things work out, should be a great improvement. He brings more mobility to the table than Cassel, and if he develops as everyone believes he can, he should be much more accurate to all levels of the field while still maintaining big play ability.

That at least is the hope.

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