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Analyzing Tyrod Taylor’s middle-of-the-field use

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It’s hard to find criticism about Tyrod Taylor’s dazzling 2015 campaign for the Buffalo Bills, a season essentially no one saw coming.

However, one aspect of Taylor’s play that’s been critiqued this offseason is his lack of effectiveness down the middle of the field, especially relative to his brilliance out the numbers.

Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman had this to say on the middle-of-the-field subject when he met with the media following the team’s final minicamp practice last week:

Well I think we are just opening up, expanding our offense a little bit. I definitely think that is something we did not focus on as a staff last year. As for a critical look at ourselves I think we decided to open up things a little bit more in the middle of the field.

It’s not crazy to assume Bills coaches were focused on getting quality production out of Taylor last year, regardless of where he was regularly throwing the football.

Heading into Taylor’s second year operating Roman’s offense as the Bills starter, there’s room for more specialized coaching points and concepts, hence the apparent dedication to improving Buffalo’s between-the-numbers passing game.

Rex Ryan answered a question on this specific facet of Taylor’s game during a recent WGR550 interview:

The thing that jumps out to you is using the middle of the field. We had a lot of success last year throwing the ball down the field. That’s not going to change on the outside. But there were some plays to be made in the middle of the field that last year that, quite honestly, we weren’t as proficient at as it looks like we’re getting ready to be this season. So that’s encouraging to me.

Ryan added an astute point which expressed why the Bills’ offensive reputation will likely lead to more opportunities down the sidelines than down the hashes:

Because of the way we can run the football, we’re going to get a lot more coverages that dictate throws outside the numbers more so than a lot of teams.

So exactly how little did Taylor throw the ball across the middle last season? Was he bad on those passes?

Let’s examine.

Here’s a cross-section of Taylor’s directional passing stats in 2015, courtesy of Josh Liskiewitz of Pro Football Focus:

  • Outside the numbers, Taylor completed 146 of 239 passes (61%) for 2,031 yards (8.49 yards-per-attempt) with 14 TDs and 3 INTs.
  • Those 239 outside-the-number throws accounted for 65.4% of his 365 attempts (not counting throwaways, spikes and/or batted passes).
  • If Taylor’s behind-the-line-of-scrimmage throws are removed, he completed 126 of 212 passes (59%) for 1,919 yards (9.05 yards per attempt).

To most, these figures are as expected. Taylor was noticeably comfortable making throws toward the sideline all season, and he was prolific doing so.

  • Down the middle of the field, Taylor completed 96 of 126 passes (76%) for 1,004 yards (7.96 yards per attempt) with 6 TDs and 3 INTs.
  • Those 126 middle-of-the-field throws accounted for 34.5% of his 365 attempts (not counting throwaways, spikes and/or batted passes).
  • If Taylor’s behind-the-line-of-scrimmage throws are removed, he completed 76 of 106 passes (71.6%) for 864 yards (8.15 yards per attempt).

Plenty to digest there... but all pertinent information.

It’s worth noting that only a shade above 35% of Taylor’s 2015 attempts were between the numbers, but his completion percentage of 76% in that vicinity of the field was exceptional.

Of his three down-the-middle interceptions, two came on passes which hit the intended receiver’s hands. (Sammy Watkins and Charles Clay, both in Week 2’s game against the Patriots.)

Evaluating further, Taylor went 20 of 20 for 140 yards on middle-of-the-field passes made behind the line of scrimmage (think screens). Therefore, just 106 of his 365 attempts (29%) were made down the middle of the field and beyond the line of scrimmage.

Discounting behind-the-line-of-scrimmage throws or not, Taylor’s yards-per-attempt averages while throwing between the numbers certainly were respectable.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New York Jets William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The overarching theme to be taken from these statistics is not that Taylor was bad down the seam but simply that he didn’t make enough middle-of-the-field attempts.

To pose an over-the-middle threat which, theoretically, will keep defenses honest and completely spread out, ideally, a quarterback’s sideline-to-middle throw split is closer to 50/50 than Taylor’s 2015 ratio of 65/35.

Then again, his disparity raises an interesting debate.

On one side, it’s easy to say Taylor’s stellar performance toward the sidelines can’t be ignored and shouldn’t scaled back in 2016 solely in the name of more directional passing variety.

Yes, regularly using the entire field is rarely, if ever a negative development... but a quarterback should play to his strengths.

On the other side, it’s logical to believe, like his running, Taylor will have an assortment of sideline throws in his back pocket to use when absolutely needed... yet to fully develop and emerge as a legitimate franchise quarterback for the Bills, there must be advancement in his across-the-middle work.

Taylor’s utilization of the middle of the field will likely be a hot topic as camp opens and Buffalo heads into the regular season.

Where do you stand on this interesting and specific discussion?